Carlos González of alpinismonline.com published a long interview with Chhang Dawa Sherpa, the leader of the great Seven Summit Treks winter expedition to K2.
As you can see, there have been various media outlets that have launched accusations against the management of the expedition after the death of Sergi Mingote (Spain), Atanas Skatov (Bulgaria) from falls and the disappearance of John Snorri (Iceland), Juan Pablo Mohr (Chile ) and Muhammad Ali Sadpara (Pakistan) during a summit attempt.
Here is the article with the interview with Dawa Sherpa, in which he responds to many of the doubts and criticisms (often interested) launched against him and, above all, his agency, which is now the most important in the world, having supplanted also the “western” ones.
Chhang Dawa Sherpa was born on 30 July 1982 and was the youngest mountaineer to complete the 14 8000m peaks until 2019. He was born and raised in the rural village of Narbuchaur in the Makalu area, Sankhuwasabha district of Nepal.
He reached his first 8000m peaks on Makalu in spring 2001 without supplemental oxygen together with his brother Mingma Sherpa. Together with his brother, they earned the Guinness World Record for “The First Two Brothers in the World” to successfully reach the top of the world’s 14 mountains. The Sherpa brothers only used supplemental oxygen on the four highest eight thousand. They now run the Seven Summits Treks commercial agency, which organizes expeditions and treks to Nepal, Pakistan and China.
As head of the Seven Summits Treks agency, which led the largest group of mountaineers to the last and tragic winter expedition on K2, it was necessary to speak with him in order to draw some conclusions and clarify some doubts circulated in international mountaineering circles.
For many the SST had some kind of responsibility in all the events that occurred on K2. We also asked ourselves some questions that only Dawa could answer. So we contacted him and he gave us his availability for this interview, in which he tried to touch on all the “hottest” points, those that generated the most doubts.
As for the evaluation of the answers given by Dawa himself, well, it remains with the analysis of each of you. Only it should be emphasized that his statements clarify some points that needed to be clarified, and distribute the responsibilities mainly among the actors of this experience.
What do you think could have happened to Sadpara, Snorri and Mohr?
What I think is that one of them got into trouble, another tried to help him and the other got into trouble too. Maybe that’s what we call a chain reaction. In addition, they have been exposed at high altitudes for too long. Or perhaps the icefall from the serac on the Bottleneck has wiped out the climbers.
As head of Seven Summits Treks (SST), what prompted you to put together such a large winter participation on K2, for an expedition on the most dangerous eight thousand ? It had to do with closure in 2020 of the seasons reserved for climbing ?
Many people asked us to organize this winter expedition, so there was enough manpower, with a lot of support. The chances of reaching the summit in winter with a small team are minimal. Also, we don’t sell guided expeditions, we only provide infrastructure. The mountaineers who participated in the expedition have experience in climbing 8000m peaks and are aware of the dangers, and in a climb as strong as the one at K2 in winter, they cannot be guided.
Did a company other than SST participate in this idea or was it your exclusive initiative ?
As the SST was the main team with great support, this attracted other agencies and climbers to join the expedition.
Some mountaineers who accompanied her, I will not give names, took care to emphasize that it was not a commercial expedition. What do you think of this?
In my opinion, anyone who joins to promote themselves has a commercial expedition in their own way. They all use the SST infrastructure, or service providers throughout the expedition, but it’s quite common for so-called independent climbers to use the base camp service and other agency team infrastructure. When they join SST or the Pakistani agency, in a way they are part of a commercial expedition – that’s what I believe.
Had he taken into consideration that what eventually happened could happen?
Yes, the K2 statistic doesn’t lie about the risk, whether you’re climbing it in summer or winter, or any other season. K2 had never been climbed in winter and many strong teams had tried it.
As for the incidents of Sergi Mingote and Atanas Skatov, what do you think may have gone wrong?
Common human mistakes constitute the biggest risk on a mountain, they probably made a small mistake, probably the change of the rope, perhaps in combination with fatigue, caused them this mistake.
What predictions have you made for this expedition, I mean the question of support, in all senses, in the event of an accident, covid alert, intervention before an evacuation? How did it work when there were problems, for example, people who had to be evacuated to Skardu?
Climbers decide in advance to climb with or without a sherpa, so we have other sherpas fixing the ropes, which can help in the event of an accident. The recovery up to the base camp can only be carried out by land intervention. Our agency paid the mandatory helicopter rescue deposit to the Pakistani army. The helicopter rescue in Pakistan can only be carried out by the army.
Seven Summits Treks has partnered with other companies à (Jasmine, etc.)?
