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Simone Moro on the summit of Makalu
Photo by arch. S. Moro
Nearing the summit of Makalu
Photo by arch. S. Moro
Denis Urubko climbing through the storm
Photo by arch. S. Moro
Simone Moro climbing towards Makalu La
Photo by arch. S. Moro

First winter ascent of Makalu: interview with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko


Interview with Simone Moro from Italy and Denis Urubko from Kazakhstan after the first winter ascent of Makalu.

How does one feel after a winter ascent of an 8000m peak? Ie, after having achieved one of the most desired ascent in Himalayan climbing? We spoke to Simone Moro and Denis Urubko who, as all know, were the first to achieve this dream by reaching the summit of Makalu, the 5th highest mountain in the world, during the coldest of seasons. We certainly won't reveal anything new by saying that there are immensely happy. And we certainly feel we can say that their ascent was welcomed with joy by the entire mountaineering community.

Yes, their ascent really was a great one. For once, let us say that it was a great achievement. Read the description of their adventure below to understand what it means to climb an 8000m peak in winter. It comes as no surprise therefore that of the many congratulations they received, there was also one by Krzystof Wielicki from Poland, a true legend of winter Himalayan mountaineering and much more.

But let's now hear what Simone and Denis have to say about their winter dream which came to life on Makalu the other day. Before embarking in the interview we'd like to remind you that Simone Moro (the iron-man from Bergamo) has now climbed two 8000m in peaks in winter - Shisha Pangma together with Piotr Morawski - and is now on a par with legendary Jerzy Kukuczka. Denis Urubko boasts an impressive 13 8000m peaks, 2 new routes on Broad Peak and Manaslu and a reputation as indestructible Himalayan strong man. As if to say, nothing happens by chance.

Interview with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko after the first winter ascent of Makalu. Interview by Vinicio Stefanello

First winter ascent of Makalu, in just 17 days since reaching Base Camp. Did you expect to be so quick?
To be precise we needed 19 days since arriving at ABC. We we so motivated that we erected the tent without even waiting for our cook and helper and we immediately "fled upwards" the next day. In three days we almost reached 7100m. I have to admit I always enjoy climbing with Denis. Strength, motivation, tactics, spirit of sacrifice, ambition, anger etc. are pretty much identical. It's unsurprising therefore that I've carried out some great ascents with him. I'd like to risk a comparison: if in the partnerships Messner - Kammerlander, Loretan - Troillet, Kukuczka - Wielicki and a few others I've always seen a perfect team, mine is probably with Denis...

Light and dark of your adventure...
The only shadows were those in our tents or our shadows projected in the light of the moon onto the surrounding cold. Thank God in this adventure there is only light. With regards to the style, speed, no supplementary oxygen, no Sherpa, only two people and a summit reached. In short, the 30 year winter mountaineering dream has come true in the fastest and lightest way possible and for this to have happened we need to thank our fortunes, determination and desire to fight to the summit. As usual, once again I knew there were some who hoped I would fail. Even in Almaty they prayed that Denis would fail! Just think, he came here fleeing from his military commander who ha prohibited him from coming on this expedition. Denis needs just one more 8000m peak (Cho Oyu) but they don't want him to be the first mountaineer from the ex Soviet Union to climb all 14 or to achieve things like this. There are other mountaineers more in line and prone to power who should have precedence... Mountaineering must belong to groups and merit. Strong individuals like Urubko are a nuisance, they are not contemplated within this "system". And I who taught him to cross this fence am loved/hated...

What was the hardest moment you encountered?
Perhaps waking up at 3.00 am on 9 February, making breakfast and beginning the climb. The cold was indescribable. We slept in -9°C sleeping bags (comfort) to be lightweight but it was at least -40°C. Terrible! We started off with a rhythm of 30 steps, short roping and we reached the summit with a rhythm of 20 steps after 8200m, short roping all the way. Up there there was a real battle against the wind. Between 90 and 100 km/h. If someone is unconvinced all they need to do is ask for the weather report from Karl Gabl in Innsbruck... It was really hard, a true battle. The gusts slapped us unexpectedly, stunned us and slammed us onto the ground. Often we remained gripped to our ice axes so as not to fly away...

And the best moment
The strangled shout on the summit! I was with my best friend on a summit of a dream which for three decades only the best mountaineers in the world had dreamt of. I'd tried to be the best and failed, but I had reached the summit...

Perhaps this is a painful subject. Simone, when you were up there did you ever think about Jean-Christophe Lafaille who disappeared in 2006, on Makalu, as he attempted the first winter ascent on his own?
I constantly looked around for him along the entire ascent. I searched for Jean-Christophe's body. There was no snow, it was dry and I had to, wanted to find him, identify his body perhaps there on the wide flat plateau which looks out onto the Tibetan face. I never had problems with him directly. But I wasn't able to talk to him personally, had always to be filtered by his "manager"... In mountaineering this doesn't exist and shouldn't exist for anybody. Even Messner answers my emails and this does him honour. Denis and I climbed Makalu together. I think that Jean-Christophe could have climbed it alone. I just hope that he didn't risk things or that he was pushed into doing it to prove what he was capable of, even after the 21st of December... This simply wasn't necessary since Jean-Christophe was an exceptional mountaineer and I think that from certain points of view we were very similar... Unfortunately I didn't find him.

