In an interview with Claus Lochbihler, Simone Moro talks about the cold, the advantage of short fingers and what draws him to the highest mountains in the world in winter.
Interview by Claus Lochbihler – published for the first time in the trade journal bergundsteig
Simone, three years ago you spent 45 months in the course of your career in temperatures between minus 20 and minus 50 degrees. How many cold months have there been since then?
I go on an expedition every winter. Each of these lasts three months. So it's now well over 50 months that I've spent in extremely cold conditions. All the more surprising that I still have all my toes and fingers. And I've never suffered severe frostbite.
I'm very careful and do everything I can to keep my feet from getting cold. One of the most important things is that you change your socks often and regularly. Every day! When I come back to the tent after a long day, I immediately take off my socks, dry my feet and put on a dry pair. I warm another used pair on my body overnight so that I have warm spare socks the next morning.
A pair or two of socks?
Just a few. Some wear silk socks or double socks in addition to wool stockings. But it is more important to me that I avoid pressure points or compression on my feet at all costs. If anything impedes blood flow, even minimally, the risk of frostbite increases.
Wool or synthetic?
Wool on the socks and on the body. merino wool. It keeps you warm even when it's wet or sweaty. Better than any synthetic. I always wear my cleanest underwear when attempting the summit. Because it keeps you warmer and retains heat better than dirty laundry. If possible I take a shower. If that's not possible, I clean myself anyway. So that the clean laundry stays clean and warm for as long as possible.
Do you use heating systems in the shoes?
Not yet. Although I know they work great. I might try that. Of course, some see it as a violation of ethics, a kind of technical doping.
What medicines do you have with you - in case you or someone else suffers frostbite?
Heparin syringes [Heparins are used in medicine to prevent thrombosis and clotting of blood samples. For frostbite, heparin can be used if there is a risk of deep vein thrombosis; Editor's note]. Luckily I haven't needed them yet. Some also have Viagra with them, because then the heparin works even better. But I've been lucky so far. Or I was careful enough.
The worst I've seen of frostbite has always affected participants on summer commercial expeditions. Once even one where it was feared that he would lose all ten toes. I don't know exactly what happened there - whether he was just too slow or had to spend the night outdoors. But something went terribly wrong.
Are there physical factors that make you particularly cold-resistant?
My mother always said that when I went skiing, cross-country skiing and jogging, I often wore only a t-shirt or was very lightly dressed. Normal cold doesn't bother me that much. I probably benefit at high altitude and in the cold from having relatively short toes and fingers and not particularly large feet. The circulation is better there than with long toes and fingers. I'm not particularly tall, but I'm not too skinny either. I think that's why my body has pretty good temperature regulation.
Where others are already freezing and trembling, I am usually still warm. But of course the most important thing is the equipment – and how much better it is compared to the time when the great Poles transferred winter mountaineering to the Himalayas.
Can you demonstrate that with an example?
My expedition mountaineering boot now weighs just under a kilo each. It keeps you much warmer than the leather mountain boots with which the Poles traveled. One weighed three kilos. And in the freezing cold, they're frozen stiff. Modern expedition mountaineering boots remain wonderfully flexible.
What role do the Polish pioneers of high-altitude mountaineering play in winter – above all Jerzy Kukuczka and Krysztof Wielicki - in that Simone Moro has become the currently most successful winter mountaineer?
Winter mountaineering has always fascinated me. When I started climbing and mountaineering, I had the books by Reinhold Messner and Walter Bonati had read. As is well known, Bonatti was a pioneer of winter mountaineering, who started his career with the solo winter ascent of the Matterhorn north face has finished. Messner was also out and about a lot in winter. But neither of them – not even Messer, who has managed everything else – has managed to climb an 8.000m peak in winter.
When the Poles did it in the 80s, Messner also made an attempt Makalu inspired. But the winter ascent of an 8.000er is one of the few things that he has not succeeded. This also shows how great the performance of the Poles was.
How did you react to that?
I asked myself: why the Poles? And I looked at the map to see how high the highest mountains in Poland are. That is the High Tatras, with mountains the highest of which reach just over 2.600 meters. I was first amazed, then inspired.
Because it showed me how much you can achieve with passion and will. When you grow up in Bergamo, it is not preordained – 'predestinato' as we say in Italy – that you will become a successful winter high-altitude climber. The Poles showed me that it's possible.
What fascinates you about winter mountaineering on the highest mountains in the world?
