At 1 a.m. Saturday local time, three climbers were above 27,000 feet on K2, facing a technical descent in bitter cold and the accumulated fatigue of nearly 48 hours without sleep. They had not been seen or heard from in more than seven hours.
Hours before Bulgarian climber Atanas Skatov fell to his death lower on the mountain.
Muhammad Ali Sadpara of Pakistan, John Snorri of Iceland, and Juan Pablo Mohr Prieto of Chile were last seen from basecamp at about 10 a.m. Friday local time as they entered the Bottleneck, a crux of overhanging seracs at 26,900 feet. They last spoke to their base camp manager at nightfall Friday, approximately 6 p.m., telling him they were pressing on for the summit. The team’s satellite locater is not working, leaving the mountaineering world to wonder whether they reached the summit and, more importantly, how they possibly can get down.
The trio have been climbing almost nonstop since early Thursday morning, pressing on without sleep to take advantage of a fast-closing weather window. A fourth climber in the party, Ali Sajid Sadpara, turned around near the Bottleneck and at last report was in Camp 3 at 23,500 feet. Sajid Sadpara is Ali Sadpara’s son.
Snorri and the Sadparas started from base camp Wednesday morning, climbing to Camp 2 that day and arriving in Camp 3 early Thursday afternoon. Mohr started from base camp Tuesday.
All four had planned to sleep a few hours in Camp 3 before pressing on for the summit late Thursday night. A number of climbers and Sherpas with the large Seven Summits Treks commercial expedition had the same plan, and by nightfall Thursday more than a dozen people had arrived at the high camp, which consisted of only two tents.
Snorri and the Sadparas were among six climbers crowded into a single tent. None of them slept a wink. At about 11 p.m. local time Snorri started for the summit. Ali Sadpara and Mohr followed between 1 and 3 a.m., according to American climber Jon Kedrowski in base camp. They were spotted at the Bottleneck at 10 a.m. through a base camp telescope.
As night fell in Pakistan Friday, Snorri’s support team reported on Instagram that Sajid was back in Camp 3, having turned around because his oxygen regulator was not working. “They were at bottle neck around 10 a.m. PKT (local Pakistan time). According to him everyone was fine and were going with good pace. John Snorri, Ali and J Pablo from Chile are going together for summit.”
The post reported the team’s Garmin tracker was out of battery but that they were in radio contact with their base camp manager and cook, a man named Haris. “We have decided not to bother them and wait until they will contact Haris,” said the post on Snorri’s Instagram at about 6 p.m. local time Friday. “We are not listening to other news, we are the only source to the team. We have strong believe that they will summit soon.”
As of 1 a.m. Saturday local time, there was still no verifiable news about the party, who by then had been climbing day and night for nearly two days, with only a few hours of fitful rest in the overcrowded tent. Pakistani media reports that the party had reached the summit cited no sources and could not be confirmed.
Whether or not they reached the summit, the true test comes now, as they make a long technical descent through the so-called Death Zone, in darkness and extreme cold. The wild card is the wind. According to ExWeb’s Angela Benevides, “High-altitude meteorologist Karl Gabl has predicted that today, February 5, will still feature good weather, but he notes that the summit will be a bone-chilling -45ºC (-49ºF), and that the jet stream will soon begin to dip down and rake the mountain.”
The remaining climbers are now farther down the mountain, most in base camp. Greek climber Antonios Sykaris reportedly stopped in Camp 1 with severe frostbite to his toes. Tamara Lunger was reported in Advanced Base Camp. Sherpa Pasang Norbu, who on Thursday morning began an audacious bid to climb base-to-summit-to-base in one go, has returned to base camp after reaching Camp 3.
American Colin O’Brady also made it to Camp 3 in good time, but decided Thursday evening to descend, citing the lack of tents and an intuitive feeling of unease. “Our gut instinct, if we’re willing to listen, can be the best guide in moments of uncertainty,” O’Brady’s wife Jenna Besaw wrote on his Instagram. “Sometimes the hard call is the easy call.”
O’Brady’s tracker shows him safely in base camp.
Preliminary details of Skatov’s accident were reported by SST team leader Chhang Dawa Sherpa. The Bulgarian fell at about 10:30 a.m. local time Friday while changing from one fixed rope to another in the vicinity of the Japanese Camp 3 at about 23,400 feet. His body was recovered at a height of about 18,000 feet by a Pakistani Army helicopter. Skatov’s fiancé, who was in base camp with him, flew with the body to the regional capital Skardu.
Skatov is the second experienced climber to fall to his death on K2 this winter season. On January 16, as a team of 10 Nepali climbers claimed the triumphant first winter ascent, Catalan climber Sergi Mingote fell from an icy face below Camp 1.
Mingote’s climbing partner Juan Pablo Mohr made the difficult decision to continue climbing, teaming first with Italian winter ace Tamara Lunger in an effort to reach the summit without supplemental oxygen. Lunger turned around early Friday, and Mohr joined Snorri and the Sadparas for their summit push.
Without supplemental oxygen, Mohr will be at substantially greater risk for frostbite, and that risk will be exacerbated by lack of sleep. The 33-year-old Chilean is no stranger to multi-day efforts at altitude—he once linked Everest and Lhotse in less than a week without Sherpas, O2 or returning to base camp—but even that doesn’t compare to what he must do now to survive.
Snorri announced earlier in the week that he and the Sadparas hoped to summit without supplemental oxygen, but each would carry a bottle in reserve. Sajid Sadpara’s decision to turn around during the ascent due to a faulty regulator suggests they may have tapped their limited gas supplies early.
Snorri hired the Sadparas to assist in his Winter K2 attempt. They’re listed on the permit as high altitude porters, but that description doesn’t do either man justice. Ali Sadpara, 46, is the most successful Pakistani climber of all time, and the only person on K2 this winter who came to the mountain with a previous 8000-meter summit in winter. In 2016 he was part of the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, in Alpine style without oxygen. His son Sajid, 21, became the youngest Pakistani to summit K2 when he topped out in summer 2019.
Top Photo: Muhammad Ali Sadpara on the summit of K2, summer 2018