Inspired by Everest’s first winter summit in 1980, a 1983 Polish expedition went to K2 in the winter for reconnaissance. They found byzantine logistics, uncooperative government authorities, and costs that exceeded the most generous budgets. Now, 38 years later, K2 has been summited in the winter.
Around 5:00 pm on Saturday, January 16, 2021, a team of 10 Sherpas and Nepalis stood on the summit of the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, on the border of Pakistan and China. It was the last of the world’s 14 8,000 meter peaks still unclimbed in winter. They are positioning the summit as a victory for Nepal and the Sherpa nation. All 10 climbers stopped 30 feet below the summit on a relatively safe spot (still on a 40-degree snow slope at 28,200-feet) so that they could summit together in a sign of solidarity. No individual was listed as first.
Mingma Gyalje Sherpa (Mingma G) and Nirmal Purja Pun Magar aka “Nimsdai” led a team of eight other Sherpas: Gelje Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Kilu Pemba Sherpa, Dawa Tenjing Sherpa, and Sona Sherpa. They took advantage of a short weather window when winds were under 10 mph—unheard of for K2’s summit in the summer, much less the winter. They are said to be descending now.
That this latest holy grail of mountaineering should fall to a Sherpa and Nepali team is a clarion sign that the scales of high-altitude mountaineering are shifting. Ever since Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal made the first ascent of Annapurna in 1950, becoming the first humans to stand astride the summit of an 8,000-meter peak, climbing the world’s 14 highest mountains has been an imperialist and colonialist enterprise. The Sherpa have been the backbone of that enterprise—portering supplies, tending camp, fixing ropes—but reaped none of the glory or benefits.
Minga G told me before leaving Nepal that this ascent was not for any individual, but for a nation and for mountaineering pride: “For all the other 8000ers summited in winter, no Sherpa was with them, so this is an opportunity for Sherpa to demonstrate their strength. Besides alpinists, all the climbers take help from Sherpa to fulfill their dreams of 8000m peaks. I have helped several foreign climbers to get to the summit of different 8000ers. I was a little surprised to see no Sherpa on winter first ascent. So this climb is for all the Sherpa community who are so known because of our friends and clients from different foreign countries.”
The team of 10 climbers left Base Camp on Tuesday, January 12. They followed the fixed ropes already installed by John Snorri Sigurjonsson with Muhammad Ali Sadpara and his son Sajid Ali to Camp 1, then on to Camp 2 via lines fixed by Mingma G’s team. On Wednesday, they followed ropes established by Mingma G and Nims over the Black Pyramid and set up Camp 3. On Thursday, they made fantastic progress and pushed the fixed lines up to 7,300 meters, near Camp 4, traditionally the highest camp and the only flattish spot on the entire Abruzzi Spur route. The team established a camp a bit lower at 7,350 meters. Winds were so high on Thursday night that some climbers took cover in shallow crevasses rather than set up tents.
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Previous K2 Winter Attempts
There have been six previous winter attempts on K2, none successful.
— 1980 Reconnaissance: Pol Andrzej Zawada and Canadian-resident Polish national Jaques Olek
— 1987/88 Attempt: 13 Poles, seven Canadians, and four Britons / made Camp 3.
— 2002/03 Attempt: 14 climbers from Poland, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia / made Camp 4.
— 2011/12 Attempt: nine climbers from Russia / made Camp 2
— 2014/15 Near Attempt: Denis Urubko and team lost permit from the Chinese side
— 2017/18 Polish Team: Abandoned due to conditions and team dynamics
— 2018/19 Kazakhstan-Russia-Kyrgyzstan and Spanish/Galician Attempts; poor conditions
— 2019/20 Mingma G./Snorri: Only two weeks
First K2 Winter Expedition 1987-88
An international team of 13 Poles, seven Canadians, and four Britons made the first attempt on K2 via Abruzzi Ridge. As usual, they established the low camps quickly, but progress stalled at the higher altitudes, not setting up Camp 3 at 7300 meters until March 2. Then high winds began to take their toll, and members experienced frostbite. Before long they abandoned the entire effort.
This expedition only had 10 days of “good” weather in the three months they spent at Base Camp, thus illustrating K2 winter weather issues.
International Expedition 2002-2003
In the winter of 2002-2003, Polish alpinist Krzysztof Wielicki lead a small team of four members from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. They arrived in mid-December, planning to climb via the North Ridge. In short order, they established the lower camps. By January 20, they had reached 6,750 meters.
But discord within the team caused all the Eastern European—except for Kazakh climber Denis Urubko—to leave the expedition. The remaining members reached Camp 4 at 7,650 meters in mid-February, setting a Winter K2 altitude record that lasted until yesterday, January 15, 2021. They planned a summit attempt on February 21, but one member developed cerebral edema, and before long the entire expedition was called off.
When the expedition ended on February 28, 2003, Krzysztof Wielicki declared, “The mission of ascending the peak has not ended but rather been suspended. I will not give any dates, but I assure you that I will return to K2. One does not combat a mountain; one struggles against adversities. These adversities include snow, hurricane winds, and exhaustion.”
Russian Attempt 2011-2012
In the winter of 2011-2012, a large and robust Russian team attempted K2 via the Abruzzi Ridge. The group consisted of nine climbers. They began at the end of December and quickly established Camps 1 and 2 at 6,050 meters and 6,350 meters, respectively. By January 25, they had reached 7,000 meters.
High winds hit the mountain in early February, and one member, Vitaly Gorelik, suffered frostbite and came down with pneumonia. The poor weather prevented an evacuation, and Vitaly died in Base Camp on February 6, ending the expediiton.
