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Denis Urubko on Nims, O2, and the rules of winter

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In a wide-ranging conversation last weekend, Denis Urubko gave his take on the current and future state of high-altitude mountaineering — including his doubts that Nirmal Purja summited winter K2 without oxygen.

At 49, Urubko bears the confident air of a veteran warrior. At the same time, he recognizes the increasing gulf between his values and those of a changing world. However, Urubko is still willing to pick a fight in his coliseum of choice, the world of vertical rock and ice.

Urubko is not particularly interested in social media or correctness. Over cups of Pakistani green tea, the blunt but thoughtful Urubko discussed the changing world of mountaineering.

In winter 2021-22 there were a record six expeditions to 8,000m peaks but only one alpine-style attempt. Three expeditions relied heavily on O2 and two included clients with little experience. Finally, climbers spent a lot of time lower down the valley. Is this the logical evolution of high-altitude winter climbing or are these approaches killing its spirit?

This is quite a philosophical question. It’s difficult to answer, but I will try my best.

First, evolution may mean either progress or regression. If an activity provides good results, it will survive. If the results are bad, the activity will disappear. But positive results may not be immediately obvious.

Some people invest a lot in projects just for their own benefit, which results in weak achievements. The problem is that the media are part of the business too. The press often buys shit because it looks like chocolate.

Can you elaborate?

For instance, alpine style. What is it really? Alpine style is a pure ascent on unknown terrain, from the bottom to the top of the route. However, most alpine-style climbers actually attempt the same route several times, some even fix ropes…then they promote their expeditions as incredible achievements. And indeed, they may be excellent, but they must be assessed properly.                                                                                                                                                                                                       Choose your style but be honest about it

For all mountaineering achievements, it is essential to declare the truth. It makes me sad to see climbers pretending in public. How can you claim alpine style after several years of scouting and partly climbing a route, step by step?

What can we learn from the story of Nims [Nirmal Purja] and his 14×8,000’er project? Nothing. But the media, the market, and social media followers press for the confirmation of success. Something smells rotten in how sports mountaineering is developing.

All we get are increasing options for high-altitude tourists. In the end, this is not bad or good, just different.

Old climbers, young climbers

Luckily, we also have some examples in mountaineering history of real strength. George Mallory and Herman Buhl were inspired. Wielicki and Cichy made winter history 40 years ago. The first no-O2 Everest by Messner and Habeler and their alpine-style ascent of Hidden Peak. Kukuczka’s creativity, Messner on Nanga Parbat’s Diamir face, the route Samoilov and I opened on Broad Peak, Steck’s incredible push on Annapurna. These are ascents far beyond the current combination of money and weakness.                                                                                                                         

And yes, old climbers like Juan Oiarzabal and I are now turning back to the normal routes. We are not going to add anything to exploration. Our time is over. It will just be a personal adventure. But the younger climbers? I respect that they may want to climb the normal routes up 8,000’ers for training. But then they can show their true colors on the vertical by going for pure, real records.

Rather than aim to become the first person sticking his finger up his left nostril on top of the world, they can open routes like Bonington’s.                                                                                                                     

High-altitude doping

So, best we don’t speak about the use of oxygen…

Supplementary oxygen is doping at high altitude. I may forgive its past use during first ascents at 8,000m, but not now. I find it shocking that sports authorities are fighting against doping in all other sports, while the mountaineering community applauds O2-doped athletes.

As I see it, this is unethical. Supplementary O2 is now used by people who are too weak for the goals they have set. They use gas to simulate achievements.

Do you think it would still be worth trying to climb winter K2 completely without O2?

Yes, of course! It is a very good project for younger climbers. Winter K2 has been climbed with O2. Without it, it is a completely different target. It is the next step, as with Everest. Hillary and Tenzing summited with O2, then Messner and Habeler did it without.                                                                                                                            

Nirmal Purja claims that he has already summited Winter K2 without O2.

Well, that’s what he said. But I saw his pictures and the summit video. It is impossible to be like that on K2’s summit without O2. Least of all to keep pace with a crew of climbers on O2. Check the footage of people who reached the summit of K2 in summer without O2.

Not sport or art but PR stunt or business

So nothing worthwhile has been done in the Himalaya recently?

Everything was worth it for those who climbed! Look, every climb is valid as long as one gets back home safely. Sometimes you are happy and satisfied, sometimes frustrated and feeling you wanted more. Each climber has criteria, and so do I. Under my personal criteria, I understand mountaineering as a mix of adventure, sport, and art.

For me, it makes no sense to set a specific winter deadline when you can just fly by helicopter from Kathmandu whenever you want. What is the point of climbing in winter but using chemical heat packs throughout the ascent? Or worse, relying on supplementary O2 in the 21st century? That is not a true sport and not art. That is a simulation, show, a PR stunt, business…                                                                                                                                                                                       The same goes for winter climbers who leave Base Camp for lower altitudes. They may climb as they please, but that is not for me. My rules should be pure, should embrace winter conditions, cold included. One must concentrate and be completely involved in the adventure from beginning to end. But if others prefer different criteria and choose to be airlifted to civilization, why not?

You could even argue for it during acclimatization. For example, before going to winter Gasherbrum II, Simone Moro, Cory Richards, and I acclimatized on Koshar Gang at 6,000m. Then we retreated for some rest in Skardu before heading to Base Camp at the Gasherbrums. I admit that resting after acclimatization was a great help, both physiologically and psychologically. A purist could criticize me for that. As I have said, it is a question of each person sets his own rules.

To be continued.

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