Is the first winter ascent of the second highest mountain on earth imminent? Tomorrow, Saturday, there will be at least an attempt by Nepalese climbers to reach the 8,611-meter-high summit of K2. “We three Mingma(s) made it to Camp 4 on K2,” Mingma Gyalje Sherpa announced on Instagram today. According to his words, Sona Sherpa had turned back 30 meters below the camp because he had run out of rope and other gear. “We see the final route now,” wrote the 34-year-old. A little later, Nirmal Purja praised via Instagram the “combined effort from the teams” and announced: “Later today, I will be leading the fixing team to the summit. We hope to stand on the summit together.”
Yesterday, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa had promised that he and his Nepali “brothers” would make the nation proud. The list of winter first ascents of eight-thousanders has so far lacked names of Nepali climbers, which is seen as a blemish in the Himalayan state. “I do feel ashamed to say we have eight out of these 14 peaks in Nepal and no Nepalese on the list of the first winter ascenders,” Mingma Gyalje told me before his failed K2 winter attempt in January 2020.
The Sherpa trio around Mingma Gyalje Sherpa also arrived there afterwards. So the Nepalese continue to make common cause on K2. “We will make the nation proud,” promised Mingma on Facebook. The 34-year-old announced a day of rest for the “ten Nepalese brothers” at Camp 3 because of the expected high winds. Dawa Sherpa had previously held out the prospect of a further ascent to Camp 4 at 7,600 meters on Friday.
Actually, Nirmal “Nims” Purja spreads almost boundless optimism. Not so yesterday after returning from Camp 2 on the Abruzzi route on K2, the second highest mountain on earth. “I am devastated to be breaking this news,” wrote the 37-year-old Nepalese. “Now, I have to reassess and replan everything.”
According to Nims’ words, the camp at about 6,700 meters was a “wreckage site”, with tents either destroyed or blown away by the storm. “We have lost everything including all our kits; sleeping bags, mattresses, heated shoe insoles, summit gloves/mittens, summit base layers, paragliding equipment, cooking equipment etc.”
“The lower barometric pressure caused by the location, and winter are drawbacks. Nevertheless my guess is it is possible,” John Burnard West answers my question about whether he thinks a winter ascent of K2 without bottled oxygen is realistic. “Ideally the climbers should go on a day when the pressure is high.”
Most recently, after all, there had been a heated discussion in the scene about whether the possible first winter ascent of the second-highest mountain on earth this year would have to be made without bottled oxygen – as was the case with all first winter ascents of eight-thousanders so far, with the exception of Mount Everest. This is primarily a question of mountaineering ethics.
But what about the probability that any climber at all is capable of scaling K2 in winter without breathing mask? Is it even physiologically possible? No one has ever climbed higher in winter on K2 than the Russian Denis Urubko and the Pole Marcin Kaczkan in 2003: they reached an altitude of 7,650 meters on the north side of the mountain – without bottled oxygen.
The freezing winter wind is blowing – both on K2, the second highest mountain in the world in Pakistan, and on the eight-thousander Manaslu in Nepal. On K2, numerous climbers have spent their first nights on the mountain in recent days: in Camp 1 at 6,100 meters or Camp 2 at 6,600 meters.
Three Sherpas from the Nepalese expedition operator Seven Summit Treks, who actually wanted to push the route via the Abruzzi Spur further up, spent two nights in the so-called “Black Pyramid” at around 7,050 meters, but then returned to base camp empty-handed because of the stormy wind. At least they were able to deposit material up there.
They know each other, they help each other – even on K2, the second highest mountain on earth. “Today we fixed the line to the ice section just below Camp 3,” Mingma Gyalje Sherpa posted on social media. He and his teammates Dawa Tenzing and Kili Pemba Sherpa were joined at about 7,000 meters by Nirmal “Nims” Purja and Mingma Tenzi from the other Nepali team, the 34-year-old wrote: “Thanks to Nepalese brother n Nepalese heart.” The two teams from Nepal, led by Mingma and Nims, had left base camp on Sunday to take advantage of the calm winter weather of the past few days to push the Abruzzi route further up.
K2 is not yet flexing its winter muscles. At least until Wednesday, meteorologists are forecasting calm winter weather on the world’s second highest mountain – with wind speeds of only around 20 kilometers per hour and temperatures in the summit zone around minus 40 degrees Celsius.
She kept it a secret for a long time. It was only on the plane to Islamabad that she laid her cards on the table: along with many others, South Tyrolean climber Tamara Lunger also wants to try her hand at K2 this winter. This has been “a dream of mine for years,” says the 34-year-old in a video she posted on Instagram. “I’m so excited.” Back in October, Tamara had appeared on the long K2 expedition member list that the Nepalese operator Seven Summit Treks had posted on social media. Lunger had been upset about it and had made sure she was removed from that list. Maybe Tamara just wanted to have her peace in the run-up.
