It’s difficult to distinguish yourself as a climber on the world’s premier mountains these days. The only notable ascents involve establishing new, elegant routes up obscure or remote peaks, enchaining several peaks, or free soloing classic routes in record time. A decades-long siege on the world’s 8,000-meter peaks has turned these mountains into a circus, where during the summer it’s not uncommon to see endless lines of climbers trudging up fixed lines or having dozens summit in a single day. But climbing an 8,000-meter peak is still a challenging feat, and going in winter is a guaranteed path to standing out as a high-altitude mountaineer.
A little more than 10 years ago, half of the fourteen 8,000ers had never seen a winter ascent. Then, winter high-altitude mountaineering became the obsession of Simone Moro. In January 2005, when the wiry Italian stood atop Shishapangma, he ended a 17-year gap during which no one had summited an 8,000er in winter. Eleven years later, K2 is the last holdout in the game of 8,000-meter winter ascents.
On February 27, 2016, at 3:37 p.m., Moro, along with Alex Txikon, a Basque winter specialist, and Ali Sadpara, a Pakistani high-altitude porter, summited Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest peak and one of the most dangerous climbs, for the first winter ascent. Climbing Nanga Parbat during the coldest part of the year had turned into a minor cause célèbre. Since the winter of 1988–89, more than 30 expeditions and dozens of climbers had failed at this objective. Besides being a historical feat, the ascent earned Moro an elite spot in mountaineering history as the first and only climber to have made the first winter ascent of four 8,000ers. “In some respects, it was my career’s highest point,” Moro says, “not so much for the feat itself, but mainly because it represents all the ingredients that allowed me to get where I am now: insight, patience, pioneering, perseverance, commitment, friendship, and the ability to suffer.”
The coveted summit, which Moro had already attempted three times, came in a way no one could have predicted. Before joining Txikon and Sadpara, Moro had partnered with Tamara Lunger, a 29-year-old Italian considered one of the strongest female mountaineers. The pair had tried to reach the summit by the still-unfinished Messner-Eisendle route, a line Moro had chosen because although it was longer, it fit their fast-and-light climbing style. But a menacing serac and heavy snowfall had kept them mostly tent-bound for 80 days, preventing them from climbing above Camp 2. The same fate had befallen Txikon and Sadpara, who hadn’t been able to go higher than 6,700 meters while attempting the Kinshofer route.
In late January, Txikon, who had asked Moro and Lunger to join forces from the very beginning, reiterated the proposal. Uncertain, the Italian mountaineer mulled over the invitation: As one of the world’s leading winter alpinists, he had never let anyone do rope fixing on his behalf, and, at that point, someone else had already done most of the work. Txikon and Sadpara had never climbed an 8,000er during winter and knew that Moro’s wealth of experience was an asset that could potentially benefit all of them higher on the mountain, where the weather could change abruptly and fixed ropes still hadn’t been installed. “They had done a great work fixing most of the ropes [down low], and I’d pay them back by offering what they wanted from me: experience,” Moro says.
The Fourteen 8,000-Meter Peaks
- Everest: 8,848 meters, Nepal/Tibet
- K2: 8,611 meters, Pakistan/China
- Kangchenjunga: 8,586 meters, Nepal/India
- Lhotse: 8,516 meters, Nepal/Tibet
- Makalu: 8,463 meters, Nepal/Tibet
- Cho Oyu: 8,201 meters, Nepal/Tibet
- Dhaulagiri: 8,167 meters, Nepal
- Manaslu: 8,163 meters, Nepal
- Nanga Parbat: 8,126 meters, Pakistan
- Annapurna: 8,091 meters, Nepal
- Gasherbrum I: 8,080 meters, Pakistan/China
- Broad Peak: 8,047 meters, Pakistan/China
- Gasherbrum II: 8,035 meters, Pakistan/China
- Shishapangma: 8,013 meters, Tibet
On February 22, the foursome set out during a good-weather window. Four days later, when they found themselves at Camp 4, 7,100 meters above sea level, Moro’s wisdom became instrumental. Under his advisement, the summit push started at 6 a.m., instead of the normal alpine start of 3 a.m. Since they were on the west side of the mountain, with violent winds and temperatures down to -60°F, Moro sought to maximize their time in the sun, and above all else, wanted to avoid getting lost, which had happened to an international team the year before. (This team had left for the summit in the dark and was unable to find the correct route.) The strategy worked, and the party, save Lunger, who turned back due to stomach issues, all summited. Reinhold Messner, in an interview a few days later, praised Moro’s logistical intelligence. “I’m sure it’s been his strategic abilities and experience that made the feat possible,” Messner stated.
