On the evening of January 16, 2021, as the sun set behind the Karakoram, 10 Nepali climbers stepped onto the summit of K2.
With their summit, they made mountaineering history.
The Savage Mountain had finally been climbed in winter. A race that had started with the Polish “lords of winter” finished nearly 40 years later.
Nine out of 10 summiters were Sherpa (and the tenth, a Magar), the traditionally anonymous workers who form the backbone of the big commercial expeditions. That a Sherpa team took the prize added a feeling of historical justice to the event.
The summiters were: Mingma Gyalgie Sherpa, Dawa Tenzing Sherpa, and Kilu Sherpa of Rolwaling, Nirmal Purja of Gandaky, Mingma Gyabu “David” Sherpa of Taplejung, Dawa Temba Sherpa and Sona Sherpa of Makalu, Pemchhiri Sherpa of Dolakha, and Gelje Sherpa and Mingma Tenzi Sherpa of Solukhumbu.
When they first set foot on the Baltoro Glacier only three weeks earlier, the 10 were not a single unit but part of three separate teams, with different plans but the same goal.
Three teams, one goal
For Mingma G, Dawa Tensing, and Kilu Sherpa, it was their second attempt on Winter K2 after a failed commercial venture in 2019. Their previous expedition didn’t get much further than Camp 2. It ended with accusations from the two western members, John Snorri of Iceland and Tomaz Rotar of Slovenia, that Mingma G had ended the expedition for no good reason.
“This time, I will go without clients. It’s a burden and too much responsibility,” Mingma G said before leaving for Pakistan in the fall of 2020.
Sona Sherpa was working for Seven Summit Treks, by far the biggest team on the mountain. The company’s CEO, Chhang Dawa, had shocked the climbing community by announcing that he was willing to organize a commercial expedition on this last remaining winter 8,000’er. Only a handful of hard-core Himalayan veterans had attempted this mighty challenge, and winter K2 had repelled all of them.
Newbies and veterans
The relatively low cost and the promise of glory attracted a number of Dawa’s regular clients. Some had limited 8,000m experience, and none had attempted the Himalaya in winter before. It looked like a recipe for disaster. Sadly, it eventually proved so.
Some other K2 winter hopefuls were quite experienced, such as Sergi Mingote and Juan Pablo Mohr. Both were friends and well into their own no-O2, 14×8,000’er projects.
Nirmal Purja and his five teammates, plus Adrianna Brownlee (a 19-year-old British girl aiming to reach Camp 2 as preparation for Everest the following spring) and photographer Sandro Gromen-Hayes, were included in the Seven Summit Treks permit but had their own agenda. They were the last to reach Pakistan.
The third team on the mountain was the only one with no Nepali members. It was organized by John Snorri and assisted by one of Pakistan’s best climbers, Muhammad Ali Sadpara, the only man in the expedition who had actually summited another winter 8,000’er (Nanga Parbat). The third member of their team was Sadpara’s son, Sajid. Sajid was only 21 but had already summited K2 in summer.
At first, each expedition set its own strategy, although it was clear that they would need to collaborate to fix the ropes up the Abruzzi Spur. Then on December 29, Mingma G was fixing the route to Camp 3 but ran out of rope. Purja and his team reached Mingma with some spare ropes and a proposal.
The two leaders talked in Camp 2 and returned to Base Camp just in time for a well-watered New Year’s Eve party, and a spell of bad weather that lasted seven days.
“On January 13, we started climbing again, and Nims Dai [Nirmal Purja] joined our mission. We eyed a common goal and merged both our teams,” Mingma G told Dreamwanderlust.
At first, things did not look great. The wind blew away tents and gear, and Mingma G feared that his team might not have enough equipment for a summit push.
On January 14, a fierce wind battered Snorri and the Sadparas in Camp 2. They stayed put for the night, then retreated the next day. Mingma G pushed for Camp 3 instead and found better conditions there. When Purja heard, he also headed to Camp 3. At some point, Sona Sherpa also joined the group massing at Camp 3.
At this point, the Nepali teams stopped communicating with Base Camp or on social media (as Mingma David told ExplorersWeb in this interview). While most assumed that their immediate plan was to set up Camp 4 and return, they were actually preparing to go for the summit. They planned to go all the way from Camp 3, with no ropes other than the ones left from previous expeditions and those they would be able to fix along the way.
Also at Camp 3, slightly lower down, were no-O2 climbers Juan Pablo Mohr and Sergi Mingote. Mingote was the first to suggest the Nepalis “might try it” in a report. He also spoke of “the two Nepali teams on O2,” which brought some controversy afterward.
Mingote also mentioned that Sajid Sadpara had reached 7,000m carrying gear but that Snorri had retreated from the Black Pyramid. For Mingote and Mohr, a summit push was not an option before completing their acclimatization. Sadly, Mingote, one of the most experienced climbers on the mountain, lost his life in an accident the following day.
