This year Denis Urubko became the 8th person to summit all 8000ers without oxygen. He ended his quest with the first winter ascent of Makalu followed by a new line on the wild side of Cho Oyu.
Urubko's entrance to the already exclusive club was a masterpiece from a master.
The unsheltered life
Entertainment comes at a price. Over-indulgence in the meaningless holds us back. The universities are bursting with inventions that could really improve our lives were we not pre-occupied with the latest iPhone app. Adventure is still packed with immense courage that would empower us had we not been distracted otherwise.
Think about it the next time you tune in on the Discovery channel or pick up the front page of Outside magazine. Chances are you won't find Urubko there. And yet no active high altitude mountaineer in the world comes even close to the achievements of this extraordinary man.
A word about mastery
"The more I go to the 8000-ers, the more opportunities open to me: I see more potential routes, a lot of them, and very interesting," Denis told RussianClimb in reply to how he has changed since he first arrived Himalaya nine years ago.
"Back then I would look at Lhotse and only see this huge mountain to climb. Now I see it differently; and study it for unusual lines. The more mountains I scale, the more novelty they unveil to me in that sense. Only now do I see the previously un-noticed."
Compare what Einstein replied to a similar question: Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place," Albert said.
"It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting points and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up."
Urubko's dream was born 1998 in a shabby army barrack in Kazakhstan. In the dimly lit shack, Denis thumbed a grainy black-and-white print. "I picked up a pen, and drew a line," he recalled, "from the bottom, up to the summit." The image: K2 north face.
He arrived Himalaya two years later, wide eyed at the huge peaks and the legendary climbers scaling them. His own saga started right there and then.
While any climber can score once or twice, Urubko's achievements had nothing to do with chance. Bagging his home Snow Leopards in only 42 days, the soldier's talent showed early.
2001 Urubko summited Gasherbrum II in the fastest ascent ever of an 8000er (7 hours and 30 minutes). Then came a Broad Peak speed ascent; followed by a new line on its unclimbed face, in pure alpine style.
The mountaineer climbed high and low, in any season and in any style, always without oxygen or Sherpas. There was the first winter climb of Marble Wall in Thien Shan; and an ascent of Baruntse north in Nepal.
There was a K2 winter attempt in Pakistan reaching as high as 7800 meters, "when I could hardly stand on my legs to hold up Marcin who was ill", and a new route on Manaslu. To that; the first K2 north side ascent in 11 years and the latest K2 summit ever.
Masters are complex people and Denis was no different: an ethical climber, a skilled warrior, and an artist at heart.
Yet while words such as elegance and style often rule the purist tribe, "I take on the mountain as an athlete first; with beauty only my second priority," Denis said, aware that without brutal courage, intelligent resolve, disciplined self-command and unimpressionable passion - art is cheap.
The Kazakh soldier sacrificed summits to help climbers in trouble, some of whom he had never met before. His ethics showed when he spoke about his relationship to Simone, "we are sure that one will not leave the other, no matter what. We'll crawl if we have to, but not leave without attempting a rescue."
And then there was Serguey Samoilov, a friend from the Kazakhstan Army. Inseparable since their climb of Khan Tengri north face in 2000, they would escape Almaty at any chance.
"To me, Serguey's power of mind and endurance are bordering to ridiculous," Denis commented his climbing partner. "Always cheerful, he never doubts decisions which have already been made. Contrary to me, who does..."
Ready to climb anywhere with the wild Denis, "my kids are grown," Serg replied simply. "I have a job but no savings and my everyday life is boring. Its time to come up with something big and fun!"
A great technical climber, Serguey was new to 8000+ altitude when he joined Denis for the spectacular Broad Peak climb. The expedition was a success, as apparently was their team, since they hooked up again on Manaslu, and K2 in 2007.
The adventures became the last in Serguey's life. While Denis climbed Cho Oyu, Serg perished during unclear circumstances in a Kazakh Everest-Lhotse traverse attempt this spring.
It was not the first loss for Denis. "The best climbers stay forever in the mountains," he'd lament at the pictures of them all.
"They are always on my mind," he told RussianClimb, "and I dont imagine that nothing will ever happen to me. But to some extent their memory is helpful, too. It makes me more attentive to my actions, asks me to not take undue risk, urges me to be better prepared, and to analyze situations and other climbers' mistakes more carefully."
"That's why, when truly experienced climbers die it's a tragedy, but also a help to survivors, a reminder to be careful."
