Mario, what attributes must a high-altitude mountaineer have?
"Patience and gradualness are the key words. A mountaineer who starts out on a journey towards the thin air of the eight-thousanders, provided he or she does not use oxygen, must gradually start to approach the very high altitudes. One suggestion, after a good experience on the 4000 metres of the Alps, would be to programme a few climbs on 6000 and then move on to a 7000, even an easy one. I had done this, climbing the Pik Lenin in Pamir, or other similar mountains.
Once you have passed this first, let's call it an 'exam', which can test you in all senses, you can think about trying an 8000meter. I always recommend starting with a relatively easy and low 8000, and see how it feels.
The aspects that need to be addressed are obviously the physical fatigue and stress management of being in the high mountains for several days, at base camp and altitude camps. The adaptation to a long period away from home and loved ones should not be underestimated either, as it may interfere somewhat with the psychological state.
Patience is the first rule of high altitude, especially in the first acclimatisation phase. One must learn to listen to one's body, from breathing to motor concentration step by step.
I think it is also important to seek good harmony and bonding with one's companions on expeditions. Sometimes I went on expeditions with dear friends, other times with mountaineers I knew little about. The search for harmony is essential for living well in the present, so that a good memory remains of a long period of conviviality, but also for the common interest and the success of the expedition.
The relationship with the Sherpas is an important aspect of the expeditions as well. I remember when, at Makalu base camp in 2006, I had called a Sherpa back, without getting angry, because he had abandoned his load on the ascent route between camp 2 and camp 3. I had simply asked him, using a friendly tone, why: whether he had done it because he was sick or why. His reaction was immediate, he started shouting at me while pounding his fists on the table, then in a moment of madness or schizophrenia he grabbed an ice axe and ran after me across the base camp. Then the cook tried to calm him down. In the evening, crying, he apologised profusely for what had happened. Of course I forgave him but I never let him go up again.
Last but not least, I believe that a mountaineer should study the history of mountaineering. By reading books, one not only learns how historical expeditions were carried out, but also and above all can reflect on a mountain ethic."
The only summit on which you used supplementary oxygen was Everest. Would you like to return without it, or is it not in your thoughts?
"Yes, the ascent of Everest in 2003 from the north face, that is, from Tibet, was on the edge of failure. It was a very turbulent time from an atmospheric point of view, the jet streams were blowing all the time. My companion and I, having reached camp 3 at 8300 m, found by chance some used air bottles, left by a Spanish expedition.
It was not in our plans to use oxygen, but that night we left for the summit attempt we took two half-empty cylinders each, because the wind with gusts of 100 km/h gave us no break.
I attempted Everest again without oxygen in 2008 from the south. I climbed up to about 8700m, below the south summit, but bad weather arrived, and I gave up.
So yes, Everest is in my thoughts, I would like to try it again and maybe one day I will."
How has the world of Himalayan expeditions changed in recent years?
"The world of high-altitude expeditions has become a business for the agencies that organise expeditions, particularly to the eight-thousanders. They compete to advertise themselves and come up with innovations to attract more tourists, for example with proposals for fast linkups and helicopter trips or with Sherpas who already prepare the ascent route before you arrive at base camp. Then they welcome alpinists with the super luxury of a few extra comforts, not only at base camp but also at the higher camps. The consequence of all this chaos, besides often leaving too much material and rubbish on the mountain, is an increase in risk and danger. Compared to the past, many people go to higher altitudes without adequate mountaineering training and without having first tested themselves at lower altitudes.
In spite of the general high attendance, some eight-thousanders, and I am referring to the more complicated and difficult ones, can still be found and can thus be experienced as beautiful adventures. On Gasherbrum 1 in 2021, there were only five of us mountaineers and it was a wonderful experience."
The last eight-thousand metre peak is neither the highest nor the most difficult. What has led you to choose the various goals over time?
"It is Shisha Pangma, a summit that I have actually already tried twice. In 2004, I stopped with Cristina Castagna on the 8013 metre central peak: there was too much snow to continue along the thin ridge leading to the main summit. We preferred not to risk it and went back to the base, settling for a 'minor' summit.
I then tried it again in 2018 with Trentino climber Sebastiano Valentini. We were in good shape, but when we found ourselves at camp 3 for the summit attempt, we received news that the Chinese government had closed the mountain because a lone mountaineer, Bulgarian Bojan Petrov, had disappeared. We were forced to descend and thus give up the summit.
Now, after three years of closure due to covid, it has finally reopened. I will leave this autumn, although the prices have risen out of all proportion. The cost is between $35,000 and $45,000. I hope my sponsors will help me a little for what could be the crowning of my dream..”
How many years have you been using SCARPA footwear? How has high altitude footwear changed from when you started until now?
I have always used SCARPA footwear in general. As far as specific high-altitude footwear is concerned, SCARPA has been investing a lot in research and quality for some years now, taking giant steps forward. Now with the new Phantom 8000 we are definitely at the top: I have tried it and tested it in the last expeditions, it is truly exceptional.
If I think back to the first high-altitude shoes I used, we're talking about 27 years ago, they were insufficiently warm, cold and heavy. I remember some critical situations, with cold and wind above 7000 metres, at night during the summit attempt. This is the coldest and most delicate moment for those who climb without oxygen, because obviously the risk of frostbite is increased. In addition, the models of the time were made of heavy materials. For a few years now, fortunately, things have changed with lighter, more comfortable and warmer boots."
Do you think that reaching your 14th and final eight-thousandth milestone will represent an end point for you with expeditions?
"It certainly won't be my last expedition to high altitude. I will struggle to get away from that world, but if one day I decide to do it, it will definitely be for a good reason."
What advice would you give to an "average" mountaineer who wants to approach or is fascinated by high altitude?
"I would advise him to make his first experiences with experienced mountain guides and mountaineers who already have a few eight-thousanders behind them. He must then equip himself with a lot of dedication and patience, starting step by step. In the world of high altitude, breathing and managing fatigue counts a lot, and you learn this in Italian Alps too."