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Nanga Parbat (8126 m), Broad Peak (8046 m) and K2 (8611 m) Kazakhstan Expedition
Summer 2003

DENIS URUBKO (Almaty, Kazakhstan)


Photo: Gleb Sokolov L

In 2003 the whole Mountaineering World celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first Everest ascent - an event that will stay forever as the greatest confirmation of the human spirit, and the drive to achieve and to conquer the unknown.

Even though most of members of that historical expedition aren't alive, their accomplishment will live forever in history.

It is a pity, however, that a mountain like Nanga Parbat lies in the shadow of Everest. 50 years ago Nanga Parbat too had its first summit, and the climb itself differed much from the large attack on Everest undertaken in '53.

On Nanga Parbat there was a single hero who was without much help. On Everest Hillary and Tenzing summited, but they had a big team working with them until 8750m. Nobody helped Hermann Buhl -at least above 6900m - to climb the amazing mountain face with all its length and borderless snowfields.

Hermann's climb is more interesting and dear to me as a sportsman than the conquest of Everest. Ambition, thrill, and risk - these are magic above all else. Besides, careful planning and the final summit push are both equally valuable on all mountains. So, I repeat, I can't understand why the mountaineering community ignored the Naked Mountain's jubilee? (Nanga Parbat)

There were only a few teams in Base Camp, 8 Kazakhs climbers, 8 Italians, 2 Spaniards, 1 Russian, 1 American, and 1 Austrian. I've heard, that some more teams, like the Japanese, will try and climb, but it's still insignificant in comparison with the massive gathering under Everest this past spring - "C'est la vie" - look at the History...

Nanga Parbat is a famous mountain where many broken dreams and great achievements took place. How many people are buried here? How many bitter experiences have there been here? But most of all, the passion and zeal which climbers go for the summit with here is wonderful. I see that there's really something magical on this mountain, maybe it lies in the sub-consciousness...

But Nanga was without individuality for me. The "conveyer-belt" method, in which our Kazakh national team climbs 8000ers, is without soul.

Where are the Messners and Kukuczka's, whose spirit and soul were evident from their incredible climbs on the toughest routes? Like them, our team is working towards the goal of climbing all the world's 8000ers. The individual mountains, however, don't have the time to touch our souls. For me, that's really what it's about. During the two weeks when I was on Nanga, my soul was only touched on a couple of occasions.

The events leading up to the expedition are lengthy and it's been written about a lot on the web, so I'm not afraid to be called boring if I begin to describe it from day to day. I will say only that the trek in was very short and we reached Base Camp at 4100m after four days.

By the way, it was the following 'indirect' moment that touched me. I dropped the video camera, entrusted to me by the team, in a gorge, 100m deep. So we continued on the climb and I left my optimism behind for a long while.

The impressions felt when you see the mountain looming over you more than 4000m, is difficult to express through words. Nanga Parbat is just so beautiful; I can't look at its grandeur and beauty without deep admiration. It's up there in the heavens like a goddess and it flies in the sky like an angel. I couldn't tell the difference between reality and fairy tale when the setting sun lit its slopes a blood-red hue.

Our base camp was set in a beautiful place - patches of fresh grass were streaked across by traces of old snow. With the snow melting, a lot of flowers, all with different colors, appeared around us under the shining sun. The palpitating tenderness of it really contrasted with the bare and icy peaks. It made me think a lot about my home and all my loved ones.

But a fight is a fight. Our team visited this Eden not to hear the birds sing Pakistani songs, but to climb. My old friend Simone Moro had already set Camp I, 4800m, under a rock, shielding it from avalanches. And in the evening we were already laughing with him in the dining tent, discussing our future plans.

Our first group (Zhumayev, Chumakov, Pivtsov, and myself) began to work on the route. We thought about the strategy a little and took some advice from our coach, Ervand Iljinsky, deciding not to go straight along the big couloir directly from the start, where it sits under an icefall. Instead we fixed 250m of ropes under the safety of the rock ridge and then started onto the snows of the couloir. That day, June 3rd, our whole team carried loads to Camp I.

Five returned to Base Camp that day, but four of us stayed at CI, sadly looking at the snowflakes, which began falling after dinner. The weather did improve as the evening approached, and we fixed rope. Maxut Zhumayev fixed 250m worth and then I switched places with him, fixing 250m more.