To some, Moro’s change in strategy seemed somewhat unethical, since he took full credit for something toward which he only partially contributed. From a purist’s standpoint, he should have acknowledged that the mountain had gotten the better of him once again and walked away, since he had chosen to rely on a “by fair means” approach. Moro has always said that without the work Txikon and Sadpara had done, he would have never achieved the summit. “The purist thing doesn’t exist,” Moro said. “Climbing is a hard game, and sometimes it can undercut the elegance of the feats themselves.” Had he not accepted Txikon’s invitation, Moro would have walked away from the “naked mountain” without a summit. Instead, he definitively entered mountaineering stardom.
Now a 49-year-old charismatic, outspoken, and larger-than-life figure whose offset teeth and bespectacled face are well-known all over the world, Moro has come a long way to earn his place in life.
As a young kid from Bergamo, the same town as mountaineering legend Walter Bonatti, Moro was never attracted to the romantic dirtbag-climber stereotype. Instead, he grew up with one clear-cut goal: to explore. Quiet and solitary as a kid, Moro preferred to be alone than to hang out with his friends. “My son wasn’t so gregarious,” says his mother. “He had little to share because he didn’t have a favorite pop star or soccer player. He had Messner.”
Growing up in Bergamo, Moro spent weekends with his mountain-loving family in the foothills of the Alps and the Dolomites, cultivating his own passion for rugged peaks. Moro’s parents encouraged his climbing exploits, but they knew that mountaineering doesn’t equate to making a living, so they also taught him the importance of having an exit strategy. “My parents have never made me feel ridiculous, saying I should have toed the line,” he says. “They just instructed me to build a toolbox to be used in case the dream didn’t come true.”
By his 20th birthday, Moro had become an athlete on the Italian sport climbing team and ticked several difficult sport routes near his hometown. In 1992 when he was 25, a life-changing opportunity fell into his lap: Agostino Da Polenza, a well-known mountaineer, invited Moro on a scientific expedition to Everest. It allowed him to get a taste of the Himalaya’s grandiosity and the world’s highest peak. At 7,400 meters, Moro began showing signs of cerebral edema after ascending too quickly. He was rescued by other members of the expedition.
Despite the failure, seeing the high mountains opened Moro’s eyes. Ever since the beginning of his career, Moro had wanted unfiltered experiences, and to him, the Himalaya, as opposed to the mountains of his European home, still had room for some kind of real, pure exploration. But unlike many of his generation and his hero Messner, Moro has never shown interest in completing the “Crown of the Himalayas” (summiting all fourteen 8,000ers), an accomplishment that is generally considered the best way to show your high-altitude prowess. “It’s a tough ordeal, but now there are nearly 40 people in the world who have done this. It’s no longer a kind of exploration,” says Moro. He views mountaineering as a response to the human desire to go as far as possible, even into the unknown. “When Hillary and Norgay first summited Everest in 1953, they were conquering much more than a mountain,” he says.
When Moro started his first Himalayan expeditions, commercialization of the 8,000-meter peaks was already growing. Instead of chasing the 14, he focused on the riskier business of winter high-altitude mountaineering. In an era marked by fierce, aggressive competition, in which sponsors demanded success (a.k.a summits), undertaking winter expeditions was a gamble, but for Moro, it kept him from getting caught up in the morass.
