The winter climbing season on K2 has only just gotten underway, but already the teams on the mountain are making steady progress. Most of the climbers arrived in Base Camp before Christmas and celebrated the holidays acclimatizing and shuttling gear to the higher camps amidst good weather.
But anyone who knows anything about climbing in the Karakoram in the winter also knows that the weather there can be quite fickle. The forecast for later in the week calls for high winds, heavy snow, and extremely cold temperatures. Still, the teams are putting in a lot of work now with the potential for a major payoff down the line.
The world has 14 peaks that pierce the “death zone” above 8,000m — where oxygen levels are so low that the body begins to deteriorate and thoughts become muddled — but only K2 has never been climbed in winter, when the snow is deeper, the avalanches are bigger and the cold is much, much colder.
Ropes Fixed to Camp 4
Four teams have converged on K2 this winter, all with the same goal. The climbers on each of those squads are hoping to make history by completing the first winter ascent of the mountain. It remains the only 8000-meter peak that has yet to be climbed during the coldest, harshest season of them all. And despite being a major focal point of several major expeditions over the past few years, K2 has turned back all challengers.
This year could be different however, and not just because of the number of climbers that are on the mountain. A contingent of Nepali Sherpas—led by the indomitable Mingma G—is already proving itself to be incredibly strong, fixing ropes to Camp 3 and even making progress towards Camp 4. The members of that squad have already spent a considerable amount of time at higher altitude as they lay the groundwork for a potential summit push.
The Sherpas are joined by their colleague Nirmal Purja, who is leading another group of climbers himself. Nims has assisted with fixing ropes and although he has other alpinists to look after, he has been contributing to the progress as well. The challenge now is whether or not the team can install the ropes to C4 before the weather takes a turn for the worse.
The Mountain Takes its Toll
While progress has been surprisingly swift already this season, K2 hasn’t been all that accommodating to all of the climbers. EXplorers Web is reporting that Polish climber Waldemar Kowalewski has been evacuated from the mountain after suffering a hernia while carrying gear up to Advanced Base Camp. It is the second time in three years that Kowalewski has seen his K2 efforts cut short due to injury.
Other climbers are also reporting that some of the Nepali Sherpas returning from higher up on the peak have also suffered frostbite. It isn’t clear how serious that frostbite is, but if those reports are true it could have an impact on how things unfold. Severe frostbite is not something to take lightly and could lead to afflicted mountaineers being forced to go home.
All things considered, most of the other mountaineers seem to be in good spirits and fine health thus far. It is early in the season however and persistent cold, windy, and snow conditions can eventually take a toll.
Right now, temperatures have been hovering around -40ºF/C in Camp 1but with bad weather looming on the horizon, it is likely to get a lot colder over the next few days.
Is This The Year?
Early progress and success has many observers wondering if this will be the year that K2 will finally be climbed in winter. It is indeed encouraging to see that the strongest climbers have already reached Camp 4, a place that few others have ever reached during the winter months. Despite this early progress however, it is important to keep things in perspective.
Even at base camp, which sits at 5,100m — higher than the summit of Mont Blanc — overnight temperatures have dropped close to minus 40C, reaching a high of minus 15C by day.
While it is a good sign that the ropes have been fixed so high on the mountain as such an early stage, a lot can happen in the coming weeks. K2 is known for its frequent winter storms, which have been known to dump heavy snow on the mountain. That snow can bury the ropes or freeze them in place, potentially rendering them useless. Avalanches can also sweep those ropes from the mountain altogether, forcing them to be reinstalled several times.
Additionally, the summit has to be safe and accommodating to anyone who wants to reach its lofty heights. Winds in excess of 35-40 mph (48-64 km/h) are enough to keep climbers from ever catching a glimpse of the top and during the winter, winds on the summit can exceed 100 mph (160 hm/h). That is unsafe conditions for even the strongest and most experienced of climbers.
The Battle had Only Just Begun
The recent long stretch of relatively good weather has allowed for outstanding progress on K2 thus far. That weather window is about to close however, which means things are about to get a lot more challenging. When conditions are extremely bad—which is often on K2 in winter—there is little more to do then sit in your tent in BC and wait for conditions to improve. That can take days or even weeks sometimes, sapping both physical and mental strength along the way.
January and February are long, cold months on the mountain. It is likely that there will be many days when the teams won’t even attempt to go any higher than Camp 1. It is during those stretches that patience and the ability to embrace suffering will come in handy. Those who can’t endure those difficult times will have a tough time waiting for things to get better.
That said, all it takes it one good weather window to make history. The strong climbers that are on K2 are capable of making a rapid ascent of the peak given a proper opening. That is no doubt what they are hoping will eventually happen. For now though, they do their best to train, prepare, and acclimatize. It may seem like a lot of progress has already been made, but K2 in winter is the epitome of a marathon, not a sprint.
Header: Photo credit – Nirmal Purja