On January 16, at 5pm local time, climbing history was made. Prior to this day, no Nepali had yet claimed the first winter ascent of an 8000m peak. Meanwhile K2 was the only remaining 8000er that not yet been summited in winter. Then 10 Nepali climbers, initially from competing teams, were brought together by a common goal, and the weather gods.
It was a special moment not just for Nepal but also for the whole of humankind when 10 Nepalese climbers from different teams banded together, waited for each other 10m below the summit, then went to the top together, singing the Nepalese national anthem. Whereas K2's deathly weather had fought off all previous attempts to claim the summit in winter, in this case, that same weather had led to something beautiful.
As Nimsdai Purja, leader of one of the Nepalese teams commented, “We are proud to have been a part of history for humankind and to show that collaboration, teamwork and a positive mental attitude can push limits to what we feel might be possible.”
The Savage Mountain
Summiting K2 in winter is an objective that has eluded climbers for decades. The peak, which is just 200m shorter than Everest, is notoriously the deadliest of the world’s 8000ers, earning it the reputation ‘the Savage Mountain’. Winds reach hurricane force, air temperatures drop below -65 degrees and extremely low barometric pressure means even less oxygen.
K2 in winter is a frontier along the lines of being the first to summit Everest, or to reach one of the Poles. So it’s incredibly fitting that this last remaining great 8000er challenge was achieved by a Nepalese team, when the glory of firsts in the Himalayas have traditionally been claimed by Westerners, while the Sherpas who fixed their lines generally remained in the shadows.
As Kami Rita Sherpa, who has climbed Everest a record 24 times, told AFP: “For decades, Nepalis have assisted foreigners to reach the summits of the Himalayas, but we’ve not been getting the recognition we deserve. It is wonderful that today on K2 10 Nepalis have made history and shown our bravery and strength.”
K2 is dubbed 'The Savage Mountain'. Photo: Shutterstock
Introducing the two, intially competing, Nepali team leaders
First up is 38-year-old Nimsdai Purja, who broke the record for climbing the world’s 14 highest peaks two years ago (BMC article), on an expedition he funded via GoFundMe, and remortgaging his house in Hampshire. Aged 18, Nimsdai had joined the Gurkhas, a legendary British brigade made up of Nepali recruits, and made his way up to serve in the British Special Forces.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Nimsdai first summited a Himalayan peak but it was love at first sight and, just four years later, he had set a record for climbing Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. After smashing the 14 peaks record (he climbed all 14 in six months; the previous record was eight years), Redbull, Osprey and Scarpa are now amongst his sponsors for the K2 in winter expedition.
The five others making up Nimsdai's expedition team are all Sherpas: Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Geljen Sherpa, Pem Chiri Sherpa and Dawa Temba Sherpa.
Meanwhile the leader of the other all-Nepali team was Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, an IFMGA Mountain Guide who has summited Mt Everest five times, and also summited Lhotse, Makalu, ChoOyu, Manaslu, Nanga Parbat, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna and Gasherbrum I and II, amongst others.
Mingma G’s team of three Sherpas (the other two on the team are Dawa Tenjin Sherpa and Kilu Pemba Sherpa) received 50,000 Rupees from Nepal’s Ministry of Communication and raised 4014USD via GoFundMe. Besides that it was a self-funded expedition: no mean feat considering that COVID had cancelled the main opportunity for Sherpas to earn money: climbing season.
In addition to these two teams, there was a traditional commercial team operated by Kathmandu-based Seven Summits Treks, comprising of 45 international climbers including Sherpa rope-fixers. With around 60 climbers eyeing up the summit, K2 was set to be as busy as it usually is in summer.
Camp 3 reached in a joint effort
Mingma’s team arrived at K2 base camp on 19 December, set up a higher Camp 1 on 21 December, and fixed lines to their Camp 2 on 23 December, before heading back to base camp to rest. Nimsdai’s team, meanwhile, arrived at base camp on Boxing Day. After they had set up their personal tents, dining tents and media tent, Nimsdai came online to report that the weather was threatening, with wind speeds up to 45km/hr.
On 29 December, good weather resumed and the two teams joined forces to fix lines to the ice section just below Camp 3, at 7100m. Nimsdai wrote on Instagram: “It’s great to see our Nepalese team uniting and working together for a common goal.” While Mingma posted: “Thanks to Nepalese brother n Nepalese heart.”