At 8 pm we radioed to BC and reported our work to Iljinsky.

Radioing down to Base Camp: "So, Ervand Tikhonovich, we've had supper already and all's OK. We plan tomorrow that one pair of climbers will go down to BC, and a second pair will fix the next 200m of ropes."

The response from Base Camp, "And what about the ropes? I've heard there's 600m in the Italian tent."

I replied, "Not 600, but only 400," laughing in my mind, because I had figured to look into the Italians' tent before sunset. I pretended to play dumb, "And have we to fix these ropes too?"

"Certainly," grumbled the Chief, "I plan that our second group will set Camp II after your work."

"Poor fellows," said my friend Pivtsov, who was up in Camp I with me, "And what about our foreign friends?"

"We should not strain ourselves too much," I say to Iljinsky, "I think there's no need to rush."

"According to my plan-" says the chief with a steely voice. He continued with a long speech, after which I sighed and said, "I've understood. We'll go up tomorrow."

Somebody said with perplexity that Iljinsky just yesterday said that we have a lot of time, and we needn't be that fast ...

"He says for us "slowly, slowly", - quoted he after the Chief , and cried suddenly as strong as he can : - I say "Slowly!!!!!" Run!

It became funny.

Pivtsov worked first next morning, fixing 550m of ropes up until a rock outcropping in the center of couloir. After that our group went down to Base Camp for some rest and recuperation. The second group - Lavrov, Litvinov, Molgachev, Raspopov, and Bogomolov then made their way to Camp I. They fixed about 500m of rope and reached the top of the coulior.

At this point, Simone, who is very hard-working, and not the type to ride the coattails of others turned up with his friends for the attack. They reached an altitude of 6000m.

The route lay through the heart of the famous Kinshofer Wall. I had read earlier an old Russian diary about the climbing of this wall with old fixed ropes and heavy packs - instinctively I shrunk back after completing the read. The description sounded pretty ugly. Simone climbed very quickly, setup tents with his friends, and was back down in Base Camp, breaking the silence down there with his creaky voice in the evening.

As for us, we started up with very heavy packs containing not only our personal equipment, but 400m of ropes, two tents, and a lot of food, gas, etc. - it was very hard. Heavy loads can make you pretty miserable, the snow falling on your head, and your crampons scraping against the rock looking for purchase, it's not pleasant. Carpe Diem! I suddenly understood what the guys had talked about in the Russian diary.

In that push our group of four people worked until 6500m, using all the ropes we could. I fixed line 500m above the spot where Simone had reached on the ice/snow slope. We set our tent on the wide snow ridge between the rock teeth and the huge cornice. There was the plain of the snow face above us , which extended to the infinity, it was terrible. Snowfall began in the evening. I kept waking up all night long, worrying. I turned my head, trying to hear something in the silence around the tent. Snowflakes would land on the tent fly, and then fall down off it in miniature avalanches. And from time to time the real avalanches fell down near us with the calm sigh.

In the morning we looked at each other for a moment and decided to descend. Only Pivtsov turned his nose up and said that "we could ..." Still, we decided to rappel.

I have to say that at the side of the couloir, which is between Camp I and Camp II, a huge icefall hangs threateningly from above. It's blue fangs hang there ready to crush you. This mass showed its force just a day before our descent.

We went near the icefall around dinnertime, having already eaten our meat in Base Camp. Our cook, Farman, began to master the Russian-Kazakh cuisine. At the very beginning of the expedition Lavrov spent all morning in the kitchen teaching him to cook borsht. So, our collective demand of meat, onions, and green tea sure helped our cook to realize fast that we have healthy appetites. As Iljinsky joked, "Why are wolves just second place carnivores? Because WE are the first..."

The second group fixed the next 250m of ropes. They saw old ropes under the white cover, and understood where the right way was. So, they worked further.

I may note that from the very beginning, foreigners began to leave - some became ill, some were tired. It was clear that not all of them would make it. When the Italian-Austrian team arrived in Base Camp, their members had fallen ill already. Our hopes for them to help prepare the route diminished quickly. Only Simone Moro, who isn't one to ride other's hard work, added something to our team, fixing ropes. Others did help ferry some loads.

