Winter mountaineering: from “ice warriors” to commercial expeditions

“Whatever style you decide to climb, winter expeditions to 8,000m peaks are anything but a walk in the park and no one without exception has reaped easy and abundant success in this type of adventure. vertical,” Simone Moro wrote on Instagram. With more than 20 winter expeditions under his belt, the 54-year-old Italian certainly knows what he’s talking about.

Moro has successfully completed four of his first 14 eight-thousand winter ascent attempts, more than any other climber in the world – all without bottled oxygen. These were in 2005 on Shishapangma (8,027 meters) in Tibet, in 2008 on Makalu (8,485 meters) in Nepal, in 2011 on Gasherbrum II (8,034 meters) in Pakistan and in 2016 on Nanga Parbat ( 8,125 meters), also in Pakistan.

For the fourth time in the past six years, Moro is now attempting a cold season climb on Manaslu in western Nepal. He’s been on the mountain since Christmas. Two weeks ago, three meters of fresh snow fell on Manaslu. An avalanche hit the base camp at 4,850 meters, but almost all the climbers had left the camp beforehand.

Seven Sherpas, one climber

Moro’s reference to different styles of mountaineering on eight thousand is partly due to the fact that commercial companies now offer expeditions to paying customers during the winter. This winter, Nepalese company Dolma Outdoor Expeditions plans to take Tseng Ko-Erh, also known as “Grace” Tseng, to K2 (8,611 meters), the second highest mountain in the world. Six experienced Nepalese climbers and a Pakistani climber led by Nima Gyalzen Sherpa must secure the route with fixed ropes and lead the 28-year-old Taiwanese woman to the summit – with the use of bottled oxygen.

According to mountaineering publication ‘Himalayan Database’, the 36-year-old Sherpa managed to climb eight thousand more than 20 times, including eight times on Mount Everest (8,849 meters) alone. Grace Tseng aims to become the first Taiwanese woman to climb the 14 eight thousand. Last fall, she stood atop Kangchenjunga (8,586 meters), her fifth eight-mile, wearing an oxygen mask. Also on this expedition, she was the only client, with four Sherpas helping her.

In January 2021, a 10-man team from Nepal climbed K2 for the first time in winter. Five experienced climbers died during this winter season. A year ago, in addition to professional climbers, several dozen paying customers of a commercial operator tried unsuccessfully to climb the dangerous mountain. Some ended up with frozen fingers and toes for their efforts.

Extreme conditions

Due to extremely low temperatures, particularly low atmospheric pressure, storms and heavy snow, eight-thousander winter mountaineering has long been considered far too demanding and dangerous for amateur climbers.

The Polish specialists who dominated the winter mountaineering scene, especially in the 1980s, when they made the first seven winter ascents of eight thousand, were respectfully called the “ice warriors”. “For me, this is the future of Himalayan mountaineering – the toughest routes in the toughest conditions,” wrote Ice Warrior Andrzej Zawada at the time. At the time, the expedition leader of the first winter ascent of Mount Everest in 1980 underestimated the commercial potential of climbing the highest mountains in the world.

“The mountain belongs to everyone”

With base camps of eight thousand people regularly filling up with commercial teams in the spring and summer, in 2018 a Nepalese operator began offering winter expeditions to Everest. Interestingly, the introductory passage of their sales pitch was changed from “All welcome – but you should be experienced!” to “All welcome – if you want less crowds and more adventure on Everest.”

Since then, winter pros like Simone Moro have almost come to terms with the fact that they can encounter trade teams on their attempts. “The mountains belong to everyone,” said the Italian at the start of his Manaslu expedition. “So I can’t impose my wish or my style.” However, it seems unlikely that commercial eight-thousander winter mountaineering will ever become a mass phenomenon. The challenges are simply too many and the chances of success too low, even if – as in the case of Grace Tseng – you rely on the concentrated power of the Sherpa.

Winter on Everest and Nanga Parbat

This winter, two German mountaineers face two different eight thousand without the support of Sherpa. Jost Kobusch attempts to climb Mount Everest for the second time during the cold season. The 29-year-old is aiming to climb the world’s tallest mountain not only solo but also without bottled oxygen via the rarely used West Ridge and the Hornbein Couloir, a ravine on the north face of Everest. Having reached just under 7,400 meters in altitude in 2020, he has now set himself the goal of 8,000 meters. “I don’t know what to expect up there,” Kobusch said. “But that’s what’s so exciting.”

Meanwhile, David Göttler, 43, and his Italian teammate, Hervé Barmasse, 44, attempt to scale the Nanga Parbat (8,125 meters) without using fixed high camps, fixed ropes or bottled oxygen . In his first winter attempt on this eight mile, Göttler reached an altitude of 7,400 meters in 2014. Göttler considers their chances “very small, to be honest, but greater than zero as long as we are here and try”. He and Barmasse turned around a week ago at 6,400 meters and are now ready to make a second attempt to reach the top.

“The isolation we have felt over the past few days was immense,” Götter said via his Instagram account. “It wasn’t scary, it was more about scale, an extreme degree of remoteness and insignificance that only these giant mountains can make you feel. This in turn brings humility and a slight feelings of intimidation. A realization of how tiny and fragile we are, but simultaneously seeing what we are capable of when we step out of the comfort zone.”