Meanwhile, the Nepali team set off from Camp 3. Mingma G went ahead to fix the route to Camp 4. At first, following the summer route was easy, but eventually, the three Sherpa climbers found an unpassable crevasse. The crevasse forced them to look for an alternative route. They retreated to close to Camp 3 and “moved more on the left through the Cesen route and finally managed to reach Camp 4.”
Mingma had wanted to summit without oxygen but eventually decided to use it because he was tired and very cold when they reached Camp 4. He also needed some rest. When Nirmal Purja arrived, Mingma considered turning around, but Purja encouraged him to continue. He left one hour later than the others and caught up with the team fixing ropes at the Bottleneck.
There are few details or pictures from the summit climb. Mingma G said that Mingma Tenzi fixed the last sections to the top, while he and Mingma David belayed him. Mingma G also noted that the final climb was less difficult than in summer because instead of loads of snow, the route was mostly ice.
Meanwhile, climbers in Base Camp (and audiences glued to social media) could only rely on short posts from Seven Summit Treks’ leader Chhang Dawa. There were some hours of concern when, after a report that the team was close to the summit, hours passed without news. Eventually, word of their summit came through very late in the afternoon.
Twenty-four hours later, Dawa posted a summit picture from Sona Sherpa. He and Gelje Sherpa, with frostnipped faces, had come all the way down from the summit to BC non-stop! Other climbers rested briefly in Camp 2. The following day, the rest of the Nepali team reached Base Camp, triumphant, happy, and safe.
There was unanimous applause from the climbing community, who waited for pictures, testimonies, and the summit push story. Surprisingly, there was nothing of the kind. Courtesy of the Pakistani authorities, the Nepali team took a helicopter back to Islamabad the next day. Later, back in Nepal, they received the heroes’ welcome that their remarkable feat deserved.
The summiters regarded their achievement as a matter of national pride. “[We paid] tribute to our nation, our national heroes,” Mingma G said.
In Base Camp, the sad loss of Sergi Mingote and the absence of the summit climbers made for a somber mood. Some abandoned the climb right there. The rest continued, hoping for another summit chance that never came. Worst of all, the mountain would take four more lives.
The flow of information was unusual. Two days after leaving Base Camp, Nirmal Purja stated that he had summited without O2. Mingma David said that Purja decided to climb without O2 shortly before the summit push and that they planned to keep it a secret until the release of a documentary about the climb. However, they changed their minds.
Purja’s photographer, Sandro Gromen-Hayes, didn’t join or document the summit climb and Purja never answered ExplorersWeb’s questions about his ascent. While there is no reason to doubt his word, such a remarkable achievement, especially considering that Purja climbed at the same pace as 10 super-strong Sherpa climbers on O2, deserves a more detailed account.
A new tactic?
As expert Dr. Robert Szymczak told ExplorersWeb, it is possible for a climber to keep pace without O2 while the rest use gas, as long as the rest of the team work on his behalf, much like a professional cycling team. Such a strategy, not common in high-altitude mountaineering, would be an interesting new tactic.
Purja’s many fans have aggressively denounced any questions about the lack of transparency. But requests for details are nothing new in mountaineering. Slovenian Tomaz Humar was questioned after Dhaulagiri and Spanish climber Kilian Jornet faced many uncomfortable questions after his Everest ascent. Perhaps Purja is waiting to tell the full story in a future film.
It was actually Mingma G who first provided a detailed account. In an interview with Dreamwanderlust on January 23, he explained that after their summit, the climbers were conveyed from one place to another, from celebration to celebration. On January 24, all the K2 summiters and Chhang Dawa shared the same summit video on their social media, accompanied by text written by Purja:
“Brother to brother, shoulder to shoulder, we walked together to the summit while 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, 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. Super proud of all the team members for earning this for Nepal and humanity through hardship, selfless effort, and most importantly UNITY proving that Nothing is Impossible! We are honored to be sharing this moment with communities all across the world.”
Asked by Explorersweb, Mingma G explained who was who in the summit video. He also strongly denied the baseless accusations in Pakistani media suggesting that the Sherpas may have cut the ropes as they retreated.
One year later, the climbing community remains stunned by the incredible strength of the Sherpa team. The group pushed for the summit from Camp 3 and some made it all the way back to Base Camp the same day. Mingma G’s group had also been fixing ropes from Camp 3 to Camp 4 just hours before. They displayed an iron will, and the impact they have made, not only among the Nepali mountain communities but on mountaineers from around the world, is incredible.
As time has passed, the Sherpa climbers have spoken of their competitive fire, and their determination to ensure an all-Nepali team bagged the first ascent of winter K2. Mountaineering has a long history of nations racing to plant their flags on top of the 8000’ers. More than anyone, the Nepalis deserve their place in history.
In the end, the no-O2 aspect of the climb has dimmed in importance. The Nepalis’ unity and incredible strength were the focus of the climb.
The challenge of winter K2 is still there, for those dreaming of a completely no-O2 ascent, or by different routes or in small teams. But Nepal has rightfully claimed the hardest and last of the 8,000m winter firsts for itself.
Source: Angela Benavides – ExplorersWeb