Simone Moro has a simple answer for anyone who feels that Mount Everest and the rest of the 8,000-meter peaks are too crowded these days: go in winter. The ebullient, outspoken Italian alpinist has made the first winter ascents of Shisha Pangma, Makalu, and, most recently, Gasherbrum II—an epic climb that was chronicled in the hit adventure film COLD. One look at the footage of Moro hacking, shivering, and laughing his way to the summit in Arctic conditions says it all: this guy loves to suffer.
Moro is also perhaps the most engaged and multi-faceted Himalayan mountain activist of his generation. A professional mountain helicopter pilot, he periodically flies commercial and rescue missions in the Himalaya of Nepal and is the co-founder of the Shimshal Mountaineering School in Pakistan, an effort dedicated to bringing mountain training to the local people of the Karakoram. He is also known for making the first south-to-north traverse of Mount Everest—a feat that briefly placed him in hot water with Chinese authorities.
I caught up with Moro after he returned unsuccessfully from yet another winter expedition, this one to Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world.
– Freddie Wilkinson
Adventure: How was Nanga Parbat this year?
Simone Moro: It was not the right winter. It was really, really heavy snow. Normally the problem is wind-wind-wind, and clouds: not so much snowfall but mainly bad weather due to storm. On Nanga we had very heavy snowfall, we weren’t able to approach the mountain because of falling avalanches.
A: You started a mountaineering school in Shimshal, a remote community in northern Pakistan on the edge of the Karakoram Mountains. Why?
S.M.: The project began while I was on Broad Peak in winter 2008. I was attempting that climb with two Pakistani guys, Qudrat Ali and Sheehan Baig. First of all, this is a mountaineering school that is not only for males but also for females too. It is the first mixed climbing school in all of Pakistan, and one of the rare realities where boys and girls do training together, with the same coaches, the same classes.
In the beginning the school was based in the house of Qudrat Ali, but last year we built a real building thanks to support from an Italian bank. Now we have a proper building with solar panels, and we’ve sent equipment from my personal sponsors.
I decided to build the school to give a future to Pakistani climbers. After the 2008 tragedy on K2, many of the high-altitude porters were accused of not being professional, they didn’t fix proper rope… They were saying in Nepal things are going better because the Sherpas are stronger, better educated. So I decided to give that possibility to local Pakistani high-altitude porters. I dream our male and female students will be the future local guides.
A month before I climbed Gasherbrum II in winter, eight ladies from our school summited two virgin 6,000 meter peaks, in full winter. So, they are not only training to be guides, but also climbers!
A: Tell me about your south-to-north traverse of Mount Everest.
S.M.: I had no partner, I had to carry everything myself, set my own tent, no Sherpa. We can’t call it a solo climb, because on the way up there were many people, but I climbed without partners. I was solo on the descent, I didn’t meet any single person from summit to basecamp.
It was strange for many different reasons. I summited at 3.15 in the night. I started at 11.45 p.m. from the South Col. At 3.15 a.m. I was already on the summit. I arrive in basecamp on the North side at 7.45 in the morning, So I descended in 4 and a half hours from summit to basecamp. I was just thinking to be fast, fast, fast. My oxygen was already finished before the summit, so I went the last part to the summit without it. It was completely night and cold. I descended the most difficult parts, the Second Step, in the darkness.
It was challenging in terms of the logistics, because the Chinese never gave me a permit to descend Everest doing a traverse. I applied for a permit for many years, but they always refused, I think just to avoid any kind of traffic crossing borders through the mountains… I knew I had to be ready to fight to get the possibility to return safely. In the end I had to pay a fine for an illegal climb.
The real key person who helped me deal with these problems was an Italian anthropologist, Maria Luisa Nodari. She lives several months a year in Lhasa and she speaks Chinese and Tibetan. She tried to convince me not to do it, but I called her from the South Col and she came by jeep from Lhasa to basecamp and she told the liason officers and policeman what I was trying to say.
Officially, I did the traverse because I lost the way, ran out of oxygen on summit, and when I realized I was missing the way I was already too low to go back.
When I did the traverse it was quite challenging, but for many different reasons, at the end I was using oxygen. Maybe just for two, three hours, but it doesn’t change the fact, it was an oxygen climb. I am fully motivated to go back and complete the climb in a proper way.
A: Climber Steve House has floated the idea of banning supplemental oxygen on Everest. Would you?
S.M.: From a sportive way, for sure: we should make a huge, huge, difference between summiting with [oxygen] and without [it]. I’m not happy, from a sportive way, with what I’ve done on Everest. But the problem is not to forbid people to climb Everest if they are using oxygen. A big part of Nepal’s economy comes from the hundreds of people climbing Everest with guide and oxygen.
On Everest there are so many new routes to climb, still, and there is still the winter climb from the North side, the East Face – Fantasy Ridge… The normal routes from the south and north in April and May is not the terrain of adventure, of exploration. But this doesn’t mean that Everest isn’t the terrain of exploration or adventure. If, for example Ueli [Steck] will go for a traverse like the Hornbien Couloir, and coming down without oxygen, or as I would like to do new routes on the Southwest Face, even if you are close to the commercial expeditions, you are completely alone in an unexplored part of Everest.
It’s better to think the opposite way, to give the possibility to Nepal to make money, and to make clear in the climbing community, if you want to do real alpinism, real exploration, real adventure, to watch everything on Everest except the normal routes. Or – go in the winter.