K2, a mountain in the Kashmir region of Asia, is the second highest peak on Earth and yet more dangerous than Mount Everest, especially in the winter. But in January 2021, a group of Nepali climbers attempted to accomplish what people thought was impossible. Team co-leader Mingma Gyalje Sherpa tells the story of the epic journey on what experienced climbers call the Savage Mountain.
PETER GWIN (HOST): We’re high on a snowy mountain in Pakistan, where a group of Nepalese climbers are struggling through harsh winds.
MINGMA GYALJE SHERPA (CLIMBER): It’s two o’clock in the evening. I think this is one of the hardest climb we have ever made.
GWIN: That’s Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, he goes by Mingma G. for short. He and his team are trying to make history on the world’s second highest mountain: the legendary K2.
The team had been navigating a route to the summit but were blocked by a dangerous crevasse—that’s a deep crack in the snow that could swallow the climbers.
So they had to retreat back to their camp, a tiny cluster of tents clinging to the side of the mountain.
MINGMA G.: It was so difficult to find a way through the crevasse. We were so high on the other side and we could not cross crevasse, and we went back and we came more on the ridge to our decision sites, and finally crossed the crevasse there, and two o’clock, we made it in Camp III.
GWIN: K2 is shorter than Mount Everest, by about two football fields, but it’s far more difficult to climb, reserved for only the most seasoned mountaineers.
In the 1950s, George Bell, one of the first climbers to attempt it, called it “a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”
Even in the summer, it’s so cold that severe frostbite is a constant worry, so windy that climbers can be hurled off its face, and so steep that a poorly placed ice ax or mis-tied rope can instantly lead to tragedy.
And Mingma G and his fellow Nepalese? They’re attempting to do something that many thought was impossible, even suicidal. They’re trying to climb K2—in winter.
I'm Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine. And this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
In the mountaineering world, the first winter ascent of K2 was considered the last unclaimed crown jewel. And for years, I’d hear from climbers about teams planning K2 winter expeditions. But in the same breath, I’d hear that there’s no way they’d actually pull it off.
This week, a Nepalese climber tells us how he and his team sought to make mountaineering history.
More after the break.
BERNADETTE MCDONALD (WRITER): Winter mountaineering is actually a fairly simple concept. It’s just mountaineering in the coldest season of the year. What gets a little harder to understand is why anybody would want to do it.
GWIN: That’s Bernadette McDonald. She’s a Canadian writer who covers mountaineering. Climbing mountains is hard enough. But doing it in winter? It’s torture.
MCDONALD: It’s brutally cold. It’s very lonely. And it’s windy. I think what most of the climbers complained about more than anything, more even than the temperatures, was the wind.
GWIN: And then there’s the Death Zone—the region above 8,000 meters, which is slightly higher than 26,000 feet—where the air gets so thin that humans can’t survive for long without bottled oxygen.
MCDONALD: It’s kind of an inhuman kind of, uh, situation.
GWIN: People have been climbing mountains for sport for centuries, but climbing them in winter is a relatively new thing.
MCDONALD: I think what, in a way, what we’re talking about is winter climbing in the high mountains, in the Himalaya, in the Karakoram. And that definitely has kind of a start date, a start person.
GWIN: It began in an unlikely place: Poland, in the 1970s.
MCDONALD: What happened in Poland was that they missed out on all the big firsts, because they were in post–World War II situation, which didn’t allow them to travel. They had no money. They were basically locked down. Sound familiar?
GWIN: The crown jewels of big-mountain climbing are the 14 peaks on the planet that top 8,000 meters. The first climbers to summit those peaks brought international fame and glory back to their countries, starting with a French team who summited Nepal’s Annapurna in the summer of 1950. Three years later, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay famously climbed Mt. Everest. And by 1964 all 14 had been climbed—all the crown jewels claimed. End of story, right? But then along comes Andrzej Zawada, a Polish climber.
MCDONALD: He came up with this idea that the way that Polish climbers could differentiate themselves, and really make a name for themselves in the history of Himalayan climbing, was to go at those peaks in winter, and that had not been done. I mean, they started kind of with a bang.
GWIN: In 1980 Zawada led an expedition to climb Everest in the winter.
And his team made it to the summit, and it blew people’s minds.
MCDONALD: I mean, they had letters from the pope, congratulating them. Of course the pope was Polish, but nevertheless, they had a letter from the pope.
GWIN: More Polish climbers started going to the high mountains in winter. And a whole new race—invented by the Poles—was on.
MCDONALD: Bang, one year after the other, they were sending expeditions. They were talented, they were strong, they were tough. And they had all the time in the world, because they didn't have jobs.
