On January 16, a group of Nepali mountaineers became the first climbers to scale the K2 peak in winter. Why is this significant, and how was it achieved?
At 8,611 metres, K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, after Mount Everest whose height was recently revised to 8,848 m. K2 is located on the border between the Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan region and China. K2 was first climbed in 1954, but all successful ascents have been in the warmer months — until now. It has been tried only six times in the coldest months, and each effort ended in failure, climbing guide Freddie Wilkinson wrote in The New York Times. “Scaling K2 in winter was perhaps the last great prize of high-altitude mountaineering, a sport born as an expression of national strength among Western European nations in the mid-20th century,” Wilkinson wrote.
Prone to avalanches, marked by forbidding temperatures and fierce winds, K2 is so formidable that it is called the ‘Savage Mountain’. For every four climbers who reach its summit, one dies, The NYT said in another article; not even 400 climbers have reached the peak, fewer than the people who have been to outer space.
The adventure was planned in the office of the Seven Summit Trek company last summer, at a time when Covid-19 had brought a halt to mountaineering in Nepal. Mingma Sherpa of the company hosted a meeting of climbers who discussed the role the mountaineering community had to play amid the restrictions. “We must decide today what it should be like,” they resolved. And scaling K-2 in winter became a “consensus mission”.
“The feat achieved at 1656 hours on January 16 by a team of climbers — all Nepalis — was the outcome of that meeting in June,” Mingma Sherpa told The Indian Express. “Our current mission is over, but our responsibility and larger campaign will continue,” he said.
The climbers, who went in two teams, were Nirmal Purja, Gelje Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma G, Sona Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Prem Chhiri Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Killi Pemba Sherpa and Dawa Tenzing Sherpa. They return to Nepal on Tuesday, 10 days after the ascent.
“Brother to brother, shoulder to shoulder, we walked together to the summit whilst singing the Nepali national anthem. We all stopped around 10m before reaching the summit to huddle and make our final steps together as a team to mark this historical feat,” Nirmal Purja tweeted.
Purja, who hails from Chitwan district in the plains, and is a retired Gorkha of the British Army, climbed all fourteen 8,000-m-plus mountains in the world two years ago, within a record six months and six days. This included K-2 but that ascent was in summer.
After the trek company solicited participation from willing expeditionists, Purja offered to participate along with five others — the “Nimsdai group”, in which all except him belonged to the Sherpa community. Geljen Sherpa had climbed several Himalayan peaks along with him in 2019; Mingma David Sherpa had rescued 52 climbers from the slopes of Everest in a single climbing season in 2016.
Mingma G, a Sherpa who had climbed Everest five times, K2 twice, and all the world’s 8,000-metre peaks when he was still in his 20s, led a separate team of Sherpas.
Making the assault
The week-long trek covered over 90 km. An expeditionist said the temperature along the route and the top was up to —65 to –70 degrees, and they had to negotiate the passage through blue ice and rocks. But the confidence the team earned during the ascent would be an inspiration for future adventurers, they feel.
They negotiated a notorious passage called the Bottleneck, mindful of the dangers of moving too fast, which could potentially cause constriction of the pulmonary blood vessels and eventually lead to death. “Linked to a rope they’d fixed to the ice, Purja and the other climbers stepped around such unspoken truths like so many shattered ice houses,” The NYT wrote.
Back from the peak, Purja tweeted: “The first ascent of K2 in winter. No individual agendas, no individual greed but only solidarity and joint force of Team Nepal with a shared vision.”
There are still around 40 members of the expedition trying their luck to get to the top of the Mountain on Pak-China border, and 19 of them are Nepalis, Mingma Sherpa said.
Purja said the mission would focus on climate change and global warming. He tweeted: “Global warming and climate change is one of the biggest challenges the world is facing right now. The human race needs to unite to face era’s most threatening looming crisis. If we unite we can make anything possible.”
On their return from the peak, the mountaineers called on General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff in Pakistan and thanked the Pakistan government for its support. “We are humbled with the success, and the hospitality we got. Pakistan is our second home,” a delegate said. Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied regions have five of the fourteen 8,000-metre plus mountains that could bring more mountaineers together in future adventures.
But the successful ascent was all about Nepali pride. And before planning future events, the team is expected to do an enormous amount of homework back in Nepal.