"We just couldn't survive there." Seg and Denis made it to 7500 meters in hurricane force winds. Image courtesy of RussianClimb.
If you reach for the stars, you might not catch your chosen one every time, but you wont end up with a handful of mud, either. Image of Denis and Serg in K2 BC courtesy of RussianClimb.
"This was spring 1998, and I was thumbing a black-and-white picture; a simple print copied on a plain sheet of paper." Image of Urubko's photo courtesy of RussianClimb. (Click images to enlarge).
If aliens had made an altitude topo of the earth at that point, they'd see swarms of people everywhere except for two dots - Denis and Serg - moving slowly high above them all. File image of Denis in the Elbrus race, courtesy of RussianClimb.
Maxut (Zhuma) Zhumayev (left) and Vassily (Vaso) Pivtsov summited 11, 8000ers and did the first non-sherpa ascent of Everest north ridge this spring (without oxygen). Image courtesy of mountain.kz.
The Kazakh climbers are always looked after by father Alexander, a priest in Almaty. Image by O. Belyalov, courtesy of Andrey Verkhovod.
A young Kazakh team went for the NW ridge. In image 23-year-old Alexander courtesy of Mountain.kz.
Strategy meeting between (left to right) Pivtsov, Sofrygin - and Bogomolov, the only senior among the climbers. Image courtesy of Mountain.kz.
A mans reach should exceed his grasp, or whats heaven for? The route showing the NW ridge and last camp. Max and Vaso bivouaced at 8200 meters. The wall right in image is the West Face (Pakistan) climbed by the Russian team. The snowy wall left of the ridge is the never climbed North Face (China) - Denis Urubko and Serguey Samoilov's target. Image courtesy mountain.kz.
"Forgive me father for I am fed up," Aggei Skopin, 22, SMS'd to Father Alexander. Image courtesy Mountain.kz.
Andrey Puchinin is a well known speed- and technical climber. Image courtesy of mountain.kz.
Aggei and Denis Urubko in K2 Chinese BC. Image courtesy of Aggei and mountain.kz.
Best of ExplorersWeb 2007 Awards: Denis Urubko and the Kazakh climbers, K2

Posted: Dec 30, 2007 01:26 am EST
We have covered close to a thousand expeditions in 2007. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2007.

Today number 3: Denis Urubko and the Kazakh climbers, K2

Their names have become familiar to the international climbing community: Maxut Zhumayev, Vassiliy Pivtsov, Damir Molgachev, Serguey Brodsky, Denis Urubko, Serguey Samoilov...and Anatoli Boukreev. They are the Kazakh climbers, at times coached by Ervand Iljinsky, and always looked after by father Alexander, a priest in Almaty.

Kazakhstan holds great history and lots of heart. The original Star City, Baikonur Cosmodrome was Gagarin's launch site when he became the first man in Space. Still today, this is where the Soyuz rockets supplying the International Space Station with the precision of a clock are sent off. It's the home space port for record Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, the man who has spent most accumulative time in space (over two years).

Avalanches, speed climbs and Borat

Kazakhstan is known for speed climbs and scary avalanches; on Peak Lenin (bordering to Kyrgyzstan) this year the earth warming resulted in victims of the 1990 avalanche (43 international climbers trapped in camp at 5300 meters) surfacing in the melting glacier. Kazakh Alexander Chechulin reported his expedition had found a large number of bodies at 4200 meters.

Kazakhstan was set for the movie Borat; hilarious but all too evident of the imagined superiority and not-so imagined ignorance of the west. Perhaps such were behind Himex criticism of two young Kazakh climbers outrunning their monster outfit to Everest summit this spring, without O2 to boot.

And perhaps such have been behind the mystery of the 'international golden ice axe', again and again denied two of the world's foremost high altitude mountaineers today; Kazakh Denis Urubko and Serguey Samoilov.

The Superfluous climber

A Russian dubbed the bourgeois, bored and introvert small-achievers of his time The Superfluous Man. Today, we call them trust-fund brats and find a good number among the "sponsored athletes" in the west.

Kazakhs are anything but superfluous climbers: They know hard nature, they know hard weather and - following decades of oppression by ex-Soviet and communism - Kazakhs know everything about a hard life.

The beauty of over reaching

Following years of weak climbing, prompting even the Spaniards to hold their awards (except for giving one to K2 Magic Line), this year the Kazakhs and the Russians showed the value of worthy goals. New routes on K2 west face, K2 north ridge, and K2 north face came their announcements one after the other. It was amazing.

A mans reach should exceed his grasp, or whats heaven for? asked Robert Browning and that's exactly what this was about. At last, world mountaineers were shooting for the stars again.