“I’m hungry for exploration,” he says. “And when you go in winter, even while remaining in basecamp for three months waiting for the good weather, you really feel like a pioneer.”
Winter mountaineering is an extremely hazardous business, with only a 15 percent success rate thanks to painfully cold temperatures, unceasing jet streams that keep climbers tent-bound for weeks, and heavy snowfall that can trigger avalanches at any time. To date, there have been about 34 teams that have successfully achieved winter ascents of 8,000-meter peaks. The total number of people who have stood on the summit of an 8,000-meter peak in winter is just 27.
Moro’s focus on winter feats came from an encounter he had in the fall of 1997, when he went to climb Shishapangma, the lowest of the 8,000ers. While moving toward an intermediate camp, Moro bumped into a steely-eyed, honey-blond giant carrying an oversized pack up the steep slopes. It was Anatoli Boukreev. The Kazakhstani mountaineer and guide had recently been in the news for his presence in the infamous May 1996 Everest disaster, in which eight climbers perished in a rogue storm high on the peak. At the time, Boukreev was widely recognized for being one of the greatest living high-altitude mountaineers; he had stood atop an 8,000-meter peak nine times before May 10, 1996, and made a solo speed ascent of Denali, the highest peak in North America, in little more than 10 hours from the base to the summit—an exploit described as “unreal” by Denali park rangers.
Before they went their separate ways, Boukreev told Moro to come visit him at his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A year later, the duo embarked on an ambitious project: a self-financed expedition to establish a new route on Annapurna in winter, without supplemental oxygen or porters, a feat that had been done only once before by the celebrated Polish climbers Jerzy Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer.
“Anatoli and I were like kids who never stop dreaming,” said Moro. “But most of all, we never got discouraged by being short of money.”
Dimitri Sobolev, a cinematographer from Kazakhstan, went along to document the attempt, and on Christmas Day 1997, after more than a month spent mostly at basecamp waiting for good weather, the trio set out for a summit bid. While they fixed ropes in a couloir at 5,700 meters, a massive cornice broke loose and swept away the three mountaineers. Moro was a few meters higher than the others and managed to survive, although he was severely injured. Boukreev and Sobolev disappeared below the avalanche debris. Their bodies were never found.
“When Anatoli died, it rocked my life to its core,” Moro says. Although they had been friends for only a year, Moro calls Boukreev the most trusted friend and best climbing companion he has ever had. Furthermore, Moro credits Boukreev with crucially improving his mountaineering style. “Anatoli showed me where my weaknesses were: I used him as a benchmark to understand what abilities I should improve to become the mountaineer I am now,” he says.
That ill-fated expedition helped Moro understand that the sheer pureness of the Himalayan landscapes in winter and the extreme isolation from the rest of the world is what he sought with his climbing. He wasn’t captivated by climbing as escapism from modern society where money and power rule all so much as he was lured by the idea of exploration as a chance to leave the civilized world and find out what he was truly made of.
It took Moro eight more years to complete his first winter ascent, but on January 14, 2005, he summited Shishapangma with Piotr Morawski, becoming the first non-Pole to stand on the summit of an 8,000er in winter. Polish mountaineers had monopolized the winter Himalayan mountaineering scene thanks to the Ice Warriors, a party of extremely talented climbers that included Krzysztof Wielicki, Jerzy Kukuczka, and Artur Hajzer. The Ice Warriors had a serious influence on Moro’s obsession with winter mountaineering, and he acknowledges the path they blazed. His affinity for them goes beyond just mountaineering, and he likens Polish climbers to the people of Bergamo. “They are very used to suffering,” he explains, “and since winter climbing is basically a ‘suffering game,’ they feel it very natural.”
