The Line of Life

Publication Year: 2006.

The Line of Life

Chasing dreams on the alpine~style first ascent of Broad Peak's southwest face.

Denis Urubko

The first ascent of Broad Peak (8,047 meters) was accomplished in 1957 by a small Austrian team from the west side, and this became the normal route. It is a rather easy ridge that leads all the way to the summit. Other routes gain the mountain’s northern ridge from the east or west, and then follow this ridge to the top. But by 2005 no one had been able to reach the summit from the southern side.

As far as I know, attempts from the south started in 1984. The great Polish trio of Jerzy Kukuczka, Krzystof Wielicki, and Voytek Kurtyka tried going up the southwestern ridge but turned around at 6,400 meters. Four other attempts by the expeditions of Goran Kropp, Alberto Iñnurrategi, Rick Allen, and Andrew Lock also failed. These well-known and experienced climbers were very determined but had to retreat below 7,000 meters. While the steepest walls of Nanga Parbat, Makalu, and Dhaulagiri were conquered, Broad Peak’s southern side remained unclimbed.

Our goal was to climb the 2,500-meter southwest face. The expedition consisted of six Italian climbers—Roberto Piantoni, Marco Astori, Stefano Magri, Matteo Piantoni, Domenico Belingeri, and Mario Merelli—and two Kazakh climbers, Sergey Samoilov and myself. Before meeting in Pakistan, I knew very little about the Italian climbers, but Sergey and I had climbed together for many years as members of the Central Sports Club of the Kazakhstan Army.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Sergey was one of the leading climbers, having done many 7,000-meter peaks in the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges. He had also climbed Peak Communism (7,495 meters) and Khan Tengri (6,995 meters) in winter. In 2000 we climbed Khan Tengri by its 3,000- meter north face and won the Commonwealth of Independent States championship.

“It’s good that you are going together,” said my wife. “Of course I believe in you, but I m sure that with such a partner you are much better off.”

“Vika, sweetheart,” I replied, amused, “sometimes I believe in him more than in myself.”

We established base camp on the moraine of the Godwin-Austen Glacier, opposite the southwestern wall. On July 5, with our tents pitched at 4,700 meters, we started the reconnaissance. The wall looked formidable. Seracs and rock bands guarded the way, and icefields rose into the sky. Avalanche debris littered the base of the wall. After spending several days in the cirque of the Faichan Glacier, at 5,200 meters, we had a clear idea of the difficulty and dangers of this route. Our leader, Roberto Piantoni, informed Sergey and me of his new plan: to climb the peak by the normal route.

“But I have already climbed the standard route,” I said. It was hard for me to accept this. “What should I do now?” At the base of this tremendous wall, after a year of serious preparation, it was nearly impossible to turn down the challenge. After a week of acclimatizing on the standard route, up to 7,200 meters, I started dreaming about the southwest wall again.

Let s be logical, Sergey said, smiling. “First, we have enough experience. Second, we should do something new. And third, I like this route…and this is the most important thing! Why should we retreat?” After a good rest and careful preparation the two of us left base camp by ourselves.

In 1975 Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler opened the era of alpine style in the Himalaya by climbing Hidden Peak (8,068 meters) via a new route. Since then, very few climbs in the Himalaya have pushed alpine- style climbing to the extremes. By this I mean climbs that reach a main summit of more than 8,000 meters via a difficult new route, in pure alpine style, with a small team of two to four people. In the 100-year history of mountaineering in the Himalaya and Karakoram, only seven or eight ascents fulfill these criteria.

After spending the night at the base of Broad Peak at 5,100 meters, we abandoned all our doubts and fears. We started moving into the Faichan icefall early on July 19, still in the dark. By sunrise we were at the base of the route. The wall had looked big from a distance, but from here, with kilometers of ice and rock hanging over us, it seemed tremendous.

At our First bivouac on the wall, at 6,100 meters, we felt more confident, and when the next day brought up more difficulties we were ready for them. I led across the First difficult rock band via a diagonal slab stretching several dozen meters under an overhanging section. The black rock was reminiscent of the roofs of old buildings in Europe, very steep and smooth. Holds were almost absent, but a 15- to 20-centimeter-wide line of ice came down from the overhang. I climbed with my Awax axes, my crampons sliding on the smooth slab. I wondered how it looked from the side. Sergey was smiling but didn’t say anything.

After some sections of ice above the black rock band, we found ourselves under a band of yellow rock. Rising above us like a medieval castle, it looked intimidating. With no way to the right or to the left, we had to attack it directly, tackling the steep buttress. The freedom of alpine style often implies a return to ancient wild times. Nature brings the climber to the age when survival depended only on the strength of muscles, resourcefulness of mind, and the speed of reaction. A climber becomes like a predator; his perception sharpens. He becomes part of the surroundings. We spent two days at the yellow rock band, dealing with great difficulties. Three 6a pitches and one 6b pitch [5.10a to 5.10d] at nearly 7,000 meters gave me enormous pleasure. All through the spring I had been working really hard on the rocks, honing my technique. And now it was paying off. What makes the mountaineer happy? Maybe it is the feeling that you can reach your dreams. Or perhaps it’s the feeling that all that hard work wasn’t in vain.

We set up camp on a small rock ledge above the yellow band. Our tent looked like an awkward jellyfish. Its sides hung over the void, and there wasn’t enough space to lie down. Nonetheless, we slept like babies, shoulder to shoulder. The night was mystical and full of stars that seemed so close we could just clasp them in our palms, and the wind sang its sad melody of the void. After that hard day I dreamed of my little daughter. Her blue eyes warmed my heart.

