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Denis Urubko: «This is my Gasherbrum II»

 - Athletes

Denis Urubko is always the same: his actions are as rip-roaring as his tales, the overwhelming story he experienced on the mountain, relived through his words. When we congratulate him on his new route on Gasherbrum II (8035 m), opened in alpine style and, as if that weren’t enough, in a single push and solo, he immediately stops us and reiterates: «Two people are better! A rope party allows you to share everything: the burden and the tiredness, but also the emotions. If it’s just you, you soldier on and that’s that. My idea was not only to open a new route, but I wanted to go there with Maria [Maria “Pipi” Cardell, a strong Spanish mountaineer, ed.], to finish off a long-standing project of common ascents which had been going on for several years. That would have been a big deal: no woman has ever opened a new route in alpine style on an Eight-thousand metre peak and Maria would have led the dances!».

Why Gasherbrum II, along that line? Denis is crystal clear: «I had been thinking about that line for a very long time, ever since I climbed Gasherbrum II fast & light in 2001. I saw it again in the winter of 2011 and I never said a word to anyone. I did have a go this year, unluckily on my own, since Maria was injured. That’s it: now this route is done, I would like to climb Broad Peak and perhaps K2 in winter, then I’ll bid high altitude farewell. I have other ideas in mind and I would like to climb more technical rock walls».

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Denis revisits this feat: we see him at the base of the wall at 6,000 m. Two kilometres of snow, ice and mixed terrain lie above his head, and he needs to climb them as fast as he can. It’s 8.40 pm on 31 July 2019: Denis sets off and proceeds like a shadow in the night, an enormous serac hanging over him, meaning he can never stop, not even for an instant. «It is difficult to carry on with such a void underneath – he says – A vertical rocky bastion at 7,200 m gave me grief, such as the deep snow 500 m from the top. It’s a risky business, I know, and I was exhausted on top, 24 hours after setting off. My backpack was almost empty, I did not even carry a stove, that would have been too heavy. I ate some bars and drank very little water: only the one I could melt putting the snow in a small plastic bottle, which I kept under my jacket».

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You may wonder why Denis did not call another (strong) mountaineer while at the Gasherbrum II base camp to go up with him, after Maria had to abandon the project. That’s his answer: «I did not feel like doing that. I cannot ask any random person to come with me for such an attempt. Were an accident to happen, I would feel responsible: that’s my reasoning, I have seen too many people die in the mountains. I did not ask anybody, nobody asked me anything and I climbed alone, although I was not feeling great, after the three rescue operations in the previous weeks. » That’s right; Denis will not ask, but if others do ask him or merely need something, he won’t shy away: Just as he did in 2018 on Nanga Parbat, when he helped Elizabeth Revol or on Annapurna in 2003, unsuccessfully trying to rescue Iñaki Ochoa.

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What does a new route such as this one represent for Denis, one that shines on his cv, next to the ones opened on Broad Peak in 2005, on Manaslu in 2006, on Cho Oyu in 2009 and Lhotse in 2010? «It’s akin to a work of art reflecting my wishes – he explains – It is not more difficult than the others, but like the other ones, I tackled it in alpine style and, what’s more, “on sight”, without any previous attempt. You will not find many routes opened in this way in the history of mountaineering».

Can it get any better than this? We may only take stock and “discover” that the Russian phenomenon reached the top of an Eight-thousand metre peak an astonishing 22 times, having climbed all fourteen giants and having repeated Kangchenjunga (two ascents), Lhotse (two ascents), Makalu (two ascents), Manaslu (two ascents), Broad Peak (two ascents) and Gasherbrum II (four ascents). What’s more, in addition to the already mentioned five new routes, we should not forget the two winter first ascents – on Makalu in 2009 and on the “usual” Gasherbrum II in 2011 – making Denis Urubku a legend of the highest peaks. He is a champion of mountaineering and of humanity who, once again, thanked us for our long-standing faith in him, even before greeting us, sharing a staggering adventure which has been going strong for twenty years.

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