The K2 Winter Expeditions have Turned the Mountain into a Circus

For most serious high-altitude mountaineers, the first ascent of K2 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 winter 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.

igloos k2
Photo Credit: Alex Txikon

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.

nims purja broad peak
Photo Credit: Nirmal Purja

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.

Kraig Becker

41 thoughts on “The K2 Winter Expeditions have Turned the Mountain into a Circus”

  1. If one of the clients dies, Pakistan should ban the Seven Summits people from ever entering the country again. It was a mistake to give them a permit in the first place.

    • They give them permits because they make money, do they really care if people die? Some people that go to these mountains are so ignorant and have not a clue what they are up against

      • That was my thought exactly. In all honesty, the Worlds Deadliest Mountain would be good marketing and PR. It would probably increase interest rather than the opposite.

        I mean, Everest didn’t get so crowded because it’s easy and safe, and that was before the age of such social media and huge payoffs even for attempting something like this in the name of “personal brand.”

    • Sitting here in Islamabad, Pakistan, I’m worrying about the mountaineers on K-2, I can’t resist the city cold here lol. Up there its going to be crazy minus and extremely Windy. Its going to be a world record if they make it. Anyone would say it’s stupid to do so but then that’s what humans are all about, pushing the limits. I wish them all the luck. May they be safe

    • I’ve never climbed a mountain and have barely done enough hiking to take credit for it but I’ve read a fair amount about climbing and if you go up those mountains and die it’s on yourself in my opinion.

  2. Looking back at other himilayas disasters this has the ingredients to turn into a full scale disaster, not to mention COVID 19 compounding logistics and putting climbers and sherpas at risk. If disaster strikes, which it may at high altitude, there will be little room for error or rescue efforts. I hope some of the rumoured teams do not attempt, some lack the resume to tackle the world’s most dangerous winter climb. Best of luck

      • I don’t see anybody doing the Seven Summits the way Nims climbed the 14 8k. I’m waiting and when someone does let me know.The amount of altitude he did and and in the time he did it couldn’t have been done without o2.Give him a minute he’s got a k2 winter ascent coming up. Every mountaineer talked Alpine. Look at what he did even Messiner thinks a remarkable thing was accomplished.

  3. Maybe the inexperienced climbers will realise they have taken on to much, and the experienced ones will tell them.

    • Maybe, but then will the inexperienced climbers listen?
      My experience says “No”, admittedly from a situation very different from K2 in winter, this was on Mont Blanc in summer. We were theoretical physicists at a summer school near Chamonix, I was the most experienced and only wanted to go with 3 others, but “friends of a friend” were vouched for and the team was suddenly at 6 people. I trained them in ice and glacier work, for many of them it was their first experience with ropes, harnesses, mountaineering boots and crampons, they all had a grab-bag of fitness and “experience” – from two very fit and strong hikers with some mountaineering experience to one who “biked in winter in Massachusetts” and another who’d “taken a glacier class”.
      On the morning of (already a mistake to attempt this so late, starting from the first telepherique up to Aguille du Midi in such warm conditions) I had to basically remind everyone how to put on harnesses and check each one. Mr. winter biker insisted he would do it shorts! At Mont Blanc du Tacul, two people started demonstrating symptoms of High Altitude sickness and I asked both to turn back, they could make it back to the telepherique station on their own. One agreed to go back, the other insisted that he knew himself, that his “headache would get better higher up with the cleaner air”. Mr. Winter biker in shorts still refused to change into long pants.
      So we slogged out way up past Mont Maudit, and at that point, with no place to shelter from the icy wind, Mr. Shorts decided he’d had enough of the icicles on his hairy legs and made us all stop for 30 minutes so he could take off his crampons, then boots, harness and shorts, put on his jeans, and then harness, boots, crampons and tie in again.
      Shortly thereafter, Mr. I’ll get better higher up started mumbling nonsense, trying to unclip from the rope, stumbling and falling. I realised that his going any higher (up to the peak and then an easy walk down the Bosses ridge) would be a serious mistake. So I placed him between the two other strongest climbers right behind myself, and we did a hairy traverse across crevasses to the Bosses ridge and then down to the Refuge Grande Mullet (?).
      Long story short, no the inexperienced don’t always listen to the more experienced, often because the inexperienced don’t know that they are too inexperienced. This happens at every level where you get close to your zone of ignorance and inexperience – from a hike in the Grand Canyon, to Mont Blanc in summer as I’ve experienced to guided trips on Mt. Everest 1996 that I’ve only read about, to winter on K2. So I wouldn’t count on the inexperienced listening to the experienced.

