For millions of years they had been standing there each winter, untouched by man. Last fall a change came in the air. The Pakistan giants were about to experience an explosion in winter attempts, and one victory was imminent.
After the void
There is greatness in suffering and no climbers suffer greater than those high up on an 8000er in winter.
The altitude deep freezes the air. Picking up what little oxygen there is left your syrupy blood pushes through constricted vessels to your choking limbs and lungs.
Your feet struggle to grip an ice-crusted slope checking out somewhere in Islamabad. You are in hell but there is no warmth to be found, inside or out.
They said only the Polish could take it and sure enough: in an eight-year marathon during the 1980s Polish climbers had grabbed all the seven winter firsts.
A void followed until somewhat shockingly a swanky Italian broke the chain.
In 2005 Simone Moro bagged the first winter ascent on Shisha Pangma with the late Polish Piotr Morawski. Becoming the first non-Polish to climb a Himalayan virgin winter 8000er - meh, people said - the Italian was with a Pole.
In 2007 and 2008 Simone spent two frigid winters on Broad Peak with two Pakistani climbers until in 2009 he returned to Himalaya. The first winter ascent of Makalu was a fact, with Kazakh Denis Urubko this time.
Following almost a decade of winters spent on the roof of the world, Simone Moro had grabbed the last two winter-unclimbed 8000ers in Himalaya. He turned his focus back to the five unclimbed giants in Karakoram.
By now it became clear that Moro had unsettled the Himalayan 8000er winter scene in a big way. People were rushing in for Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat, and both Gasherbrums. This was new.
With Broad Peak "bespoke" by a Polish team Simone chose GII this time, with Denis again, light, fast and efficient, exactly the way they had climbed Makalu. Nothing was left to luck, except for the weather, and a dark horse added to the team: Cory Richards, the American.
Extreme cold and snow covering the landing airstrip grounded flights to Skardu. Sticking to their routine to climb elsewhere for acclimatization, by early January the trio was negotiating 6400 meter Khosar Kang.
On Gasherbrum a few weeks later, the trio went to work without much ado. A cold spell of -46C night temperature and over 70km/h wind gave a chill factor of around -100 degrees.
Their corner of the world was one of the absolutely most frigid places on earth. "Crazy cold...even Denis was shivering in his sleeping bag," Simone would Skype ExplorersWeb from Camp 2.
Back in BC after 4 days up on the mountain, the guys were in a hurry to get back up, and get out. They would try the summit as soon as their weather-hero Karl Gabl could find a weather window long enough.
The word came only 3 short days later, offering a wild card without much rest. "If you want to try to use this small window you must be ready for bad weather from the noon of the 2nd," Gabl told Simone.
Weighing the risk
They knew that they were short on acclimatization, and that the break was only good for a day and a half, but "we immediately decided to go for it," Simone told ExplorersWeb.
It was no gung ho decision. "I knew we could do it," Simone said, pointing back to Makalu, "if you train 365 days per year and can take suffering, you can do things like these."
January 31 the summit attempt was on, and it was full throttle. In order to be in position at the weather break, the men pushed through a gale to camp 1.
The three climbers reached camp 2 in more rough weather, wind and snowfall. Their hope stood to the weather data, saying it should clear up the next day.
In camp 3 the following day, Simone Moro, Denis Urubko and Cory Richards were almost touching the peak's first winter ascent. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps something else. The weather happened exactly as Karl Gabl had said.
February 2nd, Denis Urubko texted to Lena Laletina from RussianClimb: "Summit at 11:35. Going down, 7800. Hope to reach tent before darkness."
And that was that.
With three short sentences a new page had been written in mountaineering history: a Pakistan 8000er summit had been climbed in winter, for the first time.
It was Italian Simone Moro's third winter 8000er (all firsts), Kazakh Denis Urubko's second, and in his second 8000er summit ever, Salt Lake City homeboy Cory Richards had bagged the very first winter Great One for good old USA.
To celebrate: the ExplorersWeb exclusive Karakoram 3D Mountain Tracker went up complete with all winter teams' locations and updates.
The victory was triumphant but it was not over yet.
About 5 hours into the descent, a short message from Denis: "We've found our tent in this terrible storm. That's all. Tomorrow descent to BC. Thanks for the support."
Even the veteran winter mountaineers Simone Moro and Denis Urubko were shaken by what happened next.
The avalanche struck around 11 AM not far from BC. The climbers had marked the route from BC to C1 with wands. Foul weather had covered their track in fresh snow up to their hips, making for slow progress in a straight line between the flags, with crevasses hidden below.
In a Skype interview only hours after their return to BC on February 4, Simone told ExplorersWeb it was an Annapurna/Anatoli avalanche deja vu that almost buried them alive. Denis reckoned it was just sheer luck that they made it back.
"When we passed below Gasherbrum 5 we knew we were in the most dangerous part," Simone told Tom of HumanEdgeTech, "but we could't be fast due the deep snow and spent too much time there. Suddenly a big serac fell from G5 face and a big powder avalanche. We were fucked..."
Tom: What then?
Simone "The avalanche hit us. We were roped up and tried to run away but were caught for 150 meters. We flew above a huge crevasse and finally stopped/landed just 5 meters from it."
"By miracle, I was on the surface. I unclipped the carabiner and ran to Cory... I dug him out without my Mitt (lost in the avalanche) then I ran to Denis and did the same. They were buried with only the head sticking out."
Simone said Denis was dragged 400 ft head down before he felt the rope tighten and finally came to a halt, turning into the right position thanks to the safety line.
"The avalanche was huge, the kind that kills you," Simone said.
In the next episode...
Carrying a small camera and filming through it all, even the American turned out a lucky strike. “It was about the most fucked up day I had in the mountain,” Cory Richards said about the day of the avalanche and then went home and made a movie about the ascent. COLD has since swept virtually every available film award.
"Will the recent Gasherbrum II winter victory prove a Karakoram dream mile - considered impossible until broken and then followed by many in short time?" we asked in a poll. "No," said you.
The ExplorersWeb community didn't expect any of the other expeditions to make it, and they didn't. So what's next?
With four winter firsts, only the late Polish legend Kukuczka is ahead of Simone. The Italian is back for more this winter, with climbing buddy Denis by his side and Gabl once again at the weather maps. Nanga Parbat is where you'll find them.
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