We were, however, pleasantly surprised by the energy of the Austrian froehlin, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. She easily endured all difficulties of the high-altitude climb. We could see the fire in her eyes, and in a unanimous agreement, she became one of us.

We rested in Base Camp, but some insects managed to find their way into our sleeping bags (we thought that they came from the Pakistan porters' bags). They were especially angry in Iljinsky's tent, and he couldn't understand who bit him at night. In the morning the Chief angrily showed us his bitten legs, and explained how he fought against them. Then Pivtsov said to him that there's an excellent way to fight the bugs, "it's called Camp III!" (it's so cold up there the bugs die)

Iljinsky replied, "But I'll die if I go up there."

"So I guess it's either the bugs or you!"

After re-reading, "The Guy from Hell," a story by Strugatskies, I felt that all our difficulties on the mountain are only child's play compared to problems that other folks may encounter in their lives.

In the morning of June 13th, Inaki, the Spaniard, and I went up from Base Camp. The trio of Pivtsov, Chumakov, Zhumayev had climbed to Camp I the evening before, but I had decided to stay back and spend one more calm evening on the green grass. Taking turns leading, Inaki and I now trampled through the fresh snow of the couloir and reached Camp II where I began to boil water for the approaching guys. Snowfall began. Chumakov, who had just come up, said that Gerlinde need some help. She was climbing with Kurt (from the Italian team) from Camp I and probably wouldn't be able to make the Kinshofer Wall with her pack.

I returned to the bottom of the Wall and saw Gerlinde and Kurt trying to figure out which pack was lighter. I put on froehlin Gerlinder's pack and immediately understood why she wouldn't make it. I wouldn't even climb the wall with such a load! How did this pretty Austrian girl make it here? At the top of the wall I looked up at Chumakov, who just smiled and prepared the rope.

"Now we'll do a little fishing for Kurt's pack," he explained to me, "Need to help him or the Olympic Champ may die..." (Kurt was an Olympic League Champion )

Above Camp at 6500m, we got payback from our foreign partners. Inaki and Gerlinde, who went without packs that day, worked ahead about 200m, fixing ropes. Afterwards they went down - their acclimatization push was over, but we went further.

The day before, Zhumayev, working at first without a load, fixed about 200m on the ridge and we spent one more night at 6500m. After Inaki and Gerlinde descended, we understood that there weren't enough ropes. We also understood that we could find old ropes buried in the snow. Not until late evening our four climbers, after traversing the couloir, reached the top of the buttress by the rocks. This was the beginning of the summit plateau. We had set our Camp at 7050 m.

I have to note that this climb was planned only as our acclimatization trip. I was sure that after one more night here we'd go down to Base Camp, and would then go for the summit bid. Really, we needed to save our energy, not run like horses. Ahead of us still lay Broad Peak and K2. And there was one climber in our group who was climbing an 8000er for the first time. We had time and didn't need to be fast.

So the decision by my partners to go for the summit bid right there was a surprise for me. However, I had been in worse situations before.

I said that I thought it wasn't right, but I was ready to go if they wanted to. The decision was no surprise to the five guys from the second group, who were spending the night in a Camp below us. Iljinsky just said over the radio that he understood our feelings.

It was going to be a brave attack. Our Nanga Parbat summit bid was an assault not bred from our previous Hyperbaric chamber training but rather a result of our hard work and experience.

We had climbed with ease and grace on this expedition, working just as quickly as we had on Kangchenjunga and on Shisha Pangma. We fell that we had energy left. Just about all of the route preparation and trail breaking had been done to schedule. Our experience was very important - most of our members had summits of 4-5, 8000-ers.

The warmth of the tent, which we had crammed under a little rock at 7050m, raised our spirits for the final push. I was the only one who was not well equipped, however. Since I had planned on descending to Base Camp before going for the summit, I only had a polar-fleece and Gore-Tex jacket.

We climbed through the snowfields of the plateau. Once we reached the base of the summit tower we began to drink water mixed with some powdered calories. This raised both our mental and physical mood. We were at 7400m.

We took turns leading. After two hours I started to lose feeling in my toes. The sky was littered with stars and it really frosted my soul. The others were climbing in down jackets, but me, who couldn't imagine that the third push would be the summit bid, was not as well off. I felt like I was walking naked through a graveyard lit up by moonlight.
I returned to the tent and spent about an hour trying to warm my frozen feet. I was certain the guys had already reached the summit.

