The winter season has just begun and in the Karakoram a large group of Sherpas, clients and professional mountaineers are descending on K2 Base Camp (or are already there), determined to solve the last great problem of mountaineering on the world’s 8,000-meter peaks: the first winter ascent of K2, the 8,611-meter Pakistani giant.
While the largest expedition is still yet to arrive, two small teams are already in action on the Abruzzi Route, the “normal” route used during the historic first ascent of K2, by an Italian team in 1954.
The players, the risks, the likelihood of success—read on for a preview of what is to come on K2 this season.
The first team—Icelandic climber John Snorri, and Pakistani climbers Ali Sadpara and Sajid Sadpara—arrived on the mountain and began climbing on December 1. (According to the meteorological calendar, winter begins on December 1, whereas according to the astronomical calendar—the one generally accepted by the climbing community for winter ascents— winter begins on December 21.) This team has already reached up to 6,000 meters, Camp 1, fixing ropes along the initial labyrinthine glacier and the first slopes on the southeast Abruzzi Spur. Ali Sadpara is the most experienced winter climber of the bunch, having bagged the first no-O2 winter ascent of Nanga Parbat in 2016, with Simone Moro and Alex Txikon, and having attempted Everest in winter. He has also climbed the other four Karakorum 8,000ers in various seasons. Sajid, Ali’s son, is the youngest Pakistani to have climbed K2.
On December 23, just after arriving in Base Camp, another trio of strong Nepalese climbers—Mingma Gyale Sherpa, Dawa Tenzin Sherpa and Kili Pemba Sherpa—took advantage of the favorable weather and, in a flash, equipped over 600 meters of the route, up to Camp 2, to the altitude of about 6,700 meters. This quick early progress shows the formidable strength and skill of this Sherpa team.
As mentioned, the largest expedition has still yet to arrive in Base Camp. Organized by Seven Summit Treks, the expedition will include nearly 60 people: a team of 28 Sherpa experts, plus an additional 30 clients and professional mountaineers, including the Spanish climber Sergi Mingote, co-leader of the Sherpas together with Chhang Dawa Sherpa; Spanish climber Juan Pablo Mohr; the duo of Romanian Alex Gavan (who has already climbed seven 8,000rs) and the Italian Tamara Lunger (who participated in the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, but stopped 70 meters short of the summit; she was also the second Italian woman to climb K2 without oxygen, and has partnered with Simone Moro on many other winter expeditions); the controversial polar explorer Colin O’ Brady; and Polish climber Magdalena Gorzowska, a former Olympic sprinter, with mountaineering experience including Aconcagua, Everest with O2, and Manaslu without O2.
Finally, rounding out the expeditions will be Nirmal “Nims” Purja and his Himalayan Elite team. Nims is a former Nepalese gurkha who last year completed all 14 8,000-meter peaks in just six months, with a mix of military-style strategy (like using helicopters for fast transfers between Base Camps), supplementary oxygen, Sherpas to fix ropes, and, of course, incredible strength and character. Notably, while setting his 14er speed record, Nims played a fundamental role in aiding and organizing the rescues of other climbers in danger at high altitude, often in the death zone above 8,000 meters.
Overcrowding at K2 Base Camp this winter and on the climbing route itself, the differences in the technical ability and experience of this large group of climbers, and the commercial aspect of some of the expeditions—all against the backdrop of the enormous difficulties and objective dangers of a winter climb of the hardest 8,000er—add up to a precarious situation.
Winter experts and other media have already raised concerns. Simone Moro, who has made the first winter ascent of four 8,000ers and who will attempt Manaslu this winter with Alex Txikon, raised doubts about the lack of experience of so many of the participants and the traffic along the Abruzzi Spur.
Adam Bielecki, the Polish climber who has done two first winter ascents of 8,000ers, said that he believes “conquering K2 with oxygen is neither ethical nor honorable”—how most of the climbers will be attempting it. Climbers who have confirmed they will be climbing without supplemental oxygen include Snorri and the Sadparas, Gavan and Lunger, Nims Purja, and Mingma Gyale Sherpa, Dawa Tenzin Sherpa and Kili Pemba Sherpa.
Asghar Ali Porik, owner of Jasmine Tours Agency, who is in charge for the Snorri-Sadpara expedition, shared his concerns on the number of support staff and amount of equipment required by a team as large as the Seven Summit Treks expedition: “One porter can carry no more than 20Kg of weight during winter, but I have seen that many climbers of the team arrived in Skardu with 4-5 bags each; so you can imagine how many of [porters] are required to carry all the equipments; then they’ll have to carry oxygen bottles, heating [equipment], tents and kitchen stuff. At BC, one kitchen tent needs 1 cook, 1 assistant cook, 2 cook helpers to serve about 10 people. I’m worried about how they will manage all this at Base Camp, since they have not carried food and supplies in advance. Also, I’m concerned about the amount of oxygen bottles—they’ll provide 7 bottles for each client—left on the mountain. We will see how many of their clients [can deal with] the winter temperatures and lack of comforts there.”
Once on the route itself, where temperatures will routinely be -30 to -60 degrees Celsius, with extremely high winds, the dangers become even greater. The technical stretches after C2 at 6,700 meters, including House’s Chimney and the rocky area of the Black Pyramid before C3, are frequent sites of rockfall.
All that being said, if the weather cooperates and the wisdom of the team leaders prevails, and if the rotation by the teams in the various technical sections is carried out carefully, the chances that someone will succeed this year could be higher than ever before.