Last the peak had a new route was 10 years ago, by a Japanese team forging a new line on the West Ridge/West Face. Since then, only Spanish Jordi Corominas has summited K2 by a different route than Abruzzi or Cesen - in a repetition of the Magic line.

A rare mountaineering drama

The acclimatization phase was done Kazah style. Max and Vaso went to Everest and bagged it without O2 together with the Sherpas fixing route for the Discovery Channel climbers. Denis and Serguey went to Dhaulagiri, where Denis aborted his speed attempt to help down a climber in trouble, then went back up and summitted the next day.

With that, time had come for K2.

In July, Kazakh climbers tried to find a safe traverse at 8000 meters to the summit couloir on the unfinished NW ridge. On the unclimbed west face, Russian legends plotted their second summit push. The unclimbed north face still waited for Denis and Serg's arrival.

This unique situation was a rare mountaineering drama - spurring AdventureStats to make an update on the peak's unclimbed faces and sharp ridges, compiled on a 3D map.

The NW ridge

Having summited eleven 8000ers, young guns Maxut (Zhuma) Zhumayev and Vassily (Vaso) Pivtsov were awarded Best of ExWeb for a double header of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna last year. Barely 30 years old, the two Kazakhs walked (!) to the peaks and climbed each in one single push. No Sherpas, no oxygen.

Sponsored by the Central Kazakh Army Sport Club (CSKA), Max and Vaso joined a small team to attempt K2's NW ridge, on the mountain's Chinese side.

The blizzards punishing the normal routes hit hard on the exposed spur. "Forgive me father for I am fed up," Aggei Skopin, 22, SMS'd to Father Alexander and threw in the towel. The rope-fixing and camp-building on the lonely slope of the savage mountain pushed back climbers one after the other until only Max and Vaso remained on its upper parts.

For five days in the 8000+ meter deathzone, the two climbers fought an unclimbable rock wall, in blazing wind and chest-deep snow, trying to find a detour past the virgin rock bastion near the summit. Before giving up, Max and Vaso attempted three different routes - all in vain. When the stove wouldn't light up in their 8200 meter camp, they had no other way to stay warm but to lean close to each other in their tent.

They failed the top but carved forever their mark in virgin death zone territory on a peak where the summit/fatality rate is 24.4%.

The North Face

Recalling how he got the idea for K2's north face, Denis's story was telling of the Kazakh climbers' uncushioned life: "It was a cloudy day and I sat in front of the computer, watching a piece of paper. The light could hardly penetrate the dirty window of my home; a narrow room in an Army barrack. This was spring 1998, and I was thumbing a black-and-white picture; a simple print copied on a plain sheet of paper. Frankly speaking, that's when everything started."

Urubko's climbs are legendary; over only the past two years Denis and twice-divorced, ever-loyal climbing buddy Serguey planted new routes on Manaslu and an unclimbed face of Broad Peak.

Now time had come for the young soldier to put his decade-old vision to the test. Denis also hoped to retrieve two ice-picks he had left in 2003 on K2's upper slopes (7800 meters) as a member of the winter Polish expedition.

My way

Through the years (and Piolet d'Or politics) Denis had identified his priorities. Broad Peak and Manaslu had showed him his true potential, and now Denis longed to climb his way, free from ideals set by others. His personal principles for ultimate High-altitude mountaineering boiled down to four guidelines:
1. Summit above 8000 meter
2. New route
3. Alpine style on-sight
4. Small team

"Serguey Samoilov is a rock," Denis said about his partner: "His strong mind and endurance are bordering to ridiculous. Always cheerful, he never doubts decisions made - contrary to me, who does..."

"He's crazy but my life is boring," Serguey explained. "My kids are grown and I have a job. But I have no savings and my everyday life is not so exciting. Its time to come up with something big and fun!"

"Kill the fires, we're going up!"

Their buddies were ready for a final attempt on the NW ridge when Denis and Serg arrived Chinese BC. They watched the struggle, and the defeat. Soon, they were the only men left on the mountain. In fact, if aliens had made an altitude topo of the earth at that point, they'd see swarms of people everywhere except for two dots - Denis and Serg - moving slowly high above them all.

The first acclimatization climb was aborted when Serg came down with bronchitis. This ailment, so innocent at sea level is crippling and very hard to cure on altitude. But Serg recovered and the two's second acclimatization climb on the Japanese route almost ended in an un-planned summit. Only a storm omitted the final 200 meters to the top.

The men returned to their cold and damp north side base camp, in order to wait for the right conditions. Day in and day out clouds mounted, the occasional crow calling through the fog constantly sweeping the black face towering above.

First to have it, tired of staring at his buddy "sewing, eating, and sleeping," Denis typed on his sat phone, "Cold, rain, boredom... I feel like a caged animal."

"Kill the fires, we're going up!"

SMS: "it's horrible..."

