Feeling weary after three decades of harsh mountaineering, one of the best climbers that the world has ever seen still acts like a prisoner of his own mountain madness. But that`s exactly why Denis Urubko is a legend.
Hardly has the 46-year-old Russian climber just completed a new route solo, alpine style, on Gasherbrum II (8032m) in Pakistan this August, that he is already preparing to return to the far reaches of Karakoram this very winter.
Why restless? Denis Urubko, now a Polish citizen, seems determined to achieve his last two pending great feats at high altitude: Broad Peak (8047m) and K2 (8611m) in the deadly winter. ”Afterwards I will make a change. I am old. I am mentally tired of high altitude″, Urubko confessed in an interview that took place at the end of May in Warsaw, Poland, ahead of his departure for Pakistan.
Snow Leopard. Rock Leopard. The Leopard.
Sitting by the window, the blue-eyed, blond, skinny mountaineer is having a light breakfast, at a hotel in central Warsaw, with a bunch of mountaineering books next to him. ″Absurd Everest″, in the Polish language, the book that he is launching later in the afternoon, is among them. But we are not here to chat about Everest, the world`s highest mountain that he had climbed in 2000 and which, 13 years later, took the life of his friend and rope partner Alexei Bolotov during a new route attempt together.
″Please make yourself comfortable until I bring you a coffee″.
Denis is not acting a gentleman`s role. This is how he actually is. Caring for the people. Paying attention to tiny details. When I grab a piece of pineapple from the table with my hand, he jumps out of his chair again. One minute later, he shows up with a fork:
″Here you are. Please.″
We talk about the books he authored, the new route attempt on Gasherbrum this summer together with Maria “Pipi” Cardell, about families, friends and, of course, about the plans that he has in mind. I notice that his fingers look bolder and stronger than in the past fall when I met him last time. Denis Urubko has been keen on rock climbing for long, lured by dry vertical walls and rock cracks, but the mountaineering community still pictures him as a Snow Leopard. That makes sense: in 1999, Urubko achieved international recognition as a world-class alpinist during the Snow Leopard Project, with his remarkable ascents of the five 7,000m peaks of CIS (USSR) in 42 days.
But this is not the only reason. How many press headlines have you read about various rescue operations at high altitude, with Urubko climbing fast through knee-deep snow, against all odds, risking his own neck for the life of somebody else?
Saving someone seems to have become Urubko`s second job in the Death Zone. He did again, twice, this summer, in Pakistan.
– I will meet the Polish President, Andrzey Duda. I received an invitation for a ceremony, related to the rescue on Nanga Parbat (8125m) last year, he says.
– Now it seems you have the President on your side.
I smile at him gently.
It is well known that Urubko, a military-trained climber with a tough view on winter mountaineering, split Poland into two in the winter of 2018. Back then, as a member of the Polish expedition to K2, the Killer Mountain never summited in winter, Urubko decided to go for the summit on the very last days of February. And he did it alone. The expedition leader, Krzysztof Wielicki, one of Poland’s famous “Ice Warriors”, who pioneered winter mountaineering, had made a different decision – the summit push should occur in March.
Many Polish people accused Urubko of being selfish and disloyal to the team.
But Urubko thought that an ascent in March was not a winter ascent. So he felt the urge to climb his way.
Nothing has changed, since Urubko`s next target is a winter ascent on Broad Peak, an achievement claimed by a Polish team in March 2013.
The only comment that Urubko makes when it comes to ″the issue” with the Polish people on winter style is that ″they have a different opinion”. He shrugs. Then he grabs a small slice of pineapple.
″I will follow my way”.
With or without a team – he has been working on that –, Urubko will pursue Broad Peak winter ascent on December 5, and then probably K2.
″Not aggressive″ any more
It is 7.30 a.m. already. The climber is counting the minutes left until the organizers of his book event will come to pick him up from the hotel. He offers me an apple. ″Take it, maybe you will want it later”.
After a short break, to get another coffee, he continues: ″And after that, as of next spring, I will quit high-altitude mountaineering. I am mentally tired. I am old. I am not much aggressive anymore with my training and with ascents. I will change my style and my life”, he says calmly, with no regret.
That may sound great for the Himalayan legend`s fans and friends. They must be tired too, of having their hearts jumping out of their chests each time Urubko climbs up there alone, and remains unseen and unheard of for several days in a row.
But the relief time hasn`t come, though. The Leopard hasn`t found his peace yet. He may feel tired, but he`s restless. And still hungry.
AUDIO: Interview with Denis Urubko – excerpts, May 29, Warsaw, Poland:
“After each expedition, looking back at what I had lived, I feel the fear. I feel amazed, too”
The 46-year-old mountaineer Denis Urubko has opened a new route up Gasherbrum II (8032m) in Pakistan early August. He did it alpine style, without supplemental oxygen. The expedition kicked off on June 14, when Denis Urubko and Maria Pipi Cardell arrived in Skardu at 2200 m and started acclimatization.
PREVIOUS ASCENTS: Urubko climbed Gasherbrum II in 2001 for the first time, solo. In 2011 he made the historic first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II with Simone Moro and Cory Richards.
ORIGINS: Denis Urubko was born in a Russian family, in the North of Caucasus, in 1973. He moved to Kazakhstan in the early 90s and became an officer in the Kazakhstan Army. He then moved back to Russia, and renewed his Russian citizenship. He moved to Italy in 2012, in Bergamo (North).
HIGHER AND STRONGER: Denis describes himself as “a professional athlete, mountaineer, writer, and journalist”. “Like any professional athlete, I set the slope higher and higher, in order to be faster, higher and stronger.”
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 (above 8000m): South Face of Broad Peak in 2005, North-East Slope of Manaslu in 2006, South-East face of Cho-Oyu in 2009, Gasherbrum2 in 2019. During the spring of 2010, Denis soloed a new route on Lhotse from the South Col of Everest.
JUST NORMAL CLIMBS: “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” – Denis Urubko during an interview in 2014.
RESCUER: Denis Urubko took part in many rescue operations on deadly mountains throughout his climbing activity:
- In 2002 -2003, he 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. Urubko reached 7650 on North ridge. Unfortunately, they had to abort the ascent, to rescue Marcin.
- In May 2008, Urubko flew urgently to Annapurna Base Camp to try to rescue Spaniard Inaki Ochoa de Olza (1967-2008) from a higher camp, above 7400m, on the South Ridge. Don Bowie (Canada) and Ueli Steck (Switzerland – 1976-2017) were part of the rescue team, too.
- In January 2018, the alpinists of the Polish winter expedition to K2 rescued the French Elisabeth Revol on the Nanga Parbat – Denis Urubko, Adam Bielecki, Jaroslaw Botor and Piotr Tomala received the “Legion of Honor”, the highest French decoration created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, for their superhuman effort.
INSPIRATION: Throughout his activity, Urubko was mostly inspired by Vlad Smirnov, Eric Shipton, Boris Studenin and Reinhold Messner.
(sources: Alpinistiemontagne.gazzetta.it, Planetmountain.com, Denis Urubko Facebook page, Larisaghitulescu.ro)