Asia, Tibet, Himalaya, Rolwaling Himal, Shishapangma, First Winter Ascent

Publication Year: 2005.

Shishapangma, first winter ascent. I was sick and tired of the extra-European alpinism I was doing; I did not find it as enthralling as 1 had imagined when as a young aspiring alpinist I read of the big undertakings on the great mountains of the Earth. I wanted to stop that monotonous tramping through snow, lining up on the “normal” 8,000ers, and looking for the shortest ascent time or other slight improvements that should have filled me with satisfaction. Not even joining the club of aspiring collectors of the fourteen 8,000m giants lit my interior fire. By now I had sufficient experience in the Himalaya and in other mountain chains, and so there was no sense in following the same footsteps as someone from half a century earlier.

On the normal routes on 8,000m peaks there is no solitude, no adventure, no fantasy; everyone has the same problems, same complaints, and same hopes that someone else has already put up the fixed ropes, or that someone else set off a half hour earlier to make tracks after a heavy snowfall. If this person instead is us, we become the new champions in the base camp village, and we may receive the season’s Hero Badge.

The history of mountaineering and of great adventures is on another wavelength, on values and difficulties hundreds of times better than this. For this reason in the last few years I had tried traverses, link ups, and ascents on new faces of mountains that were out of fashion. I had dreamed and often failed, but I had lived what I was really looking for, and even in my defeat I felt truly alive, the main character of my fantasies and able to write my daily achievements without any official approval. Still, I was becoming a high altitude hypocrite, and I absolutely wanted to find the cure before this bad habit became chronic.

In this spirit my Everest-Lhotse traverse attempts were born, as well as my ascents in the ex-USSR, winter attempt on Annapurna, a successful winter ascent on the Marie Wall in Tien Shan, a new route on Nanga Parbat (ruined by the missed summit). These experiences led to my successes on the north face of Baruntse [see Nepal reports in this Journal] and Shishapangma in winter.

Partners for winter ascents inevitably come from the East of the Old Continent where the cold seems to have frozen that part of us that was lost with our fathers’ generation. A Will to work hard while cold and hungry motivates these people to follow difficult and rough roads; in alpinism this Will is indispensable for the great unresolved problems of the vertical world. With or without satellites, Gore-Tex, ice axes from outer space, and freeze-dried food, it is these men who make history. The men from the East seem to have kept their “manly” side in their every action. There are of course great men and alpinists amongst us Westerners who even with central heating, cars, and the Internet have been able to achieve their projects, but they are a minority.

Nobody had made a first winter ascent of an 8,000m peak in the past 17 years, and of the fourteen 8,000m peaks, only seven had ever been climbed during winter. This had been achieved exclusively by Poles, who had shown that it was possible to “violate” these summits even in winter.

There is a strict rule in the astronomical and scientific calendar that declares the 21st of December as the beginning of the cold season, which continues to the 21st of March. Our ascent had to be undertaken during the calendar winter, where no interpretation is allowed. Zawada, Berbeka, Kukuckzka, Wielicki, Pawlikowski, Cichy, Gaiewski, Haizer, and Czok made the first winter ascents of 8,000m peaks, and the rest of the mountaineering world has been an astonished spectator of their abilities.

Was winter climbing on the highest peaks only the prerogative of hard Eastern men? To answer this simple question I found myself breathing the freezing thin Shishapangma air in the winter of 2003/2004. Three hundred meters and the wrong strategy stopped me the first time from reaching the 8,027m summit on the “ridge of the pastures.” On the 29th November 2004 I was full of energy as I headed off for my second attempt on Shisha. My partners were the same as the previous year, Polish. Denis Urubko, my Kazaki partner, had planned to join us, but financial problems and family obligations stopped him.

We wanted to respect the 21st December rule where you can only start moving on the mountain after that date. As soon as I had reached Kathmandu I found out about a French mountaineer who had set off at the beginning of November for Shishapangma; he had left orders to the few who had seen him to tell us absolutely nothing about his presence. The Frenchman had underestimated my contacts in Kathmandu after 35 expeditions. I understood straight away who they were talking about, but I did not change my plans and the rules of the game. 21 days separated us from the 21st of December, and anything that happened before would be in autumn. Even in alpinism there are rules to follow if you do not want to cheat.

After acclimatizing in the Everest valley we returned to Kathmandu, and on the 21st December we left the jeep that had driven us into Tibet. We started our approach trek and our adventure on Shisha strictly on the first day of winter. We still had not decided what route to climb because we wanted to see the face with our own eyes. I concealed my intention of a new route, which I had seen and jokingly had called “The dollar” due to a natural “S”-shaped cut in the summit rocky band visible from far away. Piotr Morawski accepted the idea straight away, while Jacek, Darek, and Jan preferred reaching the summit without complicating their already difficult lives. This is why we postponed my project on the mountain.

Instead we opted for the Yugoslav [Slovenian] route that in our eyes seemed to be the longer but more accessible route on the south face. I had brought from Italy 1,200 meters of thin Dyneema rope produced by a company in nearby Bergamo since it would be a light and enduring fixed rope. We then had to fix another thousand meters of rope made of 8mm plastic to fix the Yugoslav route up to the 7,350m ridge. We placed a camp at 6,500m and one at the end of the fixed ropes. It was a battle against the cold, the heavy backpacks, the wind, the snowstorm, and the snow that tested us for 20 days on the Tibetan mountain. In rotation the rope made up of me and Piotr was substituted by Jacek and Darek to be then substituted by us and then again by them. The last 300 meters of climbing at UIAA grade III and IV before coming out onto the ridge were a true battle against the elements, and it was almost dark when we finished setting the tent up at 7,350m and could see the last 700 meters of the mountain. We had not foreseen an attempt on the summit the next day, only a return to base camp. But so little separated us from the summit, and I was so afraid of a trick being played on us by bad weather or wind that could have torn through our camp where we were being sheltered, suspended over the abyss. “Tomorrow we will give it a go!” I said to Piotr, who in a surprised tone answered “Ok, if you think that it is the best thing to do then we will. But at what time?” At 7:30/8:00, I responded, “as soon as the first rays of the sun come out. We mustn’t f*** up like last year!” What happened the next morning (January 14) was not a climb but a run to the summit. Without backpacks, harnesses, food, hot drinks, with nothing, and starved of oxygen, we isolated ourselves thinking about putting one foot after the other until we had reached the highest point of the mountain and of our dream. It was 1:13 p.m. when, with a dry throat and my lungs irritated by the cold, I shouted and cried out with joy for being up there, far from comfort and safety, at 8,027m! What joy something so apparently useless, so dangerous, and so stupid can give. Surrounding us was an infinity of mountains, powerful and silent. Marks that will disappear with the first gust of wind, cries that will be lost in thin air, stories that will never change the world. It seems to be so absurd to climb these peaks and so insane to do it during winter. Instead I felt terribly alive, logical, a direct protagonist of my life with that magical ascent. From a dead man I had become alive, from a slave I was free, just like the alpinism which had trapped me and from which I had managed to escape.

Simone Moro, Italy