The first winter ascent of K2 was supposed to be the last great prize in Himalayan alpinism. Now it’s starting to look a bit like a circus.
As of today, four expeditions have set their sights on the world’s second-highest mountain this winter, including Seven Summit Trek’s 45-strong commercial expedition. Add to that a pair of elite all-Nepali teams and the trio of Icelander John Snorri Sigurjónsson and his guides, Pakistani winter ace Muhammad Ali Sadpara and his 21-year-old son Sajid, and the so-called Savage Mountain will play host to nearly 60 climbers this winter.
The main attraction is K2’s status as the last of the world’s 14 highest peaks that has not yet been scaled in winter.
The mystique of that Last Great First will bring as many climbers to K2 this winter as the mountain normally sees in the summer season. More than a third of the climbers will be paying clients, giving the enterprise a commercial feel—and a sense that anything could happen. On the one hand, the notion that anyone can buy their way to the top of K2 in winter is absurd on its face. On the other, there will be a tremendous amount of Sherpa firepower on the mountain—including two stacked teams that will be unencumbered by foreign clients.
Notably absent this year are the Polish Ice Warriors, who invented winter Himalayism and have something of a national obsession with plucking the genre’s last great prize. Also missing is the usual cast of big-name European climbers, most of who have chosen to sit this season out or seek other winter challenges. As climbing writer Alan Arnette observes, this winter Nepal will run K2.
In addition to the Seven Summits expedition’s complement of 21 Sherpas, two highly decorated Nepalese climbers are leading all-star teams to K2 this winter.
Mingma Gyalje Sherpa is coming with two strong partners and something to prove, after the expedition he guided to K2 last year ended in rancor at a mere 6,600 meters. One of Mingma G’s clients on that climb, the Icelander Snorri, accused him of coming to the mountain ill-prepared. Mingma G was more circumspect, saying only “we learned many lessons.” Among them, evidently, is not to bring clients to K2 in the wintertime.
Instead he’ll come with Dawa Tenzing Sherpa and Kili Pemba Sherpa, two of the strongest guides from his trekking company. Mingma G, whose palmares include five Everest ascents and two K2 summits in summer, plans to climb without supplemental oxygen. Though operating on an apparent shoestring—their GoFundMe on Thursday had raised only $4,529 of the $47,500 goal and could use a boost—the team is already in Pakistan.
Also in the mix is Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja, fresh off a 2019 tear that included climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in six months and six days, performing three rescues, and snapping the most-viral photo in climbing history. This year he published his autobiography and still found time to top out on Island Peak (6,189 meters) last month, which suggests he’s both serious and fit.
While Nimsdai’s plan is characteristically long on sponsor shout-outs (looking at you again, Red Bull) and short on details, he has signaled his intent to climb without supplemental oxygen—a new leaf for the speed-climbing phenom, whose previous mountain exploits have all run on gas. Another new twist: His apparent plan to fly off the summit on a paraglider.
Nimsdai hasn’t yet announced his team, but his trusted cohort Mingma David Sherpa has been practicing with a paraglider and confirmed his plans for Winter K2. Mingma David is the youngest climber to collect all 14 8,000ers, and one of the strongest climbers in the game. With Nimsdai and Mingma David as the nucleus of an elite crew, they’ll have as good a chance as anyone to reach the summit this winter—especially if the teams cooperate.
“It’s going to be great to have these climbers climb with us,” Mingma David says. “It’s going to be tough, everyone knows that. But, collectively, if we work on the same page, this dream of climbing K2 in the winter can be successful.”
The mystique of that Last Great First will bring as many climbers to K2 this winter as the mountain normally sees in the summer season.
The Seven Summits expedition will account for about three-quarters of the climbers on the mountain this year, and if anyone has success they’ll surely contribute to it. Cooperation is key to any climb involving multiple expeditions, and Sherpa climbers are used to sharing trail-breaking and rope-fixing duties. It’s how they make their living, and so far all the Nepali teams are singing a high-mountain version of Kumbaya.
Seven Summits expedition leader Chhang Dawa Sherpa has signaled in the Nepali press that he wants to see a Nepalese climber—any Nepalese climber—on the summit first.
“I want us to know that Nepalis are more than just guides,” he told Online Khabar. “If we can successfully summit, we can show the world that Nepalis are not far from the alpinists from Europe. I want the world to know that we are climbers too.”
Chhang Dawa says he originally planned to bring a small all-Sherpa team to make history. Then foreign climbers started waving cash in his face, and the plan changed. The expedition reportedly swelled to 45, including 24 clients. Aside from Sergio Moreno Mingote of Spain, who joins the expedition as assistant climbing leader, few of the foreigners possess the pedigree to get to the top of K2 in the winter. But with those numbers come a lot of advantages, including plentiful cash and considerable Sherpa muscle. That could lay the necessary groundwork for the a historic summit dash.
It could take the form of an elite group of Seven Summits guides, perhaps with the strongest foreign clients left standing. Or it could come from any of the three other teams. It could even come from an ad hoc confederation of Sherpa climbers.
There’s precedent for that in the 2019 summer K2 season, which started with a record number of climbers in base camp and seemed destined to end with none on the summit. Heavy snow and unacceptable avalanche risk on the mountain’s high-altitude crux had stopped everyone in their tracks. The teams were packing up to leave when Nimsdai arrived to rally the troops. With his teammate Geshman Tamang and three other Sherpa climbers, Nimsdai set ropes in chest deep snow through the night, topping out the next morning. Those three other Sherpas? They were all with Seven Summits, and they’re all coming back to K2 this season.
This could well be K2’s Nepali winter, a time for the Sherpas who have been the behind-the-scenes engine of so many mountaineering firsts to finally claim one all their own. If you take a rooting interest in such things, perhaps they’re the sentimental favorite. And how can you not pull for the Sadparas, the Pakistani father and son who will be the only true locals above basecamp this winter?
But it’s still K2 in winter. If you’re more sharp than sentimental, you have to bet on the mountain.
Top photo: Lakpa Dendi, Lakpa Temba, Nirmal “Nims” Purja, Chhangba Sherpa and Geshman Tamang in July, 2019, after breaking the logjam atop K2, Purja/Facebook
If you’d like to dig into some riveting K2 reading, pick up a copy of Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day.