In winter you are in Himalayas or Karakorum completely alone. You move in an absolute wilderness and loneliness that does not exist anywhere else. In winter everything is so complicated and demanding - even getting there - that it's all about survival. It's not so much about the alpinistic difficulty, but - much more so than in the summer season - about mere survival.
At the same time, the experience is close to what the first explorers and hikers experienced: the unknown. You have to find the route on a mountain that changes constantly in winter. Sometimes so strong that on some days you no longer recognize the mountain where you have been camping for a month.
What specifically makes winter harder?
Everything. Starting with planning and acclimatization to very small, simple things like taking pictures.
How you do that?
Before I pull out the camera, I go through everything in my head: where is your camera? Which photo do you want to take? Do you have to change something on the camera for this? What? After that everything goes faster. And more controlled. I minimize the time I expose myself and my hands to the cold.
And the acclimatization?
In winter there are even fewer weather windows than in summer – sometimes none at all. This makes acclimatization and training so much more difficult because there's a lot less to do on a schedule. If things go badly, you sit in a tent for a month and then the weather window for the summit attempt comes. It's like when a track and field athlete goes to the Olympics and has to run 400 meters after a month of being motionless. It's even worse because at least the athlete can eat and sleep well, doesn't struggle with nausea, and his body isn't constantly breaking down because of the altitude.
How do you deal with bad weather that ties you to camp?
During the last expedition I changed my strategy. I didn't stay in the tent, I also went out in the storm to train near base camp and stay fit. Of course you have to be careful not to freeze or catch a cold. But that's how you stay a little bit fit.
Unlike the Polish "Ice Warriors" you get very precise weather forecasts today.
I am very thankful to be with Karl Gabl can work together. I don't think he's ever given me a prediction that turned out to be wrong. Sometimes his assessments are cautiously pessimistic - but that's for the best. I'd rather sit in base camp when the weather is surprisingly good than in a storm on the mountain. If he's not sure, we arrange to call again the next day. His dates are very precise and conservative. And the most important thing: because he is such an experienced mountaineer himself, he knows exactly what it's like on the mountain in certain weather conditions. Actually, Karl Gabl tells me when I can start. Whether I do it and how is my decision.
There is extreme cold. And extreme cold at extreme altitude. You have experienced both, not least through your expedition to Pobeda, an extremely cold but only 3.000 meter high mountain in Siberia.
In fact, one reason for this expedition was that I wanted to learn more about the difference between extreme cold and extreme cold combined with extreme altitude.
You can compare our body to an open fireplace. If the fire in it gets no or too little oxygen, it does not produce heat, only smoke. It's the same when you're at 8.000 meters: your body simply doesn't have the oxygen to generate enough heat. From this perspective, minus 30 degrees at 8.000 meters is much colder than minus 50 degrees at 3000 meters.
Then there are all the other factors: I could eat well in Siberia, my digestion worked. When I woke up in the morning I was completely regenerated. It was very, very cold, but everything else was no different than in the Alps. Tamara and I were so fit that we made the summit in a speed ascent to avoid a bivouac. On the other hand, at 8.000 meters you are only at a fraction of your normal capacity. On the other hand, you sweat a lot less at high altitude because you move much more slowly. And because you're already so dehydrated.
Do you train specifically for the cold?
I train every day. When it comes to cold, you could say I train to stimulate my body's ability to generate heat.
So run and run again?
I run between 100 and 120 kilometers a week. Even more would be ideal, but I can't do that due to time constraints.
What was the highest altitude you've ever bivouacked at?
In winter once on Makalu at 7.700 meters. And in the 2000 summer season, five days with me Denis Urubko on Everest at an altitude of over 8.000 meters. That was really hard. I lost 10 kilos in five days. You could really see how my body eats up its muscles. That's when I understood that you can't spend that much time at such a high altitude.
How does Simone Moro sleep at such heights?
Considering the conditions and compared to my mountain partners, it was surprisingly good. I fall asleep very quickly. My mountain partners are sometimes amazed. Tamara Lunger almost got angry once and jerked me awake because she just couldn't believe how quickly I fell asleep.
Your sleeping tip?
You definitely need something with air inside as a base – Thermarest or something like that. That isolates. Without a layer of insulation, the cold floor sucks all the heat out of your body.
Have you turned back because it was too cold?
No. I often turned back because of the weather or because there was too much snow. Or the glacier was too jagged, crevassed and dangerous like last winter on Gasherbrum, where we stopped after I fell into a crevasse. But I've never turned back just because of the cold. And I've turned back many times.
What if the wind is added to the cold?
Then yes. Wind is a much more decisive factor than cold. The weather is often sunny, but the wind is so strong that you still can't go. Wind is one of the most limiting factors at such altitudes.