“Hello K2!” These were the words Mingma Gyalje Sherpa used to greet the second highest mountain on earth via social media today after reaching base camp with his Nepalese compatriots Dawa Tenzing Sherpa and Kili Pemba Sherpa: “We will take two days complete rest and then plan our climbing.” The Sherpa team is the second one at base camp at the foot of the 8,611-meter-high mountain in the Karakoram, the only eight-thousander never scaled in winter so far.
“Winter climbing gives me the greatest satisfaction because it raises the difficulty bar, because it demands a lot from the climber. It shows us what we are capable of. For me this is the future of himalaism – the most difficult routes in the toughest conditions.” This was once written by the Pole Andrzej Zawada. The pioneer of winter climbing on the world’s highest mountains led the Polish winter expedition to Mount Everest, during which Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy succeeded in making the first winter ascent of an eight-thousander on 17 February 1980, – and eight years later also the first winter expedition to the 8,611-meter-high K2 in Pakistan.
To date, the second highest mountain on earth is the only one of the 14 eight-thousanders that has never been scaled in the cold season. Zawada would probably not have thought it possible that around 60 mountaineers from 19 countries would attempt K2 this winter 2020/21 – about as many as in a normal summer climbing season.
In the more than three decades that have passed since the first K2 winter expedition, seven teams have left Chogori – as the local Balti people call the mountain – empty-handed. The look back.
First come, first serve on K2? The first team to attempt the ascent of the second highest mountain on earth this winter has already pitched its tents at base camp, and the second is on its way. After the mountaineering trio around the Icelandic John Snorri Sigurjonsson had arrived at the foot of K2, today another trio set off from Nepal for Pakistan: Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, Dawa Tenzing Sherpa and Kili Pemba Sherpa. The three Sherpas have also set themselves the goal of making the first winter ascent of K2. If the weather plays along, the two small teams may have a little time advantage. The largest group on the mountain – under the ticket of the expedition operator Seven Summit Treks – is not expected in Pakistan for a fortnight.
If a fortune teller had predicted Atanas Skatov ten years ago that he would spend the winter 2020/21 on the 8,611-meter-high K2 in Pakistan, the Bulgarian would probably have demanded his money back. Until 2010, Skatov had only admired the mountains from a distance. His scientific career took up all his time. He studied in Plovdiv and Berlin and finally received his doctorate on plant protection. Atanas’ passion for the mountains was awakened ten years ago when the scientist set out on a 650-kilometer long hiking trail in Bulgaria. Then the mountains that Skatov climbed quickly became higher. Much higher.
As a vegan high up
His goal is to be the first vegan in the world to scale all 14 eight-thousanders. The 42-year-old already has ten of the world’s highest summits on his account, on one of them – Cho Oyu – Skatov climbed without bottled oxygen.
Atanas scaled Mount Everest from both the Tibetan north side (in 2014) and the Nepalese south side (in 2017), as well as Manaslu (in 2015), Annapurna, Makalu (both in 2016), Lhotse (in 2017), Cho Oyu (in 2018) and in 2019 the four eight-thousanders Kangchenjunga, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Dhaulagiri. In 2017 he was the first vegan to complete the collection of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains of all continents. On 19 December, Skatov plans to leave for Pakistan to try his hand at the first winter ascent of K2.
Atanas, don’t you have any concerns about going on an expedition in times of the corona pandemic?
As if Simone Moro had read my thoughts. These days I really wondered what the 53-year-old Italian and the 38-year-old Spaniard Alex Txikon, both proven winter climbing specialists, would be doing in the coming months. Would they, like many others, be drawn to K2, the only eight-thousander never scaled in winter?
It almost looks as if this winter there will be a real race for the first winter ascent of K2. More and more climbers are throwing their hats into the ring for the prestige project of scaling the second highest mountain on earth for the first time in the cold season. Today the Nepalese climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja also announced that he will travel with a team to the 8,611-meter-high mountain in the Karakoram in Pakistan. In 2019, Nims had made headlines around the world when he summited all 14 eight-thousanders within only six months and six days – with bottled oxygen, supported by a strong team.
Sometimes he attacks his victims, sometimes he creeps up on them – death has many faces. In January, Italian climber Simone Moro barely managed to get away from him. On Gasherbrum I, the 52-year-old fell 20 meters deep into a crevasse. His partner Tamara Lunger from South Tyrol was able to break the fall with a rope. After two hours Simone crawled back over the edge of the crevasse. Both suffered minor injuries, ended their winter expedition and returned to Italy.
What Moro would experience in his hometown Bergamo in this March, he could not yet guess. Bergamo currently represents the deadly danger from the corona virus worldwide: In the province around the northern Italian city currently between 100 and 120 people die every day of the Covid-19 virus. Simone is in South Tyrol, where he answered my questions.
Simone, the most important question in these days of the corona virus first: How are you?