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Tamara Lunger – Interview for Mountain Portal

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Tamara is a talented Himalayan climber and mountain skier born in Bolzano, in Italy. In 2014 she achieved a great success – as a second Italian woman she reached the top of K2. She spread her wings in a climbing duet with Simone Moro. In 2016 Tamara took part in a historical, winter expedition to Nanga Parbat. Last winter, together with Simone Moro she made the first winter ascend to Russian Pobeda – the coldest mountain in the world.

This amazing Italian climber was a star during VIII Open Climbing Days that took place in June in Małe Dolomity complex. I had a chance to speak to Tamara there. I hope you will enjoy the interview which was a result of our conversation. 

This year you reached the top of Pobieda. Can you tell us a little bit about this expedition?

At first I didn’t even consider going there, especially that Simone Moro, who is my great friend told me that it is the coldest mountain on the planet with temperatures dropping to minus 70°C. But then, Simone started showing me pictures, and after 2 months of his actions I decided to go with him. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how my body was going to cope with such low temperatures. So I freaked out a little bit. The whole expedition was also very unclear as we didn’t know much about the conditions there or about the mountain itself. Nevertheless, it was all very exciting for us.

What was your first impression after getting there?

When we got there we saw a lot of really amazing things – ice cubes stores in front of people’s houses, frozen vegetables or fish in the market, people wearing fur coats and boots, or houses built on special stalls. I also had a chance to meet Nomads and I rode a reindeer. We lived in a wooden house in a Nomad village and led life just like them – cutting wood, melting ice cubes etc. It was like fighting for survival, coming back to your roots and having a close contact with nature. But the conditions there were very harsh for our bodies – with very low temperature outside and very hot inside the house. The adventure of travelling to this place was a bigger part of the whole expedition, we met great and very intelligent people.

Tamara Lunger

But you went there to reach the mountain as well. How did that activity look like?

Of course, most of all we went there to reach the mountain. Once, we went half of the way but we still couldn’t see the summit. We were walking with our skis and it was all a really difficult work to do. We knew ascending the mountain was going to be hard but we decided to do it fast way, without having a camp higher up. We were lucky, there was an inversion of temperatures, and on the summit there was -35° C, not 70 as usually at this time of year. So I felt comfortable about the weather and it gave us possibility to move faster. The climb was more technical for me but I really enjoyed it. We didn’t only walk, we used ropes and the ground was steep so we had to be very careful. Sometimes it was impossible to secure ourselves with, for example an ice piton as the lower layer consisted of loose rocks. When we were coming down, we gave up using ropes as it would be dangerous for both of us and we could both fall. We were also skiing down and it gave me annoying pain in my back. We couldn’t take the skis off because in these conditions we could never put them back again. They would not hold properly. So, I fell down many times and was really beaten up after coming down.

Some media in Poland confused Pobieda with higher and located in a different part of the world Peak Pobeda.

Actually, I also climbed Peak Pobeda in 2011. I climbed with a woman for the first time and it was very hard for me. I usually prefer to have expeditions with men. It was a dangerous climb, we had a situation in which one of the members of the expedition could die. Fortunately, he only got some injuries and we had to bring him down because he wasn’t able to climb any more. I believe in different signs and I am religious so I thought this was not the right time for me to be there and I moved to Chan Tengri. We shared base camp so I could do it without any fuss. When I was coming down Chan Tengri I had to stay for 3 days in a cave, without food, alone, because I was afraid to go down all by myself. And when I finally got down I thought to myself: “It’s time for you to go home.”. But maybe there will be time for me to reach Peak Pobeda.

I would like to ask you about Nanga Parbat. We heard from Simone Moro, when he was our guest here in 2016, that he found it brave of you to decide not to climb the top of the mountain. Do you remember the moment in which you made that decision? How did you feel?

The moment came about 70 meters below the summit. This whole last day was really hard for me, when I got up and I went out of my tent I thought this was not my day. But I started to climb, Simone was about 50 minutes behind me, and then he passed me by. I started counting his steps, he was doing 25 steps and I was doing only 20 steps. I knew I needed to be faster, especially that Ali Sadpara and Alex Txicon were 1,5 hour ahead of us. So I treated it like a race and wanted to catch up with them. Unfortunately, when I finally did that I felt really bad. I tried to drink but I vomited which wasn’t a good sign. I also noticed that everybody saw that but nobody spoke anything. Nevertheless, Simone understood me without words. Despite that, I thought to myself that from camp four until the top I was alone, without any help.

I appreciated that Simone went before me, I was the last in line as I was really exhausted. I started to think about it and knew I needed a lot of strength to go down. Simone was moving further away from me, I needed more rest, tried to drink or eat but I vomited again. We got to the point where there was a turn to the right to reach the summit. Simone went over this turn and I couldn’t see him anymore. When he disappeared I totally lost my motivation, and heard an inner voice saying that if I pushed to the top I would die.

It was a very difficult decision for me, after all, it would be a historical event – first woman on Nanga Parbat in winter, but the priority for me was fighting for my life. I went down very concentrated and careful, step by step, but I also had to rest very often. There was a part where I had to jump over a crevasse and I did that but, at the same time, I twisted my ankle. When I was falling I felt like it was a slow motion scene and I wondered if I had enough power to stop this situation. I didn’t so I fell on my belly, my cap covered my eyes and I couldn’t see anything. I tried to use my ice axe and my crampons but I only felt a strong pull on my shoulder and I thought I was already dead. I was sure I was going to fall down 3000 meters and in a blink of an eye be in million different pieces. I was not afraid to die, to be honest, but to hurt a lot. I stopped in a pile of fresh snow, my heart was pounding and I felt relieved to be alive. I landed below camp four so I had to climb up again. Unfortunately, the sun was already setting so I needed to be very fast not to fall into many crevasses located there. I put all of my energy into this climb and when I reached my tent I just thanked God to be in one piece. It was already dark and my other companions came to the camp too.

