K2 in Winter: “Just a normal climb”

Read an interview with Denis Urubko, expedition leader

In December, three climbers from Russia, Poland and Spain will kick-off the toughest high-altitude mountaineering project in the world right now*. This is the winter ascent of the so-called Killer Mountain (Pakistan/China) — K2 (8,611m)—, on a new route, on the North Face, without bottled O2, dope or Sherpa support.

Is this the story of our generation?

Denis Urubko, a multiple Piolet d’Or winner and expedition leader, born in Caucasus, explains why this is “just a normal climb”.

By Larisa Ghitulescu

Is this your toughest project so far?
We’ll see after the expedition. But I think it was the same in 2003, when I tried a similar attempt on K2 (expedition led by Polish Krzysztof Wielicki). I also remember other extreme adventures… the new routes on Broad Peak (8,051m) in 2005 and on Cho-Oyu (8,188m) in 2009, both ascended on the South Face.

A winter ascent on K2, on a new route, North Face, without O2… is this the hardest thing to attempt in high-altitude mountaineering these days?
Every climber has to find the hardest “challenge” for his or her personal style of climbing mountains.

Ok then, what can be harder than that, in your case?
It will be very hard to keep our health and our patience under extreme conditions. It will also be hard to keep friendship and good relations with partners up there.

Is one expedition enough to know people well, to trust them and to share danger with?
I was with Adam Bielecki from Poland and Alex Txikon from Spain last spring, during the Kanchenjunga project. We climbed together as friends. It was a magic expedition. We realized that we could climb together again. And here we are, ready for K2.

RECOGNITION: Denis Urubko, 41, achieved international recognition as a world-class alpinist in 1999, during the Snow Leopard Project, with his remarkable ascents of the five 7,000m peaks of CIS (USSR) in 42 days.

Why K2 in winter time?
We don’t go there to discover, nor to conquer anything — we don’t need geographical explorations any more. Can anybody find a new geography on the Colosseum arena? No. But we don’t ask athletes or football players to discover new grass on the field or new gates. They go there to achieve their own goals and to perform. It is the same thing in mountaineering, from Base Camp to the summit and from the summit back to Base Camp. The most important thing we are looking at in this expedition is to learn about our abilities, to understand ourselves and to defeat our weaknesses. That will be our own Discovery, as in sports or in art.

I told you once that, in my opinion, this may be the story of our generation. You did not seem to agree. Why?
I am not against; I am not polite also… A story is a story — we will understand it later. For example, the winter ascent of Gasherbrum2 (8,034m) was just a personal adventure… but two years later we realized that it was a part of the Story. Each time I look at my ascents as being “normal”… during the climb. But after each expedition, looking back at what I had lived, I feel the fear. I feel amazed, too. I am wondering how I had survived.

NEW ROUTES: Denis Urubko achieved the rare ‘Himalayan Crown’ climbing each of the fourteen 8000m summits of the world without oxygen. His specialty is opening new routes at extremely high altitudes: South Face of Broad Peak in 2005, North-East Slope of Manaslu in 2006, South-East face of Cho-Oyu in 2009, and during the spring of 2010 Denis soloed a new route on Lhotse from the South Col of Everest.

Source: North Face

“In winter conditions, the normal route is much more difficult than our new idea”

You will be the leader of this expedition?
It was my desire and my idea for K2 in winter. I shared that with Alex and Adam, they agreed, they felt the vibe and put the same energy as I did… Now, this is a big duty for each of us. I am the leader of the expedition, indeed.

Will you use high-altitude Sherpa?
This is a sports project. That means that above Base Camp (BC) we will be on our own. No oxygen, no dope and no porters.

If you find it impossible to open a new route, will you ascend on the classic route?
In winter conditions, the “normal” route is much more difficult than our new idea.

“I think I am able to reach 9,500m without oxygen”

Where does impossible start for you at high altitude?
Do you mean my personal ability? I think that I am able to reach 9,500 meters without oxygen… but on the easy (classic) route. The crisis limit when I was younger was above 8,600m; now it is higher, I suppose. This is due to my experience. But, to me, the question does not refer to the physical ability! It is about psychic and humanity: our weaknesses push us to leave down the civil thinking. Up there, we become animals, we only follow our instincts.

How much gear and effort you put in this project?
The minimum of gear and the maximum of effort. We will carry about 600kg of equipment and stuff.


(To be continued. In the latter part of the interview, Denis talks about critical help in the Death-Zone, sponsors, inspiration and what climbing 8000m mountains on classic routes means these days)


Later edit I: By the end of November, after this interview, two more Russians joined the team: Artiom Braun and Dmitry Siniew.

Later edit II: The expedition was put to an end due to permit issue. Denis published, on December 26, the letter he had received from Chinese authorities: “Dear Denis, I am very sorry to tell you that the permit has been refused by the Xinjiang government administration; the reason is that due to the terrorisim event happened in Xinjiang , the situation presently is not safe for the foreigners (…)”.


Photos: Denis Urubko

Text: Larisa Ghitulescu (special projects innovator)

Contributors: Tatiana Russu, Elena Voinea (translation of the paragraphs that Denis wrote in Russian language)


It was Denis’ “desire and idea”. Adam (Poland) and Alex (Spain) responded with the same energy.

THE KILLER MOUNTAIN: K2 (8,611m) is the second tallest mountain on Earth, after Mount Everest (8,848m). K2 (Karakoram range) was ascended for the first time in 1954 (summer season). It registered 306 successful ascents and 81 fatalities. K2 has second-highest fatality rate among the 14 eight-thousanders (26,5%).

K2 peak was never ascended in winter.

KICK-OFF: The team led by Denis Urubko is expected to leave for Karakoram on December 16th. They will approach the new route from China, on the NE Ridge.

TEAM MEMBERS: Denis Urubko — Russia; Adam Bielecki — Poland; Alex Txikon — Spain. They all have experience in winter ascents.

BACK TO K2: In 2002 -2003, Denis Urubko was part of the winter expedition on K2, led by the Polish climber Krzysztof Wielicky. The other team members were Peter Moravsky and Marcin Kaczkan. Denis reached 7650 on north ridge. Unfortunately, they had to abort the ascent, to rescue Marcin. Denis left his ice axe around C4, hoping to come back for it.

• ABC (4,650m)
• C1 (5,500m) at the bottom of an icefall
• C2 (6,200m) at the bottom of two gigantic “steps”
• C3 (7,200m) just below the wall leading up to North East Ridge.
• C4 (7,600m) and C5 (8,150m) both on the ridge.
• Summit (8,611m)

(With data from Explorersweb.com; 8000ers.com)