Polish Attempt 2017-2018
The 67 year-old Polish alpinist Krzysztof Wielicki returned to lead a winter expedition to K2 in 2017-2018. He had led the last Polish K2 attempt in 2003. Kazakh alpinist Denis Urubko was part of the team. He has held Polish citizenship since February 2015. The rest of the team was comprised of Adam Bielecki, Marek Chmielarski, Rafał Fronia, Janusz Gołąb, Marcin Kaczkan, Artur Małek, Piotr Tomala, Jarosław Botor and Dariusz Załuski in addiiton to Urubko and Wielicki.
They originally planned to use the Česen Route, but shifted to the Abruzzi due to dangerous conditions. Difficult conditions hit the team from the start, with several members sustaining injuries from rockfall or falling ill. Team dynamics were also a significant problem. Denis Uubko openly questioned the team’s tactics and leadership. Urubko believed that winter finished at the end of February, while Expedition Leader Wielicki felt it ended with the spring Equinox on March 20, 2018, at 12:15 pm EDT.
Urubko, along with Adam Bielecki, also led a rescue operation on Nanga Parbat to save climbers Elisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz.
Frustrated with his teammates’ pace and feeling he was strong enough to attempt the summit, Urubko set out alone for a final attempt, after not convincing the next strongest climber, Adam Bielecki, to join him. Urubko reached rouhgly 7,350 metersn his solo push before poor weather (high winds and low visibility) forced him to turn back on February 27.
Krzysztof Wielicki later cited these reasons for not summiting and not making another attempt after Urubko returned:
“Based on an in-depth analysis of the situation in consultation with the team today decided on the completion of the K2 mountain:
“1. The result reconnaissance team Adam Bielecki and Janusz Golab today. We found that on the way to C1, all ropes are covered with tent advanced basecamp is damaged, there is also a high probability to destroy campsC1, C2, and C3.
2. Weather forecast, which only confirms the one short weather window around 11/03/2018
3. Inability to acclimatize minutes. 1st team at the height. 7200m, after which he would return to the base to attempt the summit on 11.03
4. Impact Avalanche in the upper path. In the last eight days, we recorded a total of more than 80cm of snowfall.
5. Warning Portal Ventusky large rainfall on wys.7600m
6. Bad forecasts for the period after 03.11.2018
The priority is the safety of the participants of the expedition.”
Kazakhstan-Russia-Kyrgyzstan and Spanish/Galician Team 2018-2019
Two expeditions attempted K2 in the winter of 2018-2019. First was an international crew, made up of climbers from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan. The second was a team led by Alex Txikon, with two Polish climbers and five Sherpa climbers. Txikon left the expedition midway through to help search for missing climbers Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi on Nanga Parbat, ultimately finding their bodies. Txikon never summited K2, but generated tremendous goodwill with his willingness to sacrifice his own expedition’s goals to aid the missing alpinists..
The RUS-KAZ-KYG team reached 7,634-meters and the Basque/Sherpa team maxed out at 6,906-meters, according to their respective GPS trackers.
Mingma G/Snorri 2019-2020
This effort was very short. Last winter, Mingma G Sherpa and Jon Snorri took a crack at K2. According to Mingma, they underestimated how harsh the conditions would be, which, combined with illnesses, stopped them after only a few weeks. Also, there was discontent among the team.
They experienced the usual poor weather and established Camp 1 on January 30, but ended their expedition on February 5, 2020.
One of the ongoing controversies in mountaineering is the definition of winter. By any measure, this year’s January 2021 summit was in winter.
I get regular comments such as, “They can summit after February, but it won’t be winter.” Others say it winter doesn’t end until the Spring Equinox on March 20, 2021, at 12:15 pm EDT. The reality is that it depends on where you live and the local customs and definition.
Both Pakistan and Nepal issue climbing permits with different fees according to the season. On Everest, for example, Nepal charges $11,000 per person for a spring climbing permit—the most popular time. But for a winter permit—the least popular time—the price drops to $2,750. Both countries’ tourism ministries define winter as December, January, and February for permit purposes. They take the year and divide it into four equal parts. For most people born and raised in this environment, that is what defines the seasons.
However, many people, including myself, learned that astronomical movements define the seasons. This paradigm considers how the sun hits the Earth, along with the shortest and longest days each year—the equinoxes, and solstices.
Then there are the seasonal definitions influenced by the length of day and temperatures. March 1 is very different at the North Pole compared to the Equator. The Hindu calendar has six seasons, making seasonal definitions even more complicated!
But hold on, it gets more worse. Australia and New Zealand use the meteorological definition for seasons, so spring begins on September 1 each year. Ireland uses an ancient Celtic calendar system to determine the seasons, so spring begins on St. Brigid’s Day on February 1. In Finland and Sweden, they use temperatures to define seasons.
In short, different countries and different cultures definte the seasons in their own ways. But by virtually any definition of winter, this winter K2 summit is legitimate. So regardless, congratulations to today’s team for making history and to Nepali and Sherpa people around the world.
Update: Tragically, in a separate event unrelated to the summit, the Spanish alpinist Sergi Mingote died in a fall. This from Dawa Sherpa, co-leader of Seven Summits Treks, who is currently at K2 Base Camp: “Unfortunately we lost Sergi ! Best climber and very good friend of us. While descending from C1 to Basecamp he suddenly fell down to Advance Basecamp. Alex Gavan, Tamara and two other polish climber gave him help in ABC, we sent medical team from Basecamp but unfortunately could not save him anymore. We where informed by unexpected movement on his gps tracker and could see he made a big fall, members at the site quickly confirmed the accident, but couldn’t do much to help him anymore.”
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.