The winter climbing season on K2 has been a roller coaster ride to say the least. A few weeks back we shared the news of the stunning triumph of a team of Nepali missing climbers who achieved the first winter ascent of that mountain. But while those climbers have already headed home and are basking in the glory of their accomplishment, others stayed behind in attempt to follow in their footsteps.
Late last week, a number of climbers made an ill-fated push for the summit which resulted in most turning back at Camp 3. But Icelandic mountaineer John Snorri Sigurjonsson, along with Pakistani legend Muhammad Ali Sadpara, and Chilean alpinist Juan Pablo Mohr Prieto, continued upward in an attempt to dash to the top ahead of the arrival of poor weather. The trio have now not been seen since Friday as the climbing community now fears the worst.
Debacle at Camp 3
After the Nepali team completed the quest for the first winter ascent of K2, it was unclear how many climbers and teams would remain. But several squads, including a large contingent led and organized by Seven Summit Treks stayed on the mountain with the hopes of also reaching the top. Snorri and Sadpara—along with his son Sajid—also stayed and joined forces with Mohr.
Over the past few weeks, all of the climbers in Base Camp continued to acclimatize and watch the weather reports for an opportunity to climb higher on the mountain. Those reports started to look increasingly bad, with typical February storms preparing to bring high winds and heavy snows to the Karakoram. But, the forecasts also indicated that a narrow weather window would open this past Thursday/Friday, potentially granting access to the summit one last time.
With that in mind, a large group of mountaineers set off with high hopes. Those plans were dashed when they reached Camp 3 however and it was determined that there weren’t enough tents for all of the climbers. ExWeb reports that as many as six or eight climbers were crowding into small tents in an effort to seek shelter and stay warm.
As a result, almost no one got any rest, making an already dangerous ascent that much more difficult. This failure of logistics would cause the entire Seven Summits team to head back down to Base Camp the following day.
Snorri, Sadpara, and Mohr Head Up
The original plan was for Snorri, Mohr, and the Sadparas to get some rest in C3 before making a midnight push for the summit. Upon arrival at that point however, they found six climbers seeking shelter in their tents, so they elected to continue on without rest. By that point, they had been climbing all day and expected that it would be another 12+ hours before they reached the summit.
As it turned out, Friday brought perfect weather—at least by winter K2 standards—and climbers in Base Camp could see the team moving up the Bottleneck—a technically difficult and extremely dangerous section of the climb. It was at this point that Sajid Sadpara’s oxygen regulator malfunctioned and he was forced to say goodbye to his father and turn back.
He would eventually make his way back down to Camp 3, where he waited out the night alone. On Saturday, he descended back to BC, where he anxiously awaited word on the status of his teammates.
Unfortunately, news of their status and location never arrived. Sajid was the last person to see the trio of Snorri, Mohr, and his father alive. Now, two days later, their whereabouts remain unknown and the realities of high altitude mountaineer are starting to set in.
As I write this, search and rescue operations are ongoing, but the chances of a happy ending to his ordeal grow dimmer with each passing hour.
Helicopters Search for the Missing Climbers
When word that Snorri, Mohr, and especially Ali Sadpara had gone missing reached Islamabad, the Pakistani government instructed the military to launch a search and rescue operation. Since that time, several helicopter flights have swept the flanks of K2 in an effort to spot the missing men. So far, there has been no trace of their whereabouts nor their fate.
High winds have now descended on the mountain, which is complicating efforts to locate the three men. Pakistani climbers Imtiaz Hussain and Akbar Ali were flown to Camp 1 yesterday and were attempting to go up K2 an an effort to expand the search and assist in a rescue of necessary. There has been no report from them as to their progress so far.
Now that two days have passed without any contact from Snorri and company, the likelihood of their survival is diminishing rapidly. And while they haven’t been officially declared dead yet, anyone who has followed these kinds of situations in the past knows that their is seldom a miracle ending.
That said, mountaineering blogger Alan Arnette has complied a list of remarkable high-altitude bivouacs that do offer some home that the missing climbers may still be alive.
The Savage Mountain Strikes Back
When mountaineers were first attempting to summit K2 back in the early 1950s, they soon dubbed it “the Savage Mountain.” Due to its demanding technical climbing and incredibly fickle weather, the peak proved to be both difficult and deadly. That moniker has stuck over the years, thanks in no small part due to the relatively few numbers of summits versus the high number of fatalities.
This has proven to be the case once again this winter, which has seen some incredible highs and gut-wrenching lows. Yes, the Nepali team managed to make history with their first winter ascent, putting ten climbers on the summit.
It now looks like the final toll will be five dead climbers as well. In addition to Snorri, Mohr, and Sadpara, Spanish alpinist Sergi Mingote fell to his death while climbing near Camp 1 back in January. A few days back Bulgarian climber Atanas Skatov also fell while taking part in the late summit push, adding yet another tragic element to the season.
At the start of the winter climbing season, we shared our fears that this could be a disaster waiting to happen. At the time, it felt like there were far too many people on the mountain, which is incredibly dangerous under the best of conditions, let alone the unforgiving winter.
The lack of tents at Camp 3 during this final summit push only serves to highlight the things that we feared the most. Unfortunately, there were more fatalities as result of this situation and hopefully attempts to commercialize winter K2 expeditions will be significantly scaled back in the future.
That is a discussion for the weeks to come however. For now, it is time to pause, reflect, and mourn those who lost their lives on K2 this winter. We should obviously salute the team that successfully conquered the “last great mountaineering challenge” but lets not forget those who perished there as well. It has been a bittersweet season to say the least.