Exclusive: This Mountaineer’s Decision to Fail Likely Saved Her Partners

Tamara Lunger trekking to Nanga Parbat, known as the "Killer Mountain," Photograph courtesy Simone Moro
Simone Moro trekking to Nanga Parbat, known as the “Killer Mountain,” Photograph courtesy Simone Moro

Barbara Moro, a high-school phys-ed teacher in Bergamo, Italy, came home from work one day and mentioned to her husband, Simone Moro, the renowned Himalayan alpinist, that one of her students showed quite a bit of promise and interest in becoming a high-altitude mountaineer. For one, the student had the gift of endurance, but she was also respectful, mature. She absolutely loved mountains.

The student, Tamara Lunger, grew up skiing and climbing in the Dolomites surrounding her home, the town of Bolzano, in South Tyrol. Her father, Hansjorg Lunger, was a local ski mountaineering legend and her first teacher.

Heeding his wife’s advice, Simone invited Tamara to join him on an expedition to the Himalaya in 2009, when Tamara was 22. Their objective was 8,188-meters (26,864-foot) Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. But that year China closed the border between Tibet and Nepal, and they never got to climb. Still, the experience was eye opening, affirming Tamara’s decision to dedicate her life to climbing.

Tamara returned the following year, alone, and soloed Cho Oyu to 7,750 meters before turning around. But the recognition that Tamara deserved for making it that far was overshadowed by a tragedy. Walter Nones, another climber and one of Tamara’s friends, had died on the same peak. Tamara helped with the body recovery, an experience that she said “took away my love of the mountains.”

Slowly, though, she returned.

Barbara Moro had been right. Tamara clearly had what it took to be an alpinist.

Despite the over-commercialization of many of the world’s most prominent peaks, climbing them “the right way” still demands a high level of skill, fitness, respect, and self-reliance—the age-old tenets of mountaineering. It’s sort of an unwritten ethical code, more important than the number of summits amassed, to which real climbers continue to hold themselves.

Mountaineer Tamara Lunger on Nanga Parbat; Photograph courtesy Simone Moro
Mountaineer Tamara Lunger on Nanga Parbat; Photograph courtesy Simone Moro

Fast forward to mid-morning, Pakistan time, on February 26, 2016: Tamara Lunger and Simone Moro, now 29 and 48 years old, respectively, find themselves a few hundred meters below the summit of Nanga Parbat. They are within striking distance of making history and completing the mountain’s long-awaited first winter ascent; that is, the first time the mountain is climbed during the calendar winter, with all the additional challenges that winter brings, such as much lower

temperatures, incessant monsoon storms, and highly avalanche-prone slopes.

They’ve joined two other climbers from another expedition: Alex Txikon of Spain and Muhammad Ali of Sadpara, Pakistan (aka Ali Sadpara). All four climbers are moving independently. No one is carrying even a rope.

About 100 meters (300 feet) below the summit, Tamara confesses to Simone that she might not be able to make it down on her own.

“She told me, ‘I can make it to the top … But if I do, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it down without your help,’” says Simone. “This was quite an alarming sentence! We didn’t have a rope, and so she would be putting all of us in a lot trouble if we had to help her get down.”

Tamara Lunger (left) and Simone Moro in a tent on the February 2016 Nanga Parbat first winter ascent expedition; Photograph courtesy Simone Moro
Tamara Lunger (left) and Simone Moro in a tent on the February 2016 Nanga Parbat winter ascent expedition; Photograph courtesy Simone Moro

The night before, the foursome had shared a tent on the shoulder of the Himalayan giant, at 7,100 meters. By normal Himalayan climbing standards, none of the four climbers were appropriately acclimatized due to the general nature of winter climbing in the Himalaya, when seasonal monsoon jet streams ravage the mountains and keep climbers mostly tent-bound. Sure enough, over the previous 80 days, at least a dozen or so climbers comprising at least five different expeditions—all vying for Nanga Parbat’s coveted first winter ascent—had been waiting patiently in base camp while storm after storm ripped across the “naked” summit.

Indeed, this is one of the many reasons that Nanga Parbat, despite more than 30 attempts over the past three decades, had remained unclimbed in winter: The windows of good weather, if they ever come, are way too short to allow for proper acclimatization, much less a summit bid.

Yet an unlikely foursome of climbers found themselves at a bivouac about a thousand meters below the summit, with a day of good weather ahead. Summit day dawned. They made the decision to leave at 6 a.m. rather than the normal alpine start of 3 a.m. They were on the west side of the mountain, and with consistent 30 mile-per-hour winds and a windchill of minus 80ºF, they wanted to maximize their time in the sun.

Tamara woke up depleted. She vomited up her breakfast. She couldn’t hold anything down, not even water. The altitude was taking its toll. Still, she climbed alongside her mentor and two newfound friends.

