Dhaulagiri base camp is a desert of bare rocks: hurricane-force winds have swept away the snow and the fabric of the dining tent seems to clap while climbers David Goettler, Hervé Barmasse and their cook look at each other with circumstantial faces. The cold and the thermal sensation are unbearable. “Honestly, our chances of success are tiny, but they would be nil if we had stayed at home,” admits the German Goettler. His mountain equipment is a declaration of principles, the desire not to betray himself: style, ethics, the way of approaching the problem of climbing a mountain of 8,167 meters in winter and according to an idea that, in his opinion, is important. is non-negotiable: the alpine style.
“We want to respect each other and respect the mountain,” confides Hervé Barmassé, an Italian who grew up in the shadow of the Matterhorn. Respect comes from following an idea: facing difficulties without trying to minimize commitment, without shortcuts, without a network, without excuses… without what could be considered cheating. There will be two men, both high mountain guides, a 60 meter thin rope, two ice screws, a handful of carabiners, crampons and ice axes. The fixed ropes, the fixed height fields, the oxygen, the invaluable help of the Sherpas pass through the window. “We want to do something that hasn’t been done yet, mark a turning point in the history of ‘eight-thousander’ winter ascents, and right now the alpine style is the only way to be consistent with this desire to differentiate ourselves from what is has done so far”, says Goettler.
Having said this, his gaze turns to history, until he finds the footprint of the colossal Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka, one who in his fight with Reinhold Messner for being the first to climb the 14 eight thousand he climbed four of them in winter: Dhaulagiri, Cho Oyu, Kangchenjunga and Annapurna. “We don’t want to do better than Kukuzcka. I have immense respect for what climbers of past generations did. In my case, it’s about doing something that really motivates me and pushes me to find my limits in the mountains. That is why we have chosen the alpine style: two people alone, who will not leave any trace in their wake because we carry everything on our backs and return with everything in our backpack. I climbed Dhaulagiri in the spring of 2008 and it was one of the easiest expeditions of my career, but now it’s another game. I know that it is possible to do it, but I also know that we are only going to have one chance, which drastically limits our chances of success, a condition that motivates us”, analyzes Goettler.
The most curious thing is that winter ascent analysts do not agree when it comes to deciding when it is winter: some look at the meteorological winter and take the dates from December 1 to February 28 as valid. Others, on the other hand, choose the astronomical winter, between December 21 and March 21. With this, the brilliant alpine-style climb of Dhaulagiri by Erhard Loretan, Jean Troillet and Pierra-Alain Steiner on December 6, 1985 remains in limbo, since for a part of the Himalayan community it did not strictly occur in winter.
Mountaineering grows when its actors decide to take on the challenge of improving what others did. Mountaineering takes its references from the past, a lever from which it is possible to dream of new paths, challenges, adventures. The adventure is not such if one minimizes the consequences of one’s actions: making history continues to be a challenge within the reach of a select few. Modern mountaineers play the cards of better training, of more efficient and lighter equipment, of the knowledge revealed before by others who dared to go a step further in search of challenges. The reward is equal to what one can lose by betting big.
Faced with this way of facing challenges, there remains the recent winter expedition led by Alex Txikon with a summit in Manaslu, fixed ropes and six Sherpas with bottled oxygen at work. “Personally, I wouldn’t have wanted to climb Manaslu in winter like that, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad climb or the wrong style. Last spring I climbed Everest without artificial oxygen, but I used the fixed ropes, for example. I don’t want to judge how others do things. The beauty of mountaineering is that there are no rules and everyone can climb as they wish. The only responsibility that this freedom entails is the obligation to communicate what has been done truthfully and honestly, to explain how the mountain has been climbed. Only in this way can we preserve our credibility vis-à-vis the mountaineering community and public opinion”, says Goettler.
In the winter of 1984-85, Kukuzcka drew a masterful double: on January 21 he reached the top of Dhaulagiri and on February 15 he stepped on the top of Cho Oyu, without using artificial oxygen. But his approach to both mountains was seen by both Polish expeditions as that of the star striker waiting in the lead (without getting involved in the defense or creating the game) for a ball to finish off, score and win the game. At Dhaulagiri, Kukuzcka arrived when his compatriots had been working for a month, installing fixed ropes and high-altitude fields… in addition to dodging monstrous avalanches that swept away his base camp. “It was the worst winter in the last 27 years, with just a handful of days without snowfall, storms or exaggerated winds that shook us for seven weeks,” Adam Blelczewski would explain in 1985.
Kukuzcka’s grit and drive allowed one more march to reach the top and endure an epic return trip from the highest point. He and his partner Andrzej Czok got lost after stepping on the top in the middle of a gale, unable to find the last field of altitude, suffering two bivouacs that cost the second severe frostbite. While some headed for the path to the hospital, Kukuczka began a race against time to join another expedition from his country that was fighting to sign the first winter of Cho Oyu. He arrived just in time to finish off, although he did so after the great Maciej Berbeka and his friend Maciej Pawlikowski took first place honors.
Hervé Barmasse and David Goettler already tried the Rupal slope of Nanga Parbat in alpine style last winter. Terrible winds barely allowed them to progress on the wall, but they wanted to return this season before turning at the last minute towards Dhaulagiri, one of the eight thousand most visited in winter. Now, once again, the same wind threatens ruin for their company, but they have announced that they will remain at least 20 more days waiting for an improvement, a crack that allows them to launch fast, light, isolated towards an unknown in which the only sure thing is that they will be tied by something more than a rope of few millimeters.
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