Mourning for Zsolt Torok

Zsolt Torok (1973-2019)

Romanian top climber Zsolt Torok has fallen to his death. Last Saturday, the 45-year-old was found dead on the 2,535-meter-high Negoiu, the second highest mountain in his homeland. His wife had reported him missing after not hearing from Zsolt for three days. The two had only married in mid-July. Torok was alone en route  in the Fagaras Mountains for training. The rescuers, who found his body, suspect that a boulder on which Zsolt stood had come loose in the fragile rock and dragged the climber down with it into the depth.

“Zsolt was the most experienced and strongest of us,” wrote 29-year-old Romanian Vlad Capusan, who was on several expeditions with Torok, on Facebook. “He didn’t see mountaineering as a sport, but as a lifestyle where you get better with each expedition and bring a valuable story to your fellow human beings. For him, it was never about conquering summits or breaking records, but about spiritual fulfillment on the journey up.”

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Does China thwart Nirmal Purja?

Nirmal Purja in the Karakoram

That would be really harsh. Perhaps the Nepalese climber Nirmal, called “Nims” Purja cannot complete the third and final phase of his “Project Possible” as planned due to insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles. The 36-year-old former soldier of the British Gurkha Regiment has so far – as reported several times – despite some adversities been on his schedule to scale all 14 eight-thousanders within seven months. After he and his team “ticked off” eleven eight-thousanders in an unprecedented tour de force in spring and summer, Nims wants to tackle the missing three peaks in the upcoming fall season: Manaslu in Nepal as well as Cho Oyu and Shishapangma. The last two eight-thousanders are located in Tibet – and that’s exactly the problem. I have learned from several trustworthy sources that the Chinese-Tibetan authorities are unwilling to issue any permit for Shishapangma this fall,  allegedly for security reasons. The 8,027-meter-high mountain, the lowest of the 14 eight-thousanders, would thus remain closed for this season.

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K2 summiteer Anja Blacha: “More flexible on the mountain without breathing mask”

Anja Blacha on the summit of K2

She is a late bloomer as climber, but one who then hit the ground running. Only in 2012, at the age of 22, did Anja Blacha buy her first mountain boots for a holiday trip to Iceland. At the beginning of 2015, she scaled the 6,962-meter-high Aconcagua in South America, her first of the “Seven Summits”, the highest mountains of all continents. By the end of 2017, Anja had completed her collection with the ascent of Mount Vinson in Antarctica, 4,897 meters high. In the same year she had also summited Mount Everest, from the Tibetan north side, with bottled oxygen. At the age of 26 she was the youngest German woman to reach the highest point on earth.

First German woman on K2

She could lose this “record” one day. But she will always be the first German woman to scale the second highest mountain on earth: Almost two weeks ago, on 25 July, the now 29-year-old stood on the 8611-meter-high summit of K2 – without bottled oxygen. At the beginning of July, Blacha had already scaled the neighbouring eight-thousander Broad Peak (8,051 m) without reathing mask. And she has planned another adventure for this year: She wants to reach the South Pole on skis, from the Antarctic coast.

Anja Blacha grew up in Bielefeld in North Rhine-Westphalia. Now she lives in Zurich. There she works in the management of a Swiss telecommunications company. When she returned from Pakistan, she answered my questions.

Anja, first German woman on the K2 – how does this feel for a mountaineer whose roots lie in Bielefeld, which is just 118 meters above sea level?

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Urubko: Solo ascent on Gasherbrum II

Denis Urubko on the summit of Gasherbrum II (on 18 July)

“Denis did it. He’s already in camp 1. He’ll be back in base camp tonight.” With this message the Spanish climber Maria “Pip” Cardell made the scene be able to breathe a sigh of relief. On Wednesday evening, Denis Urubko had set off from Camp 1 at about 5,900 meters to climb the 8,034-meter-high mountain solo, without bottled oxygen, on a new route and then descend via the normal route.  Urubko had wanted to climb up an down in one push, without a bivouac, in order to be able to climb as light as possible. Since then, nothing had been heard from the 46-year-old Kazakh, who now has a Russian and a Polish passport.

