“Impossible” does not exist for Simone Moro, because he’s constantly redefining the word. The Italian alpinist, widely considered one of the world’s most elite, has earned his reputation by climbing daunting 8,000-meter peaks. Inspired by the Polish hard men of the 1980s, Moro conquers the highest mountains on Earth with his specialty – he climbs in winter. In the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Andes, his feats and daring expeditions are unmatched: First winter ascents on Aconcagua, Makalu, Shisha Pangma, and Gasherbrum II, speed ascents on Fitz Roy and Lhotse, and a solo south to north traverse on Everest. Beyond his impressive curriculum, Simone is a skilled Himalayan search and rescue pilot, a humanitarian who financed a school in a remote village of Nepal, and has famously abandoned summits to provide aid for stranded climbers. With his trademark passion, humor, and Italian-accented English, Moro spoke with me about his reverence for the Polish climbers, the transcendence from his hometown of Bergamo at the foot of the Central Alps to the highest peaks on Earth, and narrowly escaping a terrifying avalanche with Cory Richards and Denis Urubko.
THE CLYMB: You grew up in the Central Alps, away from the Dolomites and Monte Bianco. How did you chase your climbing goals and how did you transition into alpinism?
Simone Moro: My city is Bergamo, and it’s located in the Central Alps. It’s a wonderful place for rock climbing, ice climbing, and skydiving, but it’s not as famous as the Dolomites or Monte Bianco (the Italian name for Mont Blanc). But Walter Bonatti was born in Bergamo, and he is an example of how passion goes beyond anything, including geographical “limits”. I started as a pure competition sport climber, but I felt the call of the mountains over the plastic (indoor) so I started alpinism.
THE CLYMB: What role did the Polish climbers have in developing winter mountaineering? What advantage did they have that allowed them to conquer the 8,000-meter peaks in this style?
Simone Moro: Polish climbers could be considered in a way as people of Bergamo. The height of the mountains in Poland is similar to those of the Bergamo Alps. Polish people were poor and strong. They were used to suffering and since winter climbing is a “suffering game”, they became the kings of that kind of alpinism.
THE CLYMB: What led you into pursuing winter climbing? What were the sensations of your first winter expedition?
Simone Moro: People of Bergamo are similar to those of Eastern European countries. We are very hard workers, we have a long tradition of manual labor in the mountains, and we are used to living in hard conditions. I’m just the product of the kind of DNA and I feel very natural when I climb in winter or with Eastern European alpinists. My second expedition of the 50 that I’ve participated in was in alpine style during winter. I immediately understood the sense of exploration and adventure in this way of climbing.
THE CLYMB: After the first seven successful winter expeditions by Polish climbers, there was a gap of 17 years without a single winter summit. Why did this happen?
Simone Moro: It is difficult to find a single reason, but certainly, the deaths of Jerzy Kukuczka and Wanda Rutkievitz (the male and female leaders of the Polish climbing community) shocked the Polish system. Then a generational turnover happened, and the new generation, who weren’t accustomed to traditional ways, was weaker than the old. So, the combination of multiple factors, including climate change, influenced the capacity to achieve winter climbs at high altitude. Then, starting in 2005, our winter ascents on Shisha Pangma, Makalu, and Gasherbrum II, helped in the “rebirth” of winter alpinism on the highest mountains.
In 2011, Simone summitted Gasherbrum II with American, Cory Richards and Kazakh, Denis Urubko, marking the only 8,000-meter peak in winter conquered by an American. This expedition was documented in the critically acclaimed film “Cold”. On their descent from the summit, an avalanche broke away from a neighboring peak and nearly buried the three climbers. Simone describes the tense moments during and following the slide.
THE CLYMB: Describe the events of the avalanche on Gasherbrum II. What did you see and what was the aftermath?
Simone Moro: We were on our 6th day of climbing and were descending towards base camp. We were tired and we were in fresh deep snow. A big avalanche broke just above us, from Gasherbrum V, and since we were moving slowly in that fresh snow, we were not able to escape. We were lucky to survive because I remained on the surface of the avalanche. I was able to dig Cory and Denis simply using my hands. They were 80% buried in the snow, with only their heads just above the surface.
THE CLYMB: Beyond climbing, you are a successful SAR helicopter pilot in the Himalayas. What inspired you to take this up?
Simone Moro: Thinking about my future and my parallel life (I will always remain a climber and a dreamer) I decided to do something for me and for the people who love and live in the mountains, especially in the remote valleys of the Himalayas and the Karakorum. Becoming a pilot with specialization in mountain rescue was my way to find a new life and a new mission. I just established a helicopter school in San Diego, California, where my aim is to train future helicopter pilots in SAR and mountain rescue missions.
THE CLYMB: You have a particular definition of the word “impossible” and what it means to you. Could you elaborate on your thoughts?
Simone Moro: Impossible is just the word we use to find an excuse why we had not been able to do something. Impossible doesn’t exist exactly as a limit. Something that was impossible some years ago represents the limits of that time. Now it is not impossible and the limit gets higher. So don’t believe in that concept and dream high.
Simone is currently preparing for another winter climbing season in the mountains, climbing Mansalu. Read about his incredible expeditions and climbing philosophy in his latest book “The Call Of The Ice”.