Matteo graduated from University in Economics and started full time studying photography and filming. He started taking pictures just before he started climbing, then he combined the two activity and, without even realizing it, it became simply more than just a passion. He thought it could stop at some point, but then that passion continued to grow and change shades. Ten years ago he skipped lessons at the University to go climbing and take pictures of those who at the time were the strongest climbers in Italy (who often passed in his area and who soon became important friends). After a three-year degree in Economics and Management, he decided to leave a career to focus full time on photography and video. He soon started shooting for clients like La Sportiva, Mammut, Patagonia, making publications for National Geographic, Profoto, RedBull and working top-class athletes. Currently, in addition to working for some of the important companies in the outdoor sector, he’s focusing on photographic and video reportage on environmental themes, trying to combine aesthetics with social utility.
Words and images by Matteo Pavana
As soon as I decided that I would have followed Simone Moro and Tamara Lunger on a winter expedition, I already knew that a great adventure was starting for me. Their main intention was to climb the peaks of Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II, something that only Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander did 35 years ago. Simone and Tamara wanted to repeat the ascent but in the winter season. These two peaks are located in the remote Karakorum valley in Pakistan. Not far from the Gasherbrums there are two other eight thousand meter peaks: the Broad Peak and the K2. I want to be clear: climbing an 8000m is a feat that has succeeded in thousands of people since alpinism exists. Only about twenty people managed to climb an 8000m peak in winter. Simone is one of these climbers and, more specifically, he is the only one in history to have climbed the first four of the fourteen eight thousand meter peaks in the coldest season.
I’ve been dreaming of going on an expedition for years. I grew up with the myth of the great explorers and the great climbers. For example, Vittorio Sella, a well-known Italian mountaineer, and photographer photographed these mountains for the first time in 1899, at a time when entering the Baltoro glacier was already a huge human achievement. I’ve always desired to live for a long time far from civilization, in a hostile and real environment. This expedition was the crowning of a dream for me. I was lucky enough to be able to reconcile an important job assignment together with a work of personal inner introspection.
The rhythm of my life is sometimes so fast that I feel drowned, I cannot fully enjoy the experiences that I am living...
Together with me in this adventure, there were Simone Moro, Tamara Lunger, and the photographer/filmmaker Matteo Zanga.
The month before the expedition was a nightmare for me.
I cannot hide that I was often taken by doubts regarding my choice because I was afraid of not being up to it, that I would not have resisted to the cold temperatures or that in any case, something would have gone wrong, that I would not have been able to it. On the other hand, following the most adventurous climbers in the world requires physical as well as psychological preparation. So I stopped thinking too much and I started getting motivated by all those doubts. That’s what exploration is made of: uncertainty.
Winter expedition means deep cold.
I knew that the cold would have been my worst enemy throughout the expedition, night or day it was. "Fighting the cold" I don't even think it's a correct expression since it's invisible. You can only stand the cold, although once we arrived at the base camp we had a kerosene stove and a gas heater. But during the eight days and the 120 km of trekking approaching the base camp, the cold was an unpleasant companion. In fact, arriving only at the Gasherbrum base camp is an adventure in itself. Generally, all climbers who want to go to that place fly by plane to Islamabad, from Islamabad, when the weather permits, fly directly to Skardu (the real gateway to the 8000m peaks in Karakorum). When a flight is not an available option, the only alternative is to travel on the KKH, the highest paved road in the world that connects Pakistan with China. Once we arrived at the village of Bungi we turned to Skardu and finally to Askole, which corresponds to the beginning of the approach trekking.
It's amazing how the human body gets used to the cold with time and how, once the expedition is over, you feel nostalgia for the unpleasant feeling. There were starry nights where temperatures plunged radically reaching peaks of -35 degrees. I don’t miss those terrible nights, but I miss that incredible clear sky full of stars.
I learned and accepted the cold. With the passing of days, I developed a sense that doesn't belong to me at all: patience. Patience towards that slow time, that empty space and the immensity and fullness of the uninhabited mountain. The moment I was really starting to understand the reason for that experience, the accident happened.
On 18th January 2020, Simone fell into the crevasse. The Gasherbrum icefall was very dangerous, this year more than ever. It took only a second: a snow bridge collapsed and Simone fell 20 meters into a crevasse. Tamara, who was belaying him, was pushed by gravity towards the crevasse, stopping 50 centimeters from its edge. Simone and Tamara wore snowshoes as they were the only suitable tool to move in that snowy, trying to avoid the risk of sinking too much while they’re walking and at the same time not overloading the bridges of snow. When everything seemed to be perfect (between weather forecasts, mountain conditions and the physical fitness of the climbers) everything ended, like a blink of an eye.
The expeditions to the highest mountains in the world reminded me of how blurred is the boundary between life and death, between success and tragedy. Surely for me, that I’m always trying to push my personal limit in the mountains, something in that place has been different. I understood that you can never underestimate the risk in the mountains, especially those mountains. Everything in those places is so big, that preparation and self-control sometimes are just not enough. Acceptance of this limit is fundamental for your own survival.
There was a specific moment during the expedition when I asked myself what was the boundary between being a photographer and being a mountaineer. That boundary corresponds to your responsibility. I was not able to define risk, I was not capable of it. One day I entered the glacier with Simone and Tamara: we walked in the easy part of the glacier, where the seracs and crevasses were still small compared to the upper part. Although my advanced mountaineering and climbing skills, I felt so uncomfortable, unprepared, alone.
Many people asked me: how did you shoot in those harsh conditions? What kind of gear did you take with you on the expedition? How did you backup all the data?
For this expedition, I had the opportunity to be supported by Sony Italia. I told them the necessity to have a top-class camera gear that can be performing at really low temperatures.