"There will be no messages" the guys said, but chose to bring the sat phone after all. Their brief notes to RussianClimb were harrowing. Below the instep to the route, they found real winter. A snow blizzard hit the mountain. Fog veiled the cold rocks and avalanches fell down the North Face. "We have to wait for 1-2 days, seems we're chronically unsuccessful in this expedition..." they wrote.

4 hours later, a desperate call, "Is the weather supposed to improve in the upcoming days? The conditions are so bad here - it's horrible..."

And 2 hours later again, "the weather's bad, avalanches on K2 North Face, too dangerous. We'll wait here for 2 days, and then try to cross to the normal route (NW ridge, Japanese) as we wouldn't be able to reach our route from BC in such deep snow."

Scrub the face; there's still history to be made

The next day, a new SMS from Denis read, "We have scrubbed our original plan; we can't reach K2's North Ridge due to avalanche danger. We have to climb the normal route. The weather's very bad. We reached Camp 2."

Through the horrible conditions and in spite of the demoralizing realization that they would not make their original goal; the two climbers would not give up. They reached camp 3 on K2's north ridge. The weather cleared, but a cold wind struck. When they reached camp 4, the weather was turning ugly again.

Veteran Himalaya forecaster Austrian Karl Gabl's model showed nearly continuous snowfall and wind speeds up to 100 km/h ahead. But on October 02, at 5.30 a.m. Moscow time Lena from RussianClimb woke to her phone jumping with a new message: "SUMMIT!!!" read the display. "We're in C4, beginning the descent. We reached the top yesterday."

The first north side summit in 11 years and the latest K2 summit ever was a fact.

If you reach for the stars, you might not catch the chosen one every time, but you wont end up with a handful of mud, either. Denis Urubko is remembered at ExplorersWeb in 2007 as a symbol for his and the Kazakh climbers continuous display of all the values representing the Spirit of Adventure.

By their performance, the awarded expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:
- Courage
- Determination
- Persistence
- Self reliance
- Ingenuity
- Pioneering
- Idealism
- Comradeship
- Compassion
- Respect towards competition
- Honesty

Previous in the countdown:

4. Tomaz Humar - Annapurna solo, Himalaya
5. Silvio Mondinelli - 14 years, 14 summits, Himalaya
6. Dodo Kopold - 3, 8000ers in 4 months, Himalaya
7. Borge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich - North Pole retrace
8. Hannah McKeand, The fastest trek, South Pole

Special mention:

Jannu West Ridge First Ascent: Valery Babanov and Sergey Kofanov
Torres del Paine Base Jump: Valery Rozov
In the hoofsteps of Genghis Khan: Tim Cope
NW Passage in ice catamaran: Sebastien Roubinet
Lhotse Shar, G2 NF & Jasemba, Lhotse south near-winter ascent

More about K2, Denis and Serguey:

The last time the North ridge was summited was in 1996, (Aug 14) by a stellar team of Piotr Pustelnik and Ryszard Pawlowski (led by Krzysztof Wielicki who summited together with Christian Kuntner and Marco Bianci 4 days earlier), and Carlos Buhler, Igor Benkin (died on descent), and Sergei Penzov - led by Ivan Dusharin. None of the climbers, including now Denis and Serguey, used oxygen.

Before Denis and Serguey, the latest K2 summit was made in 1978 by an American expedition who summited K2 on September 6 and 7 via a NE ridge/Abruzzi route. With this, 281 people have now summited K2, but only 32 from the north side.

On May 8, 2006 Denis Urubko and Serguey Samoilov completed a new route on the NE side of Manaslu (8163m), alpine style. A few days before, they had already reached the top via the normal route, achieving the first summit on Manaslu in three years. In 2005 Denis and Serguey were also nominated for the international Piolet dOr after a new route opened on the previously unclimbed SW face of Broad Peak.

July 25th, 2005, Denis and Serguey completed a new route on a previously unclimbed face (SW) on Broad Peak. They did the climb on sight, in alpine style and in very bad conditions. They were the only climbers to reach the summit of BP that year. For that climb, Denis and Serguey were awarded among the best expeditions of 2005 by ExplorersWeb.

In 2006 Manaslu celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first ascent. Climbing fees were reduced by 50% for the occasion. Denis and Serguey were among many climbers there, but they were the first to break trail and reach the summit via the normal route, on April 25.

Denis Urubko is considered one of the top climbers today. He has summited most of the 8000ers and many other major peaks in the Himalayas and Central Asia. He has also sacrificed summits to help climbers in trouble, some of whom he had never met before.

A great technical climber, Serguey, 50, was new to 8000+ altitude when he joined Denis for the climb on Broad Peak. The two have climbed together since with great success.

K2 became Denis's 12th 8000er and Serguey's 5th 8000+ meter summit.



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