By Luca Albrisi
Photo Matteo Pavana
By Luca Albrisi
Photo Matteo Pavana
Who knows a bit about mountains, photography and follows The Pill will surely have already come across the name of Matteo Pavana, a photographer well known for his works dedicated to the world of sport climbing and who has been collaborating with our magazine for a long time. But Matte also loves to break the mould and, above all, he loves adventure in its most diverse forms. For this reason, when he had the opportunity to take part in the last winter expedition of Simone Moro and Tamara Lunger, he immediately took the chance to live and tell an adventure that not only led him to face extraordinary environments but also put him in front of himself.
Hi Matte, first of all, could you tell us a little bit about how the opportunity of this adventure was born and then explain in detail what was the goal of the expedition?
They say that opportunities come in times of difficulty and for me it was the same. If it is common to say “turn the page”, in my case I wanted to directly change the title of the book. I have dreamed of taking part in an expedition since I started taking pictures in the mountains, but it never happened for various reasons. At the end of last year, possibilities and availability aligned. Months before the departure I knew the destination and the mountaineering goal: the winter climb to Gasherbrum I and the possible climb to Gasherbrum II in Karakorum, Pakistan. Until the day before of the flight, however, I did not know the time and airport from which we would have left. Cool, isn’t it?!
When you were asked to take part in it, what were the first emotions you felt?
I was excited.
I immediately started to learn about the mountains that I would have seen during the approach hike, but above all about the photographic and mountaineering equipment that I should have brought with me. Gradually, however, the feelings changed and the initial excitement left room for a sort of performance anxiety. My expectation, and what I thought Simone and Tamara might have towards me, destabilized me a lot. I am not ashamed to admit that the days before my departure I was terrified of not living up to the expectations, but above all, I was terrified of the unknown. I could no longer distinguish between what had been created in my head and what really would have awaited me for the following 45 days. The feeling changed again as soon as Tamara came to pick me up in Trento: there is no better feeling than when fear melts into living experience. The moment I realized the journey was starting I felt I was in the right place and at the right time.
How does it feel to be one of the few men to take part in such an adventure?
I guess you are confusing me with the Apollo 13 cosmonauts, hahaha… Seriously, being able to directly document an ambitious mountaineering project for me was the realization of a dream that I had been pursuing for a long time. Ours was certainly not the only winter expedition and in fact there have been a considerable number of expeditions to the great mountains of the planet in recent months. But what I can honestly say is that living in such a vast and wild environment in its less crowded season was a beautiful personal challenge and a great privilege. Furthermore, Simone and Tamara’s project was truly ambitious. Not only the climb to the GI would have been the first ascent in the meteorological winter – what Urubko identifies as “the real Himalayan winter” (beginning on December 1st and ending on February 28th) – but the possible climb also of the GII it would have been the first winter connection of two Eight-thousanders.
What was your role exactly and how did you get involved in the group dynamics with the other expedition members?
Matteo Zanga and I were the ones documenting the expedition. He took care of the video part while I worked on the photographic one (obviously nobody was forbidding the other guy to film or vice versa). I worked very well with Matteo and the professional exchange in this sense has helped me a lot. On the other hand, different dynamics have been established towards Simone and Tamara. If I had a good feeling with Tamara right away, I felt a strong suggestion towards Simone. I was intimidated by his fame. I pleasantly discovered a skilled person, always willing to sacrifice himself first, and to teach you something, which is not a common thing.
Simone , Tamara and Matteo were already a well-coordinated team, while I was the outsider of the group (I liked to consider myself as the young kid even if, as you say, I am no new to this sector). I tried to have an active and proactive role, in short I tried to insert myself as I would have done in any other group. I had in my mind the message that Simone had sent me before leaving “on the expedition there are no rights but only duties; the rights come automatically once the duties are fulfilled.” So, in short, I tried to accomplish my duties to the best of my ability. It is easy to imagine how, especially in those conditions, the group’s harmony is hanging by a thread and punctuated by delicate mechanisms that, if they jam, lead to conflicts that can transform the whole experience into hell. But this was not the case, confirming an expedition that worked well from start to finish.
As often happens with this type of expeditions there may be some “hitches” on the way and we’ve seen that you had a few on the first part of your trip. What happened?
Pakistan has all the bad aspects of a developing country. We have not been exactly lucky on the transport side: the flight that from Islamabad would take us to Skardu was canceled two or three times in a row. Tired of the unnecessary waste of time, we boarded a minibus and in two days we traveled the Karakorum Highway to Skardu. A journey of almost 700 km on a mostly dirt road. I wouldn’t like to remember all the back pain and leg cramps due to the fact that I couldn’t relax them. The inconvenience of the trip, however, was directly proportional to the wild beauty of the environment in which we were guests, in this case one of the pros of a developing country. I remember in particular the Nanga Parbat massif, in the distance we could see, without perceiving them, the more than 6000m difference in altitude.
Anyone interested, at least in part, in Himalayan issues and especially in winter expeditions knows that waiting and staying in “isolation” at the base camp is probably one of the aspects that most characterizes this type of expedition. What was your experience?