So far the weather had been perfect. But after our night at 7,000 meters clouds from the west dumped a fresh layer of snow on the slopes. Early in the morning, just after taking our tent down, we sank in the snow and had to dig a trench to move through it. When we reached 7,400 meters, avalanches poured down as the light snow gave way to a real snowstorm. Fortunately, the steep rock couldn t collect a lot of snow, but tons of it came down neighboring couloirs. We followed our old doctrine of climbing only buttresses and ribs. Though harder than the couloirs, they were safer from rockfall and avalanches.

Dry tooling in a thick fog, when you can see only five or six meters, brings you into a special world, without feelings, without a sensation of space or time. Just a piece of snow- covered rock in front of you. Unable to see anything, I followed my intuition. After spending a night on a small ledge in the middle of the sea of fog, we had nothing to do in the morning but follow our way to nowhere, toward the snowfall and wind, up the snow-covered rock.

The next evening we discovered that we had reached the top of the southwestern wall of Broad Peak. The rock got a little easier and less steep, with more ledges and cracks. We were extremely tired, and only by sheer willpower were we able to continue. We had nothing left to eat, and this was the last day we could melt enough snow to drink. We had planned to reach the summit in five days and based our rations on that. For the backup day, we planned only to drink and use leftovers from the previous days. But the bad weather and the unforeseen difficulties of the route had added an extra day on top of that.

After reaching a tiny, sloping ledge at about 7,800 meters, we pitched the tent with great difficulty and collapsed, with no energy left. One sleeping bag, one down jacket, one windshell, and one fleece jacket for the team—the notorious weight saving. That night we didn’t take off our boots, and we barely managed to quench our thirst.

“Sergey, how are you?” I wheezed as the first sign of sunrise arrived. “How cold are you? Do you feel your feet?”

“Please pass me a piece of ice,” my friend said stubbornly. “My mouth is completely dry. There is a sea of water near us, but everything is frozen.”

The morning was, to put it mildly, horrendous. But the clouds stayed in the valleys, scared off by the west wind. We could see the final sections before the summit ridge, and we started making our way through the snow. It was extremely difficult. Only the idea of moving up kept us going. Our brains couldn’t accept the possibility of going down, and we kept kicking steps in the hard névé. Thick clouds covered the mountains below 7,500 meters, and only the pyramids of Masherbrum and Gasherbrum IV were visible.

At the southeastern ridge of Broad Peak, which we joined at 7,950 meters, the wind turned into a hurricane. The mass of air was alive, trying to blow us into the valleys. It was like war—I hurried from one small bit of cover to another. Step by step, roped together, we kept going into the dark blue sky. The summit appeared all of a sudden. Three meters down the slope I had been exhausted, feeling the last sparks of my will burning down in this thin air. But seeing the flags of previous expeditions fluttering in the wind, I felt a new wave of energy, as if the end of the route had become its beginning. Sergey and I had turned our dreams into reality. It was 11:30 a.m. on July 25.

The wind was still trying to rip us off the ridge, searing our clothing and faces. The horizon consisted only of the highest points on earth: K2 to the north and the massive summits of the Gasherbrums on the other side. A free and empty world, with only two tiny climbers in it.

Camp III on the normal route, at 7,200 meters, was calm when Sergey and I arrived as the purple sunlight faded away. No wind, no fuss. No need to hurry or do anything important. Neither a soul nor a tent disturbed the pristine beauty of the snowfields. Digging out someone’s cache, we couldn’t restrain ourselves from using one gas canister. Two bodies exhausted by the high altitude desired their reward of several cups of water. Why don’t I feel the same sharp taste of the water in the city, in the valleys? Why are the best things I have tasted in my life so simple, and why does it always happen at altitude?

As Omar Khayyam said, “If you want to feel happiness, go to the desert. And after you come back, the first dirty puddle will become the source of divine satisfaction for you.”

The gas canister we borrowed belonged to a commercial expedition. When we met them the next day at Camp I, we tried to justify our actions, but they just laughed as they looked at our fatigued faces. They announced that their expedition was over.

“There’s lots of gas now. Take as much as you want.”

“No, thanks, we’ve had enough this season. We would rather have more chocolate.…

And those cookies, please.…And more tea.… And.…” Robi and Marco met us that evening on the glacier at the base of the mountain. After offering sincere congratulations, they took our backpacks despite our weak protests, and all we had to do was walk down the moraine. The wide summit of Broad Peak faded into alpenglow, as if the mountain were saluting the two dull and extremely tired men, two insects, who had managed to rise above the world and their weaknesses. Soon we found ourselves at base camp, full of friends, warmth, coziness, and the strong feeling of safety.

Every person, at every moment, has the possibility of expanding his horizons. It doesn’t have to involve a sporting achievement. The horizons of dreams are endless, and one just needs to stretch a hand to touch them. The ascent of Broad Peak was such a moment for me, the climb during which I found things I had been looking for during many years of mountaineering. The expedition was over, but I won’t ever forget those intense days on the slopes of one of the most beautiful mountains on earth.


Area: Karakoram, Pakistan

Ascent: Alpine-style first ascent of the southwest face of 8,047-meter Broad Peak (2,500m, 6b A2 M6+ 70°), six and a half days of climbing, with one and a half days on the descent, Sergey Samoilov and Denis Urubko, July 19-26, 2005.

Grants: This expedition was sponsored by Salice, Camp, La Sportiva, The North Face, Electrolux, and the Rescue Service of Almaty.

A Note About the Author:

Born in Russia in 1973, Denis Urubko lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan. A Snow Leopard of the former Soviet Union, Urubko has climbed nine 8,000-meter peaks without supplementary oxygen and has won numerous speed-climbing competitions on the high peaks of Russia and the CIS.