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Piolet d’Or posthumous for Lama and Auer

David Lama (r.) and Hansjörg Auer (on Annapurna III in 2016)

The award is something like the “Oscar of Climbers”. The Piolet d’Or is awarded year after year for outstanding climbing achievements on the mountains of the world. When this year’s golden ice axes are presented at the “Ladek Mountain Festival” in Poland on 21 September, two of the winners will no longer be able to receive them personally, but will have to be represented by family members or friends. The Austrian top climbers David Lama and Hansjörg Auer had died in an avalanche on the 3,295-meter-high Howse Peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in April, as had the 36-year-old American Jess Roskelley. David was only 28 years old, Hansjörg 34.

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Hans Wenzl after his K2 success: “Much power consumed”

Hans Wenzl on the summit of K2

The 48-year-old Austrian is not a professional climber. Hans Wenzl earns his living as a foreman for an Austrian construction company. He has to save up the money for his eight-thousander expeditions and to take a vacation for his time on the highest mountains in the world. So it is all the more astonishing that Hans scaled his ninth eight-thousander last Thursday when he reached the 8,611-meter-high summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world – as always without bottled oxygen.

He had previously stood on the top of Broad Peak (in 2007), Nanga Parbat (in 2009), Gasherbrum I and II (in 2011), Manaslu (in 2012), Cho Oyu (in 2013), Makalu (in 2016) and Mount Everest (in 2017). Hans lives in the Austrian federal state Carinthia in the small town of Metnitz with a population of 2,500. In 2005, he also reached the 8,008-meter-high Shishapangma Central Peak, which is 19 meters lower than the main peak.

He has two adult sons with his wife Sonja. After his summit success on K2, Wenzl answered my questions in the northern Pakistani city of Skardu.

Hans, did you still believe in your chance when most teams abandoned their expeditions after the first failed summit bid and declared that the avalanche risk was too high?

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Rasmus Kragh: “Everest was a rollercoaster ride of emotions”

Rasmus on the top fo Everest on 23 May

Many reporters, including myself, just didn’t have him on their Everest radar. This spring, Rasmus Kragh tackled the highest mountain on earth for the third time without bottled oxygen. In 2017 and 2018, the Danish professional climber had tried to scale Mount Everest via the Tibetan north side of the mountain and had turned around at 8,600 meters each. Last spring, the 30-year-old climbed via the Nepalese south side – and was successful. On 23 May, Kragh reached the highest point at 8,850 meters, as the first Dane without breathing mask. Rasmus comes from the town of Aarhus on the east coast of Denmark. Two months after his Everest adventure he answered my questions.

Rasmus, you reached the summit of Mount Everest on 23 May – according to your own words without bottled oxygen. Did you use it neither during ascent nor during descent?

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Nirmal Purja: Only three are missing

Nims Purja (4th from l.) and his “Project Possible” team (in K2 Base Camp)

Phase two of his “Project Possible” has now also been successfully completed. Two days after the summit success on K2, Nirmal, called “Nims” Purja, also scaled the 8051-meter-high Broad Peak today. Within about three months, the 36-year-old Nepalese stood on eleven eight-thousand-meter peaks, within a good three weeks on all five eight-thousanders of Pakistan – even though he had arrived late due to financing problems.

Now Purja “only” needs to climb the eight-thousanders Shishapangma and Cho Oyu located in Tibet as well as Manaslu in Nepal to complete his project as planned next fall: to scale the 14 highest mountains in the world within only seven months.

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More summit successes on K2: With and without bottled oxygen

Hans Wenzl (at Everest Base Camp in 2017)

After Nims Purjal and his four Nepalese companions – as reported – had broken the summit spell on K2 on Wednesday morning local time in Pakistan, fixing ropes up to the highest point at 8,611 meters, more than 20 more summit successes were reported yesterday and today. According to the Nepalese expedition operator “Seven Summit Treks” (SST), 19 members of their team reached the top today. According to SST, four of them did it without bottled oxygen, said SST: German Anja Blacha, Austrian Hans Wenzl, Brazilian Moeses Fiamoncini and American David Roeske.

