The great alpinist Denis Urubko has waded into the supplemental oxygen debate that has clouded the winter climb at K2.
And the Russian-Polish mountaineer, who became the 15th person to climb all 14 8000ers without the use of supplementary oxygen, plus two winter peaks — Makalu in 2009 and Gasherbrum II in 2011 — is kicking ass.
In a report from Alessandro Filippini of Alpiniste e Montagne, Urubko didn’t hold back.
“Oxygen is a powerful doping,” said Urubko.
“I’m sorry to find out the really weird way people react. In the event that an athlete in boxing, running, skiing, cycling and other disciplines uses doping — he (she) gets total contempt, reactions of disgust. And punishment (even heavy penalties) by the official authorities.
“But in mountaineering, people who use doping become heroes. I am surprised by this psychological reversal,” he said.
So … I recognize but do not respect the climbers who use O2 in modern mountaineering in the event that they declare ascension (or ascents) as a sporting achievement.”
Several K2 winter teams are using supplemental oxygen for winter K2, including former British Special Forces soldier Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who is leading a team of elite Sherpas, the report said.
Purja is fresh off a 2019 tear that included climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in six months and six days, and performing three rescues — all with supplemental oxygen.
“During the epic first explorations from 100 to 40 years ago, oxygen was an important option, and I have nothing against it,” said Urubko, who went higher than anyone on K2 in winter — up to 7800m in 2003 on the North side and 150 meters less on the Abruzzi Spur three years ago.
“But times have changed, we have more experience in training, psychic preparation, forecasts. It is important to follow and support real athletes who do sports without doping, who engage in high altitude ascents without oxygen.”
On 27 January 2018, Urubko along with Adam Bielecki — while taking part in the Krzysztof Wielicki led Polish winter expedition on K2 — led a rescue operation on Nanga Parbat to save climbers Élisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz, who were stranded on the mountain, the report said.
Bielecki and Urubko were brought to the mountain by helicopter in a daring mission, and climbed over 1000m through the night to reach Revol, who was suffering from delusions and severe frostbite.
They succeeded in bringing Revol to safety, but, were unable to save Mackiewicz due to the severe weather conditions and his location at a higher altitude, the report said.
Technically, there is no regulatory body that enforces mountaineering rules — there are none. In mountaineering everyone can do as he prefers. Which is exactly why it is important to stay on the path of ethical methods, purists say.
With regard to the 8000ers, according to Urubko, all too many climbers today tend to hide some facts, such as the track and ropes set by Sherpas or, more precisely, the use of gas cylinders or perhaps even the assistance of Sherpas, the report said.
Instead, climbers who “sell” to sponsors and to the general public, only pitch the sporting aspect of their ascents, relying on the big numbers — meters climbed, peaks collected, hardships endured in the death zone and so on.
This is far from the philosophical aspects that Urubko and some mountaineering greats put foremost in their endeavors — namely, adventure and creativity.
Some modern-day climbers also feel the same way.
Romanian Alex Gavan and Italian Tamara Lunger, are also attempting K2 in winter, sans oxygen, and proud of it.
During an interview on WhatsApp, Gavan said, jokingly: “I only use oxygen in scuba diving.”
Gavan, an acclaimed conservationist, has climbed seven 8000+ meter mountains without 02, and he and Lunger are continuing in this tradition.
It is understandable that Urubko, having tried twice to approach the summit of K2 in the coldest season without using cylinders and even alone on unprepared routes, is not sympathetic to those who are attempting the first winter ascent with supplementary oxygen and the help of a large number of Sherpas, the report said.
However, should this last “winter first” on the 8000ers be done this way, there will always be a way to try and do a “cleaner” repeat later, experts say.
Everyone remembers the first Mount Everest ascent in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, but not equally remembered is the first ascent without the use of cylinders, made 25 years later by Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner.