Karakorum Recap: The 8,000’ers

8000ers K2
No-O2 climber Adrian Ballinger atop K2. Photo: Esteban Mena

The climbing season in Pakistan evolved from rather low expectations to feverish excitement on Nanga Parbat, K2 and the Gasherbrums. All Pakistan’s 8,000m peaks saw human footprints on their summits. Highlights included one new route, two leading characters, rescues and highly technical lines on 6000’ers and 7000’ers. Last but not least, no casualties. Let’s review the factors that defined this exemplary season.

Perfect conditions on Broad Peak. Photo: Furtenbach Adventures

Weather

The beginning looked far from promising, with deep snow and bitter cold delaying teams on the Baltoro Glacier. But conditions then improved into a hard-to-believe spell of sunny, windless days, offering extraordinarily long summit windows. Occasionally, the weather was so good that it thwarted climbers: Soft, unstable snow above 8,000m triggered avalanches and aborted the first attempt on K2. It also kept all but one of the last Gasherbrum II climbers at bay. Only Denis Urubko, who set off alone on his new Honey Moon line, climbed despite the avalanches which roared down the peak’s normal route.

Ho hum, another sunny day at Gasherbrum Base Camp. Photo: Denis Urubko

The positive side of failure on K2’s first summit attempt was that the crowds abandoned the mountain, leaving a mostly empty Base Camp and no congestion during the ultimately successful second push the following week. The only issues on the upper slopes were the usual ones posed by the Bottleneck and the traverse of the menacing ice cliff directly above.

No joking with K2’s Bottleneck. Photo: Esteban Mena

Cooperation & Leadership

This took two different forms on two different mountains. On Nanga Parbat, traditionally the first-climbed of Pakistan’s giants, the few expeditions on its slopes joined forces on a collective summit bid. This proved the key to an amazing 100 percent success rate on July 3.

After the sad image of Everest queues (arguably leading to some deaths), the countervailing scene of a small group of international climbers plunging through deep snow together with local porters and Sherpa guides gave a much brighter impression of high-altitude mountaineering.

This international team had a clear captain: Nirmal Purja, who rocketed to prominence this past spring by chain-climbing six 8000’ers and targeting the other eight for the remainder of the year.

During this Pakistan phase, his social media presence swerved suddenly from ubiquitous to nearly absent. At times, he suggested that he had to postpone his challenge because of lack of funds. In the end, Purja and the Sherpas from his  outfitting company, Elite Himalayan Adventures, quietly appeared at Nanga Parbat’s Base Camp just in time to lead the front line to the summit. He then repeated the feat on all the Pakistan 8000’ers, one after the other.

Nirmal Purja, determined both to remember the 8000’ers and to put them behind him.

Purja’s achievement has created an intense and enriching debate in the mountaineering community. While some have criticized his peakbagging and his style, no one doubts his physical and mental strength. After Nanga, for example, he summited both Gasherbrums in two days and then arrived on K2 at precisely the moment most teams were abandoning the mountain because of avalanche danger.  It seemed almost certain that no one would top out this year.

In fact, Purja did something more than push for the top. With his total focus and bulletproof attitude, he swept all the men and women remaining on K2 with him toward the summit. After years of citing Ernest Shackleton as a paradigm, the leadership schools may have found a new role model.

Nirmal Purja on top. Photo: Project Possible

The Key to K2

It’s said that fortune smiles on the bold. Purja knew that he would not be able to get safely through the Bottleneck and the traverse if conditions were as bad as they had been the previous week. In fact, he later revealed that he was ready to launch two or even three attempts, if necessary. But the night before the summit push, temperatures dropped and the wind picked up, creating a nasty ascent but greatly improving the conditions on K2’s slopes.

As on Nanga Parbat, almost everyone reached the summit of K2. Seven people did so without supplementary O2, including two women: Carla Perez and Anja Blancha. But no one stepped on the highest point of the mountain before Nirmal Purja. It earned him unanimous applause, from the armchair chatterers to Reinhold Messner.

The No-O2 climbers — and Denis Urubko

Messner, in fact, suggests that the next challenge is to do all the 8,000’ers in a year without bottled oxygen.

Is this even possible? Sergi Mingote, pursuing his own record, summited six 8000’ers between July 2018 and July 2019. It took him exactly a year and two days, and he didn’t use bottled O2 on any of them. In addition, Mingote relied on rather austere logistics and minimal gear, and preferred to join forces serendipidously with others on the mountain.

In fact, Mingote climbed at the same time as Purja on Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum II. So a new game has opened for those ready to test their physical stamina and mental strength.

The rescuers: Denis Urubko (left) and Sergi Mingote. Photo: Sergi Mingote

And then there’s Denis Urubko. If we cited just the numbers, his last month in Pakistan has featured three rescues, two summits of Gasherbrum II, including a new route alpine style and an arguably solo ascent (he joined a group up to Camp 1). By these criteria, the man is the Boss.

He had hoped to summit GII with María “Pipi” Cardell, his Spanish partner, but a back injury laid her low. Still, she refused to be evacuated and waited instead for Urubko until “he climbed our dream route for us both.” He duly went up, summited and returned with a brand new line dubbed Honey Moon. So, well, vivan los novios, as we say in Spanish — long live the newlyweds.

A happy man, Urubko reached Skardu yesterday. Photo: Denis Urubko/Mountain.ru

Finally, a nod to the skiers. Although nobody completed a descent, Cala Cimenti, Vitaly Lazo and Anton Pugovkin skied a good part of Nanga Parbat, and Matthew James attempted Gasherbrum II. Cimenti also skied down most of Gasherbrum VII after bagging its first ascent. Unfortunately, his descent devolved into a rescue of his seriously injured mate, Francesco Cassardo. It was close to a miracle – with Angels Denis Urubko and Don Bowie included – that Cassardo survived. He is currently recovering in hospital, thus confirming perhaps the most amazing fact of the now-closing season: No climber died in a mountain accident.

True mountain heroes: Left to right, Don Bowie, Marco Confortola, Cala Cimenti and Denis Urubko. Jarek Zdanowicz and Janusz Adamski also pitched in. Photo: Cala Cimenti

Edited 8/22: A previous version of this article questioned if Anja Blancha used O2 on her climb. Anja subsequently contacted us to confirm that she did not and we have updated this article accordingly.

Related stories:

Karakorum: GI, GII Successes

K2 Summit Tally Spikes From Zero to 24

Sure Enough, Crowds of Rookies on K2

About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Sport journalist, published author and communication consultant. Feeling back home at ExplorersWeb after five years exploring distant professional ranges.

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6 Comments on "Karakorum Recap: The 8,000’ers"

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Delwyne Trefz
Guest

Great wrap-up of the phenomenal season in the Karakorum! Thanks AB:)

Bulgakov
Guest
Congratulations to each and every climber who summited, and Hail to the Mountain Kings listed. To Nirmal who “swept” other climbers up the mountain with him, and Sergi who “serendipidously” joined a group to base 1. I don’t think a serendipitous marrying of climbers to base 1, should detract from his effort. Finally, who’s hand is that on Urubko’s upper arm and shoulder? Don Bowie is the only possibility, but it appears to be a right hand, and the reach too long to be anatomically possible. I must be missing something obvious, like The Hand of God or something. Outstanding… Read more »
Andrew Forster
Guest

That’s Urubko’s right hand. He doesn’t have his arm over Cimenti’s shoulder and is instead gesturing toward the camera.

Bulgakov
Guest

Thanks for the clarification Andrew. Sometimes the juxtaposition of stuff, lack of scale markers, and same colors stump me in some of these great photos.

Doctor E
Guest

This motivates me to climb K2 next year. I climbed my first 8000er this year and I only started mountaineering 1 year ago…I hope Seven Summit Treks can return to K2 as I would prefer them to guide K2 again 🙂

Andrew Forster
Guest

Good luck and enjoy being the mountaineering equivalent of that guy holding his phone up for the entire concert.