Nepali mountaineers achieve historic winter first on K2

With their ‘impossible’ summit of the world’s second-tallest mountain, Nepali climbers send national pride surging in the Himalaya.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

A team of 10 Nepali climbers reached the 28,251-foot summit of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, on Saturday, January 16th, according to several reports on social media. This long-sought achievement adds a stunning new chapter to mountaineering history.

Located in Pakistan’s part of the Karakoram range, K2 is the last of the world’s 14 tallest mountains—all higher than 8,000 meters—to be climbed in winter. It is considered by far the most difficult and dangerous because of the technical climbing required to reach the top.

“History made for mankind, History made for Nepal!” Nirmal “Nims” Purja wrote on Instagram at approximately 5:40 p.m. local time in Pakistan.

The achievement is the result of a remarkable collaborative effort between Nepali climbers affiliated with multiple teams: one led by Purja, the other by Mingma G Sherpa. In the days before last night’s summit push, the two groups combined forces, deciding on a joint strategy for fixing ropes on the upper mountain and hoping to summit together. One Sherpa from a commercial expedition, Sona Sherpa, also joined the effort.

For both Purja and Mingma G, summiting K2 in winter represents the chance to make a statement of national pride and homegrown Himalayan mountaineering prowess. “All 13x8000 peaks have been climbed in winter by our international climbing community so it would be a great feat for the Nepali climbing community to make history,” Purja wrote recently from base camp.

“This Nepalese Winter K2 Expedition is for the nation,” Mingma G wrote on social media. According to Purja’s social media post, the whole team waited just below the summit to form a group, then stepped on top together, singing the Nepali national anthem. Along with Mingma G, Purja, and Sona, the other summiters are reported to be Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Geljen Sherpa, Pem Chiri Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Dawa Tenjin Sherpa, and Kilu Pemba Sherpa.

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(An ancient geologic smashup raised the Himalaya mountains—and the collision continues today.)

The ascent highlights a new generation of Indigenous climbers who are succeeding on ambitious high-altitude climbs relying on sponsorships, social media, and GoFundMe pages to finance their efforts rather than just carrying loads for commercial expeditions.

‘We have lost everything’

K2 in winter has become an increasingly sought-after objective, as the other 8,000-meter peaks succumbed to mountaineers in the coldest season. Despite the coronavirus pandemic this year, more than 60 people congregated at basecamp on Pakistan’s Godwin Austen Glacier, including a large commercial expedition with 22 paying clients 27 support Sherpa organized by Seven Summits Treks, a Nepali guide service.

Yet unlike Mount Everest and other popular high-altitude summits, K2’s extreme steep faces demand strong technical skills while simultaneously exposing climbers to frequent rockfall and avalanches. While more than 4,000 people have reached the summit of Everest, only 367 people had climbed K2 as of June 2018. But none had done so in winter conditions.

To reach K2’s summit, the team endured temperatures in excess of -58 degrees Fahrenheit and gale-force winds while ascending the Abruzzi Spur on the mountain’s southern flank. “You cannot imagine how much more difficult it is [to climb K2] in winter compared to spring or summer,” Alex Txikon told National Geographic when he attempted the feat in 2019.

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Several tents and a cache of equipment left in preparation for the summit push were blown off the mountain just last week. “Our team reached Camp 2 today and it was a wreckage site... We have lost everything,” Purja wrote. “I am devastated to be breaking this news. Now, I have to reassess and replan everything.” After frantically sourcing more gear in base camp, Purja’s team was forced to resupply their camp before beginning their summit push.

Failed Attempts

While Everest was first climbed in winter in 1980, it wasn’t until December 1987—when a Polish expedition arrived in Pakistan—that a winter ascent was attempted on K2. At the time, Poles dominated the sport of high-altitude Himalayan climbing, and an exceptionally hardy group of alpinists known as the Ice Warriors came to specialize in winter first ascents. Led by the indomitable Andrzej Zawada, they enjoyed an astonishing run of success in the 1980s, knocking off seven first winter ascents of 8,000-meter peaks in the span of eight years. But on K2, they failed.

In the intervening three decades, another five expeditions made attempts on the mountain, including a dramatic effort led by Wielicki in 2018. Yet not a single team even managed to reach Camp 4 on the shoulder of K2—the critical high camp from which to launch a summit bid.

Despite the unbelievably harsh conditions and myriad mortal risks, some observers speculate that the biggest challenge K2 presents in winter is one of leadership. “In reviewing many of the previous K2 winter efforts, it seems that team dynamics have plagued more than one expedition,” Alan Arnette wrote in Rock and Ice after the 2019 season ended without a summit. “Any climber worthy of attempting K2 in winter will have tremendous skills with an ego to match… It will take strong leadership to manage these thoroughbreds and the climbers themselves will have to work together as a tight, well-functioning team.”

Both Nepali teams have a long history of working together on 8,000-meter peaks, most notably in 2019, when Purja succeeded in climbing all 14 8,000-meter peaks in a record 6 months, 6 days—shaving more than seven years off the previous fastest time. Nims was greatly aided in that effort by a small band of Sherpa friends, who took turns partnering with him on different mountains and have joined him now for K2.

A Dangerous Descent

For the Nepali climbers, the most difficult part of the climb may prove to be the descent, executed in a state of oxygen-starved exhaustion, achieved by rappelling several miles of fixed rope to reach true safety on the glacier at the foot of the mountain. For every three climbers who reach the summit of K2, approximately one dies somewhere on the mountain—and many of those fatalities occur while going down. As of 10 p.m. local time, social media updates report that the entire team had safely reached Camp 3, where they were resting for a few hours before continuing down.

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Underscoring the risk, reports are circulating of the death of a Catalan–Spanish climber low on the mountain. Sergi Mingote, who is reported to have died in a fall while descending from Camp 1, was an experienced high-altitude climber trying the mountain “by fair means”—without supplemental oxygen or Sherpa support, which in climbing circles is considered the purist standard.

While armchair mountaineers around the world await news that all 10 Nepalis are safely down, dozens of mountaineers still in base camp are left to consider their options. With fixed ropes now established up the mountain, and an eager group of recreational climbers assembled by Seven Summit Treks, it’s possible K2 will see additional winter attempts in the weeks to come. Yet now that the allure of being first to reach its frozen apex in the harshest season is gone, it’s equally possible many will offer the Nepalis their heartfelt congratulations—and decide that now is a good time to head home.

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