No, the other team helped with the rescue, because of the staff they didn’t have. As for Covid, we follow all health protocols established by the government of Pakistan.
In launching this expedition, and seeing so many people joining the SST project, what were your predictions for the final days of the push to the top, knowing there was no room for all those people?
The day before the Sherpas were supposed to deposit tents and other material at Camp 3, but due to the strong wind they were unable to climb higher than Japanese Camp 3. This meant that the next day, all things like tents and oxygen tanks had to be brought to C3 in one go. Furthermore, some members left C2 too late against all the advice of the leader, and still some members did not respect the timing of the contacts established with the leaders at the base camp, few of them even turned off the radio and cut off all communication. All this has consequences, mainly the attitude of some who make the summit at all costs.
What’s different about setting up an expedition of this type, I mean infrastructure, support, sherpa, between a mountain like Everest and one like winter K2? Is it managed the same way?
The infrastructure we need or use in K2 is quite similar to that of Everest, such as ropes, tents, oxygen tanks, etc. But much more is expected of every single climber. At K2 in the winter members are expected to help or work together as a team, in addition to the Sherpa team.
Do you remember how many Sherpas worked with SST on this expedition? How many climbers were there?
The total expedition had 22 mountaineers 18 sherpas, 3 rope fixing teams and among the international mountaineers 5 of them decided to climb without sherpa, without camp support and without oxygen for their ethical beliefs.
Let’s now go to the famous final push day, February 4th, when the most important events of the whole expedition took place, regardless of Sergi’s accident that happened much earlier. How was the issue of supplementary oxygen distribution handled for the day of the summit attempt?
Our Sherpas carried cylinders in various stages during the expedition. All SST members used oxygen from c2 and found the other cylinders at c3 or in the sherpa’s backpack. Juan Pablo Mohr and Tamara decided in advance to climb without oxygen and without the support of Sherpa.
Surely you know that some climbers have claimed that oxygen was not where it was supposed to be, one of them is Elias Saikaly, who explicitly said so in an article. What can you answer to these statements? Was it really so ?
Elia was not a member of our team, but of Jasmine Tours, the same company chosen by John Snorri, Ali Sadpara and his son. Elia, who showed up at K2, asked us to sell him oxygen because his team didn’t have enough for him. We sold him six cylinders, under the Black Pyramid, previously carried by our Sherpas. Their HAP (Pakistani high altitude carrier, ed) did not collect these cylinders from the Black Pyramid, due to a lack of communication. The transport of the cylinders from the Black Pyramid to c3 was the responsibility of his own team, this was agreed in advance. We don’t know why there was a lack of communication in his own team.
What was the activity of the sherpas of Seven Summits Treks on the day of the push to the summit? Specifically, where were they?
All Sherpas simultaneously ascend from c2 to c3 carrying supplies and personal equipment. Only three members, Bernhard, Tomaz and Rosette (Lippert, Rotar, Valloton, ed) decided to advance to the top, accompanied by four Sherpas. Subsequently the three climbers decided to reverse gear (some reached 8000m) due to the extreme cold and some new large crevasses along the way. Other Sherpas remained at c3 with members who did not climb to the top and descended to base camp the next day. All members and sherpas arrived at base camp except 2 members and 2 sherpas (stopped in c1). Juan Pablo was climbing without sherpa, without oxygen and without support at high altitudes. He decided to follow Ali and Snorri alone.
Do you think there were people up there who weren’t self-sufficient?
Many climbers decide to climb in different climbing styles, we are not the ones to judge. A climber makes his decision based on his ability to climb the summit.
What do you think of the enormous number of ropes, according to the testimonies of the climbers themselves, which exist on the Via dello Sperone Abruzzi, shouldn’t something be done?
Due to the decades of expeditions, there are many ropes on the Via dello Sperone Abruzzi (from many years before we started operating expeditions on K2) and this is a safety issue. Unfortunately, due to the pressure we receive from members to equip the route as quickly as possible to make the ascent, we or any other agency do not have the time to remove the old ropes. Furthermore, the reduced favorable weather windows of the K2 climate do not allow a thorough cleaning of the old ropes. To do this, we need a separate team that focuses only on removing the strings. Removing the ropes and carrying your own equipment and that of members at the same time is practically impossible. I agree that the old ropes are definitely a problem and are the responsibility of all the climbing teams on the mountain. It would be good that in the future all the agencies operating on K2 could make a plan to eliminate these old ropes.
Do you know why is the majority decided to go down when he reached the C3? I mean, for example, Tamara, Conte (the Italian did not go up to c3: he had given up earlier, also to avoid making things more difficult for those with top ambitions, ed) and many others. Did they notify you when they got off or did you hear if they said anything about it?
