With or without breathing mask? For two days, the mountaineering scene puzzled over whether anyone from the ten Nepalese climbers that succeeded in the first winter ascent of K2 on Saturday had ascended without bottled oxygen. Inquiries remained unanswered. Then, on Monday evening, Nirmal “Nims” Purja spoke out on his homepage and on social media.
Although he was not actually sufficiently acclimatized and had suffered frostbite from his first rotation ascent, he had taken a “calculated risk” in his summit push and had climbed without bottled oxygen, the 37-year-old ex-soldier of the British Gurkha Regiment wrote: “My self confidence, knowing my body’s strength, capability and my experience from climbing the 14 x 8000ers enabled me to keep up with the rest of the team members and yet lead.” The job of scaling K2 in winter without bottled oxygen was done, Nims said.
What are “fair means”?
In 2019, Purja had made headlines around the world when he summited all 14 eight-thousanders in six months – with a strong Sherpa team behind him and wearing a breathing mask. He had deliberately used bottled oxygen above 8,000 meters at the time, Nims wrote now in retrospect: “It was my choice and I had my own reasons and ethos.”
And he criticized those climbers who had previously criticized the style of the Nepalese on K2: “There are many cases, where climbers have claimed no O2 summits but followed our trail that we blazed and used the ropes and lines that we had fixed. Some of which are widely known within the inner climbing community. What is classified as fair means?” For himself, Purja said, it never mattered much: “Nature and the mountains are for everyone. You make your own call!”
“Beast of a challenge”
With his declaration, Nims apparently surprised the nine Sherpas who had reached the summit of K2 with him and thus ensured a premiere: for the first time, a Nepalese team succeeded in a winter first ascent of an eight-thousander. The second highest mountain was the last remaining of the 14 eight-thousanders that – until last Saturday – had never been summited in the cold season.
Actually they had wanted to announce Nims’ ascent without bottled oxygen and to reply to the critics only at a press conference in Islamabad, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa told the newspaper “Kathmandu Post”. Before the expedition, the 34-year-old was the only Nepalese to declare his intention to climb K2 without a breathing mask, but then decided otherwise on the mountain. but then decided otherwise on the mountain: above Camp 4 at 7,600 meters, he used bottled oxygen.
Although there was little wind on the summit day, it was extremely cold at minus 50 degrees Celsius, the Sherpa told the “Kathmandu Post”: “Out of 10 (climbers who later reached the summit), only two are now in good condition with other eight members sustaining frostbites. I cannot describe in words how tough Saturday night was. It really tested the limit of Sherpas.” Mingma Gyalje said that he himself and some others had been on the verge of giving up, but in the end had continued to climb. Nirmal Purja described the winter ascent of K2 as “a beast of a challenge.”
Dujmovits: “I let the alpinist’s word stand”
Ralf Dujmovits – the only German to date to have scaled all 14 eight-thousanders, with the exception of Mount Everest all without bottled oxygen – had been one of the initiators of the climbing style discussion at the end of December. I asked the 59-year-old about it.
Ralf, you said in advance that a first winter ascent of K2 with bottled oxygen would be a “stolen” ascent. How do you now judge the success of the Nepalese team, in which Nims, according to his own words, ascended without breathing mask?
I congratulated Nirmal and the whole team after the announcement of the supplementary oxygen-free ascent by Nimsdai. Climbing to the summit of K2 in winter was certainly quite a hard nut to crack. Although I had somewhat lost confidence in Nimsdai after all the sketchy and often sensationalist information about his 14-eight-thousander campaign, I let the alpinist’s word stand and am pleased that he made it with nine witnesses at the summit.
Regardless of what is currently happening on K2, wouldn’t it make more sense and be more honest by now to distinguish between unsupported and supported for ascents without bottled oxygen – similar to expeditions in the perpetual ice? After all, many climbers who ascend without breathing mask also use the infrastructure on the mountain that climbers with breathing masks have provided.
This is long overdue. More than 90 percent of all ascents would fall out of the unsupported category. The problem is, of course, that some people would like to climb unsupported, but commercial expeditions install fixed ropes and it is almost impossible to avoid using them. The safest thing is still to be on a side of the mountain where there is no normal route leading up. There you can be almost 100 percent sure of being unsupported on the way.