Climbing 8,000-meter peaks in winter is a recipe for suffering, but some climbers just can’t get enough of it. The Basque alpinist Alex Txikon is going back to Everest (8,848 meters) this winter, after a failed attempt to summit in the coldest months last year, when he hoped to become the first person to climb Everest entirely in winter without oxygen.
“Entirely” is the keyword in that last sentence. Previously, Everest has been climbed entirely in winter with supplemental oxygen, as well as summited in calendar winter without supplemental oxygen. But it has never been climbed entirely in calendar winter without the aid of supplemental oxygen. (Is your head spinning yet?)
The first winter ascent was by Polish climbers Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy in 1980. Wielicki in particular was a juggernaut of winter-8000er climbing, having made the first winter ascents of Kangchenjunga (8,586 meters) in 1986, and Lhotse (8,516 meters), in 1988. Everest saw it’s first no-O winter ascent in 1987, when the Nepali Ang Rita Sherpa summited on December 22. Of note here, though, is that Ang Rita Sherpa climbed most of the mountain in Autumn.
As such, a true winter ascent sans supplemental oxygen remains up for grabs, and is arguably the second-most coveted winter objective in the Himalayas, behind the first winter ascent of K2. (And the first winter ascent of K2 could happen this year—the aforementioned Krzysztof Wielicki is leading an expedition of Polish hardmen to the Savage Mountain.)
In the winter of 2016-2017, Alex Txikon launched multiple attempts on Everest without supplemental Oxygen. In his most promising run up the mountain, he made it to 7,950 meters before weather forced his retreat.
Horrific conditions and misery are part and parcel of winter climbing on 8000ers. I interviewed Txikon via phone, for The Outdoor Journal, from Everest Base Camp during last winter’s expedition. At one point, Txikon said, he decided not to remove his socks, “for fear of not seeing my feet, thinking that they may be frozen. Now, they hardly hurt me, but the pain has been so intense that I have feared that everything will end here.” Txikon’s expedition last year was beset by other difficulties, as well. His primary climbing partner for the trip, Spaniard Carlos Rubio, evacuated early due to a respiratory infection.
For his expedition this winter, Txikon will again be roping up with Pakistani Ali Sadpara, with whom he made the first winter ascent, along with Italian Simone Moro, of Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters), in 2015-2016. Before their success that season, Sadpara and Txikon had teamed up in 2014-2015 for a winter attempt on Nanga Parbat, but came up short
The conditions this year will be just as unforgiving as last winter: unimaginable cold, unrelenting winds and capricious weather. But for some reason, Txikon thrives on that stuff. In the interview from last year, Txikon explained, “I’m always scared at high altitude. Really hard conditions. Super cold up there. But I’m super happy to have this job, eh? I’m super happy, believe me.”
The 36-year-old Txikon’s 8000er resume is stellar. He has summited Broad Peak (8,051 meters), , Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters), Lhotse, Makalu (8,485 meters), Shishapangma (8,027 meters), Annapurna (8,091 meters), Cho Oyu (8,188 meters), Dhaulagiri (8,167 meters), Manaslu (8,163 meters), Gashebrum I (8,080 meters) and Nanga Parbat—again, the latter in winter, without supplemental oxygen, with Simone Moro and Ali Sadpara.
Ali Sadpara is also a seasoned veteran of Himalayan climbing. In addition to the winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, Sadpara has summited Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak.
Whether Txikon and Sadpara can solve Everest this winter remains to be seen, but just as two was was the magic number for them on Nanga Parbat in winter, maybe Txikon’s second season in a row on this mountain will see him to the top.
Also watch Ueli Steck’s Everest-Lhotse Project