GWIN: Polish climbers would eventually claim 10 first ascents of the prized eight-thousanders in winter. And by 2020, all of the big mountains had been climbed in winter, except for one: the Savage Mountain.
K2 rises in an extremely rugged and remote part of Pakistan, near the border with China. And it’s so remote that it takes a week to hike to the mountain from the nearest village.
GWIN: Why do you think that was, that that peak stayed unclimbed in winter? You know, where the other ones had all been so, even Everest had been successfully climbed.
MCDONALD: Well, first of all, OK, it’s true. I’'s not the highest, but it’s definitely the most difficult. There’s just the difficulty, the steepness of the mountain. Also it’s further north than Everest, so it is colder. And it’s also at the very top of the range, so it’s the first mountain to get the big storms from the north. So the winds apparently are horrendous on K2, more so than, say, on Everest.
GWIN: Unlike Everest, K2 requires precise technical climbing, especially near the top, even in the best conditions. For roughly every four climbers who make it to the top of K2 and back down, another one dies in the attempt. And no team has made it even close to the top in winter.
GWIN: How big a prize was this, was K2 in winter?
MCDONALD: I think that K2 in winter was the biggest prize that was still out there. There was so much interest in who would climb it and how they would do it. And there were so many top-level Himalayan climbers who were trying it, or who were thinking of trying it. So I can’t think of another prize that was bigger than K2 in winter.
GWIN: Mingma G. was among the climbers who wanted to claim that prize. He grew up in Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley, located west of Mt. Everest.
MINGMA G.: So we don’t have electricity; we don’t have telephone lines. We don’t have any road facility. So we actually really have not, we have nothing.
GWIN: Few crops can grow so high up in the mountains. And getting food from other parts of Nepal up to where they lived was expensive.
MINGMA G.: We lived our life under a candlelight, like work every day, working on a field, just growing potatoes.
We grew up in a very difficult life. We were the … one of the most poorest people in Nepal.
GWIN: But Rolwaling is famous for one thing in particular: producing world-class mountain guides. Although super dangerous, it’s a job that offers one of the few ways for many Sherpa in remote areas to earn a decent living. And several of Mingma G.’s family went to work for outfitters, helping clients from around the world climb Nepal’s biggest mountains.
GWIN: Did your father and uncles tell you stories about famous Sherpa climbers when you were growing up?
MINGMA G.: Yeah, a lot.
GWIN: Mingma G. would hear his father and uncles talk about expeditions to several of the eight-thousanders–including Lhotse and Dhaulagiri, where his father had climbed with the legendary Italian climber Reinhold Messner. His first cousin Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa had assisted climbers during the 1996 disaster made famous by the book Into Thin Air.
So, in 2006, when Mingma G. was 19, he convinced his uncle to take him on a climb to the 8,000-meter Manaslu.
MINGMA G.: It was one of the most beautiful moment of my life. After that, I, it was like, kind of more interest in climbing. Then I joined another expedition, then another, then another.
GWIN: The experience convinced Mingma G. to become a guide, just like his father and uncles. But his mother was not happy with this decision.
MINGMA G.: My mother, my father, they never wanted me to become a mountaineer.
GWIN: Years earlier, Mingma G.’s father had taken a Japanese climber up Mt. Everest. And at one point, his dad took off his gloves to tie the climber’s bootlaces, and his hands were severely frostbitten.
MINGMA G.: So my father lost eight fingers in that expedition.
GWIN: He lost eight fingers.
Mingma G.: Yeah.
Gwin: Oh my gosh.
MINGMA G.: So out of 10, he lost eight.
GWIN: Despite what would seem to be a career-ending injury, his father continued working as a climbing guide.
MINGMA G.: He continued working with his, like, very short, sharp fingers.
GWIN: And yet, his father’s experience didn’t stop Mingma G. from climbing. He loved being in the mountains and was especially proud of the Sherpa reputation as being among the world’s strongest climbers.
MINGMA G.: I can say like, we are regarded as the king on eight-thousand. Maybe I should not say this, but …
GWIN: (Laughs) No, you said it, man. I'm not going to disagree with you. I'm not going to disagree.
MINGMA G.: Because people from all over the world, they hire Nepalese Sherpa for climbing 8,000-meter peak, right?
GWIN: Of course.
GWIN: So Mingma G. worked for other expeditions, and eventually he built his own successful guiding business. But there was one thing that still bothered him. Even though Nepalis had been part of teams that had claimed some of the crown jewel ascents, they’d never accomplished one all on their own.