Makalu winter, consistent excellence
On Makalu this winter, the driven Simone Moro and the tough Denis Urubko had once again found each other. The climb was focused and fast. After acclimatizing in Khumbu; once on Makalu the two utilized bad weather to practice speed climbing in hard conditions. There was no lingering in camps; this was a champion approach with victory a result of uncompromising commitment.
"We worked as professionals; those who work within the framework of consistent excellence. You don't allow situations where you don't understand what to do," Denis said. "Climbing Makalu above 7400 meters in winter is like walking a thin line on altitude; even the most minor error or wrong move will lead to the deaths of both."
The ropes had pulled out on the fore summit crest. Well above 26,000 feet, the exhausted climber had to kick each and every step deep into the snow; packed solid by the Himalayan winter storms relentlessly punishing the giant peak.
"It was just Simone and I; two soldiers, two gladiators," Denis recalled.
They knew the drill. On Annapurna in 2004, they had climbed a dangerous snow field on the very teeth of their crampons. On Makalu this winter, just below the rocks between 8100-8200 meters, they used the last of a short rope for belay. "You cant do such climbs without absolute trust in your partner," Denis said.
Even Messner, generally unimpressed by modern climbing, ruled that Simone and Denis were the real deal. He had attempted the feat decades ago and reached just below Makalu La.
Cho Oyu, an opportunity in disguise
Due to a number of repeats, Makalu in fact became Urubko's 16th 8000er. Yet Cho Oyu still remained on the list of all 14. The normal route offers an easy climb so Denis planned a speed ascent there last spring. Chinese politics closing the mountain proved an opportunity in disguise. Awakening a dream from 2001, Denis decided to attempt Cho Oyu not from China - but from Nepal - via the South-East Face, in alpine style.
He went with another friend from the Kazakhstan Army; Boris Dedeshko. The face, which had never been climbed in alpine style before, had been in Denis' mind since 2001. He had wanted to summit his last 8000er in a special way and that he did, on May, 11.
Denis and Boris departed on May 6, carrying along food and gas for a week. Soon after, a major storm hit Himalaya, sending all climbers on the surrounding peaks down.
"We spent the night at 6000 meters, sitting," Urubko texted RussianClimb shortly after summit. "Then had bad weather on the third day, with many avalanches. The storm hit the face from 7,600m for 15 hours. Descent took us three days, via the ascent's route. We havent eaten anything for two days."
The two men climbed Cho Oyu's SE face in alpine style via a new route - a remarkable finish of the 14x8000ers project for Urubko.
Men made of rock
In Brave New World, Huxley feared that truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance; and we would become a trivial culture. In this age of cheap video productions, scripted "reality" shows, ignorant reporters, political awards and the truth somewhere at the bottom of priorities; perhaps people like Urubko are bound to get their worth only when the world one day needs their kind.
Meanwhile, Denis is sticking to his guns. Explaining why he decided on the unknown Eight Women climbers peak recently, in the same spirit as the north ridge of K2 or the SW face of Broad Peak, he said:
"Had I looked for fame, I had found it easier on the north face of Khan Tengri. Plenty of routes there already, but you only have to climb 5 meters to their left or right and there's your new, prestigious line! The Eight Women Climbers' Peak instead is like a song that not everybody can hear."
"In the future," Denis Urubko concluded, "I will still choose the routes which the soul craves."
Following the historic winter Makalu summit with Simone Moro, Spanish Pablo Ochoa de Olza (the late Inaki Ochoa's brother) summarized in a letter to RussianClimb:
"These two extraordinary men have once again shown what they are made of. Made of the same rock as the Himalayas, of the same spirit as the wind, of the same nature as steel. What they achieved on Makalu will be correctly measured only decades from now, when it really becomes obvious the impossible quest it is."
In the ExWeb awards, we have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2009. By their performance, the expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:
- Self reliance
- Respect towards competition
Previous in the countdown:
2. Simone Moro & Denis Urubko, winter Makalu
3. Park Young Seok, new route on Mount Everest
4. Miss Oh and Miss Go, Himalaya Dream Mile
5. Sarah Outen, Indian Ocean crossing
6. New route on Nanga Parbat
7. 14x8000ers summiteers.
8. AJ & FTA, corporate compassion
- Good guys leaving too early: Tomaz, Piotr, Serguey, Martin, Oscar, Roby...
- GIII/GIV attempt and rescue.
- Nives Meroi, fame for love.
- North Pole-Greenland crossing and polar records.
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