In winter 2009, Moro achieved arguably his finest feat ever. Along with Denis Urubko, another Kazakhstani mountaineer with whom Moro developed an intense partnership, he reached the summit of Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak. Dozens of climbers had attempted Makalu in winter and failed. Exactly two years later, he made another outstanding exploit. Together with Urubko and American photographer Cory Richards, he completed an extremely lightweight ascent of Gasherbrum II, the first of the five 8,000-meter peaks in the Karakoram to be summited in winter.
While descending to basecamp, the trio was caught by a big avalanche that broke just above their heads. “It was an Annapurna déjà vu,” Moro says. As with the 1997 tragedy, Moro remained near the surface of the snow; he was able to dig his two companions out of the head-high snowpack. Just like Makalu, Gasherbrum II was a long-chased target that had resisted 26 years of attempts. After three virgin winter summits, the climbing community was forced to accept that a sinewy Italian was dominating the high-altitude winter scene.
When you see Moro, it is hard to believe that such a compact, lean person has managed to achieve such marked success on these mammoth peaks. Having no inherent anatomical advantage, Moro has developed a chameleon-like mountaineering style that incorporates Messner’s superhuman endurance, the Poles’ ability to withstand extreme conditions, and, perhaps most importantly, the brains and prudence of Ed Viesturs, a mountaineer known for his obsession with safety.
At any rate, Moro considers his churning brain the key to his achievements. He has an obsessive mind and a willpower that’s impossible to derail. “Once I get something in my head, there’s no way to stop it,” he says.
Whether it’s climbing indoors for hours on end or running a half marathon every day, Moro is such a nitpicker for sacrifice and perseverance that to an outsider he can seem almost crazy. Though he has never deemed mountaineering a competition, one of his enduring mottos is, “For every hour of training not executed, an extra hour is given to your rival.” For the easygoing and non-competitive Moro, his rival is always the mountain.
With a hectic schedule, it’s not unusual for Moro to train at night. He runs 160 kilometers per week (almost 100 miles), climbs, and lifts weights. For our first phone interview, we had agreed to catch up at 8 a.m. When I called, Moro’s phone was off. After a few minutes, I received a call from Marianna, his manager, who informed me that Moro had gone to bed just two hours earlier, having trained through the night because he had no time during the day. Whether he has a specific objective or not, Moro always trains. Always.
Nowadays, Moro gives countless slideshows and motivational speeches, often to corporations who pay him enough to bankroll his objectives. It seems like modern risk-takers can find immediate fame by pushing their boundaries, but Moro has done the opposite, building credibility with the passage of time and pursuing goals that take him years to complete. Only recently has he felt ready to step into the role of mentor. “It’s not because I’m aging,” he explains. “Mentoring and giving advice are serious issues, and until a decade ago I felt unfit for playing this role because I wasn’t reliable enough.”
Moro has designed his message around a simple core belief: Success isn’t the minimum requirement for a story to be engaging. He is proud of his failures as much as his successes, and from this, he employs a genuine, no-frills storytelling style that allows him to reach a diverse audience of more than 100,000 followers on social media, with five books written and translated into four languages, and appearances in several mountain movies.
Nonetheless, being internationally known and exposed to media attention has a major downside: criticism. Even though Moro has never—as has happened to other top alpinists—come under fire for controversial actions in a tragedy where people died under unclear circumstances, his career hasn’t been without its problems. Most were the minor blips that inevitably creep into a prominent climber’s lifecycle, but one was in no sense minor, and it had a public reach that far exceeded any of his mountaineering achievements.
