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Interview: Simone Moro on Expedition-Ending Accident on Gasherbrum I with Tamara Lunger

"In the moment that she was putting the rope through the carabiner on her harness, at that moment I  simultaneously took my first step—and immediately everything under my feet broke. And I started to fall."

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Tamara Lunger and Simone Moro of Italy are safe and sound in Skardu after a close call during their expedition to the Gasherbrum massif in the Karakoram, Pakistan.

The pair was trying to complete the first winter enchainment of Gasherbrum I (8,080 meters) and Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters). They had nearly made it through the icefall, after which they planned to establish camp 1, when Moro plunged through a snow bridge and fell 20 meters into a dark crevasse that he estimates was over 100 meters deep.

The alpinists have pulled the plug on the expedition after both suffering injuries during the ordeal. “Thank god we have nothing broken,” Moro told Rock and Ice. They both have has some deep bruises, and Lunger can’t use her left hand—it became caught in a loop of rope during the ordeal and she has temporarily lost feeling in three of her fingers.

“Our injuries are minor, but they prevent us from climbing,” Moro said. “I will recover fast, but I think Tamara will need a couple months before she can climb.”

Rock and Ice caught up with Moro to get all the nitty-gritty details of the accident: what happened, how he and Lunger got him out, and what he learned.

Tamara Lunger and Simone Moro during the expedition before their accident. Photo: Tamara Lunger.

Q&A with Simone Moro

So just some quick background—what was your and Tamara Lunger’s goal on this expedition to Pakistan this winter?

We wanted to climb GI and GII [Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II]. The idea was to climb both in sequence, in a traverse. The first summit we were going to climb was Gasherbrum I and then on the way back, when we reached what would have been our camp 2, at 6,400 meters, if we had enough power, the idea was to continue and  climb G2.

I climbed GII in winter in 2011 already, but now we wanted to try the traverse mainly. So the project would have had two stages: first GI, and then hopefully GII.

The expedition started off harder than expected, though.

Already in 2011, when I was with Denis Urubko and Cory Richards [making the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II], it was complicated to cross the ice fall and get to the upper plateau. But what Tamara and I found this year—it was a completely different glacier. Compared to this year, 2011 was peanuts.

I heard there were some major earthquakes that broke the glacier up more. Many more crevasses and more complicated. I don’t think earthquakes are the only reason—I think global warming is interfering quite a lot, and fast, in the nature of the icefall between base camp and camp 1—but they are one piece.

We spent 18 days, from January 1 to January 18, including rest days, trying to find a way through the all the seracs and the crevasses in the icefall. We were actively climbing on nine of those days. And in nine days we only climbed 500 vertical meters—quite unusual, no?

The maze of crevasses and seracs in the icefall. Photo: Matteo Zanga.

What made the going so slow?

Tamara and I were just two, we never fixed ropes, no high altitude porters. So we had to find the way in the classical style.

With so many big crevasses, you can imagine how slow we were, trying to find the way. Going left, going right, rappelling down, climbing back up, searching for the way, trying to find a path through. There was no fast way to find a safe way.

We only progressed 150 meters some days, and then when we would retreat, it would take just 10 minutes, since it was clear where to go.

The last day before the accident, we finally arrived close to the upper part of the icefall.

So the accident: What happened?

The accident was on January 18. It was the day that finally we found the way to cross the last big crevasses. I had borrowed a three-meter ladder from the Pakistani Army, which has a military outpost in base camp. They regularly use the ladder to span crevasses when they travel to another military outpost at 6,400 meters.

So I carried the ladder on my shoulders for 5.2 kilometers (I recorded it on the GPS) to the top of the glacier. I put the ladder between the final crevasse and we crossed it. This was about 3:00 p.m.

After crossing that crevasse, we were very happy but also still very careful. We knew the most difficult part was probably over, but that there could still be crevasses under us. So we stayed roped up, and we each carried our own gear and wore our harnesses with all our self-rescue gear on it—jumars, tibloc, prussiks. This was important: we were always very careful.

Moro with the ladder they used for one of the final crevasses in the icefall. Photo: Matteo Zanga.

Around 3:30 p.m., we arrived close to the end of the most dangerous part. So from that time on we were thinking we would go one more hour and establish camp 1. We had enough food and equipment to proceed for a least two days. Our aim was to establish camp 1 and then the next day go to establish camp 2 at 6,400 meters. We were in good shape from the first weeks and we were moving faster now.

Immediately, though, we saw there was still another crevasse to cross. Tamara went first. We were wearing snow shoes—not crampons—because there was deep snow. Also snowshoes can sometimes help crossing snow bridges, because your weight is distributed.

