Denis Urubko

Denis Urubko. The mountain.

Text: Pipi Cardell

I  

have a two and a half hour flight before landing in the Lombardy region of Bergamo, a small Italian town at the foot of the Alps where Walter Bonatti was born.

It´s enough time to look through my next interviewee´s biography in order to freshen up on some facts. His background is intimidating.

Denis Urubko. Born 43 years ago in the Russian town of Nevinnomyssk. Professional mountaineer, writer and freelance journalist. In 1992 he took one of the most important decisions of his life and emigrated to Kazakhstan. From there on his alpine climbs, from the Caucasus to the Himalayas, go to dizzying heights, reaching the fourteen highest peaks in the world in just nine seasons, and all without the use of additional oxygen. On top of that, some were brand new routes or the first winter ascents, and will go down as some of the greatest milestones in mountaineering history.

After being nominated four times for the most prestigious mountaineering awards worldwide, he received the Piolet d’Or in 2010 for opening a new route in alpine style on the southeast face of Cho Oyu, with teammate Boris Dedeshko. This expedition has gone down as one of his most committed acts, as it was certain that they would never return to tell the tale.

Awards, records of fleeting ascents and extremely difficult new openings appear before my eyes. But anyone can go online and look up those achievements, so what I had come to find out is the reason why. What’s so special about Denis Urubko to have been able to achieve, what most of the time, no one has ever done before.

Many things are taken as a given. But, what about those that are unknown?

My nervousness grows a little when I think that climbing shoes and a harness are packed in my luggage. The experience of being able to climb with someone in that category is priceless, but I hope to have a quiet evening before the interview because, due to work, I have hardly slept over the last few days.

Denis has offered to come and get me from the airport as his home is located a few kilometers from Bergamo, in the small town of Nembro.

The arrival area is small. Yet we all pile out at once, and in the confusion I can´t find anyone waiting for me. When I turn around I see half his profile. He´s still looking at the arrivals door.  It’s been a year since we saw each other at a mountaineering conference, but the physique of Denis Urubko is unmistakable: slender, slightly hunched, with a broad forehead and square jaw. I ask myself if it comes from so much clenching of teeth.

Outside the sky is covered by storm clouds. It will set the tone for the next few days given that we are coming up to summer in the Alps. After setting down the luggage and having something to eat, it was more than obvious what Denis wanted to do next.

Are we going to climb? There´s a small area nearby. We still have time to climb a few routes before it rains.

I’m exhausted, but I can´t give a negative answer to someone who oozes nervousness and vitality with every gesture.

St. Patrick is an old marble mine in which the marks created by the gunpowder can still be seen along some of the climbing routes. Although the number of routes do not exceed twenty it´s good training ground that requires slab climbing techniques.

I restrict myself to just observing what guidelines Denis is following, the way he prepares for climbing. I assume he will be the methodical type that comes from a mainly serious attitude. It is then that he gets out a frisbee and three tennis balls from his bag.

It´s best if we warm up a little first.

The circular object flies over our heads, and in seconds I´m jumping up to catch it in the air before throwing it again. I start to catch some of that positive energy that overrides all my fatigue. Denis begins to juggle tennis balls.

Coordination, mobility, joints…

My warm up routine is completely different, and in any case, not nearly as motivating.

Denis, has your motivation always been the same or has it changed over time?

The motivation to go up mountains, climbing, for ascents?

To continue.

For me the question is never whether to continue or not. This is not a mind game. I know someone who is constantly trying to look for motivation; how to train, how to go up the mountains and so on. [Laughs]. I don´t get it. If you like it, why do you have to find something to motivate you? For me the answer is very simple: if I like going to the mountains I´m not going to try to motivate myself by saying, “Wow, I really need to do it.” Put pressure on myself, how I should go about it … No way! Sometimes I’m not thinking about a difficult route but I just go there because I enjoy it. It’s as easy as deciding to go with the flow in the direction you have chosen.

You could say then that it´s a passion. Is it your passion?

Passion is being alive, to feel life in every moment, make every second shine. Then there is the way to go about it. There are different options. From enjoying a cup of coffee, to falling in love and making your dreams come true, to having children. There are many important things that make me happy and, that for me, is a fulfilled life. My passion for the mountain runs along that vein, a process that starts with training and ends in that moment you reach your goal. Each of us will have our own way. I´m just explaining my vision of how I focus my passion to be happy.