In April 2013, along with Swiss speedster Ueli Steck and Jonathan Griffith, an English climber and photographer, Moro traveled to Everest to nab an alpine-style ascent of the Hornbein route, which hadn’t been repeated since the 1963 first ascent. While heading to Camp 3 to acclimatize, the trio came across a team of Sherpas who were installing fixed ropes along the Lhotse Face, the main ramp up to the standard Southeast Ridge route. At some point, the leader of the fixing crew, perhaps annoyed that his team was being disrupted while doing a treacherous job for commercial operators, began yelling at Steck and then rappelled down toward him. To keep from being knocked off the face, Steck raised his arms to soften the blow. Worried because they were climbing unroped, Moro began shouting at the Sherpa, calling him machikne, a grave insult in Nepali, which translates as “motherfucker.” The rope-fixing leader instructed the other Sherpas to stop working, and they descended the face, leaving behind an unfinished job. The three Westerners had planned to spend the night at Camp 3, but decided to head back down to Camp 2 and try to resolve the dispute.
It isn’t unheard of for climbers to get into verbal scuffles at high altitude, where thin air can inflate egos and cloud judgment, but what happened next was unprecedented. When the Europeans returned to their tents at Camp 2, a throng of Sherpas showed up, many of them with their faces covered, some armed with rocks. The trio surfaced from the tent in hopes of addressing the issue peacefully, but the Sherpas started punching, kicking, and throwing ice axes, crampons, and rocks. After injuring both Steck and Griffith, the Sherpas insisted that Moro, who had sorely insulted their leader, kneel before them and apologize for his offensive words. Moro demanded that if he did so, they would not attack him. Despite this, while he was on his knees, a few Sherpas began beating him. One tried to hit him with a penknife. The Sherpas declared that the trio no longer had a permit for the Lhotse Face. Afterward, one of the Sherpas warned the European climbers through the wall of their tent that they’d all be killed unless they left within the hour. On the way down, the European climbers avoided the established descent because they could see Sherpas lining the trail.
“We can discuss what happened on the Lhotse Face, what was wrong, what was right. But what happened at Camp 2, this was unacceptable,” Steck said later. “Even if we made a big mistake, it’s no reason to try to kill three people.” By the next day, news of a brawl had been reported by many major media outlets around the world.
“There were no losers and no winners in that discussion,” Moro says, his voice sorrowful. “Having offended that Sherpa is the only thing that I came to regret, but I did it just because we were ropeless and the slightest movement could have [made us fall to our deaths].” There is a widely held view that Sherpas, who are known for being peace-loving people, would not have acted so violently unless they’d been provoked.
Conflicting accounts gave rise to a maze of accusations. Some accounts were sympathetic to the European climbers, but others portrayed Moro, Steck, and Griffith as Gore-Tex imperialists, wealthy, haughty European invaders and flouters of cross-cultural decorum. However, film footage of the incident could be seen as proof that the Sherpas overreacted and threatened to kill the climbers over an inconvenience. According to Zachary Barr, an American filmmaker who turned all the footage from different witnesses into a 36-minute film entitled High Tension, “The story was apparently a fight over climbing etiquette. But it’s pretty clear it was about a lot more than etiquette that day on the Lhotse Face.”
Moro, who has been involved in charitable projects throughout the Khumbu Valley for years, has tried to view the incident in the light of Everest’s current predicament. Years of colonial-esque exploitation and a toxic mix of of cultural, historical, and economic grievances resulted in uneasy relations between Sherpas and Westerners, as well as between professional climbers and commercial operators. When all is said and done, Moro considers himself an accidental catalyst.
Since Moro first tried to scale Everest in 1992, he has returned on countless occasions, making it to the top four times and achieving noteworthy feats, like the mountain’s first solo south-to-north traverse in 2006. Though the crowds, expense, and relative drudgery of climbing Everest don’t exactly align with Moro’s love for exploratory, elegant, difficult, and original climbs, the world’s highest peak has nonetheless had a peerless role in his career and life—beyond the infamous 2013 melee.
In May 2001, Moro arrived at Everest Basecamp intending to complete one of his longtime dreams: the Everest-Lhotse traverse via the South Col in alpine-style, a bold feat attempted by Urubko and Moro the year before but never completed. During the 2001 expedition, as they were melting snow and preparing food, they received an SOS from Tom Moores, a 19-year-old British mountaineer who had fallen and was stuck somewhere on the Lhotse west face. It was early evening; Moro and Urubko had climbed all day, covering two days’ worth of ground in one. Exhausted, Moro turned on his headlamp and set out into the darkness alone.
