K2 remains the only 8,000-meter mountain not summited in the winter. Currently, there are over 60 people camped on the Goodwin-Austin Glacier at the 16,500-foot Base Camp fighting winds chills of -80 degrees Fahrenheit plus high winds are shredding tents and blowing away precious gear. Winds have trapped the climbers for days, and the forecast calls for them to continue until late January with only the occasional calm day. But these will not be long enough for most climbers to complete their acclimatization rotations. That said, some will brave the winds so they can be ready for a summit attempt when a weather window materializes.
Climbers using supplemental oxygen usually spend at least two nights at 23,000 feet, and those not using O’s like to tag 26,000 feet before making their summit bid. These climbers said they would attempt the winter summit without supplemental oxygen, but this could change: Sergi Mingote, Juan Pablo Mohr, Mattia Conte, Tamara Lunger, Alex Gavan, Magdalena Gorzkowska, and Mingma G Sherpa.
A joint effort between two Nepali teams, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa and Nirmal Purja have put the fixed line to 23,950 feet—just below where the traditional Camp 3 is located but at the top of the Black Pyramid.
There is no agreement for the definition of winter: the meteorological ends February 28, the astronomical March 20.
Weekend winds destroyed Camps 1 and 2 plus a lower so-called “Japanese Camp.” Climbers cached their summit gear, and now a couple of teams are reporting it lost. The tents were secured and the gear stuffed into sacks for protection, but the winds, gusting over 80 mph, easily ripped the tents apart or blew the technical equipment and anchors off the mountain, including precious oxygen bottles. People have died on K2 from being blown off, most notably Alison Hargreaves, in 1995 after summiting.
[Also Read K2 In Winter: Can It Ever Be Done?]
This week, the teams evaluate the next steps while taking inventory of surplus gear that might replace what was lost. Of critical importance are the oxygen bottles. Most expeditions do not bring large quantities due to weight, especially on K2, where porters ferry all the gear to Base Camp on a 50-mile journey.
There are many big names on K2 during this unique season, including Nims Purja, who made a name for himself in 2020 by summiting all fourteen of the 8,000-meter peaks in six months and six days. The previous record was 7 years 11 months 14 days, set by Jerzy Kukuczka in 1987. Nims used supplemental oxygen on all but one of the 14 and is said to be using it on K2, but some reports suggest he isn’t.
Purja served 16 years in the British military, of which he spent six years as a Ghurka and 10 years with the UK Special Forces. He was born in the Dhaulagiri region of Nepal and raised in Chitwan, in the country’s flatlands. He is not of Sherpa heritage. He has a strong team including Mingma David, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Pemchhiri Sherpa, Gelje Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, and Sandro Gromen-Hayes.
Large Commercial Team
The largest team on K2 is operated by a Nepali company, Seven Summits Treks (SST). Founded by six brothers from the Makalu region, Mingma, Tashi, and Dawa are the principles. They started like most Sherpas do in Nepal, as porters. But they had a tremendous vision and ambition and formed their company in 2010.
Knowing they needed personal experience to attract clients, Mingma and Dawa summited all fourteen of the 8,000-meters peaks, the only brothers to accomplish this feat. The brothers then parlayed their expertise and business acumen to allow SST to dominate local guiding in Nepal and all fourteen of the 8,000-meter peaks. Their low-price strategy succeeded in attracting price-sensitive clients, primarily from India and China, but also worldwide. They have 22 clients supported by 27 Sherpas, plus a basecamp staff of six, including cooks, on K2 this year, and are providing logistics for some of the other teams. The clients range from experienced amateurs to professionals with substantial winter 8,000-meter experience.
Mingma G seems highly organized and, with his small three-person team, got to C2 first while fixing the section between C1 and C2.
Also on K2 is Icelander John Snorri Sigurjonsson with Pakistani Muhammad Ali Sadpara and his son Sajid Ali. They were the first to arrive at Base Camp in mid-December and made a quick run to fix the lines to Camp 1. They are running a stand-alone effort.
Early Season Lessons
If we are learning anything, it’s obvious: it’s cold, windy, and there is a lot of rockfall on the Abruzzi Spur—all 100% expected. The climbers have a long way to go. The fixed-line is to the Black Pyramid, significant progress. They still need to establish Camp 3 needs. This camp is probably the most avalanche-prone part of the route. Setting aside fixing the line to High Camp, the next big challenge will be climbing through the Bottleneck, the Traverse then to the summit. All of this will take weather windows of three to five days; otherwise, the teams will be climbing in unacceptable windchills nearing -100 degrees F. Welcome to winter.
Alan Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer’s Advocate. He has completed over 30 major expeditions including four Everest climbs, with a summit in 2011, and a summit of K2 in 2014. He completed his 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer’s project to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s research. Find out more at www.alanarnette.com.