Conte returned from Camp 1 because he respected the time set by the leader, Tamara and the rest of the team went back from c3 because they did not feel safe and confident for the summit, moreover the weather window of 5 was minimal. All the members knew this.
What kind of contact did you have from base camp with the group at the high camps ?
Members and Sherpas brought VHF radio to communicate with base camp, that’s how base camp updates on the situation and from base camp they received weather forecasts and advice.
Knowing that Juan Pablo Mohr was a member of the SST expedition, did you have any contact with him when he decided to move on with Snorri and Sadpara?
Juan Pablo Mohr joined SST only for base camp support, Juan Pablo decided from the start to climb independently, that’s how he climbed several 8000m peaks, these were his ethical principles to climb the summit, without sherpa, without oxygen and without support for high fields. JP carried the radio and said he would contact base camp if necessary. On the morning of 4 Ali contacted the base camp from C2, asking for the weather forecast, I (Dawa) told him that it would be nice until noon, and for the safe return it was necessary to go up early, around 9 am. I warned Ali that the time was very tight, because for a safe return they will have to arrive as soon as possible at C3 and start the push towards the summit already around 11 pm (again on February 4th), but they then decided to leave C3 around 2am (on February 5th).
I was unaware that JP had continued attempting to summit with Ali and Snorri until Sajid returned to c3 and said they were climbing into the Bottleneck.
When all the climbers returned to base camp, and by now knowing of the disappearance of one of the SST members, Juan Pablo Mohr, was there an SST representative at base camp with the military team?
Most of our team didn’t leave BC until 3 days after JP went missing. I was taking part in the army helicopter flyby for all the research and help of Snorri’s team. I didn’t leave base camp until the army decided to stop sending helicopters due to bad weather.
Some people expected us to use our Sherpas for the search and rescue operation, but our Sherpas were on their way to Base Camp when the climbers went missing.
The climb would take several days, and they would also need the necessary oxygen and supplies to the high fields to conduct the research. Furthermore, the climbers (the Pakistani HAPs) who were sent later were unable to even climb to Camp 1.
Do you think that SST had a certain degree of responsibility à in some of the events as they claim different media today? If so, what would they be and what should be corrected for the future?
Climbing an eight thousand meter peak, especially K2 in winter, is extremely dangerous, and for this reason it has never been done before. We expect some sort of self-responsibility and ability from every member who signs up for such an advanced expedition. In fact, all of our members are experts and are aware of it. Although we are a commercial shipping operator, we do not promise our members will be guided. Most of the problems occurred due to the small weather window and could not be avoided unless we had more time.
So you are planning to continue with this type of proposed winter climbs ?
If enough people urge us and we can put together a team of experienced climbers, we will probably have similar expeditions in the future. Normal 8000er seasons seem busy, more climbers are interested in climbing in the winter. This winter we also had expeditions to Ama Dablam and Manaslu (with Alex Txilkon and Simone Moro).
What lessons has all this left you, if you have already been able to take stock, taking into account that there are three mountaineers left, one from SST, of whom there is no news?
I am very saddened by the disappearance of these three climbers, including Juan Pablo from SST. Ali was like one of the family and worked alongside our Sherpa staff on many eight-thousanders climbs in Nepal. We realized that K2 and winter are extremely risky, but climbers have the freedom to make their own decisions even if they go against our leader’s advice. In the future we will urge members to have more support, maybe one Sherpa for each member is not enough, but you can never make the winter climb of K2 100% safe. In fact, the uncertainty and the fact that it was never built is the attraction that drives most climbers.
Do you think that Nepal will open his borders for the Himalayan 2021 season? And China?
Yes, Nepal opens with minimum quarantine rules and security protocols, but I think China remains closed this season.
Some international companies, SST competitors have given up Everest for 2021, as will be a spring season in the top of the world?
Some companies that have travel restrictions from their own countries forgo Everest and other expeditions to Nepal. We are Nepalese, based in Nepal and owned by Sherpa, Nepal is open to tourism and climbing, with few rules to follow. I see the Everest season is quieter, but Everest will definitely have several teams trying to climb it. SST has 5 international teams on Everest this season via the South Face.
We know that you are planning to go to Kangchenjunga and Annapurna. Are there other 8000ers?
Yes, there are some expeditions this season (spring) to Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kangchenjunga, Makalu, Lhotse and even to the Seven Thousanders. It seems that mountaineers still want to climb; only tourists and hikers are much less.
Cases in Nepal (Covid) are dropping and there are various security protocols to follow for every tourist entering Nepal, making it a little safer. And the fact is that climbing an eight-thousand-meter peak is much more dangerous than Covid.