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Fierce Winter Winds Curtail All 8000m Attempts

The Gasherbrum-Broad Peak group seen from high on K2 to the north. (A) Gasherbrum I (B) Gasherbrum II (C) Gasherbrum III (D) Gasherbrum IV (E) Broad Peak Central (F) Broad Peak Central Foresummit (G) Broad Peak Main. The normal route on Broad Peak and the one attempted to ca. 250m from the summit this winter by Qudrat Ali, Shaheen Beg and Simone Moro, climbs the long snow slopes to the right, heading up to the gap between the Central and Main summits. [Photo] K2 Shared Summits Expedition

Four teams, three of which involved Italian climbers, attempted to make first winter ascents of three of the world’s highest mountains; two in Pakistan, where no one has reached the highest point of any 8000-meter peak in winter, and one in Nepal. This winter appears to have been plagued by almost constant bad weather and very high winds, making the summits once again elusive.

The little-known Italian, Simone la Terra, had one other climbing partner for his attempt on 8125-meter Nanga Parbat via the Diamir Face, the experienced Pakistan mountaineer Mehrban Karim. They reached the standard base camp on December 3 and established Camp 1 on the regular Kinshofer Route (ca. 3500m, Kinshofer-Low-Manhardt, 1962) at 6000m on the 10th in temperatures of -35 degrees C. However, strong winter winds caused a constant hassle and during the night of the 21st simply blew away their base camp kitchen tent with everything in it. At that stage la Terra decided to call off the expedition. The Diamir flank faces northwest and at the best of times only receives little winter sunshine: the team reported seeing the sun on only one occasion throughout their entire stay in December.

Born in 1981, la Terra has a background of alpine solos, and first attempted an 8000-meter peak in 2005, when he was unsuccessful on Cho Oyu. In 2006 he tried the Kinshofer Route on Nanga Parbat but retreated at 7500m due to the onset of a storm (which would later kill the Venezuelan mountaineer, Jose Delgado). In the autumn of that year he persevered through poor weather to make an October ascent of Shishapangma’s Central Summit. In the summer of 2007 he climbed Broad Peak.

In the 2006-07 winter a strong Polish expedition headed by the world’s most accomplished high-altitude winter mountaineer, Krzysztof Wielicki, attempted Nanga Parbat via its rather more sunny Rupal (southeast) side but was stopped in January at 6800m by severe winds. To date there have been several calendar winter attempts on the mountain, the best by another Polish expedition to the Damir Face, where on February 11, 1997, Krzysztof Pankiewiez and Zbigniew Trzmiel retreated just 250m below the summit with severe frostbite (read the January 23, 2007 NewsWire for more history).

Rather more well-known is Italian Simone Moro, who planned a return match with Broad Peak (8047m). His partners were Leonhard Werth and the accomplished Pakistan 8000-meter climbers, Qudrat Ali and Shaheen Beg from Shimshal. In the winter of 2006-07 Beg and Moro managed to reach the site of Camp 3 on the mountain, despite huge logistical and administrative difficulties delaying their approach to base camp. This winter should have been different but again the infrastructure let them down, and they didn’t arrive at the 4800-meter base camp until near the end of January, by which time Werth, fed up with the delays, had left for home. By February 3 the remaining three had fixed a little 5mm static and reached the site for Camp 2 at 6200m on the Original 1957 Route. During the month they made a couple of attempts to go higher but were always beaten back by high winds and those familiar -35 degree C temperatures. In early March, with their permit due to expire on the 10th, they got a break. Reaching Camp 3 at 7200m, they set out at 6:30 a.m. and by 2 p.m., in great weather, had reached 7800m. Although Moro felt strong enough to continue to the summit, he realized it would mean a night out on the mountain during the descent, something all the climbers would be unlikely to survive. They retreated.

Although Moro was close, he was unable to emulate Maciej Berbeka in 1988. Berbeka, an extremely strong climber at altitude, was part of Andrej Zawada’s Polish expedition attempting K2 in winter. When that failed, Berbeka and Aleksander Lwow transferred their attentions to Broad Peak and on March 3 set off in alpine style up the normal route through deep snow. They made a final camp at 7700 meters and set off on the 6th for the summit. Lwow quickly realized he wasn’t up to it and returned, but Berbeka continued alone in strong winds and blowing snow to reach what he believed to be the summit. Both returned slightly frostbitten. It was only later when Berbeka was shown photographs of both summit and foresummit, he realized he had stopped at the foresummit. Had the weather been clear, it’s possible that the main summit of Broad Peak would have been climbed in winter twenty years ago.

Five of the six 8000-meter peaks still to be climbed in winter lie in the Pakistan Karakoram. The sixth, Makalu (8485m), lies in eastern Nepal. Two teams were on the mountain together this winter.

The first was the tried-and-tested Italian trio of Romano Benet, his wife Nives Meroi (together with Gerlinde Kaltenburnner, the leading female 8000-meter peak collector) and Luca Vuerich (Benet and Meroi had only recently returned from a post-monsoon attempt on the same peak). The second was a strong four-man Kazakh expedition comprising Gennady Durov, Sergei Samoilov, Eugeny Shutov and Denis Urubko. And if anyone could overcome winter conditions on Makalu, it was likely to be Samoilov and Urubko. The Kazakhs flew into the lower (4800m) base camp on January 9, a few days prior to the Italians. They found the normal route up the west flank and northwest slopes in rather good condition, with snow rather than ice. After a number of aborted attempts thwarted by bad weather and very high winds, they managed to reach the Makalu La (7400m) and at the start of February set out for a summit attempt. However, they only gained a short distance, reaching an altitude of ca. 7500m before, once again, being battered by ferocious winds. Retreat, even for the likes of Urubko, was the only option.

The Italians didn’t get quite as high but stuck it out for a few more days after the departure of the Kazakhs until storm-force winds eventually destroyed their upper base camp (5400m). Subsequently, on the long walk down the difficult moraine to lower base camp, Meroi was blown over by the wind and broke her leg. The others managed to carry her down to camp, where despite continued high winds, all three were evacuated by helicopter.

Before their arrival, Makalu had received around eleven attempts in winter, starting with Renato Casarotto’s 1981 expedition to the southeast ridge. The most memorable in recent years took place during the winter 2005-06 and resulted in the disappearance of the celebrated mountaineer, Jean-Christophe Lafaille. The Frenchman left his tent at 7600m on January 27, 2006 for a summit push; how high he reached is unknown, as his body has not been discovered. Before this several climbers had reached heights of around 7500m on both the normal route and southeast ridge.