Denis Urubko and the Art of Climbing: "It felt like an empty world, with only two climbers in it"

Posted: Dec 21, 2005 03:29 pm EST

( Following large expeditions, the solitary climb and new route Kazakh Denis Urubko did on Broad Peak with Serguey Samoilov became quite a revelation to Denis. The unknown grounds and minimalist style left him wanting for more. The climbers summited the peak through the South face in weather that turned back over 50 climbers on the normal route. They didn't pre-acclimatize on easier peaks (common procedure when attempting Alpine Style on Himalayan giants) and they knew nothing about the route before them.

The guys just grabbed it by the horns, and took it step by step. Somewhere along the way, they realized they might actually pull it off. That's when the magnificence of their challenge really hit them, and the climbers became hypnotized by it: There was no turning back - it was summit or bust. The rush was what got them through, all the way through the final days of zero food and water, limited gear and howling winds at extreme altitude.

Denis wrote down some of his reflections for ExplorersWeb, including a detailed story about what really happened on the South Face:

The best and worst of men's passions

The Golden Age of Himalayan adventures ended years ago. Perhaps, never again in history will climbers have such freedom. High-altitude exploration was so huge back then, there was room for different styles, different motivations - on different mountains and routes. Everything was empty. People brought their humanism up to 8000 meters, and each ascent began as a heroic poem, a challenge, a work of art. The highest mountains of the world became the arena for the best and worst of men's passions.

After Mont Blanc came the Petit Dru, after Everest came the West faces

In fine arts, such as poetry, golden ages are commonly followed by silver ages. If we accept comparing Climbing and Art, we can conclude something similar is happening in mountaineering. After Dostoyevsky, Karamzin, or Lev Tolstoy came Alexey Tolstoy, Alexandr Grin, Simonov.

After Mont Blanc, Civetta and Grandes Jorasses, came the Petit Dru, the three summits of Lavaredo and the Walker Spur. After Everest, Manaslu and Nanga-Parbat, came the West faces of Dhaulagiri and Makalu, and the North Face of Jannu thats the Silver age of Himalayism.

I need to assume responsibility for what I do - it's a strange moment in life, and it may apply to any kind of activity. People end up depending on their position and their ambitions - and if they dont master the rules of the game, the rules end up possessing them. I guess I could have kept myself away from getting into this mess but I couldnt refuse attempting to play.

Search for freedom led to an unclimbed South Face

I wanted to dedicate the Summer of 2005 to a search for freedom in high mountains. Together with my friend Serguey Samoilov we arrived to Karakorum. Since my last visit two years before, Broad Peaks South face had remained unclimbed. Simone Moro and I wanted to traverse the peak some day, but this year he had gone pursuing another dream of his own in Western Pakistan. As far as I know, theres been many attempts to climb BPs South side, including names such as Kukuczka, Kurtyka, Rick Allen, Iñurrategi, etc. Could there be a chance for me!?

After approaching and familiarizing ourselves with the area, we joined a team and began working on the slopes of the mountain. But then the others refused to attempt the South-West face. In their opinion, it was too dangerous and impossible to organize high camps and fixed ropes there. They chose to climb via the classical route.

What could we do? Serguey and I started preparing a two-person attempt. Our friends (the Italians) gave us all the gear and food we needed. They wished us the best and offered words of support. I am sincerely grateful to them.

An unknown, wild area

We set off from the Falchan glacier on July 18. On our previous scouting trips we had tried to find a way through the left side of the glacier, but this time we chose to climb an icefall which rose on the right side. From 4800m, we entered an unknown, wild area.

We made our first bivouac at 5100m, on the glacier. The next day, we found a way between the seracs and climbed on rock and ice up to 6100m. The weather was awesome for Karakorum, sunny and windless. We climbed roped to each other, trained by tough climbs back home.

July 20 came the first major challenge: Three difficult rock belts, 100-150 meters-long each. The first was black rock. We progressed on mixed terrain, on smooth steep plates below an overhanging section, and then traversed left. Overhanging ice-falls towered on both sides, making us an easy target at each step. Consequently we opted to follow a direct route up the face; adding complexity to the climb. But it helped to avoid the obvious dangers.

A Predator mind

The second, yellow belt took us two days. Vertical ribs led us right to the sky. Overcoming the yellow belt took four pitches that I wont soon forget. It was really very tough climbing that section took all I had. Only passion and experience allowed me to climb it. As a tense dancer, I fought to keep my balance on small cracks. Holds were so small; Serguey would look at me from below and think I was doing acrobatics.

The freedom of alpine-style climbing often requires the suspension of your mental faculties, just like in the wild, ancient times. People, as predators, had to rely on reflexes rather than rational thinking. That way Man, the warrior, became one with nature, whose reason for existence is struggle. We spent two days on the yellow rock band dealing with difficulties. Two pitches in particular, about 6a and one pitch 6b, provided me with great pleasure: I was spellbound.

Sergey! I'll try these five meters! There is a good crack, I can see it! It was a delicate job - but I needed the rope loose at any time. Sergey was patient and very calm: Dont worry, we are no kids here, he would answer. Be careful with crampons on that overhang!

Stars dropped on our palms

The reward came in the shape of a beautiful night on a half-meter ledge. A silent Universe placed stars in the palms of our hands. We were tired, but the next morning we resumed our climb up without a shade of doubt. Interestingly enough, during the entire ascent we never considered turning around or crossing to another route not even when we climbed in bad weather, while avalanches rushed past us. We were absolutely bewitched by the climb, our mind filled only by altitude. We were captivated.

After the fifth night we ran out of food. We had spent too long on our wall. My friend found a pill for stomach problems in his pocket - we shared it with water and resumed the climb. That evening though, our gas to melt snow also finished.