MINGMA G.: If we see on Wikipedia or on internet, like, if we see that winter list, there’s no any Nepalese Sherpa name or no, any Nepalese flag.
GWIN: Sherpas have always been the backbone of mountaineering in the Himalayas. They haul gear and supplies, help run the base camps, and if they stick with it, over time they learn to guide foreign clients to the summits.
Like many of his fellow guides, Mingma G. felt that Nepali climbers didn’t get the same respect as some of the celebrated foreign climbers. He realized that the way to change this was by claiming the last major, and arguably the greatest, achievement in the big mountains: summiting K2 in winter.
But he also knew it meant taking a huge risk.
MINGMA G.: And it was always said that we could lose, lose the hands. We’re going to lose the fingers. Yeah.
GWIN: Well, and especially after your father—that had happened to him—I would imagine that was a really scary thing.
MINGMA G.: If it happens to me, then, uh, I think my mother would feel more difficult than me, myself.
GWIN: Mingma G. knew what he was getting into. He’d climbed K2 before. In fact, Mingma G. is one of the only mountaineers who can claim to have climbed to the top of K2 three times. No one’s summited it more than that. But on those expeditions, he’d had the responsibility of leading clients.
MINGMA G.: And I said like, OK, now I’ll go, I’ll go back to, back on K2, but I’ll not lead any clients. I’ll just go for myself. And I go for my nations.
GWIN: But, there were several huge obstacles before he even set foot on the mountain. First, because of COVID, his guiding business had been slow, and especially bad for a mountaineer about to tackle the climb of his life, he was out of shape.
MINGMA G.: I started working on my body because I need to be like a little more slim and more like, um, more energetic. I started cycling, running …
GWIN: Then he had to raise money. Expeditions like K2 run into the tens of thousands of dollars. And without paying clients, the funding was all on him, so eventually Mingma G. mortgaged a piece of land he owned. And then he had to assemble a team willing to go with him on such a risky trip. Which was a huge ask of the climbers but also of their families.
MINGMA G.: Like one of my Sherpa, he said like, he cannot, he cannot go because he doesn’t, he doesn’t want to his lose body parts.
GWIN: Even when he found some climbers who wanted to go with him, their wives thought it was way too risky.
MINGMA G.: They started arguing with me. We might lose them. They might lose their fingers and blah, blah, blah, lots of these things.
GWIN: But Mingma G. believed this expedition was important, a challenge worth the risks, so he made the women a solemn promise: If their husbands died on the expedition, their families could live with him. The wives agreed. And he and his team headed to Pakistan.
Coming up: When he reaches Base Camp, Mingma G. forms an important alliance. And on the way to the summit, he finds himself in a life-threatening situation—one that he can’t turn back from.
We’ll have that and more … after this.
GWIN: When Mingma G. and his team finally got to K2 Base Camp in late December 2020, they found out they weren’t the only ones with this idea. There were about 60 climbers, from several nations, including another all-Nepali team, led by a guy named Nirmal Purja, who everyone called Nims.
In the parlance of mountaineers, Nims is a beast. Almost a superhero-type figure.
He’d made headlines the year before, when he climbed the world’s 14 tallest peaks—all the crown jewels—on back-to-back expeditions in just six months and six days. Just to give you some background here. The last climber who climbed them all: He did it in seven years.
It’s really hard to describe how insanely difficult that feat really is. And it caught the mountaineering world completely by surprise, because the guy just seemed to come out of nowhere.
MCDONALD: I'm still trying to figure Nims out, actually. What’s surprising to me is that unlike many of the guys he climbs with, he didn’t really grow up in the high mountains.
GWIN: Actually, Nims comes from Chitwan, which is the tropical, low-altitude part of Nepal—think elephants and palm trees, not giant snow-covered mountains. But he’d spent six years in the Gurkhas, which is part of the British military. And then later, he joined the special forces and served in Afghanistan, before deciding to pursue a mountaineering career.
I actually caught up with Nims by phone briefly last year when he was in Kathmandu between expeditions. And I asked him about his approach to climbing big mountains.
NIRMAL “NIMS” PURJA (CLIMBER): I think the biggest thing, what I have learned from being in special forces is the decision-making process.
And also that willingness not to give up, you know? You need to have certain, you know, mindset. That mindset is what I call it: a positive mindset. Sometimes, you know, you will not have a good day at all, but if you think, Oh, it’s a shit day, if you just think negative about it, you’re not going to progress. Or if you just think in everything, you can always see positiveness.
And now Nims, this new mountaineering superstar, has arrived in Pakistan with the same plan as Mingma G.: Claim the first winter ascent of K2.