Isolation and patience have always been the main reasons for me to go on such an expedition. I have never been a patient guy and I wanted to “redeem myself”, even if temporarily, from my western lifestyle. I wanted to learn something new about myself, something I didn’t know. Before leaving I thought that I would spend all the nights crying in the tent for the cold. It happened that I cried, but for the happiness of living that experience in that place. Again, I felt in the right place at the right time, I felt I was being myself. The truth is that the real problem in this type of expeditions is the constant cold, during night or day. The question that many friends asked me when I got back was: “How cold was it?”. There were two or three nights in particular where I couldn’t sleep a second at the base camp. It was those clear days that brought the temperature between -30°C and -40°C (at 5000m high). Instead on days of overcast skies the temperature could fluctuate between -10°C and -20°C and at those temperatures I slept like a baby. It’s amazing how the body gets used to altitude, but I find it even more extraordinary how you get used to certain temperatures at the same time. The cold was and remains the crudest component of the entire expedition, an indelible memory.
“The truth is that the real problem in this type of expeditions is the constant cold, during night or day. The question that many friends asked me when I got back was: “How cold was it?”. There were two or three nights in particular where I couldn’t sleep a second at the base camp. It was those clear days that brought the temperature between -30°C and -40°C (at 5000m high).”
Tell us about your daily routine.
We arrived at the base camp after 8 days and 120 km of mobile camp that we set up every evening and that we disassembled the following day. At the base camp, it wasn’t the sun that woke me up, but the cold. The sleeping bag was always covered with frost and it happened that I got up without feeling the tip of my toes. I could also wear two pairs of socks and the booties but in any case the cold bit my feet every morning. I went out of the tent and took refuge in the breakfast room, immediately warmed up with the gas heater and drank something hot. It should be noted that initially Matteo and I hoped to arrive at least at Camp I to document the climb, but when we saw the icefall that separated the base camp from Camp I, we started having serious doubts about it: a labyrinth of covered crevasses and dangerous seracs.
One day I followed Simone and Tamara to trace and take some pictures, but I didn’t feel comfortable at all. The presence of nature was so strong and powerful that I immediately understood that people really die there. After that day I decided that I would never arrive to Camp I. It was a too unpredictable and dangerous environment which I was unable to measure. For this reason the following days Matteo and I documented remotely, I shot with a telephoto lens and Matteo used the drone. There were days when we were stood still for four or five hours on a hill at the beginning of the icefall while Simone and Tamara were looking for the safest route to reach Camp I. In seven or eight hours of work Simone and Tamara were going up only a few hundred linear meters.
When the cold was unbearable Matteo and I used to go back to the tent to recharge the batteries for the next day and to view the material of the day for updates in real time. In the meantime Simone and Tamara usually came back and we all had dinner together. Just enough time to play some card games and take a sip of genepì and it was already time to go to sleep. Summarized in this way, our days could seemed like a big pain in the ass, but in reality we had fun during the whole expedition.
Can you tell us about the day of the accident and how it “broke” the mould and how it characterized your life from that moment on?
I remember it was a beautiful high pressure day. It must have been -25 Celsius degrees at noon, a cold that you can hardly forget.
I had just got back with Matteo to base camp. We tried to recover the sensitivity to the feet lost in the hours of stalking for remote filming and photography. The window of good weather could allow Simone and Tamara to set up Camp I on the same day and perhaps even reach Camp II in the following ones. We agreed with them that we would have communicate via radio the following morning. The accident was a matter of seconds. Simone called us frightened and told us that he had fallen into a crevasse.
Together with Matteo, the cook, the assistant cook, the liaison officer and the agency manager, we waited for Simone and Tamara at the beginning of the icefall until late in the evening, in the dark, during a light snowfall. Not even the time to realize it and the next day they were taking us away by helicopter to Skardu: end of the expedition.
It was the strangest moment of the whole trip, truly surreal. The clear detachment that marks the transition from the execution to the end of the expedition was an aspect that I had never imagined in my head. I was sorry that the dream of this experience stopped suddenly but, I must admit, that the hot shower that followed was a dream of intensity almost equal to the expedition itself. As I said before the cold at base camp was really bad.
After a month and a half of expedition, you got back home but, shortly after your return, you found yourself – like all of us – in a new type of isolation. In your opinion, what are the differences between the type of solitude you experienced and the one you’re living now?
The isolation in Pakistan was wanted and we were in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on the planet, while the isolation that I am experiencing now while answering these questions is not wanted directly by me and, above all, is limited within the walls of my little flat. In Pakistan we were isolated, but I never felt alone. Within these four walls I felt much more alone than in a tent on the Karakorum at night at -35°C. I am living this new experience as if it were a real expedition, an inner search process rather than on top of the mountains.
Overall, what did you get from this experience for your human and professional future?
If you asked me: “would you do a similar experience again?”, My answer would be “it depends”. I would be willing to follow again an expedition to a remote place in its coldest season, but I’m not sure that the Himalayan mountaineering on the 8000m peaks fully reflects my search for adventure. I know I am a climber but not a Himalayan. The risk component that I perceived during this experience was too high for me. But I can say that in the approach hike I was able to admire an expanse of untouched peaks where, in my humble opinion, the mix between the objective component of risk and my subjective ability to perceive it, was acceptable. I can therefore say that in the future I will try to participate in other international expeditions, but I don’t know if they will be expeditions similar to this one just ended.
The expedition proved to be useful because I also had time to think about what I would like to do in the future: I undertook a change of course on some aspects of my professional and personal life.
As for my job, I would like to focus on longer-term projects that allow me to live a full experience and not the usual “hit and run” that I usually live between one project and the other. I would like to improve my style of photography, direction and writing and direct them towards documentary projects. I would like to broaden my horizons and give my work an even greater value and a more human value as well.
Matteo Pavana would like to thank La Sportiva – Patagonia Europe – Mammut Italia – F-stop Gear.
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