For most serious high-altitude mountaineers, the first ascent of K2 in winter is the last great feat that has yet to be accomplished. The world’s second tallest peak has turned back all attempts on its 8611-meter (28,251-foot) summit, making it the only remaining 8000-meter peak that has yet to be climbed in winter.
But this year, no fewer than four teams are looking to change that. Amongst them are some extremely experienced and strong climbers. But there are also a growing number of individuals who have no business being on the mountain and threaten to turn the entire affair into a three-ring circus. Worse yet, their lack of experience could also lead to disaster on a mountain that is already known as one of the most deadly in the world.
Teams Arriving in Base Camp
For the past several years, we’ve seen at least one team in K2 base camp for the winter, and the 2020-2021 season is keeping that trend going. As of this writing, two teams are already there, with two more to arrive shortly.
The first of those squads consists of Icelandic climber John Snorri and Pakistan’s foremost high-altitude climber Muhammad Ali Sadpara. Sadpara’s son Sajid has joined the expedition too, and the trio has been in BC for more than two weeks. So far, they’ve enjoyed good weather—at least by K2 standards—which has allowed them to fix ropes to Camp 1.
Base camp got a little more crowded a few days back when a Nepali team led by Mingma Gielje, who is more commonly known as Mingma G. That squad has been getting settled and preparing for its first rotation up the mountain, even as two commercial squads prepare to enter the mix. Seven Summit Treks is bringing a large group to the mountain, while famed-Sherpa Nirmal Purja brings a dubious group of his own.
A Crowded Mountain
Once all four teams have reached base camp, more than 70 climbers are expected to be on K2. That’s a far cry from every other winter season when fewer than 10 mountaineers made that journey. In fact, due to the extreme nature of winter alpinism, most teams only consist of two or three extremely skilled and tough individuals prepared to move fast and light while also spending days locked in a tent with nowhere to go. It is a brutally, cold, incredibly demanding existence.
As ExWeb is quick to point out, fewer than 30 people have ever stood atop an 8000-meter peak in winter. Only one of those individuals—Muhammad Ali Sadpara—is actually on K2 this year, and only two other climbers who have ever attempted the mountain in the harshest season all is there this season too.
That means that most climbers have little to no winter climbing experience whatsoever, yet they are attempting the hardest winter climb of them all. This is largely due to Seven Summits bringing a sizable commercial team, which consists of a substantial number of people who have no business being on K2 under the best of conditions, let alone in winter. That includes a very high-profile client who is looking to further his own carefully-crafted persona.
The Impossible Summit?
According to reports, one of the climbers who is a part of the Seven Summits squad is none other than Colin O’Brady. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the adventurer who made a name for himself skiing across Antarctica in 2018, only to have many of his claims called into question by more experienced polar explorers.
The American adventurer followed that up with an equally self-serving row across the Southern Ocean last year, which did little to bolster his reputation. Unsurprisingly, he is reportedly calling his journey to K2 “The Impossible Summit,” as the word “impossible” has been prominent in the title of his previous endeavors too.
O’Brady’s presence on the team will certainly bring a fair amount of attention to K2, not to mention a fair amount of scrutiny. Since his Antarctic expedition, there have been damning reports about how he carefully curates the narrative around his exploits to make them seem larger than life. Make no mistake, O’Brady has accomplished some pretty impressive things, including climbing Everest. But he also stretches the truth or ignores some facts to create a larger-than-life persona.
O’Brady isn’t the only person on K2 this winter whose climbing credentials are a bit suspect. A British woman named Adriana Brownlee is reportedly a part of Nims Purja’s team, even though she is only 19 years old. Worse yet, she also doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a high-altitude climbing experience either—a dangerous combination on K2. Brownlee is joined by Canadian Marie Pierre Desharnais, who had originally hoped to summit Everest, K2, Vinson, Ojos del Salado, and Sidley this year before the pandemic shut things down.
Disaster Waiting to Happen?
The stage is set for a unique and interesting winter climbing season on K2 for sure, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not we’re watching a disaster in the making. The sheer number of climbers on the mountain is enough to cause concern, but when most of them are also seriously lacking in experience and skill, we have the making of a potential tragedy as well.
To be fair, some of these climbers have summited Himalayan peaks before, including Everest. But K2, despite being shorter in height, is orders of magnitude harder to climb than its Nepali cousin. Its steeper, more avalanche-prone slopes are much more technically demanding than Everest, which is a veritable walk-up in comparison.
Throw in some of the worst weather conditions imaginable—including winds above 160 km/h (100 mph) and temperatures dropping to -73ºC (-100ºF)—and you start to get an idea of just how dangerous this could be.
Lest we forget, back in 2008, 11 climbers were killed on this very same peak in an accident that continues to reverberate through the mountaineering community 12 years later. That deadly day took place in August when K2 is at its most tame. The margin for error is even less in the winter, and the so-called “Savage Mountain” doesn’t have much tolerance for the unprepared.
Predictions for K2 Winter 2020
All of that said, I suspect very few of these climbers will actually ever make it above Camp 1. Some of the strongest, most experienced, and hardened mountaineers have found it difficult going in the deep snow, cold temperatures, and high winds of the Karakoram. More experienced and stronger teams than these have barely even climbed higher than that in the winter, and none have even gotten a sniff at the summit.
I wouldn’t count out Snorri and the Sadparas making a run at the top, nor is Mingma G’s team discounted either. Even Nims Purja could be a part of a true summit push, as he has proven himself incredibly strong on more than one occasion. Beyond that, however, almost no one else on K2 has a real chance at making the first ascent.
In the end, though, it is safe to say that the mountain itself is the odds on favorite to claim victory. It has turned back all challengers in the past and is likely to do the same this year. Let’s just hope it doesn’t claim more lives in the process.
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