Tamara delicately crossed a snow bridge over the crevasse, and continued to a safe position, exactly 20 meters away from me, the full length of our 7-millimeter rope.

For the first time on the expedition, I didn’t walk in exactly her footprints. I did this intentionally. I saw a crack between the footprints that she had left. I told Tamara I would stay a bit further left, and she said she would belay me. In the moment that she was putting the rope through the carabiner on her harness, at that moment I  simultaneously took my first step—and immediately everything under my feet broke. And I started to fall.

I was expecting the rope to come tight and for Tamara to catch me. But that didn’t happen. I started to fall fast, hit the wall very hard with my ass, and I rolled. Now I was falling head first. It was very tight, the crevasse.

The reason I kept falling is because Tamara was pulled off her feet and was flying to the lip of the crevasse—her hand was caught in a loop of the rope. Like a guy who is being pulled by a dog on a leash! My weight and how I was falling was so abrupt that Tamara was not able to hold it. Remember, too, that she was in snow shoes, which acted like skis. So she was flying, literally, and she landed just a half-meter before the crevasse edge. So I fell 20 meters head first, hitting all over the walls. I hit really hard on my back. I was wearing a 20-kilogram rucksack which saved me, I think. I think I would have broken my back.

Then my speed started to slow. Tamara was slipping toward the edge of the crevasse. I always have an ice screw hanging on my harness. I tried to take it off, but the space was so tight that I couldn’t get the carabiner off so I just took the screw off the carabiner instead. I started putting it in the wall, about at my hip. In a few seconds it was at my shoulder because I was still slipping down. I did just two or three turns, the screw was maybe 3 % in the wall, 97% out, and then I pulled up on the ice screw with one hand. I was able to turn it in a little more. Once it was in some more, I got a carabiner off my harness and clipped myself to it. This was the moment that things finally stopped.

So now you’re 20 meters down in the crevasse, Tamara is stuck at the edge—what happened next?

It was dark, and I heard Tamara screaming—from the pain. Her hand was caught in the rope. She said, ‘Simone cut the rope, cut the rope…’ But I said to myself, like, ‘Fuck, no, if I cut the rope I die!’ It turns out I couldn’t heard the second part of Tamara’s sentence: …. ‘if you are at the bottom.’

I made a foot loop to stand in with a small piece of cord, so I could put my weight on the ice screw and unweight the rope. This was the moment when Tamara was able to finally breathe and start organizing a belay to get me out.

Lunger grimacing from the pain as her hand is evaluated back in base camp after the accident. Photo: Matteo Zanga.

So she fixed the rope and did everything properly. With only one hand! She couldn’t set up a a normal rescue system with one hand, so I had to figure out how to get out myself. We decided she would belay me with one hand while I tried to climb out.

Now I had some more problems. I was in very a tight place, like a shoebox. It was very dark. I had all my gear, but it was all inside my rucksack. I tried to take it off, but I couldn’t, the space was too tight. Thank god I had a knife with me. I cut one of the shoulder straps off, and then I was able to roll my backpack over my head and to my front. I got my two ice axes out.

But I still had the snowshoes on my feet! Here it was helpful that I had a sport climbing background—I am flexible. I was able to take my snowshoes off and hang them on the ice screw. Then I got my crampons on. I had just one technical ice axe—the other one was anchoring the ladder on the previous crevasse—so Tamara lowered me another ice axe with another rope we had.

I took out a headlamp and walkie talkie from my rucksack, and then tied the rucksack to the screw and finally I started to climb out—but it was overhanging. And very hard ice. It was so narrow that I didn’t even have the possibility to really swing the ice axes. So I took a big breath and focused. Somehow I finally got out.

It was 3:30 p.m. when I fell, I think it was nearly 5:30 p.m. when I came out.

I got to the top and Tamara was crying from the pain in her hand—but also happy. My first sentence, I told her, ‘Ok, you passed the exam of self rescue!’ She did everything very well, very properly.

Moro happy to have made it out of the icefall alive. Photo: Matteo Zanga.

We decided we had to go down to base camp immediately because we were both still in pain, and we didn’t know if we might be paralyzed from the pain in the morning if we stayed there for the night.

So ultimately nothing heroic. But Tamara and I had to invent so many things to stop my fall, to get out.

What’s the takeaway from this near-miss?

There were many small mistakes—for example, I didn’t walk on her exact footprints (though the same thing might have happened anyway).

But I think the big lesson I learned—it’s very important to have all the gear with you, and to be ready for something like this at all times. It is good that we had our gear on us and ready.