One of each

We spent the next night at the top of Broad Peaks South-West wall. We pitched our tent on a tiny flat place at 7800m and fell asleep. We had one sleeping bag, one down jacket, one Gore-Tex, one polar fleece not one for each climber, but to share among the two of us! That night we didnt take our boots off and barely quenched our thirst.

Sergey, how are you? - I croaked in the first light of the early morning - Can you move your feet?

Hand me some ice buddy, my mouth is parched - replied my stubborn friend. We were surrounded by rivers of water, but it was all frozen. We were so thirsty, but all we could do was to suck ice.

It was a grisly morning, extremely cold, but the clouds had been swept by the strong wind and I could see the last slopes before the summit ridge. We moved on, breaking trail in deep snow. The going was extremely tough, and we were running out of energy. But I had only one thought in my mind - onwards! I charged ahead with a sense of great hope, kicking steps in the hard snow.

The battle for an empty world

On the South-East ridge of Broad Peak, which we joined at 7950 m, the wind turned into hurricane. I led as if we were at war: Searching for protection among the rocks. Step by step, through the deep, almost black sky we pushed towards our goal. Suddenly the Summit appeared. Sergey and I had turned our dreams into reality.

The wind tried to throw us from the top, beating our faces and clothes. The panoramic view included some of the highest points of the planet: The imposing K2 pyramid to the North, the Gasherbrums on the other side. It felt like an empty world, with only two climbers in it ... It was 11.30 on 25 July 2005.

Epilogue: The meaning of Alpine style

The words "alpine style" have become the most important asset to qualify Himalayan climbs nowadays. It is like a label of excellence on 8000ers ascents. However, checking mountaineering history, there are not so many examples of climbs done the way we achieved ours:

1.- A peak over 8000 meters - the main summit.
2.- A new route of extreme difficulty.
3.- Done in clear alpine style.
4.- Achieved by a small team (2 to 4 people).

In 100 years of Himalayan and Karakorum explorations, weve seen few climbs that have actually fulfilled the above conditions and this is great. It opens a wide range of possibilities for sport-like ascents in the future.

Old and new dreams

I belong to the Kazakhstan mountaineering school, which had a major role for years in USSR climbing, especially on high altitude, and difficult routes. Many of our climbers took part in expeditions on Pamir, Tien-Shan, Himalayas, etc. On Dhaulagiri, for instance, there are two routes opened by Kazakh climbers the first ascent on its SW ridge becoming the best climb of the year 1988. Therefore, I had always dreamt of routes like these. As for the new route on Broad Peak, the one Serguey and I made this summer - well, I am not completely content, but it was a sweet climb. We lived an entire life at 8000 meters, a life that lasted eight days."

--Denis Urubko--

On July 25th, 2005, Kazakhs Denis Urubko and Serguey Samoilov completed a new route on Broad Peaks SW face in alpine style. No one else has officially reached the real summit of BP this year.

Denis Urubko is considered one of the top climbers today. Last year, he opened a new route on the North Face of Baruntse together with Simone Moro, and made a night summit on Annapurna in bad weather conditions. Denis has summited nine 8000ers. He summitted BP already on July 18, 2003, through the normal route. He and Ed Viesturs carried out a nighttime rescue of Jean-Christophe Lafaille when he suffered pulmonary edema on descent. Denis has done many summits, but also sacrificed summits to help climbers in trouble, some of whom he had never met before.

Named for its great expanse and bulk, the triple crested Broad Peak was scaled for the first time on June 9, 1957 by Hermann Buhl, Kurt Diemberger, Marcus Schmuck and Fritz Wintersteller. At 8,051m, Broad Peak is number 12 on the list of the fourteen 8,000m peaks, and is the third highest in the Karakorum range. It is located in Pakistan on the upper reaches of the Baltoro Glacier, the main access route to the mountains which cuts through the center of the Karakorum range.

With a normal route considered less technically challenging, Broad Peak has a reputation of being among the easiest of the 8000 meter peaks. But statistics are signaling a more dangerous mountain than its reputation lets on.

Less than 300 climbers have summited Broad Peak. The summit/fatality rate is around 7%, pretty close to Everest's rate of 9%.

Interestingly enough, comparing statistics show that Broad Peak has become more dangerous to climb! Up to 1990 the Broad Peak fatality rate was 5%, but from 1990 until last year the rate jumped to 8.6 %, or close to twice that of the modern Everest fatality rate (4.4%).

Whilst the old Everest risk was 37% and BP only 5%, the giants now have switched places with Everest at 4.4% and BP at 8.6% in the last decade. An indication to climbers not to take Broad Peak lightly.

#Mountaineering #Mountaineering

"Piolet d'Or was awarded to American climbers very interesting," said nominee Denis Urubko. Image of Denis by Gleb Sokolov, courtesy of RussianClimb (click to enlarge).
"What could we do? Serguey and I started preparing a two-person attempt." Serguey - left - and Denis, on the way back to Skardu after climbing Broad Peak this summer (click to enlarge).
"Our clothing wasn't new, but it was well tested. We saved on everything - only one sleeping bag and one down jacket per team. Of course, we were very cold," said Serguey. "From the start the wall inspired both fear and confidence; we felt the drive. But I always assumed I was there to climb a new route." Image of Serguey carving a ledge for the tent at 6500m, courtesy of Denis Urubko (click to enlarge).
"I led as if we were at war: Searching for protection among the rocks. Step by step, through the deep, almost black sky we pushed towards our goal. Suddenly the Summit appeared. Sergey and I had turned our dreams into reality. It was 11.30 on 25 July 2005." (Click to enlarge).
"We lived an entire life at 8000 meters, a life that lasted eight days." All images courtesy of Russian Climb (click to enlarge).

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