Can you give us the technical lowdown of "your" Makalu, starting with your style of ascent, via the route, camps and difficulties.
First of all Makalu is damn high. All persist in saying it is 8462m high but I trust the Polish "scientist" and mountaineer Jan Kielkowsky more who after having carefully analysed all measurements reckons its 8485m (I talk about this in detail in my book). This means 126m lower than K2 and when you're fighting against the wind and cold, every meter less is a precious present, a gift from God and from the lucky stars. Denis and I found some old fixed ropes and we linked some of these together. I never abseiled down the old fixed ropes because I didn't trust them. I simply held them and remained well balanced on my crampons. We always short-roped, carrying everything in our rucksacks. This definitely resembles more an alpine style than a Himalayan style. Bear in mind that we only went to Camp 2 twice, all the rest was done only once including Camp 3 and the summit. We were always really quick and at times I even specified this in my blog. 3 hours to climb to Camp 2, 28 minutes to descend from Camp 1 to Base Camp and less than an hour and a half to descend from Camp 2. We were on form and our acclimatisation had been perfect. Three weeks before the expedition I even took part in a race, almost 100km and 3000m height difference and 10 "small mountains" to be climbed... I had prepared carefully, racing 150km a week and climbing. I really wanted to be prepared to suffer intensely and for a long time.

What was the key to your success?
The team. Denis and I really work well together at altitude. We compete who can suffer most and who gives up last. But we always use our intelligence and no one wants to be a hero who is ready to sacrifice for success. Both of us were hyper motivated, we knew we were strong enough to do it. All we had to do was wait and believe in ourselves, in the meteorologist Karl Gabl and the indispensable dose of good fortune.

When you left your tent at 7700m for the summit bid, how high were your chances of success? And how did you feel? Were you filled with doubts?
It's strange but we felt sure we'd reach the summit. We were strong and early that morning we joked about the "crazy" night, how uncomfortable it was, about how much we wanted to be quick and finish things off. Things went exactly was we had expected, as we had hoped.

When did you realise that you'd do it?
In the morning on 9 February, as soon as we got up. We were determined, happy and we blindly trusted Karl Gabl's weather forecast, he simply couldn't have made a mistake! We both felt enough energy reserves in our legs and this strange, extremely convinced sensation. We didn't think for a second of giving up. We climbed like there was no tomorrow... it was really beautiful.

You've known each other for years, nine in total and you've been on plenty of expeditions together. Denis certainly isn't a chatterbox while words Simone certainly never fail you. What did you say to each other on the summit. And talking of which, what does one do on the summit of an 8000m peak at - 40°C and winds up to 100 km/h...
You don't know Denis at all! He's worse than me. He talks and talks when he can express himself in his own language. He's like a river in spate and he too has a never-ending list of dreams and projects. We speak in English and at times practice our Russian and Italian. This was our 7th expedition together (Snow Leopard 99, Everest 2000, Marble Wall winter 2001, Lhotse 2001, Karakorum 2003, Khali Himal 2004, Makalu 2009) and on the summit we let out a great scream and hugged each other.

Denis: what's Simone's greatest asset and his biggest fault?
Simone is a charismatic person. When I'm with him I really feel as if I'm living out an adventure, not any old expedition. His enthusiasm is contagious and I know that climbing with him can represent a real achievement. His biggest defect is that he lives too far away from me and I really miss him in my Almaty.

Simone: same question
He's the right partner. Who doesn't care about being nice or hated... he goes straight down his road and, like a bulldozer, squashes all polemic flies around him. He really is one of the best in the world. His only problem is that I always need loads of time to get a visa for Almaty.

To both of you: the pros and cons of Makalu
It's definitely a difficult 8000m peak, it's tall and in winter it proved just how much one has to suffer to climb it. Honestly speaking, it has no defects.

Five 8000m peaks still await their first winter ascent, all are in the Karakorum. If you had to chose one now... which one would you climb and why?
Denis reckons Nanga Parbat and perhaps I agree with him. You can reach the Rupal Face in a couple of hours from where the jeep drops you off. The other face, the Diamir, is reached in two days on foot. So you're not at the end of the world. Having said that I've still got to settle the bill with Broad Peak, even though I hope Heizer and his companions will settle it for me... Certainly sooner or later it'll be K2's turn...

I don't want to ask you why or how much you risk for your mountaineering, instead I want to ask you what you'r dreaming of now, perhaps something which goes beyond the moutnains themselves?
Denis says he really wants to finish off the fourteen 8000m peaks in his manner and style and then give himself a 6 month holiday, free from external pressure and personal and political rivalries within the military sports group. He dreams about having a bit of money in the bank which he never has... and to go to the beach, truly relax at the seaside. He'd then start to dream about climbs and new routes again, free from "gerarchic obligations" and with real friends for whom he doesn't need to ask permission to climb with.
For my part, I'm happy how things are. I've got everything I need, I only want to consolidate my financial position for the many years of dreams ahead of me, not only mountaineering. New passions are beginning to emerge...





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