Conquering the highest peaks of winter

This season, amid a cluster of winter expeditions, there is one that involves Urubko and Alexey Bolotov, who will attempt a new route on Everest

Conquering the highest peaks of winter
One of the most extreme activities in the world of adventure sports is winter climbing of the highest peaks. Everest was first climbed as far back as 1980, by the legendary Polish mountaineer, Krzysztof Wielicki, and his climbing partner, Leszek Cichy. Wielicki went on to do two more winter ascents of 8,000-metre peaks — the fearsome Kangchenjunga in 1986, with another Polish legend, Jerzy Kukuczka, and Lhotse in 1988. The latter expedition was perhaps the most amazing achievement of his remarkable career: it was a solo climb and accomplished while wearing a corset (a rockfall had damaged his spine during an expedition in the Indian Himalaya some months earlier).

Following Wielicki’s Everest milestone, other top-notch mountaineers did winter climbs of the remaining 8,000-metre peaks that lie in Nepal, leaving only the five Karakoram giants. The segment of the Himalayan mountain chain that comprises the Karakoram is situated at northern latitudes and the climatic conditions there are similar to those found in Europe. So, in winter, the temperatures are lower and the ferocity, frequency and duration of blizzards are much more than those in the southern Himalaya. This was a major factor that kept the Karakoram 8,000-metre peaks unclimbed in winter.

In February 2011, the first winter ascent of a Karakoram 8,000-metre peak was finally achieved when Simone Moro of Italy, Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan and Cory Richards of the US climbed Gasherbrum II (8,035 metres). Wielicki, now 62 years old, had predicted soon after their ascent that winter climbs of the other Karakoram giants would inevitably follow. He had been speaking at a mountaineering seminar in Mumbai.

On March 9, 2012, two mountaineers — Adam Bielecki of Poland and Shaheen Baig of Pakistan – made the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum I (8,068 metres).

This season, amid a cluster of winter expeditions, there is one that will attempt a new route on Everest. It involves Urubko again, climbing with Alexey Bolotov of Russia. In autumn this year, Bolotov drew the attention of the mountaineering world with his climbing on Lhotse. Though he and Alax Gavan of Romania could not make it to the summit, Bolotov reached a height of 8,300 metres and drew fulsome praise from his partner.

Urubko and Bolotov reportedly plan to winter climb Everest not only by a new route but also in alpine style. Alpine climbing, which originated in the Alps, is characterised by lightweight expeditions and rapid ascents and descents. In contrast to other expeditions, alpine expeditions consist of very few climbers, who carry all their gear and make no use of porters. The climbers open routes and fix ropes, if necessary, on their own without the help of guides.

They choose a weather window in which to make a dash to the summit and return to the safety of the base camp as quickly as possible. Alpine climbing is suitable for peaks of lower altitude but the best European mountaineers brought it along to the Himalaya and alpine style climbs are now done on 8,000 metre peaks — in both summer and winter.

“If we manage to climb in alpine style on Everest, I think it will be a significant event, a new word in the history of mountaineering,” Urubko has said. “For my self-realisation as an athlete, it is very important.”

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