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“It’s a Suffering Game”: Simone Moro and the Fine Art of Climbing 8,000m Peaks in Winter

With four first winter ascents of 8,000-meter peaks, Simone Moro has taken the art of climbing in harsh conditions to new heights, but controversy plagues his climbing résumé.

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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

  1. Everest: 8,848 meters, Nepal/Tibet
  2. K2: 8,611 meters, Pakistan/China
  3. Kangchenjunga: 8,586 meters, Nepal/India
  4. Lhotse: 8,516 meters, Nepal/Tibet
  5. Makalu: 8,463 meters, Nepal/Tibet
  6. Cho Oyu: 8,201 meters, Nepal/Tibet
  7. Dhaulagiri: 8,167 meters, Nepal
  8. Manaslu: 8,163 meters, Nepal
  9. Nanga Parbat: 8,126 meters, Pakistan
  10. Annapurna: 8,091 meters, Nepal
  11. Gasherbrum I: 8,080 meters, Pakistan/China
  12. Broad Peak: 8,047 meters, Pakistan/China
  13. Gasherbrum II: 8,035 meters, Pakistan/China
  14. 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.

A portrait of Simone Moro from Cory Richards’ Cold, a film about the winter ascent of Gasherbrum II. Photo: Cory Richards

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.

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