Mountain climbers face down the Taliban on the Himalayas' killer Nanga Parbat

Last June, 11 climbers were shot on one of the world's highest mountains. So why is Simone Moro now chancing a winter ascent of Nanga Parbat?

When climber Zhang Jingchuan saw the gunmen breaking laptops and phones they'd grabbed from the tents, he knew he was about to die. The men threatening him weren't ordinary thieves. The 42-year-old former soldier had been settling in for the night of 22 June 2013, below the vast Diamir face of Nanga Parbat, an 8,126m mountain in Pakistan, when 16 armed men dressed in local paramilitary fatigues stormed into base camp.

Still shocked from his ordeal, Zhang Jingchuan told journalists as he arrived home in Kunming how he was forced from his tent in his thermal underwear and bare feet, had his hands bound and was ordered to kneel. His two companions, leading Chinese mountaineers Yang Chunfeng and Rao Jianfeng, were already outside in the freezing cold with the barrel of a Kalashnikov held to their heads.

While the gunmen looked for other foreigners, Zhang suggested to his friends they make a run for it. Yang tried to reassure him that it was just an armed robbery and they'd soon be let go. By the time the gunmen began destroying the laptops they'd collected – and Zhang knew this was no robbery – it was too late.

Most of the 50 or so foreigners with a climbing permit were up on the mountain, but the attackers managed to round up 11 foreigners from a disparate range of countries: three Ukrainians, two Slovaks, three Chinese, a Lithuanian, a Chinese-American and a Sherpa from Nepal.

The half-dozen local men working as cooks for the expeditions had been confined to a mess tent and told to stay quiet until the attackers had fled. But 28-year-old Ali Hussain from Hushe in Baltistan wasn't so lucky. When the attackers discovered he was Shia, he was forced to kneel alongside the 11 climbers.

What exactly happened next in those hours of darkness and the real intentions of the armed gang are still uncertain. Pakistani investigators have claimed it was a kidnapping gone wrong. If that really is the case, it went wrong very quickly.

"After they searched everyone, the massacre began," Zhang said. "A shot was aimed at my head." Eleven men where killed.

The bullet grazed his scalp and Zhang collapsed, bleeding from his wound. When he regained consciousness, he knew his only chance was to act. Freeing his hands, he sprinted into the darkness, zigzagging as he had been trained to do for 30 metres, before jumping into a ravine. He stayed hidden for 40 minutes, shivering in the cold as the gunmen hunted him, and then crept back into camp, found warm clothes and a satellite phone and went to raise the alarm.

The Pakistani authorities were quick to respond, sending a helicopter at first light. The Taliban claimed the murders were retaliation for the death in a US drone strike of the Taliban leader Wali ur-Rehman. Within days security forces announced they knew the identities of the men who carried out the attack – a faction of the Taliban based around the nearby town of Chilas. As the net tightened, two Army officers and a senior police officer investigating the massacre were ambushed driving through Chilas and shot dead.

Those believed responsible for the Nanga Parbat and Chilas killings are now in custody and awaiting trial. Temporary closures to tourists visiting the Nanga Parbat region have been lifted. But the damage to Pakistan's already anaemic adventure tourism industry has been done. Until then, trekkers and climbers from all over the world had continued to visit Pakistan's high mountains, believing them to be comparatively safe from the violence that has devastated other areas. Not any more.

Manzoor Hussain, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, called it "a fatal blow" to his attempts to persuade foreigners to visit. "We are still in shock," he said "and we've had to apologise to so many mountaineers across the world." As though climbing Nanga Parbat was not dangerous enough, the prospect of doing so with the threat of terrorist attack hanging over base camp is far too much for most climbers to contemplate.

Under such conditions, climbing Nanga Parbat in the frozen depths of a Himalayan winter looks like insanity. Meet Simone Moro. Six months after the attack, he is soaking up California's winter sunshine. The 46-year-old Italian mountaineer is here to run the North Face 50-mile ultra-marathon. For most athletes this would be the climax to a season's training but for Moro it's just final preparation for the far more extreme and perilous challenge of climbing Nanga Parbat in winter and in defiance of the Taliban. And for Pakistan's impoverished region of Gilgit-Baltistan, his arrival – alongside two other small teams – to attempt the mountain this winter has a lot more riding on it than mere sporting history.

Just 14 mountains exceed 8,000m, strung like jewels across the arc of the Himalaya, and there is no crueller game in world mountaineering than climbing them in winter. The cold is endless and bitterly intense, so intense your bones ache. Temperatures can plunge to -50C, making frostbite more likely than not. The wind scours ice into glass, hunting out any weak spot in clothing or shelter.

For many years climbing these giants in winter was the speciality of one nation – Poland. Something about the Eastern European psyche allowed them to cope in such miserable conditions. That changed with Moro. He was the first non-Polish climber to achieve a first ascent in winter on an eight-thousander – Shisha Pangma in Tibet, in 2005. Since then the Italian has notched two more – Makalu in 2009, the world's fifth-highest peak and, in 2011, Gasherbrum II, the first of Pakistan's five eight-thousanders to be climbed in winter.

Only two other men have three first winter ascents: both Poles, both mountaineering legends. Jerzy Kukuczka died in 1989, climbing in Nepal. Krzysztof Wielicki, the first person to climb Everest in winter, is still leading expeditions in his mid-60s, but his best climbing days are behind him. And because there are now just two eight-thousanders left to be done in winter, Moro has the chance to make a fourth first ascent and set a record that will never be broken.

