Italian Simone Moro and the Kazakh Denis Urubko have just reached the summit of 8,485m Makalu, previously the only 8,000m peak in Nepal not to have received a winter ascent. Their successful climb comes after a dozen or so winter attempts by various parties in almost 30 years.
The pair arrived at base camp by helicopter on the 16th January, after first acclimatizing in the Khumbu. When the weather was clement, they made several forays up the Normal Route, building on their acclimatization for a summit push. A mere 10 days after their arrival at advanced base, the pair had already reached a point just below the Makalu La at 7,400m.
Like a growing number of climbers attempting major projects, Moro and Urubko based their schedule around the excellent weather predictions from Karl Gabl in Innsbruck. When the weather finally seemed fair for a summit attempt, Gabl urged them to wait another day, which they did.
On the 7th they reached Camp 2 in only three and a half hours from advanced base, and on the 8th climbed up to the Makalu La and then progressed across the North West Face, camping for the night at 7,700m. The following day they took a further eight hours to summit, battling the jet stream in the final section, and on the 10th had safely descended the mountain.
Such is the world of modern climbing that Moro was able to relay news of the success to ExplorersWeb from the summit. Modern technology can have its drawbacks though. Moro, a highly professional climber, had to take time out from acclimatization so he could call his sponsors at the Munich Trade Show, but did have the benefit of making live video connection with his young daughter at home in Italy.
Makalu, the World's fifth highest mountain, has a long history of winter attempts, the first coming from the great Renato Casarotto, always a man of vision, who reached a credible height of 7,200m in January 1981 on the South East Ridge Integral. At the end of the same year a six-member British expedition, which included Linda and Ron Rutland, reached c7,400m on the Normal Route.
In January 1982 the Frenchman Ivan Ghirardini made spirited attempts to solo both the West (French) Pillar and the Normal Route, reaching c7,000m on each. In common with climbers on previous expeditions, it was very high winds and low temperatures that defeated him.
Just before Xmas 1985, Japanese reached 7,520m on the Normal Route and a month or so later Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner reached more or less the same height on their third attempt at the Kukuczka Route up the crest of the North West Ridge.
In December 1986 the very experienced Japanese pair, Noboru Yamada and Yasuhira Saito, twice got to 7,500m in alpine style on the South East Ridge, while in January 1987 on the Normal Route the American, Andrew Evans, on a primarily Polish expedition reached the same height, solo.
Krzysztof Wielicki (first winter ascents of Lhotse, Everest and Kangchenjunga) entered the scene in December 1990. With the Belgian, Ingrid Baeyens and two fellow Poles, Anna Czerwinska and Richard Pawlowski, he climbed to 7,400m on the Normal Route for acclimatization purposes, then soloed to 7,300m on the West Pillar. He returned in 2000, first attempting the West Pillar, then the South East Ridge and finally the Normal Route, where the inevitable wind defeated him at 7,150m. In between times a Spanish team reached 7,200m on the Normal Route (January 1996).
The next attempt was undoubtedly the most memorable in recent years, resulting in the disappearance of the celebrated mountaineer, Jean-Christophe Lafaille. On the 27th January 2006, the Frenchman left his tent above the Makalu La at 7,600m for a summit push: how high he got is unknown
In early 2008 it was the turn of the tried and tested Italian trio of Romano Benet, his wife Nives Meroi (one of the leading female 8,000m-peak collectors) and Luca Vuerich. They attempted the Normal Route, as did a second team that winter, Gennady Durov, Sergei Samoilov, Eugeny Shutov and one Denis Urubko from Kazakhstan. These four reached 7,500m before being battered by ferocious winds.
The Italians reached a slightly lower altitude with the same result, and during their retreat, on the long walk down the difficult moraine to lower base camp, Meroi was blown over by the wind and broke her leg.
The ascent of Makalu by Moro and Urubko marks the first time in history that a winter ascent of an 8,000m peak has not featured a Polish climber in the summit party.