A group of 10 Nepali mountaineers made history on Jan. 16, Saturday, when they became the first climbers to complete the winter summit of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain perched atop the Karakoram Range along the Pakistan-China border. The crew was made of accomplished Sherpa (an ethnic Nepali community considered the backbone of the country’s mountaineering industry) climbers including Mingma G Sherpa, Kilu Pemba Sherpa, Dawa Tenji Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Geljen Sherpa, Pem Chiri Sherpa, Sona Sherpa, and Nirmal Purja, a former British Special Forces soldier, who holds the record for taking the shortest time to climb all of the world’s 14 highest mountains. Between them, the group has more than 100 summits of 8,000m peaks to their names.
“It feels like we have won the World Cup,” Sona Sherpa, one of the climbers told VICE World News over the phone. “I feel extremely happy and proud that we were able to do something that no one else had before us.” The ten climbers had arrived in Pakistan in December 2020 as part of three different teams. On the mountain, they decided to work together to break trail (setting a route along fresh, untouched snow), set up camps and fix safety lines. As a brief weather window opened, the ten men set off from base camp mid-last week.
On Jan.15, Friday, the team successfully fixed safety lines (rope anchored to a route) on camp 4 (7,800 m), the highest point ever reached on the mountain during winter by then. The following day, after a gruelling 15 hours on the snow, they reached the summit together. “For the first two hours in the morning, it was too windy, but the weather got fantastic during daytime,” Mingma G Sherpa, who was leading one of the teams and has previously summited K2 twice during summer, told VICE World News. He said this time, reaching the summit felt like a national project because everyone on the team wanted to achieve the feat for the country. Teammate Mingma David, described the moment they reached the summit as “magnificent.”“Even though it was windy and so cold, the view was mind blowing,” David told VICE World News. “All 10 of us Nepalese brothers sang the national anthem which further motivated us.”
At 8,611 m high (28,251 ft), K2 is about 200 metres shorter than Everest, but is considered to be a more difficult, dangerous and deadly mountain to climb. Extreme weather conditions, tough terrain, and its remoteness make climbing K2 uniquely challenging, say climbers. Nearly one in every four people who have attempted to summit K2 have died on the journey, according to a BBC news report. Since a joint team of Polish, Canadian and British climbers first attempted the feat in 1987, there have only been a handful of attempts at a winter ascent. Before Saturday, the furthest climbers had reached on K2 during winter was 7,750 m. “It’s the coldest among the 8,000 m high mountains, the weather is unforgiving and unpredictable, presenting only a small window for climbing, if at all. The climb is also much more technical than Everest. It is an adventure even to get to the base camp,” said Chang Dawa Sherpa, expedition leader of Seven Summits, the company that organised the K2 winter expedition.
The ten Nepali climbers who completed the summit are now resting at the base camp and are expected to return to Nepal after two weeks. Eight of them suffered frostbites on their face, toes and fingers. “It was not an easy climb at all,” Mingma G said. A group of 26 non-Nepali climbers are now waiting for another weather window to open. They’re part of two commercial expeditions.
K2 was the last of the 14 highest mountains in the world to not have been summited in winter time, until last weekend, and had become a dream for many Sherpa climbers who were eager to leave a mark in the climbing world. Despite playing a crucial role in leading foreign climbers to the summit of different 8,000 m mountains, Sherpas have often been denigrated to the sidelines, left out of the spotlight, and perceived as merely support staff during expeditions. “Many climbers have dreamt about a winter ascent of K2, and we’re so glad that it’s a Nepali team that has accomplished this. Now the world knows that Sherpas are not just porters or guides but capable mountaineers in their own right,” said Mingma Sherpa, the chair of Seven Summit Expeditions, who is also the first South Asian to summit all 14 highest mountains. Mingma G Sherpa, who was part of an unsuccessful expedition to summit K2 in winter 2019, told reporters before his departure that he was sad to learn that no Nepali climbers had been a part of any first winter ascents of the other 13 eight thousanders—even though eight of them are located in Nepal. “I’d dedicate this historic achievement to all Nepalis and the Nepali climbing community” he told VICE World News. When the team was on its way to conquer K2, Spanish climber Sergi Mingote, who was leading another team, fell to his death lower on the mountain. When the rescue crew reached the spot, Mingtoe was already dead.“We’re very sorry to his family that we couldn’t save him,” said Chang Dawa Sherpa. Follow Tsering Dolker on Twitter.