In the last week of 2020, a group of Nepali climbers got together for a meeting in the unlikeliest of places, at around 7,000 metres on K2 (8,611m), the second-highest mountain in the world. The frozen world around them seemed to have come to a standstill in the dead of winter.
Mingma Gyalje Sherpa’s team of Kili Pemba Sherpa and Dawa Tenjing Sherpa was trying to fix lines on a sketchy, icy section just below Camp 3, the second-last stop before the summit. They were greeted by Nirmal Purja and Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, who were part of a six-man, also-all-Nepali team.
The men talked briefly at the tops of their voices, against the howling wind. They joined hands to patch another section with ropes.
Both teams had the same goal — to be the first to summit K2 in winter. But at this point they were still racing each other to the top. Then, at base camp on December 31, as they drank and danced together, ringing in the new year in a way that most of the pandemic-afflicted world far below them could not, a crucial decision was made. The competition would be a thing of the past. They would join forces and work as one team. In that moment, they determined the future of their audacious attempt.
A few days later, they found another ally in Sona Sherpa, who was part of a team that was laying the ground for a future climb by a Seven Summit Treks team. That took the total to 10 Nepali men, about to attempt to make history.
At 4.45pm on January 16, they did. The 10 climbers marched to the summit of K2 in unison, singing their national anthem. The last major challenge in the world of mountaineering had been overcome.
What is it that makes K2 so impossible to climb in winter?
“In winter, the base camp [at K2] is as cold as Camp 3 is in summer,” says Mingma Tenzi, 36, who was part of this historic summit, also summited K2 in 2018 and has climbed nine of the world’s fourteen 8,000-metre-plus mountains.
Temperatures on K2 can plummet to -30 degrees Celsius in peak winter, with raging winds blowing at up to 65 kmph making it feel more like -60. Conditions on the mountain demand that you move fast to beat the chill. But features on the mountain seem designed to keep you from doing this. There is, for instance, the Bottleneck — a perilous gully of about 100 metres that runs under an overhang of ice seracs, threatening to dislodge at any moment. Eleven climbers were killed here in 2008, attempting a summit during the regular season.
“On the mountain, it’s also a lot of mixed climbing — ice, rock, ice, rock. There is a greater chance of rockfall as well. It’s all very different in winter,” says Tenzi.
By contrast, Everest was first summited in winter in 1980, by a team from Poland. The Poles, known for attempting what few others dared on mountains then, made the winter ascent of the world’s highest peaks their mission. After Everest, Polish climbers featured on teams that made nine other first-ever winter ascents, while mixed international teams climbed three other summits.
K2 remained elusive, even though the first winter attempt on it was made in 1987. In winter, there are few windows of good weather on K2. Climbers need to make gradual progress to acclimatise to the altitude, but if they acclimatise too long they no longer have the energy for the winter climb itself. So many groups have realised too late that they spent too much time and energy acclimatising, says Ralf Dujmovits, 59, a German mountaineer who has been to K2 five times and summited once, in 1994.
WHAT MAKES K2 SO DIFFICULT
The difficulties on K2 begin with the approach to base camp. It is a gruelling hike of a week through rugged terrain that sees big dumps of snow and cold winds in winter, as well as a walk up the Baltoro Glacier.
In comparison, the approach to base camps at Everest and Annapurna are relatively easy, with villages and tea houses dotting the route.
K2 is located further north than the other 8,000ers in Nepal and is subject to constant bad weather and strong jet streams, some of the strongest winds in the atmosphere.
Camp 4 on K2 is pitched at around 8,000 metres, which means a vertical gain of 600 metres on the summit push that features technical climbing on hard ice in sub-zero temperatures.