Tamara Lunger

From your reports given after the expedition I know that that night wasn’t easy for you.

This night was the worst in my life as I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. I had injuries in my ankle,  my shoulder, smashed internal organs and I couldn’t even sit up without feeling pain. The others also felt badly and sorry that I didn’t reach the top and no one was really happy. I didn’t want to show my weakness so I cried secretly. The next day was beautiful so, slowly, we packed everything and started to go down. The guys helped me with my load so I could concentrate myself on climbing down. And eventually, we all made it to the bottom.

You were the second Italian woman to climb K2 in summer so isn’t it tempting for you to try to climb it in winter as well?

Why not? I was thinking about it and I think it’s possible. I would like to organize an expedition in the same combination – with Simone but I would prefer to have a small group of climbers because the more people you have in one team, the more problems it creates. We could observe it last winter. Misunderstandings take away all of your energy and if people don’t look in the same direction it’s impossible to succeed.

I admit, it would be dangerous to climb K2 in winter but I know the route and I would like to try to do my best there. I don’t read comments on the Internet about it. It’s common that people discourage other people to do different things but if you listened to these voices you could as well stay at home and do nothing.

You were born the same year Reinhold Messner ascended the last of all fourteen 8000 meter peaks. Was he any kind of authority for you? Have you visited his museum in Bolzano?

Yes, I visited the museum, especially that it is located in my hometown. To be honest, Messner has never been a big hero for me. I don’t know why because I am sure that he made something remarkable. Probably, for many people he was and still is one of the most inspiring men on Earth but he scares me somehow. Maybe, it’s because of his eyes which are very strong and intimidating. And because of his attitude. I saw a situation when he made a presentation after which people wanted to get some autographs from him. One guy also wanted to shake Messner’s hand and he said “No” explaining that everybody would want him to shake their hands which he obviously couldn’t do. That is what I don’t understand and I wouldn’t do that, but the more I discover mountain world, the more I understand that some situations take energy from us and you don’t have to agree to everything.

Messner lived through some very sad moments and, for years, people were accusing him of killing his brother. You need to be very strong not to break down. I think he is a great person with a lot of inner strength and maybe that’s why he sometimes seems very dark. There is also some kind of very intense energy around him.

Tamara Lunger

So, have you got any authority, an idol in the mountain world?

No, not really. But when I was in a national ski mountaineering team with my father I always looked up to him. He never seemed to concentrate on failures and they didn’t influence his next moves. I, on the other hand, always had a lot of tension so I admired that my father was so calm and relaxed. I can say that, at that time my father was my idol.

I also like Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner’s achievements, especially that she climbed without oxygen and now I want to climb only in that style as well.

Do you still take part in some ski mountaineering competitions, like Pierra Menta?

Not in the last few years, my training now is little different and I wasn’t focused on races. But this discipline has always been a big challenge in my life. For example, in 2008 I was a world champion on long distance and it put a lot of pressure on me. People were expecting I would win every race which made me feel bad. I also had some problems with my knees and couldn’t be that fast. There was a race in which I took part in a team with a girl and on that day I decided just to have fun, not to compete with anybody. It was a beautiful day and I just wanted to enjoy it. We came second last but I wasn’t worried and hoped I showed everybody that I didn’t care for the pressure they had put on me.

Do you know Ania Figura who is the best Polish ski alpinist?

Yes, we were supposed to meet in Szczyrk and ski together but eventually we didn’t.

Are you planning to do anything connected to ski mountaineering again?

This sport has always been a huge part of my life and my training. This year I wanted to go to Elbrus race but my teammate didn’t get her visa so I went home with her because I didn’t want to leave her back, in tears. But I do a lot of activities where I use skis, for example during climbing Pobieda.
And what do you like doing when you don’t climb? What are your passions?
I like cooking and embroidering. Sometimes I need to express my emotions so then I do something more artistic, like painting. I also do a lot of meditation. This all calm me down and help me concentrate not only on my duties but also on my inner spirit.

This year, during Open Climbing Days everything revolves around women’s role in the mountaineering world. What is your opinion about it?

I think women, are totally equal to men but they have different point of view than men. We are strong, powerful and we can achieve everything we want in our style. But I believe, everybody is free to do whatever they want and there is space for different ideas. At the same time, I can see that there are a lot of girls who are not brave enough to take risks and make their dreams or goals come true. After my presentations women often come to me and thank me for the inspiration I gave them but they also speak about a lot of excuses for not trying to be like me. I am sure that if you focus on your aim you are able to achieve anything you want. And even if you don’t reach the top, the way to the top is equally important. Look at Maria – the mother of Jesus. She was an incredible woman, and gave birth to a very important man. That could be done only by a very strong woman. I think we all should be inspired by Maria. Women are sometimes more afraid and less sure and determined about gaining their goals. I think it’s not only a matter of attitude but also of character. You need to be born with an element in your personality that makes you more courageous and secure. For me, for example, it’s always been that I wanted to try new things even if I didn’t know much about them. And the harder it was, the better for me! I still feel that way, you know, I just don’t want to be like flat sea, I want to have big waves! Of course, there are days when I feel bad and depressed like everybody else. But I know it’s only a state and in short time something more positive will happen.

I would like to make a little sneak peek about your plans for the future. Can you tell me anything about them?

Oh, I don’t want to say much before some things are certain. We are still waiting for permissions so I don’t want to speak about anything too soon.

interview made by Bartosz Andrzejewski
editing by Karolina Andrzejewska

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