Nevertheless, you try to avoid the greatest cold as much as possible.
Clear. In winter you can't leave at midnight like in summer - it's too cold for that. And you can't handle it mentally either: If you set off at such heights in complete darkness and at 50 degrees below zero in winter, your psyche will explode after a few hours. You need sun or light, at least in base camp. That's why I don't go out until 5 or 6 in the morning in winter.
How do you move at very high altitude? And what are you paying attention to?
To many things. I try to keep an eye on the clouds – even the more distant ones, because they can suddenly come along very, very quickly when the wind gets strong. While I've never experienced visions or heard voices, I know it can happen at this altitude. That's why I pay attention to my consciousness and how I perceive myself. And I count my steps.
I think about how many steps I can take. Like 20. Then I count backwards from 20 and try to keep my pace until I get to zero.
And the time?
I'm constantly checking the clock and my time limits. That is one of the most important things: You have to set limits. And then stick to it. And you have to be realistic, you have to know at what height, what terrain and in what condition you can climb how many meters: 120 meters in altitude per hour? More? Or just 70? I think the more often you've been on an expedition, the better and more realistically you can assess it. You have to be able to turn back. Even just below the summit. I try never to get infected by summit fever. You have to be focused on your life when it matters. Not to the top. You shouldn't think in terms of success or failure. Success, if defined as summit success, doesn't give a shit.
I've turned back many times, i.e. failed, as some might see it. But the success of an alpinist is not measured by an expedition - but by a whole, hopefully long, life as a mountaineer. You don't make history if you think it's all about winning. You also have to accept failure and turning back, learn from it and then try again. I had too many friends who are also dead today because they didn't accept it after a series of great successes.
Do you have role models in this regard?
Everyone who made history and is still alive today. Reinhold Messner lives, Chris Bonington lives. Walter Bonati died when he was 81. Ricardo Cassin was 101 years old. You have to be able to stop in time. On the mountain and in life as a mountaineer. One must not lose the ability to break off and turn back. You also have to free yourself from expectations – your own, those of the media or your own community, whoever they are.
This winter you're going back to the Manaslu.
For the fourth time. The Manaslu is considered an easy 8.000er. This shows that there are no easy 8.000m peaks in winter. Everything depends on the conditions. At the Nanga Parbat it worked on the third try - the Manaslu has already rejected me three times. Let's see if we have better luck this time.
The last time - in 2019 - you had to deal with masses of snow.
If there is less snow than it was then, the chances increase by 50 percent. But I don't want to rely on it alone. I also came up with another strategy.
We start acclimatization on December 1st. But not at Manaslu, but in another valley in Nepal. Maybe near Everest. I want to train there and get used to the altitude. I'm going to climb a 6.000m peak and try to sleep a night or two at the top. From December 21st we will go to base camp. I hope that by the time we get to Manaslu, I'll be at least 50 percent acclimatized and that we'll be fit and ready sooner if there's a weather window in which to attempt a summit.
Have you learned a lot from one of your companions when it comes to winter mountaineering?
From Anatoly Bukreev, who 24 years ago during our winter expedition at the Annapurna died in the avalanche, which I was lucky to survive. He taught me a lot of what it takes to survive in the mountains in extreme conditions. He was a real high altitude animal. He showed me that you also have to develop your instincts and listen to them. He was also one of the toughest guys I've ever met. He was chopping wood naked, with his bare feet in the snow. In the evening he put a pot of water in front of the window. The next morning he removed the layer of ice and poured the ice-cold water over himself. But he also knew exactly when it was life-threatening to expose oneself to the cold for too long. Of course I'm not on his level. But he showed me how to harden your body, how to teach it the ability to survive.
About the author
Claus Lochbihler (born 1969), journalist from Munich. Prefers to feel cold rather than sweat. His coldest memories: a wintry spring swim in a mountain lake on Hardangervidda and Palon de la Mare in a foehn storm, where it was so cold at the summit that only the information from the penguins helped.
About the magazine bergundstieg
Bergundstieg is an international magazine for safety and risk in mountain sports and illuminates the topics of equipment, mountain rescue, rope technology, accident and avalanche knowledge. Bergundstieg is published by the Alpine Associations of Austria (PES), Germany (DAV), South Tyrol (AVS) and Switzerland (Customer Service).
That might interest you
- Higher, faster, further - and younger!
- Nirmal Purja completed the K2 winter ascent without artificial oxygen
- Trend reversal at K2: large commercial teams on the mountain for the first time