A multinational team of three climbers reached the summit of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan around 3:40 p.m. on February 26, signifying the first time the 8,126-meter (26,660-foot) mountain has been climbed in winter. Since 1988, at least 30 different expeditions comprised of some of the most experienced alpinists in the world have tried and failed to attain this coveted mountaineering prize. Ultimately, the honors of being first to climb the fearsome Nanga Parbat in the calendar winter belong to Simone Moro of Italy, Alex Txikon of Spain, and Ali Sadpara of Pakistan.
Moro has now climbed more 8,000-meter peaks—of which there are only 14—in winter than anyone else, with a total of four. His other three are Shishapangma, Makalu, and Gasherbrum II. (Read a previous interview with Moro.)
And Sadpara has become the first Pakistani to achieve an 8,000-meter summit in winter.
The simple reasons as to why winter ascents of Himalayan peaks is so much more challenging and dangerous when compared to climbing during the normal post-monsoon season can be summed up in two words: weather and conditions. In short, nearly everything that makes Himalayan climbing in April and May either difficult or dangerous is amplified during the winter. Temperatures are obviously much colder, and the snowpack is much less stable. In winter, virtually every slope above, around, and beneath climbers threatens to let loose an avalanche of an unfathomable size.
The only predictable variable is the weather, which is guaranteed to be horrible—especially on Nanga Parbat, whose “naked” summit (indeed, Nanga Parbat literally means “Naked Mountain”) stands prominently above all surrounding terrain and therefore is even more exposed to the jet stream. Nanga Parbat is also unofficially referred to as “Killer Mountain,” in part because at least 31 people died trying to climb it before its incredible first ascent in 1953, completed solo and without oxygen, by the legendary Austrian alpinist Hermann Buhl.
David Göttler, who attempted a winter ascent of Nanga Parbat with Moro in 2014, describes Nanga Parbat’s terrain like so: “Nanga is like an island surrounded by way lower peaks and is really exposed to high winds and the weather in general. Due to that it has very short good weather windows. Also, it is just one of the mountains with the biggest elevation gain between base camp and summit. More than Everest or K2, for example! This has been for sure two reasons why nobody was successful till now.”
Nanga Parbat, for example, boasts the Rupal Face, a 15,000-foot single wall of rock and ice that is considered the highest face in the world.
“Nanga Parbat is even long and difficult under normal summer conditions,” says Göttler. “Now imagine putting short days, very high winds, and low temperatures on top [and] you can roughly imagine what we talking about.”
To claim a winter ascent of a peak, the summit must be reached between December 21 and March 20 in the Northern Hemisphere. There’s also some debate over the matter of when the climbers actually reach their base camp. Arriving during a calendar winter results in a full winter ascent, while arriving before December 21 classifies a partial winter ascent.
There have been about 34 teams total that have successfully achieved full winter ascents of an 8,000-meter peak, and 13 partial ones. Within all those expeditions, due to overlap, the total number of people who have stood on the summit of an 8,000-meter peak in winter is just 27.
Many of those people have been Polish. The only American is Cory Richards, who climbed Gasherbrum II in 2011 with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko (read about their climb). And only one of those 27 is a woman: Marianne Chapuisat, of Switzerland, climbed Cho Oyu (26, 864 feet or 8,188 meters) in 1993.
Winter summits of 8,000-meter peaks, as rare as they are, usually only occur when a freak spell of good, if short-lived, weather appears, and climbers find themselves physically, mentally, and strategically prepared to take advantage and strike.
Over the last 80 days, at least five separate teams of climbers—all gunning to reach the summit first—have festered away in the Nanga Parbat base camp, circa 3,500 meters, as periods of high winds and heavy snowfall racked the mountain. Avalanches tore high camps and destroyed routes.
Then, the weather report predicted a period of two days of potentially clear weather from February 24 to 26.
Moro and his partner, Tamara Lunger, also of Italy and considered one of the strongest female mountaineers in the world, began their ascent amid a storm on February 22. They began climbing the Messner Route but abandoned this plan at 5,800 meters due to serac and avalanche danger. They then teamed up with an international team made up of Alex Txikon and Ali Sadpara, whose third partner, Daniel Nardi, left early.
On February 25, the four climbers spent the night at Camp 4 (7,100 meters). They were now within a day’s strike of the top. The next day, at 6 a.m. they began climbing.
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Lunger, however, woke up ill and vomiting. Still, she pressed on and made it to the summit ridge, just a few hundred meters shy of the summit. Unable to continue, she made the decision to stay there while her three partners pressed on.
At 3:37 p.m. local time, the unlikely trio of Moro, Txikon, and Sadpara reached the top.
On Facebook, Moro’s base camp team posted the news: “Simone Moro, Alex Txikon, Ali Sadpara summited Nanga Parbat (8126m) in winter! Tamara Lunger reportedly stopped just short of the summit, this is still to be confirmed. We, Simone and Tamara’s team, want to say that we are HAPPY & PROUD of the all 4 athletes!!! And we look for a direct contact to them when they will be at C4.”
All four climbers returned to Camp 4 that evening and were safely back in base camp the following day.
Now, 13 of the 14 8,000-meter peaks have seen winter ascents. Only K2, perhaps the deadliest mountain of all, remains.