If Tamara could make it to the summit, she would become the first woman to achieve a first winter ascent of an 8,000-meter peak. In fact, only 27 people have ever stood atop an 8,000-meter peak in winter, and only one of those people is a woman. In 1993, Marianne Chapuisat, of Switzerland, climbed Cho Oyu in the winter—the second winter ascent of the peak.

At 3:37 p.m., Ali Sadpara, a Pakistani porter without any big sponsors, became the first person to stand on Nanga Parbat’s summit in winter. This was his also his fourth time at the summit of Nanga Parbat, a record.

Soon, Simone Moro and Alex Txikon joined him.

Meanwhile, just 70 meters below them, Tamara had stopped. The climbers were close enough to wave to each other.

“Honestly, we thought she was coming to the top,” says Simone. “She was just so close—only 20 or 30 minutes away from the summit. But she was just completely without power. She was dehydrated, and she knew climbing higher might put us in danger too. Because we were also exhausted.”

The men spent less than a few minutes on the summit. Only Simone took a photo. Meanwhile, Tamara turned around and descended alone, independently.

“This is the first time in my entire climbing career that I’ve seen such a smart, generous, and ethical way of thinking in the mountains,” says Simone. “This would’ve been a historical moment in alpinism: She was about to become the first woman to make a first winter ascent of an 8,000-meter peak. But she was thinking about us.

“It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in climbing.”

The four climbers made it back to Camp 4 that evening, and they were all back at base camp the following day.

At this point, only one of the world’s 14 highest peaks—mountains with altitudes breaching 8,000 meters—awaits a winter ascent: K2, the second tallest mountain on Earth and, statistically, one of the deadliest.

Simone Moro on the February 2016 Nanga Parbat winter ascent expedition; Photograph courtesy Simone Moro
Simone Moro on the February 2016 Nanga Parbat winter ascent expedition; Photograph courtesy Simone Moro

Simone Moro is a charismatic and larger-than-life figure whose offset teeth and bespectacled face belie a superhuman endurance and ability to suffer, traits that have seen him up numerous 8,000-meter peaks, including four in winter—a record. A professional climber and a high-altitude helicopter pilot who is pioneering new means to perform extremely dangerous, risky, and controversial rescues of climbers at altitude, Simone spoke to us after he and Tamara reached Islamabad, where both were given medical treatment for their toes—frostbitten but intact and expected to fully recover.

How does it feel to have completed the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat?

Honestly, Alex, Ali, and I all have difficulties not considering Tamara a summitter, like us. We were 100 percent sure she was coming to the summit, because the distance where she stopped and turned back was just so close. She was only 70 meters below us. We could wave to her. But she really was completely exhausted, and she had been having stomach problems all morning.

Like I said, this is the first time in my climbing career that I’ve seen such a generous and very smart way of thinking. She denied herself the summit to avoid putting us in danger. It would be like you are close to winning an Olympic medal, and two meters before the finish line, you stop, turn around, and help someone in trouble. It was really incredible to witness. 

What were the difficulties that you faced on this climb?

First, we were not properly acclimatized when we decided to grab the good weather window and go for the summit. We had spent only one night at Camp 2, at 6,200 meters. Usually, this is not enough to climb an 8,000-meter peak without oxygen. So this was the first big question mark: Are we able to go for the summit with only one night at 6,200?

The second major difficulty was the weather and wind. There [were] 45 kilometer-per-hour [30 mile per hour] winds and a windchill of minus 60ºC (-76º F).

Poor acclimatization and cold could kill anyone’s ambition, and we had to really fight with these elements. We moved quite fast at the beginning, but I remember, the last 200 meters to the summit, it was really a pure mental game.

You and Tamara were originally going for the Messner route, but you switched to join Ali and Txikon on the Kinshofer route. Why did you switch objectives?

Originally, the idea was to attempt a route that doesn’t require any fixed ropes. I had already tried the Messner route in winter in 2011 with Denis Urbuko, and I realized it was a perfect route to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat without any fixed ropes.

This year, there was another team (Tomasz Mackiewicz of Poland, and Elisabeth Revol, of France) who were trying the route. They alerted me to the fact that this particular season, there were a lot of crevasses and falling seracs, so it was quite dangerous.

That’s when I decided to accept Alex’s invitation to join him and his partners. I understood that the Kinshofer route was the only realistic way to go this year.

So Alex made the invitation? Also, this meant using fixed ropes to reach the top, correct?

I’ve known Alex since 2003, when I climbed Broad Peak, and he was in base camp. So we’ve been friends since then. He invited me at the beginning of the expedition. He said, “Simone, you are the most experience guy here in winter, so come with us on the Kinshofer route.” At first, I refused, saying, no, let me try the Messner route. But when I realized it was too dangerous, I joined him, and I thanked him.