 

Denis scales quickly and with determination. He is a rock warrior who fights for every step to give it his all. And whilst I avoid the wet dams, he grabs them with the ease of someone who assumes that the adverse conditions are just an inherent part of the climb.

His home is in the upper part of Nembro. From there, even though enveloped by dense vegetation, you can see how the clouds gather over the surrounding mountains. The house was bought a year and a half ago from Italian alpinist Mario Curnis, a dear friend. It is airy and light enters through the many east and south facing windows. Books occupy all of the shelves, except for a pile of them stacked up on a table forming a tower in equilibrium. I´m drawn to the Russian characters on the front covers.

Denis, is there one of your books among all these?

They´re all mine [Smiles]. Some are written in Russian, others in Italian and in Polish. Thirteen in total. This one is about the seven-thousanders of the Soviet Union, the latest to be edited.

[The title of Snow Leopard is awarded to the mountaineer who manages to reach the five highest peaks of the Soviet Union. Until the summer of 2016, Denis Urubko held the ascent record after arriving in just 42 days].

Do your books literally tell the stories and experiences you´ve lived through on the mountain, or are you looking to convey something beyond them?

I´m not able to live without writing, whether they are articles or books. I need to share my passion and my life with others. The way to do that is through these stories that deal with how to assail mountains, how to achieve your goals, how to survive, how to enjoy … But for me it´s also important to show other unknown places, those details that people never notice but are amazed to discover. I write about specific moments that I analyze, and which some people may identify with. But for me it´s also important to talk about those people who are always there, let´s say those who are hidden. And I don´t think it´s important if they are my friends or not, but rather because they focus their actions towards a productive goal, and so they grab my attention. For example, Sergei Samoilov with whom I made the first ascent up the south face of Broad Peak in alpine style, or Yuri Gorbunov, my antagonist, but who I see as someone  who has done many positive things for mountaineering in Kazakhstan. It´s important that people know about them.

 I remember seeing a photograph in an expedition in which you are writing a diary. For someone who lives so intensely, and even such extreme situations, you must feel at some point the need to externalize them. Is this a way of meditation for you?

In any case I need to write something. When I made the ascent of Broad Peak, a magazine asked me to write an article about it. I started thinking and immediately my mind went back to a year earlier, recalling the difficulties, the risks, the feelings. In that instant I became nervous again. I remembered so much that I started to relive it again. It was like going back and doing the south side ascent of Broad. It´s very satisfying to be able to climb again, and again, and again … as many times as you can, as often as you want.

 My greatest moments of reflection come when I play an old flute that I´ve had for eighteen years.

 

On occasions we may write very personal things. In my case I’m not always sure I want to share them with other people. Do you share everything or are there some details you keep a secret?

 I disagree with you. If you´re writing something that means that you’d like to share it, but you’re afraid of how people will take it. Because, whilst some things are normal for you, other people might interpret them as strange or stressful. And they will attack you. That’s why you don´t want to reveal them. But if you find someone who has the same mentality, the same view of the world, I think you´d share with pleasure.

 Anyway, I´d write about it. People can think about me whatever they want. It’s my personality. In my books I sometimes write things that are uncomfortable for a normal way of thinking, but it’s my life. Some people choose to put it down and think: “I´m gonna stop reading this, Denis is exhausting and I´m not gonna keep reading this, not tomorrow nor the day after.” But I keep trying to deal with different issues, just as I´m interested in reading various opinions of other people. Sometimes I also think it’s exhausting, but I keep going. It´s something that helps you to write too, to have a general view of life, to see things from different points of view.

I agree that diversity is essential for increasing knowledge. You can even extrapolate climbing: developing skills for different types of rocks makes you a more all-round climber. I don’t know if tomorrow we´ll be able to put ours into practice because it´s supposed to rain here throughout the day.

There´s always somewhere to climb

It´s five in the morning. Everything is pitch black except the lines that trace the car’s headlights. Denis drives whilst I doze in the passenger seat with my head on a fluffy feather filled sack.

It begins to dawn on an open landscape up to the horizon. The mountains are behind us. A low sun filters through the windscreen to illuminate our smiling faces. It’s as if confirmation that today will be a great day. After three hours on the road, the air smells of salt. We have arrived at Finale Ligure, Denis´ favorite climbing area. Located in the Savona province and bathed by the Ligurian Sea, it has all the charm of a Mediterranean village.