The bad news is that those two peaks are K2 and Nanga Parbat. K2's reputation for savagery has only been burnished in recent years following the disaster in 2008 when 11 climbers died in just one day. Even now, in an era when novices are guided up Everest, years still go by when no one climbs K2 – and that's in summer, when the sun warms the upper slopes a little.

Moro believes it's possible to climb K2 in winter, but he won't be going there, thanks to a psychic intervention from his wife Barbara Zwerger. "The day after I reached the summit of Gasherbrum II," he says, "my wife dreamed I was dying during the first winter ascent of K2. She never told me to do anything in our relationship before – don't climb this, don't climb that – but this was the first and only time she's said to me, if you can, don't go to K2. And she's good at predicting. It's happened before that she's had a dream about something and it's come true."

So that only leaves Nanga Parbat, a peak whose gothic history, even before the Taliban attacked, is so crammed with tales of tragedy and loss that road signs on the Karakoram Highway refer to it as the Killer Mountain. There have been just 350 ascents since it was first climbed in 1953 and 69 fatalities. Just a day's drive from Islamabad, at the western limit of the Himalaya, the peak towers above the Indus in glorious isolation, which presents challenges that are all its own.

"Nanga Parbat is not protected by any other mountain," Moro says. "It's like an island – this huge, huge peak. It's the biggest mountain on the planet, not in terms of height, of course, but the difference in height between base camp and the summit. On Shisha Pangma it was only 2km. On Gasherbrum II it was 3km. The top of Nanga Parbat is 4.5km above base camp. So you have no shelter from the wind and you need twice the time to reach the top. This is why no one has done it in winter."

It's not for want of trying. There have been 16 separate attempts to climb Nanga Parbat in winter, including one by Moro in 2012. That year ferocious storms blocked his progress before he was halfway up. This year the odds are even longer – he reckons on a 10 or 15% chance of success – thanks to the extra and very current threat from the Taliban.

How does Moro cope with the prospect of sharing a mountain with the Taliban? "This is what I'm thinking," he says. "When someone robs a bank, usually, the next time, if you want to continue this activity, you go to another bank. If I was a terrorist, knowing how much attention there is on Nanga Parbat, it wouldn't be the best decision to go to Nanga Parbat.'

To limit the risks still further, he has chosen to climb from the more difficult southern side of the peak, known as the Rupal face. Unlike the Diamir face to the north, there is only one way to approach base camp on this side of the mountain. "And in winter," Moro says, "you can't hide the way the terrorists did in summer. Plus, it gets more sun in winter, so we will be a bit warmer." Then he adds: "But for sure, I will not have just an ice axe in base camp."

His physical preparation has been both intense and highly scientific. As a physiology graduate who specialised in hypoxia (lack of oxygen), Moro is obsessed with his metabolism. Unlike many climbers, he doesn't put on weight in readiness for an expedition. "I'm not superlight – 69kg – but then I have to wade through snow up to my hips." He trains relentlessly, running up to 140km a week and rock climbing to a high standard. "But in the end," he says, "it's not these factors that mean success or failure, it's psychology. The hardware has to be ready, but it's the software that the real key."

Missing from Moro's team on Nanga Parbat will be his great friend and longstanding climbing partner Denis Urubko, the man the Italian regards as "a younger brother". The Kazakh has been with Moro on many previous winter triumphs and attempts – but not this time. "He's super-afraid of terrorists," Moro says. "He told me that living in Kazakhstan he's become afraid of Muslim extremists. He knew some of the people who were killed last summer." Moro will instead be climbing with German mountaineer David Goettler.

When asked what he admires about Eastern Europeans, Moro replies: "They're quite rude. They don't do this false politeness. They're very straight. They either love you or hate you. They're pure and honest, there's no double game. This is very important at high altitude."

These, of course, are many of the qualities Moro exhibits himself. In an era of exploration that often has more to do with marketing than pushing boundaries, the Italian stands out as a maverick over-achiever who speaks his mind. If he's known at all in this country it's as the climber who on Everest last May called a Sherpa "a motherfucker" after an altercation over crossing ropes at 7,200m, prompting a violent reaction that ended with Moro and his companions, Swiss climber Ueli Steck and British photographer Jon Griffith, fleeing.

"I apologised for that [word]," Moro says. "But a bad word, one single bad word, after someone has tried to hurt your partner, that's understandable."

Moro returned to Everest within days, at the controls of a helicopter, working as a rescue pilot. Among the first people he evacuated was one of the Sherpas who had led the attack on him. "You can't justify violence, especially on a mountain. The biggest dangers are always human – more than avalanche, more than crevasses. We don't know our own limits and don't stop before it's too late. Then there's the stupidity of terrorists and bandits. Those are dangers we should fear more.

"I'm doing something more dangerous than playing the guitar, that's true. But everybody reading this will die sooner or later. I'm trying to push that date as far back as possible. That's why I fail so often. But equally I don't want to be a potato, stuck in the ground until something eats me. I want to enjoy my life and in the mountains I'm happy – a happy husband and a happy father. I'm 46. I've done 50 expeditions, including 12 in winter. Altogether I've spent 13 years of my life in the most dangerous places on earth. That doesn't happen altogether by luck. Don't you think?" © Guardian News and Media 2014