The winter climbing season on K2 has only just gotten underway, but already the teams on the mountain are making steady progress. Most climbers arrived in Base Camp before Christmas and celebrated the holidays acclimatizing and shuttling gear to the higher camps amidst good weather.
But anyone who knows anything about climbing in the Karakoram in the winter also knows that the weather there can be quite fickle. Later in the week, the forecast calls for high winds, heavy snow, and freezing temperatures. Still, the teams are putting in a lot of work now with the potential for a major payoff down the line.
Ropes Fixed to Camp 4
Four teams have converged on K2 this winter, all with the same goal. The climbers on each of those squads hope to make history by completing the first winter ascent of the mountain. It remains the only 8000-meter peak that has yet to be climbed during the coldest, harshest season of them all. And despite being a major focal point of several major expeditions over the past few years, K2 has turned back all challengers.
This year could be different, however, not just because of the number of climbers on the mountain. A contingent of Nepali Sherpas—led by the indomitable Mingma G—is already proving itself to be incredibly strong, fixing ropes to Camp 3 and even making progress towards Camp 4. The squad members have already spent a considerable amount of time at higher altitudes as they lay the groundwork for a potential summit push.
The Sherpas are joined by their colleague Nirmal Purja, who is leading another group of climbers himself. Nims has assisted with fixing ropes, and although he has other alpinists to look after, he has been contributing to the progress. The challenge now is whether the team can install the ropes to C4 before the weather takes a turn for the worse.
The Mountain Takes its Toll
While progress has been surprisingly swift already this season, K2 hasn’t been all that accommodating to all of the climbers. EXplorers Web reports that Polish climber Waldemar Kowalewski has been evacuated from the mountain after suffering a hernia while carrying gear up to Advanced Base Camp. The second time in three years, Kowalewski has seen his K2 efforts cut short due to injury.
Other climbers also report that some of the Nepali Sherpas returning from higher up on the peak have also suffered frostbite. It isn’t clear how serious that frostbite is, but if those reports are true, it could impact how things unfold. Severe frostbite is not something to take lightly and could lead to afflicted mountaineers being forced to go home.
All things considered, most of the other mountaineers seem to be in good spirits and fine health thus far. However, it is early in the season, and persistent cold, windy, and snow conditions can eventually take a toll. Right now, temperatures have been hovering around -40ºF/C in Camp 1but with bad weather looming on the horizon, it is likely to get a lot colder over the next few days.
Is This The Year?
Early progress and success have many observers wondering if this will be the year K2 will finally be climbed in winter. It is encouraging to see that the strongest climbers have already reached Camp 4, a place that few others have ever reached during the winter months. Despite this early progress, however, it is important to keep things in perspective.
While it is a good sign that the ropes have been fixed so high on the mountain at such an early stage, a lot can happen in the coming weeks. K2 is known for its frequent winter storms, which have been known to dump heavy snow on the mountain.
That snow can bury the ropes or freeze them in place, potentially rendering them useless. Avalanches can also sweep those ropes from the mountain altogether, forcing them to be reinstalled several times.
Additionally, the summit has to be safe and accommodating to anyone who wants to reach its lofty heights. Winds over 35-40 mph (48-64 km/h) are enough to keep climbers from ever catching a glimpse of the top, and during the winter, winds on the summit can exceed 100 mph (160 hm/h). That is unsafe conditions for even the strongest and most experienced climbers.
The Battle had Only Just Begun
The recent long stretch of relatively good weather has allowed for outstanding progress on K2 thus far. However, that weather window is about to close, which means things are about to get a lot more challenging. When conditions are terrible—often on K2 in winter—there is little more to do than sit in your tent in BC and wait for conditions to improve. That can take days or even weeks sometimes, sapping both physical and mental strength along the way.
January and February are long, cold months on the mountain. There will likely be many days when the teams won’t even attempt to go any higher than Camp 1. It is during those stretches that patience and the ability to embrace suffering will come in handy. Those who can’t endure those difficult times will have a tough time waiting for things to get better.
That said, all it takes is one good weather window to make history. The strong climbers on K2 are capable of making a rapid ascent of the peak given a proper opening. That is no doubt what they are hoping will eventually happen. For now, though, they do their best to train, prepare, and acclimatize. It may seem like a lot of progress has already been made, but K2 in winter is the epitome of a marathon, not a sprint.
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