Triumph and Tragedy on K2 as First Winter Ascent is Achieved

The last great mountaineering challenge has been achieved.

Late in the afternoon local time today in Pakistan, a team of Nepali climbers reached the summit of K2 during the winter for the very first time. Their successful ascent brings a close to years of struggle on the world’s second highest mountain, which had been the last of the 8000-meter peaks to go unclimbed in winter.

But the triumph that came with achieving this amazing feat was quickly diminished, as it was revealed that the “Savage Mountain” had once again claimed a life. Spanish climber Sergi Mingote fell while climbing near Camp 1, perishing on the slopes of K2 as a result.

K2 Mingma G
Photo Credit: Mingma G

Sherpas Make History

For years western climbers have struggled in their attempts to achieve the first winter ascent of K2, with Russian, Polish, Spanish, Italian, and American climbers all giving it a go. But in the end, it was a team of Nepali Sherpas who made the historic climb, reminding the world why they are amongst the best high altitude mountaineers on the planet.

According to The Himalayan Times, at least 10 Sherpas were a part of the final push to K2’s summit. Leading the way on the ascent were none other than Mingma Gyalje Sherpa (affectionally known as Mingma G) and Nirmal “Nims” Purja.

They were joined by Mingma David Sherpa, Gelje Sherpa, Sona Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Kili Pemba Sherpa, and Dawa Tenjing Sherpa on this historic expedition, which was accomplished by the combined efforts of three different teams.

According to reports, the Sherpas summited around 5:00 PM local time today after the faster members of the squad held up 10 meters shy of the top to wait for their companions. By the time they topped out, the sun was setting quickly and they still needed to safely descend.

At the time of this writing, the team is still making its way back to Camp 4 in darkness and the old mountaineering adage that says “the summit is only half way” still holds true. Let’s hope everyone gets down safely.

Sergi Mingote schedule
Photo Credit: Sergi Mingote

Tragic Accident

Not long after the success of the Sherpa team was revealed, the tragic news of Mingote’s death followed close behind. The Spanish mountaineer was reportedly climbing near Camp 1 when he slipped and fell, plummeting 600 meters (1968 ft.) down the side of the mountain.

At the time, he was traveling with Alex Gavan, Tamara Lunger, Magdalena Gorzkowska, and Oswaldo Oliveira, who attempted to render aid. But due to the remote nature of the fall, it took more than 40 minutes for anyone to reach Sergi. By that time, it was already too late.

Last year, Mingote made headlines in mountaineering circles by announcing that he was attempting to climb all 14 8000-meter peaks without the use of bottled oxygen in less than 1000 days.

The current record for that feat is held by Jerzy Kukuzcka], who did it in 7 years and 11 months. For a time, it seemed the Spaniard was on track to achieve his goal, but the onset of the coronavirus put an end to those efforts.

Despite an ongoing global pandemic, Mingote continued to train, climb, and plan for his next expedition. He viewed climbing K2 in winter as a way to continue pursuing his goal. Unfortunately, this led him to be on the mountain when he hadn’t originally intended to be there. This greatly respected climber will certainly be missed.

k2 north side china
Photo Credit: Kuno Lechner via WikiMedia

More Summit Bids Yet to Come?

The news of todays triumph and tragedy are likely to have a significant impact on the climbers still in Base Camp or on the lower flanks of K2. With the possibility of achieving a first ascent now gone, it will be interesting to see how many climbers remain.

The death of Sergi is likely to give some of the other alpinists pause as well. As a result, it won’t be too surprising to see some of the climbers departing for home in the days ahead.

At the start of the season, there were four teams on the mountain, including one led by Seven Summit Treks that was reportedly made up of several dozen people. This led to an outcry amongst the mountaineering community (including this blog) over safety concerns with so many people on a dangerous mountain during the harshest season of them all.

As it turns out, many of those team members were simply friend and family of the climbers, as well as a few hardy adventure travelers, who came along for the ride. They never had any intention of climbing the mountain at all and only came to spend time in Base Camp.

One team that may yet have designs on the summit is the first to arrive on K2 this year. Icelandic climber John Snorri, along with Ali and Sajid Sadpara, were amongst the best prepared and trained groups on the mountain. It seems likely that given a proper weather window, they may yet make a summit push of their own. So far, they’ve been as high as Camp 3, which means they are acclimatizing well and are prepared for the challenges ahead.

Congratulations and Condolences

The entire team wants to send a big congratulations out to the Nepali team that completed the first ascent today. You’ve not only made your country proud, but all of us who have followed previous expeditions to K2 in winter as well. Be safe on your descent and go home to what will surely be a heroes welcome.

And to the friends and family of Sergi Mingote, our most heartfelt condolences. He was a true gentleman and an inspiration. Our thoughts are with you now during this tragic time.

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