The two Nepalese men knew of each other. They’d been sort of respectful rivals. They were both guides trying to build up their own climbing résumés.
MINGMA G.: I knew I was a competitor to him. He knew he was a competitor to me.
GWIN: But on a mountain like K2, where things can go horribly wrong in a hurry, Mingma G. knew that the two Nepalis needed to support each other …
MINGMA G.: And if something happens to you guys, we need, we must help you guys. If something happens to us, then you must help us. Because there have been, there’ll be nobody to help on the mountain, besides helping each other.
GWIN: So the teams begin climbing the mountain, hauling bottles of oxygen, tents, sleeping bags, and coils of rope. At progressively higher elevations, they establish tiny camps, little outposts they can use to shelter and recharge during a final push to the summit.
On New Year’s Eve, Mingma G. and his team return down the mountain to rest and analyze the weather forecasts, when they get a strange invitation. Nims is throwing a party. And he wants them to come.
Wait, a party at K2 Base Camp?
MINGMA G.: They have got lots of whiskeys. They were a big team, so they have brought lots of whiskeys, and they said, OK, let’s celebrate New Year’s Eve tonight.
GWIN: So you guys are there to climb a mountain. It’s this big, very dangerous, scary mountain. And you guys are having a party at Base Camp. I didn’t think you’d have time or energy to party.
MINGMA G.: (Laughs)
GWIN: At the party, Nims makes a bold proposition: What if the two teams joined forces and start climbing together? He argues it would be safer, but also it will increase the chances that it will be a Nepali who claims the first winter ascent of K2.
MINGMA G.: And he said like, “OK, we’re going to party for a while tonight, and then tomorrow morning, we’re going to start back on the mountain.” I said, “No, it’s not possible.”
GWIN: Partying and then immediately heading up the mountain seems like a bad idea to Mingma G. His team needs to rest before they start their climb.
But he tells Nims that if he wants to leave early, he can use Mingma G.’s supplies stashed on the mountain.
MINGMA G.: We have oxygen at 7,000 meter. We have rope at 7,000 meters. You can use our oxygen. You can use our rope.
You can use anything you like from my tents, from my teams.
GWIN: The important thing, Mingma G. says, is that the summit is claimed for Nepal.
MINGMA G.: If you make summit, that summit is not only yours. That summit is mine too; that summit is our Nepalese summits. So you make summit, I make summit,is the same for Nepal.
GWIN: The gesture touches Nims.
MINGMA G.: He had the same thing. He said like, “This time, the K2 is not for me, but the K2 is for the nations and for all our brothers.” And I had the same feeling that K2 is not for myself. It is for all Nepalese. And I think that made me bring more closer to him.
GWIN: Yeah. It sounded like you guys trust each other at that point. That’s when you started trusting each other.
MINGMA G.: Right.
GWIN: There’s an old saying in climbing: The mountain decides. And after New Year’s, K2 decides not to let anyone out of Base Camp. Hurricane-force winds sweep in, forcing everyone to hunker down in their tents.
MINGMA G.: We had too much wind, I think almost like 140 kilometer per hour.
MINGMA G.: We didn’t have good sleep, like, for almost like, for two days, because it was like hitting all the nights and day. Big winds.
GWIN: For two weeks, the wind howls, and when it finally lets up, Mingma G. and Nims lead their combined team of 10 Nepali climbers up the mountain.
Working together, they make rapid progress. They take turns leading the way, setting ropes for the others to follow. And in a couple of days, they’re ready to make the final push to the historic summit.
As the climbers move into the Death Zone, above 8,000 meters, most of them start using their bottled oxygen, but Mingma G. discovers a major problem: His regulator isn’t working, and he isn’t getting enough oxygen.
MINGMA G.: It didn’t work. Then I took one from my end, one more from my other Sherpa that even, that even didn’t work
GWIN: Finally, he gets a third regulator to work. But he’s lost valuable time, and the lack of oxygen has caused him to be vulnerable to the extreme cold.
MINGMA G.: I was too cold, especially on my feet. I was fear to lose my feet. And I was thinking very clearly my mother and my family, because my mother, she lived all her life seeing my father. So that if I lose my fingers, if I lose anything, she would be crying all year. All our rest of our life.
GWIN: As badly as he wants to make history for his country, Mingma G. makes a difficult decision: He’ll give up the climb. I mean, there’s no mountain worth losing your life for. He takes out his radio to call his teammates and tell them to go on without him.
MINGMA G.: And as I turned on the radio, and I tried to call my Sherpa.