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Summit success on K2: Nirmal Purja’s tenth 8000er this year

Successful summit team: Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, Lakpa Temba Sherpa, Nirmal Purja, Chhangba Sherpa and Gesman Tamang (from l. to r.)

“Once again ‘Project Possible’ team made the impossible possible, as a result of positive mindset with outmost determination, teamwork and leadership.” Thus Nirmal, called “Nims” Purja, is quoted on Twitter after he reached the 8,611-meter-high summit of K2 today at 7.50 am local time in Pakistan with his companions Lakpa Dendi Sherpa and Gesman Tamang from his “Project Possible” team as well as Lakpa Temba Sherpa and Chhangba Sherpa from the team of the expedition operator “Seven Summit Treks” (SST). According to SST, it took the five climbers “eight hours of countless efforts” to reach the top.

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New summit attempt on K2: Nirmal Purja ahead

Nirmal Purja on the summit of Gasherbrum II (rear right K2)

“I’m used to taking risks,” says the former soldier of the British Gurkha Regiment. Nirmal, called “Nims” Purja, has finished his military service. Currently the 36-years-old Nepalese is making headlines on the world’s highest mountains. Nims has set himself the goal of scaling all 14 eight-thousanders in seven months. And in spite of temporary financing problems his “Project Possible” is well on track. Although he arrived late in Pakistan, Purja has already summited Nanga Parbat and – within three days – Gasherbrum I and II. His progress report: “I have now completed 9x8000m peaks this season, making countless difficult decisions but always keeping myself and my team safe.” 

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Francesco Cassardo rescued from Gasherbrum VII

Back at base camp: Don Bowie, Marco Confortola (who coordinated the rescue at base camp), Cala Cimenti, Denis Urubko (from l. to r.)

Happy end of the dramatic rescue operation on Gasherbrum VII: This morning local time in Pakistan a rescue helicopter finally landed near Camp 1 at 5,910 meters to pick up the seriously injured Italian climber Francesco Cassardo and fly him to Skardu. There he is now being treated in a hospital. After Cassardo and his compatriot Cala Cimenti had climbed up to 150 meters below the summit on Saturday (only Cala reached the highest point later and thus achieved the first ascent of the 6,955-meter- high Gasherbrum VII – see update below), the 30-year-old had fallen on his descent about 450 meters deep. Francesco’s life was hanging by a thread. As reported, the deployment of a rescue helicopter had been delayed for bureaucratic reasons.

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Gasherbrum VII: Where the hell is the rescue helicopter?

Cala Cimente (l.) and Francesco Cassardo (in 2018)

It is almost a miracle that the Italian climber Francesco Cassardo is still alive. After the first ascent of the 6,955-meter-high Gasherbrum VII in the Karakoram – together with his compatriot Cala Cimenti – the 30-year-old fell yesterday – as reported – on his descent about 500 meters deep. Cala, who had left the summit on skis, climbed up to the seriously injured Francesco and immediately sounded the alarm. First it was said that the Pakistani authorities had given the go-ahead for the deployment of a rescue helicopter, which would take off on Sunday immediately after sunrise.

Cimenti descended to Camp 1 and fetched the necessary equipment to spend the night at the side of the injured Cassardo. Cala was in constant contact with the Italian homeland via satellite phone and received medical advice. The injured Francesco is a doctor and is therefore able to assess his condition himself. According to his brother, Cassardo’s life was hanging by a thread during the night.

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Gasherbrum VII: Mountain accident after first ascent

The Gasherbrum massif

The joy lasted only briefly, now there is great concern. At late noon local time in Pakistan, Cala Cimentis’s wife celebrated the Italian climber’s summit success on Facebook: “He made it, he scaled the still untouched G VII. In a few minutes the descent begins on skis.” The 6,955-meter-high Gasherbrum VII had not been summited before. While Cimenti wanted to descend on skis – as he did at the beginning of the month after his summit success on Nanga Parbat – his companion Francesco Cassardo apparently descended on foot.

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