Darkness gave way to an extremely clear and cold day. The mountain, however, stood between the warmth of the sun and me. Only the Maceno ridge, which lay below, was glowing under the sun's rays. And it was a miracle that it reflected at least some warmth from the sun. Extremely weak, but just enough to warm my heart, which was like a piece of frozen beef by this point. I tried to be as fast as I could, because my chances to summit were melting away fast.

I started off again and eventually spotted something in the distance. Imagine my joy when I saw three very little figures up ahead. Glowing like lighthouses in their bright down jackets, they were going up.

Our group reached the top at 0835 AM, June 17, 2003. Some said a few words and others took some pictures. As for me, frozen to the core, I wanted only one thing - to go down, down, down...into the warmth. The sun, covered by mist off towards the East, wasn't doing it for me up there. We began to descend.

That day we descended to 6500m, and the second group of Kazakhs ascended to our last Camp at 7400m. I kept going down, aiming for Base Camp.

A strange thing happened as I descended the fixed ropes. Above Camp II, at the place where the snow ridge is broken up by some rocks, I found that somebody had been there. It was the place where I earlier had fixed Lafaille's rope. Now I noticed that the rope wasn't there anymore, but somebody instead had fixed short pieces of old ropes that were used 5-10 years ago.

And then I fell; only my quick reflexes saved me. I had time to push away from the slope with my legs so I didn't go head over heels. It happened like in slow motion, - I went flying for several meters, my arms and legs flailing until I caught hold of a rock at the edge of a precipice.

As I had not been seen below Camp II , all my teammates thought they had lost me. Only in the morning, when I climbed up again to change the ropes, Iljinsky was surprised to spot me in his binoculars from BC. The trio from my group, who had spent the night at 6500m then came descending, and we rappelled together down to Base Camp. I felt joy, a joy to be alive.

And one more drama was being prepared on the mountain. The beauty and illogic of our ascent inspired the second group. They started from Camp IV at 2.20 am, and went up fast. Damir Molgachev, was starting to get frostbite on his fingers and returned to the tent. At 11.30 am Lavrov, Raspopov, and Litvinov stood among clouds, and took their summit pictures. Bogomolov reached the summit some hours later. Only Molgachev, after turning back from 7850m, hadn't reached the top.

That day the second group spent the night back at 7400m Inaki and Gerlinde were going up and Damir was going to join them for a second summit push. Unfortunately he didn't make it on his second attempt either - he spent too much time at high altitude.

After Inaki and Gerlinde's descent from the summit, the trio spent one more night in the tent at 7400m. We tried to find out how Damir was doing, and listened to him talk over the radio. We learned how he aborted and could understand it. In the morning he began his descent after Inaki and Gerlinde, but it was very difficult for him and he had only descended to 6500m by the evening. Simone, Viesturs, and Lafaille gave him two liters of water and some food when he passed near their tent. Gerlinde and Inaki were waiting for him below.

The next morning Zhumayev and I started up to help Damir. We met him at 5800m, under the Kinshofer Wall. Inaki went ahead, Damir followed, and Gerlinde was the last. She said again and again "You OK, Damir? You OK Damir?" Like his shadow, she followed close behind.

I have to note that Simone and Jean-Christophe climbed a very beautiful alternative route on the Diamir Face, to the left of our route. This idea came up after they spoke with Iljinsky, who had noticed the logic of this route. Already from the first day in BC the Chief had checked it out in his binoculars and talked about it with great interest. It's a pity that Simone turned around at 7150m, after climbing the new route. Lafaille and Viesturs went on to summit on June 23rd.

Now resting after our Nanga Parbat climb, no wonder the entire team is pretty tired. We went back down the valley very quickly - only one day out versus the four we spent coming in. We are resting in one of the best Pakistani health-resort complexes. There is a big lake, cottages scattered around it, apple trees, and a lot of cherry trees too. So we feel like we are in Eden. All's OK and we play tennis, boat, and swim.

I hope that Broad Peak and K2 will give us the chance to try our abilities one more time in a fair fight.

Denis Urubko, June 27 2003

Denis' sponsors: Manaraga, Salice, CSKA Kazakhstan

Translation: Elena Laletina ( and ExplorersWeb