Alex and Ali did 70 percent of the work by fixing the ropes. So we had the benefit to join them and take advantage of the fantastic work that they did.
I tried to pay them back, let’s say, by offering all my experience and strategy up higher on the mountain. You know, in life, sometimes it’s the combination of the right team, the right conditions, that allow a person to reach the goal.

Why have you been drawn to climbing 8,000-meter peaks in winter?

You know better than me that, if you want to show everyone in the world that you are a very good high-altitude mountaineer, you have to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks. Now, there are nearly 40 people in the world who have done this. Yes, it’s expensive, risky, long, and difficult. But, for sure, climbing the 14 8000ers is no longer a kind of exploration. When almost 40 people have done it, it’s quite obvious that it’s possible.

Instead of chasing the 14, I discovered that climbing 8,000-meter peaks in winter is a real, pure, absolute exploration. You have a 15 percent rate of success. Honestly, let me ask you this: Do you think it’s convenient or wise today, when sponsors and press demand successful expeditions, to choose something that has more than an 85 percent rate of failure?

But I do it because the sense of exploration is so high. You are escaping the trap of success, and you just embrace the beauty of the big question mark. I have to admit, I’m happy that I haven’t fallen into the trap of, let’s say, being hungry for success. I’m hungry for exploration. And when you go in winter, even while remaining in base camp for three months waiting for the good weather, you really feel like a pioneer. Like an explorer of another time.

You’ve now climbed four of the 14 8,000-meter peaks in winter. Will you do the other 10?

Absolutely not! First of all, I’m too old. I’m 48. And second of all, I’m too smart, because I know how hard that would be. But for sure, there will be someone, sooner or later, who will bring a different way of collecting the 8000ers. Instead of being number 41 or 42 to do all 14, they could be the first to do them in winter. It will happen. 

What about K2, the last remaining 8000er without a winter ascent?

No, I will not try K2, and let me explain to you why: When I climbed Gasherbrum II in winter, my wife had a dream. And in that dream I was dying during a winter ascent of K2. So, when I came home, she said to me, “I’ve never told you what you should or shouldn’t climb or what you should do. But let me ask you just one single thing. Don’t ever go to K2.”

So, I don’t want to go and see if she’s right or wrong!

There is a big Polish expedition currently organizing for K2 in winter. It would be great, a happy ending, because the Polish were the inventors of this game of winter alpinism. They were the first to climb an 8000er in winter with Everest in 1980, and it would be nice for them to conclude this period as well.

What’s next?

For sure, I’m not retiring. But I will stop climbing 8000ers in winter. I would like to change something and return to technical alpinism. I’m quite fascinated by the many unclimbed peaks 7,000 meters and under.

Comments

  1. Mihai P
    Münich
    March 5, 2016, 12:42 pm

    Great Tamara, grate team..

  2. […] Any comments? The whole story here. […]

  3. Mateusz
    PL
    March 7, 2016, 9:49 am

    “Simone Moro is a charismatic and larger-than-life figure whose offset teeth and bespectacled face belie a superhuman endurance and ability to suffer, traits that have seen him up numerous 8,000-meter peaks, including four in winter—a record.” – you probably should have added that this is a shared record – Jerzy Kukuczka has climbed four eight-thousanders in winter as well; or you should add that you mean that Simone made four first winter ascents of such peaks – then the sentence would be completely fine.

  4. Mateusz
    PL
    March 7, 2016, 9:53 am

    Forgot to add in the end that Kukuczka’s climb of Cho Oyu happened I think a day after the first climb by two other Polish climbers from the same expedition – and this was only due to the fact that Kukuczka joined the Cho Oyu expedition directly after completing first winter ascent of Dhaulagiri literally a few days before.

  5. Reporter
    March 10, 2016, 3:22 am

    No, it wasn’t Ali Sadpara’s fourth summit. It was 3rd!

    “At 3:37 p.m., Ali Sadpara, a Pakistani porter without any big sponsors, became the first person to stand on Nanga Parbat’s summit in winter. This was his also his fourth time at the summit of Nanga Parbat, a record.”

  6. Ruairi
    March 21, 2016, 12:04 pm

    It’s a cool article but I think the title is rather misleading… A little on the click bait side of journalism. A more appropriate title would have made the article better rather than me reading on expecting some kind of disaster to strike. Sure mention the fact that it was good for her not to go to the summit but don’t frame the whole article around it. The ascent itself is interesting enough.

  7. Cobi
    Seattle, WA
    March 21, 2016, 10:16 pm

    The word “Fail” does not belong in the world of Alpinism. People spend months of their lives dedicated to an adventure to return to people and the press calling it a “failure”. She made it back safe, independent, and didn’t cause harm to anyone. She knew her limit. It sounds like pure success to me! Great job girlfriend! Don’t beat yourself up! You rock!

  8. bob
    March 21, 2016, 11:13 pm

    lol she’s a hero because she failed and she’s a woman