After a short walk we reach the foot of some compact gray limestone vertical walls.

These ropes are different to the ones we used yesterday, right?

Right… I have different length ropes depending on the area I´m going to climb.

I´m not sure whether to laugh or be silent in amazement. In the end I laugh in amazement.

One of Denis´ projects he´s been carrying out for years is instructing a group of mountain climbers, mostly young people. They do technical ascents as well as those at altitude or in winter conditions. What methodology do you use to train them in climbing and mountaineering?

I build upon three basic areas: teach them to acquire skills, to avoid the pitfalls and to enjoy it. In my humble opinion, if you’re well prepared you can climb difficult routes and find pleasure in all conditions and in all circumstances.

I know you work with your students in a completely altruistic way, but we all need a reason to reach our goals. Is there something that spurs you to spend so many months a year with them, something that they give back to you, perhaps?

 

That´s an interesting and easy question to answer, although I´ve never really thought about it before. We have many students, because anyone can join up. I need to constantly train with them. Sometimes we can go a week or two performing technical activities or at altitude. That means I end up training almost every day, and this gives me very good preparation. In this way, too, I always have companions, young ones but those who do altitude climbs and ascents I like. With some I also get to do some hard and difficult activities like I did with Gennadiy Durov. We received the Piolet d´Or for Asia in 2011, and were nominated for the international Piolet d´Or the year after for a new route in Pobeda Peak, “Dollar Rod”. Or for example with Boris Dedeshko, with whom I climbed the southeast face of Cho Oyu, which earned us the Piolet d´Or in 2010. This is because we have a very similar mentality and vision of the mountain that leads us in the same direction. For us it’s not about how to do the things. We just go and climb together, even if the impact afterwards is huge, as has been the case.

 I´m honored that people believe in me and follow my philosophy within the mountains. Of course they provide me with a lot of possibilities, besides making me feel strong. What is important is that almost all of them are young, and that energy gives me a lot of “power”. Being with a team of 18-20 year olds is much better than training alone. They transmit that feeling so useful for me when doing activities.

 So you also learn from them…

Of course. Because I see how they act in modern relationships, as relationships between people have changed a lot in the last twenty years. It helps me build my own with them.

Then perhaps you are in a privileged position to see how the future of mountaineering will unfold.

I´m not so sure. What I am certain of is that I see the future of mountaineering as a development of humanity, just that.

 As I said, twenty years ago people were different, and in another twenty the relationship between people and the mountain will also have changed. It´s possible that they´ll do other types of activities, although technically not very different. Well, there will always be advances in material to improve safety, but I think the biggest difference will be in humanity. And in this sense I think that humanity should become like it was two hundred years ago. What I mean is we should learn to enjoy building our relationships with other people. For me this is the most important thing.

Do you remember I told you the other day about the writer Erich Maria Remarque? In his book “The Black Obelisk” he talks about people going to Africa or Asia in search of adventure and asked why, when the most important adventures are within our mind. I agree with him in the sense that there are a ton of possibilities to open new routes there or in the Alps, to explore new tracks for yourself, to grow as a person.

For me the adventure is here today, in Finale Ligure. Both the rock and the tracks chosen by Denis are of an excellent quality while technically challenging. But that makes it even more enjoyable as you try to uncover each of the steps until you reach the top, and once there turn around to see the vast shimmering sea under your feet.

It’s almost noon and the proximity of the coast soaks the air in humidity. I constantly need to drink while Denis has not had a drop of water. Denis, a little water?

No, no thanks.

 

In this heat if I don´t drink I get dehydrated. Not you?

No. If you are very well trained and prepare your body so that when you eat you store all that energy in your muscles, such as fats and water, then you can do a hard seven or eight day climb during which you´ll use up everything you´ve stored. You´ll release it all during that time, then afterwards you don´t need anything else. Back at base camp you can recover again. So you see there´s no need to bring tons of gas to prepare water, nor carry a lot of food in order to consume lots of calories each day. For example, Cho Oyu, along with my teammate Boris, we carried just two gas cylinders for eleven days. We prepared food but not with boiling water, just enough to warm ourselves up a little by eating porridge and drinking a kind of tea. That allowed us to carry less weight in our backpack and make a quick ascent. Manaslu was the same. It’s my way of doing things. There are people who are not prepared in that sense and who prefer a more pleasant ascent, taking lots of food, a lot of gas, a lot of warm clothes … but they go up very slowly. I respect that. It´s simply a different way of doing things. Mountaineers like Ueli Steck or Alex Txikon also train as if they were athletes so they can do light and fast ascents, because you can only achieve that if you are very well prepared.