  4. As a climber who loves mountains I’m sorry to see this become a fame seeking sport for self promotion but do hope it doesn’t turn into a disaster for anyone. I’m content to climb on for the love of mountains and to do it anonymously.

  5. Dear all, its a race for great reward, everybody takes risk, and Pakistanis should not see who can climb and who cannot, if they started doing this, it will be cruel for adventure lovers, its all about adventure and self satisfaction, people died in summers on K2, but still people came in winters, this means K2 is something big, big reward, indeed its the biggest adventure

  6. Curious what your source is that Adriana Brownlee and Canadian Marie Pierre Desharnais are part of Nims Purja’s group? They have not been mentioned at all on his posts.

    • I actually spoke with Marie recently in Ecuador where she was doing some altitude training… she is on the team to climb

  7. I pray for the safe reunion with loved ones of every human on k2 right now and it is the first and prior responsibility of every group leader to check the abilities of his team members to avoid any disaster

  8. Unfortunately everything points towards disaster. Let us hope that the more experienced make a dynamic assessment and only consider those with the adequate resume for an attempt. Those with less experience can learn from their time there, and realise this is a herculean feat reserved for the truly elite.

  9. I am sure all these climbers are well aware of the challenges and dangers they are gonna face. But, it’s their decision… and it’s their dream… So, with all respect, I disagree with the spirit of the article. Irregardless of the outcome of the expeditions, they need our encouragement and mental support.

    • I agree Dimitris, they all need some positive energies to lift their spirits under such taxing. .. conditions. The” incident pit” can have it’s roots in negativity & criticism.

  10. The world experienced himalayst should forward their earnest suggestions, and counsel, advice to the climbers of K2 winter expeditions 2020, it is first time such large number of climbers attempting the world most difficult mountain K2 in winter.The Govt of Pakistan needs to take extreme precautions consulting with experienced Pakistani mountaineers, such as the first Pakistani Climber Ashraf Aman, Nazir Sabir and Shah Jehan .

  11. The Ministry of Tourism should consult with experienced Pakistani mountaineers,like Mr.Ashraf Aman-The First Pakistani K-2 Climber in 1977, Nazir Sabir the first Everst climber, Sher Khan the climber of four 8000 meters peaks and Shah Jahan the member of French Natioanl Expedition in 1979, and several others young climbers from GB for taking precautions to arrange a strong team of Shimshall and Skurdu high altitude porters to rescue the climbers from K2 in winter in case of any mishappening,The climbers from all over the world are attentively watching the progress and events on the daily basis about the K2 winter expeditions 2020/2

  12. Adriana Brownlee is on the expedition to gain winter experience and is not there to summit. She will be supporting from BC and will aim to reach an intermediate camp only if conditions are favourable. This is part of her preparation for an attempt on Everest in Spring. She has been climbing since 9 and has been slowly building her experience at altitude and extreme conditions. She is responsible and realistic and ambitious. Hopefully this provides some context.

  13. Whether you like him and the popularity he brings to the expeditions or not calling Colin O’Brady inexperienced is a bit of a stretch lol. Had at once the fastest messner and bass 7 summits and both poles and a walk across antarctica whether or not you “count it” I think he has plenty of experience with the cold and climbing.

    • He has zero winter experience on 8000 m peaks and extremely limited Himalayan climbing experience having been babysat up Everest once by a real climber in ideal conditions. Skiing on an ice road in Antarctica hardly qualify’s one to climb K2

  14. People dying is why people keep returning.. humans have a morbid sense of adventure.. always have.. no one wants to climb a popular sissy mountain..

  15. The only problem is when inexperienced climbers get in trouble it takes the experienced climbers to save their lives

  16. They are all hopelessly addicted to their sport and adventurism pray they all safely achieve as much as possible without endangering each other.

  17. I am more worried about rescuers if anything goes south.. It is impossible to rescue anyone even in summer on k2. Hope gov of Pak wont put any rescuers life in danger to safe fame seekers.

  18. In my opinion when it comes to such huge undertakings in the end there will always be important decisions. Even in a summer climb of K2 there are difficult decisions to be made. It’s difficult to imagine how they want to make such decisions in winter. It’s actually stupid. It’s always about money and prestige and ambition and the adventure but if you take into account the risk up there I doubt it’s worth it. Because how are the odds to really make it all the way up to the summit in winter? It’s actually strange that so many people try to climb it in winter even though the chances are very low…

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