Nimsdai later reflected: “Me and Migma descended to Camp 2 quite late yesterday evening. The full moon was out, it was beautiful but emotionally cold. I tried my best to capture some moments in the camera but it was almost impossible ... We both stayed outside the tent talking about the climb and the priceless view we both had from there. We tried to enjoy the view and capture it in our memories as much as possible. It was an emotional day for sure.”
Mingma Tenzi Sherpa and Mingma David Sherpa waiting out the bad weather at base camp
A super-tough decision
On New Year’s Eve, Nimsdai reported from base camp that there was a weather window due the next day, and pondered whether he should head back up the mountain straight away or let the team rest and recover and hope another window would appear. “I let the team party,” he wrote, “but now staring up at a perfect summit morning I hope it was the right decision.”
Meanwhile, the Seven Summit Treks team had arrived at base camp on 29 December. Their Sherpa rope-fixing team had set off into this weather window, planning to fix ropes to Camp 4 by 2 or 3 January, and then return to base camp. However, the weather deteriorated and the rope-fixing team returned to base camp without reaching Camp 4.
A prayer and a promise
While all three teams waited out the bad weather at base camp, a traditional Sherpa Puja ceremony was held. Nimsdai commented: “I always find it very peaceful. It was very cold and windy! However, it was great to see all members from different teams praying to the mountain god together.”
He later added: “I promise the hardest, the last and the greatest mountaineering feat, K2 in winter, will belong to the Nepalese... All 13x8000 peaks have been climbed in winter by our international climbing community so it would be a great feat for the Nepalese climbing community to make history. I will not leave the base camp until the mission is accomplished. The justice will be done and the mission will be achieved.”
A prayer to the weather gods paid off
A devastating storm changes everything
Meanwhile the temperatures dropped to -50 and the wind howled up to 120km/hr. After eight days of waiting out the bad weather, the sun finally emerged. During the tent-bound week, a plan to collaborate had also emerged: Team Nimsdai and Team Mingma, plus a Sherpa from the Seven Summits Treks team, Sona Sherpa, would work together to fix lines up to Camp 4.
However, there were fears about the damage the storm might have caused to higher camps. “We have most of our gear in our Camp 2,” Mingma reported. “If the tent was blown away then we are done to go back home.” Team Mingma’s Camp 2 was too high to go up to and back in a day, so they waited for the weather to settle further.
Meanwhile Nimsdai’s team headed up to their Camp 2, which was attainable in a day, and found "a wreckage site." All the tents and equipment they had left for the summit push, including sleeping bags, heated insoles, cooking equipment and paragliding equipment, had been destroyed and swept away. “I am devastated to be breaking this news,” Nimsdai wrote. "Now I have to reassess and replan everything.”
A drone view of the base camp
The teams band together to make history
A few days later, a new plan was in full swing. The past 48 hours, Nimsdai reported, had been spent carrying 35kg loads up to 7350m, and fixing lines up to 7600m. He also reported a new summit plan: “We have now teamed up with Migma G + team and a brother from SST - Sona Sherpa and will be working closely together as we press ahead.”
The combined effort led to impressive progress. Mingma, along with Mingma David Sherpa (Team Nimsdai), Mingma Tenzi Sherpa (Team Nimsdai) and Sona Sherpa (SST) successfully fixed lines up to Camp 4 at 7800m. Later that day, Nimsdai led a fixing team to the summit and reported: “We hope to stand on the summit together.”
And so it was. After an emotional summit photo, Nimsdai commented: “We are honoured to be sharing this moment, not only with the Nepalese climbing community but with communities all across the world … Thank you for the support we’ve received from people all around the globe, it gave us fire in our chest to make this goal a reality”.
The team who summited K2 in winter:
Mingma David Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)
Mingma Tenzi Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)
Geljen Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)
Pem Chiri Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)
Dawa Temba Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)
Dawa Tenjin Sherpa (Team Mingma G)
Kilu Pemba Sherpa (Team Mingma G)
Sona Sherpa (SST)
RIP Sergi Mingote
Sadly, one of the climbers on the Seven Summit Treks team, Sergi Mingote, fell and died while descending from Camp 1 to Base Camp. Our condolences to his friends and family.
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