Would you say then that´s a factor that marks the difference between ordinary people performing ascents and people that do… extraordinary things?

It´s probably not the only factor, but yes, an important one, as patience.

I’m sure there´s also something innate in the person that makes a difference, something they possess or can´t be learnt in any way.

Of course. We are all different, we are human. The power of mind you have is important, but the direction it takes too. In that sense we put pressure on ourselves to be climbers, to go up mountains. The important thing is to do things with passion in the direction you choose.

I think I could now concentrate all my passion on eating something!

Great! We have time to go down to the beach for a swim and do some more climbing in the afternoon before going back to Nembro.

Beyond the words, I am starting to realize that Denis makes it very easy to go with the flow and feel every moment, as he himself defines it, brilliant.

Denis, when you´re on an expedition what do you miss the most?

This life. The mountain is my job.

In my book on the snow leopard, I talk a lot about “What is life”. My answer is: the search for immortality. I reckon there are six different ways. Among them is real immortality, which is simply when a person feels good, positively charged. In everything you do, you exist in the world. Another, is the actions on the border between life and death. Why do people like to take risks? Because in that instant people get nervous energy and feel very strongly that they´re on the edge of life. Feel that every moment is unique. It´s the same reason we do mountain activities. We overcome difficulties to survive and keep doing more. In rapid ascents when I´m at my limit I feel I’m the only person on the planet doing that, and I give it everything I have. It drains out all my humanity and energy, and I reach a state of happiness because the balance between life and death is in equilibrium. In that second you live out what in normal life would take maybe a year. In that moment I am completely happy.

In those few seconds of elation, is it not too easy to cross the line?

 We make a lot of mistakes. Not just mountaineers. There are also runners who can suffer a heart attack. Therefore in that moment you have to step up to the plate and be a professional. You need to be well educated and know how to survive, how not to cross the line or to cross it but be able to go back. It´s important because, sometimes, as in Cho Oyu or Lhotse, you step over the limit, but you should know how to take a step back. I was sure that Boris and I were going to die there. And you have to decide: do I stay here and wait for death, or do I die trying to do something. We continued and descended despite the awful conditions. The mountain is an art where you try to do something unusual that nobody has ever done before. It´s your belief on life, and like any art form, it should be complete. We did it.

 Now I do things differently, I think it’s more of a biological question because my work is different now from when I was young and did things without any hesitation or fear.

Even so, your current activities continue to imply a lot of risk…

But it´s not as extraordinary as it was before. Expeditions still remain risky. The winter at K2 is. But the risk is different. It’s like a fight in the street or a heated argument. Both are probably dangerous just in a different way.

When I was twenty or twenty-five, I did many difficult ascents and some in solitary. Later I also did them, such as the ascent of the north ridge at Lhotse or the north face of Kanchenjunga, but this time aware of the price of danger. When I was young I had gone over it in my mind. I was aware that if I fell I could break my leg or even die, but I hadn´t seen many examples. Now I’ve seen what really happens. People take risks for nothing and lose everything. Now I know that to take that risk you must have a very strong reason, an enormous satisfaction or great financial reward.

There may be many reasons, but in any case it has to be something extraordinary, not just for the sake of feeling excitement. Beforehand there was something boring in my soul that drove me to make such ascents, and I needed them to explore … to … explode! [Laughs.]

We have lunch next to the church, the highest point of the village. Denis prepares a picnic on a cool stone bench. Cheese cannot be left out of his diet. I think he suffers an addiction to mozzarella, to ricotta with jam and to Parmesan. The bells begin to toll loudly as the breeze stirs up a line of Buddhist prayer flags that someone must have hung in the square. The colors are vivid and the characters seem to dance happily, but I cannot avoid the question.

You say that seeing death up close has been a turning point in the way you approach mountaineering. I guess that´s why the way you deal with it will be different.

Yes, it´s been a great lesson.

 How do you interpret it?