After a grueling approach, Moro came upon an enormous slope where he spotted a tiny red dot lying in the snow. Moores, severely injured and bleeding, was stranded in an avalanche-prone spot with no gloves, lamp, or crampons. Unable to go down, Moro dragged the English climber 200 meters higher across the top of an exposed rock formation called the Turtle, where the snowpack seemed safer, and then proceeded toward his tent. He rejoined Urubko, who in the meantime had rescued a weary Polish alpinist, and then returned to the injured Briton with his own sleeping bag. The morning after, Moro, exhausted after shivering in his tent all night, descended to basecamp. The expedition was over.
Moro was hailed as a hero for abandoning his climb and risking his own life to save others. He was awarded a Pierre de Coubertin Fair Play Trophy from UNESCO, the Civilian Gold Medal from the Italian president, and the David A. Sowles Memorial Award from the American Alpine Club, but Moro downplayed the rescue. In his opinion, he did what had to be done; a human life is more important than any summit. “I couldn’t bear the idea of letting a person die without even making an attempt to save his life,” he said afterward. Moores, now 34, still climbs, and each year on the day of the rescue, sends an email to Moro to thank him.
“I felt—and still feel—very guilty, because the energy he used to rescue me forced him to give up on his plan,” Moores said in an email. “I remember stumbling [next to] him on the way down. He told me everything was fine and what was important was that both of us could still climb. I believe it’s a perfect example of the true climbing spirit.”
That rescue was telling of things to come for the Italian climber. Over his decades spent climbing in the Himalaya, Moro had noticed a lack of a professional helicopter rescue system. Nepal’s political climate and the costs and risks of flying at high altitude meant helicopter rescues were only for those who could afford it, but Moro wanted to help the entire Khumbu Valley. In 2009, he traveled to California and got his helicopter pilot license in a month. Then he returned to Italy and flew as much as possible. Two years later he moved his helicopter, donated by the late Gianni Carminati, an Italian entrepreneur who supported Moro’s goal, to Lukla and started rescue operations with an all-Italian team.
Although critics have said that helicopter rescues will only encourage more people to visit places they shouldn’t, Moro is steadfast that people don’t venture into dangerous territory just because they can get a rescue. “The [helicopter] is not a means for rich Westerners who get in trouble,” he says. “It’s something for doing good for whoever needs help.”
Ironically, the man who has pushed winter high-altitude mountaineering standards for more than a decade won’t be claiming the last remaining winter 8,000-meter summit. While Moro was on Gasherbrum II in 2011, his wife, Barbara, dreamed of him dying during a winter ascent of K2. When he got home, she confessed her fear.
“I’ve never interfered with his career,” she says. “I just asked him not to go and see if I’m right or wrong, and he agreed.”
Over time, fatherhood became another key reason behind his major retreats. “Having a family is a great privilege and responsibility,” he said of his wife and two sons, Martina and Jonas. “I kept pursuing a dangerous career, but more than once I found myself in a position where I had to factor in that I’m responsible for more than my own life.”
The psychological circuitry of most climbers makes it hard for them to quit, but the ability to stop is something Moro is proud of. He’s not an unemotional, mission-bound cyborg that’s free of pain and fear; he’s turned back many times in his career. He’s good at what he does precisely because he’s afraid, even insecure at times. Moro thinks there’s nothing heroic about taking risks that can’t be managed.
He is currently in Nepal with his helicopter rescue team, and in the spring of next year, he plans to return to the Himalaya. He doesn’t know precisely which mountain will be the target, but the likeliest option is Kangchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world.8,000
This article was originally published in Climbing in 2017.
Marcello Rossi is an Italian copywriter and freelance journalist who has written for Wired, International Business Times, and Vice. See more of his work at marcellorossi.net.