GWIN: But their radio is off. And Mingma G. can’t reach them. And he can’t turn back without them knowing where he is, because he knows they’ll go look for him. So he has to keep going. His body gets colder and colder, and he tries everything to keep his blood moving.
MINGMA G.: I spent almost like a, like an hour just hitting my body.
GWIN: So you were hitting your body, like you were like hitting, like clapping your hands and hitting your legs just to keep up the circulation?
MINGMA G.: Right, right, right, right. Right. I tried to hit lots of of ices on the way with my feet just to make myself warm.
GWIN: But nothing works. Mingma G. is afraid he’s about to lose his feet. Or worse.
And then a miracle: The sun comes up.
MINGMA G.: I sat on my back and spent almost like an hour just having sunrays on my body just to make myself a warm.
GWIN: When the sun started coming up, that really saved you, I guess.
MINGMA G.: Right, right.
GWIN: One by one, the Nepalis gather just below the last slope that leads to the top. At this point, Mingma G. and Nims, as the team leaders, could claim the right to be the first ones on the summit.
MINGMA G.: I paid for my team. So I could go summit earlier than they do. I would go summit like 10, 20 steps earlier than other members. Nims could do that, because he was spending all the money for his team.
GWIN: But the two leaders don’t want to do that to their teams. In mountaineering, history remembers those who reached the summit first.
MINGMA G.: So Nims brought this idea, so, OK we’re gonna stop almost like 10 to 15 meters at the summit, and we’re gonna make a row, and we’re going to march the summit together. So that means like nobody’s second in the team. Everyone is first.
GWIN: So even though there were 10 of you, that each one of you is the first person to be on the top of K2 in winter.
MINGMA G.: Right. Right.
GWIN: And then altogether, Nepal was the first country to be on top.
MINGMA G.: Right. Right. That’s one of the best thing.
GWIN: So, the Nepali climbers line up, 10 abreast, and begin marching to the top together. And as they climb to the summit of the planet’s second highest peak in the subfreezing winter air, they all sing the Nepali national anthem.
MINGMA G.: I still cannot express these things in my words. Our heart, it was like full of emotions. Our eyes. We had like, kind of like, our eyes were watery, like we had the tears in the eyes. It was a big moment.
GWIN: We caught up with Nims right after the climb too, when he was celebrating with the team in Kathmandu.
GWIN: Can you talk a little bit about what the reaction has been in Nepal?
NIMS: All my team members feel like they’re a rock star, and it’s so good to see the big smile on my team. And it’s just such a huge inspiration to the future generation of Nepal as well.
GWIN: Most importantly for both Nims and Mingma G. was that the eight men they recruited to help them make history all made it back safely to their families.
MINGMA G.: I was very happy that I lead a team, and everyone in the team, they came safe. Nothing happened to the team members. Nobody lose nothing. I think this is the most memorable thing for me, that in such extreme weather, I brought the team all safely back to home.
GWIN: There are people who will hear this story and think, Tthat’s crazy. I mean, why would anyone risk their life for just being able to say you got to the top of a mountain in winter. But there will also be people who hear this story—including Nepali children—and think, If Mingma G. and Nims can climb K2 in winter, what can I do?
If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.
Want to actually see that moment when the Nepali climbers summit K2, singing their national anthem? Luckily for us, they took a video. Check it out on Nims’s Instagram account: @nimsdai.
Of course, there’s a whole lot more to this dramatic K2 expedition. And if you want to learn more, check out our magazine story, which includes a detailed map of the mountain. It’s in the February issue of National Geographic.
Plus, Nims has got a new memoir out about climbing the 14 highest peaks in the world in record time. It’s called Beyond Possible. I’ve read it, and I couldn’t put it down!
Also, if you were wondering about the Polish climbers who started this winter-climbing craze, check out Bernadette McDonald’s book Freedom Climbers. It’s a fascinating read.
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Ilana Strauss.
Our producers are Khari Douglas and Marcy Thompson.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Eli Chen is our senior editor.
Carla Wills is our manager of audio.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and also sound-designed and engineered this episode.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
Watch the video of the Nepali climbers summiting K2, singing their national anthem.
Check out Nims’s new, adventurous memoir, Beyond Possible.
And learn about previous attempts to summit K2. Our article follows a couple of European teams trying—and failing—to summit the mountain.
Curious about those Polish climbers who started this winter climbing craze? Read Bernadette McDonald’s book Freedom Climbers.
For reflections on the risks of mountaineering, listen to our recent episode about the tragic story of the late renowned climber Alex Lowe.
There’s way more to this K2 expedition than we could cover in one episode. For more on Mingma G. and Nims’s journey, check out our magazine story.