 

Perhaps I don´t know how people who don´t do mountaineering see death, but genuinely  when a friend dies in your hands, when you have to lower their body off the mountain … I´ve lost many. I know it’s a normal thing. It’s part of life. People die. But that means my friends are no longer able to fulfill themselves, to go back and open routes in the mountains, to have children, to see them grow up. Death is the most important reason to be afraid. That moment you decide to take a risk you need to understand what you are going to give up for it. That means you have to control every step of your life to keep you alive. For example, when I’m driving or walking down the street, I control a lot of things around me: what will the car next to me do, how are people working on that roof … I try to control everything to avoid the dangers. Also I have a very good imagination. I think, what’s the worst that can happen at any time?

 When I´m with my students, and we´re about five or six advancing, for example on the glacier, I am doing everything in every moment to assure their safety. If a storm gathers, if someone has put their crampons on incorrectly because they´re inexperienced… I have in mind all those details around me. Maybe it´s a kind of mental state or Kung fu [Laughs].

 Is it something you´ve learnt on the mountain?

No, I´ve learnt it for myself. It´s rather a philosophy on how I should act and how I should react at any given moment, or what those people should do. I keep an eye on the whole group and that avoids many dangerous situations.

Being that way must be very stressful, right?

 Of course it is, but what am I going to do, that´s life. To keep alive, to continue.

Sometimes I also think about what´s the worst that can happen and I say to myself “stop thinking like that because all you´ll do is to create a negative mind set”.

It´s easy for that to happen. I enjoy it because it´s like building up game moves in chess. Everything´s in your hands and depends on you. When I climb alone, however, I´m not so worried, and I just follow the passion. It’s like a natural wave, full of power, and I forget about the risks. I´m only in contact with the rock and the ice. I limit myself to going with the flow. Everything becomes intuitive and I climb with the right moves. At that point I stop thinking like a computer, and the reason is because I only have a duty to myself. But, for this, it´s very important to have prepared yourself well beforehand.

 By nature I’m like a predator who´s developed a special instinct: intuition. I don´t explicitly realize what´s happening, but my mind intuitively, because of previous experiences, makes the best decisions because it knows how to survive in that situation.

What level of preparation do you feel you have at this moment of your life?

I´m physically less strong than ten years ago. In that period my abilities were the most developed. But now I’m stronger mentally. I need to finish my career as a mountaineer by doing ascents in altitude. Rock climbing is good preparation at a technical level, but to operate at high altitudes the training is totally different. Soon I’ll be going with students to Lenin Peak, to Mount Elbrus in winter, and then I think I´ll ascend Cho Oyu with them via the classic route, which also suits me, although I´m thinking, “Umm … maybe I should try a new route!”

 Right now I need to push ascents in the next two to three years. Then I´m thinking of devoting myself to more technical climbs such as Ushba, the south face of Cerro Torre would be amazing, the Grandes Jorasess from the Italian side. The north face of Latok is a big dream of mine, but it´s in Pakistan and it´s a forbidden country for me because of the terrorism.

And among so many dreams, do you feel that some might be impossible now because the time to do it has already gone by?

 In the north face of K2 there is a direct route. An amazing route that no one has ever climbed. But I think my time to attempt it has faded because you need to be in a very strong physical condition, have a good fellow climber and the money to do it. Of these three premises, money is the least important, because now I have more skills to finance projects. More importantly, and harder to find right now is the time to train, since I´m mainly dedicated to my family and my students, and you need two years to focus exclusively on it. Perhaps then I´d be prepared. In terms of my peers, my life is a bit crazy at the moment. As I now live between Russia, Poland and Italy it´s difficult to find stability in relationships. In a couple of years I hope to rebuild my network and find strong companions who I believe in and who believe in me to tackle a good climb. Maybe not the north face of K2, but there is the option of returning to the south face of Everest. I dream about the possibility of opening a new route in Alpine style. It´s an interesting challenge that I think no one else has achieved (please correct me if I´m wrong). When we tried to do it in 2013, my partner Alexei Bolotov died in an accident during the descent. I still feel very deeply for his loss. So perhaps I´d try to do it again and dedicate it to the memory of my great friend Alexei.

We head back the same as we came, pitch black and with the storm hanging over us. After dinner Denis tells me the story of his life as photos flash onto the computer screen. Among them a sepia photo stays with me. One in which, as a small child, he appears having climbed to the top of an iron pyramid structure. His sister and cousin are at the foot.

 That was my first summit…

And your last? With which would you like to close your career as a high altitude mountaineer?

Whilst it means going through Pakistan, K2 in winter is my epic tale. It´s a question I asked myself a long time ago and which I´ve not yet found an answer. I will try to go back and get one.

 

 

 

 

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