K2: Is The Style Debate Unfair?

Some purists have likened the use of oxygen by high-altitude climbers to blood doping. Photo: Scintica.com

Before last weekend’s first winter ascent of K2, some of the finest exponents of high altitude climbing, such as Simone Moro and Denis Urubko, gently suggested that they would like to see the climb completed without supplementary oxygen. The Polish big mountain hotshot Adam Bielecki was more outspoken when he suggested  that “oxygen climbing the 8,000’ers is like doing the Tour de France on an electric bike.”

Shortly after the successful summit news broke, Bielecki congratulated the 10-man Nepali team on social media before once again raising the oxygen debate: “It was known that K2 can be entered with oxygen in winter. For me, the real question is: Can, When, and Who will be able to climb this summit without doping?”

Later that day, Bielecki gave a wide-ranging interview for the Polish media where he praised the Nepali team and the importance of the ascent for the Nepali climbing community. But when pressed, the Pole stuck to his guns and reiterated that style matters and that he still entertains ideas of going to K2 in winter, without oxygen: “I think this hype is going to subside a bit. For sure…I am still thinking about K2 and this entry does not change my thinking much.”

Adam Bielecki has continued the tradition of Polish success at high altitude. Photo: Agencja Gazeta

Bielecki would see his own or other teams’ no-O2 winter attempts as an ongoing process of improvement in style: “Just as my winter entries can be stylishly improved, the Nepali entry can also be stylishly improved.” This fits the natural course of events on most 8,000’ers, where first ascents using oxygen and fixed ropes later developed into oxygen-less and/or alpine-style ascents.

Simone Moro bluntly laid the gauntlet down yesterday for the behind-the-keyboard purists: “You can always evolve and there’s always room for better styles and ethics. Mountaineering stays alive as long as there are those who want it to evolve and those who now don’t appreciate the style of this winter could be potential innovators after leaving the computer keyboard.”

Nirmal Purja might quell the oxygen debate a little after he confirmed that he summited without oxygen, albeit with the psychological support of oxygen-carrying teammates.

Nirmal Purja without oxygen on the summit of K2. Photo: Nirmal Purja

This tired debate around the use of oxygen on the 8,000’ers is, of course, not new. It was first raised during the Everest expeditions of the 1920s. Perhaps the more pertinent style debate concerns the use of fixed ropes and a large team of climbers laying siege to the mountain.

As impressive as it was, considering the altitude and the punishing cold, this winter ascent of K2 was largely a physical exercise in jumaring and pulling on fixed gear. Although fixing ropes, the lead climbers will have had in-situ ladders and other remnants of fixed gear from past expeditions to pull on for the more technical sections such as House’s Chimney. And the various teams on the mountain worked at rope-fixing the entire lower route over the past month.

Fixed ladders and ropes on House’s Chimney.

But even this is being picky. With the first ascent of Winter K2 coming via a route that was opened over half a century ago, and with many of the summiters using oxygen, comparing it critically to pure alpinism is unfair. Fixed ropes and oxygen were good enough for the first ascents of most of the 8000’ers (summer and winter), and this is still by and large how most 8,000m ascents are made. This climb was never intended to be a Piolet d’Or contender. It was peak bagging and record collecting, a different genre of mountaineering to alpinism, and a valid pursuit in its own right.

Nil Bohigas on the sharp end of an alpine-style ascent of Annapurna’s south face in 1984. A world of difference compared to jumaring up fixed ropes. Photo: American Alpine Journal

There are few rounded, world-class alpinists among the 60-odd people currently at Base Camp. No David Lamas or Jean-Christophe Lafailles. Not the type of climber who can clip bolts on Grade 8a in Spain in the summer, romp up WI6 ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies, or put up heinously hard mixed routes in the Alps, then bring all that skill to bear in the Greater Ranges. Not the type of romantic purist who lives to scour Google Earth to find a sweeping unclimbed face on a 5,000m peak in a remote corner of China. Rather, they are the type of adventurer who wants to bag a first. Now that the first prize, that “last great impossible first”, has gone, would it be remiss to wonder how much the motivation to summit has now declined for many at Base Camp?

Would an all-round adventure athlete like Colin O’Brady be on K2 if not for the dangling carrot of an attention-grabbing first? Photo: Colin O’Brady

Without its occurrence in winter, and by an all-Nepali team, there was nothing particularly interesting about last weekend’s ascent. The point was simply to get their first. Oxygen or not. Fixed ropes or not. Suggesting otherwise is an irrelevant point.

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About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer from the UK. He juggles a day job as a public health scientist with a second career in outdoor writing.

His words have featured in newspapers, magazines, and on various brand websites. Major bylines include Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Porsche, Outside Magazine, Rock and Ice, and Red Bull.

He holds two degrees in Exercise and Health Sciences, and a PhD in Public Health.

His areas of expertise are polar expeditions, mountaineering, hiking, and adventure travel. In his spare time Ash enjoys going on small independent sledding expeditions, outdoor photography, and reading adventure literature.

Read more at www.ashrouten.com or read Ash's bi-monthly newsletter via https://hardtravel.substack.com

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Sid
Sid
6 months ago

Bielecki needs to read up on the 1980 Everest winter expedition. A groundbreaking climb…with O2…by the Polish. Style improves in small increments. This K2 winter summit is a huge improvement on past K2 winter climbs, of which Bielecki was a part of, and from what I remember, he didn’t even get close.

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Craig Quigley
Craig Quigley
6 months ago
Reply to  Sid

Do you mean the one where he sacrificed his chances on k2 to aid a rescue attempt on Nanga, which saved the life of Elisabeth Revol? These petty arguments are becoming boring now, nothing he or Moro has said is out of order, and they’ve been both honest, and offered praise in their assessment of the climb.

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Pete
Pete
6 months ago

These guys have shown us what can be done. Those saying but it was with O2 nearby or with fixed ropes should first repeat this feat (show us how easy it is) and then take it up a notch (no O2 near the mountain, no team to fix ropes etc.). The challenge is there as someone else already said…
Congrats to all these guys as well as to those that helped make this possible (e.g. John Snorri and his team who arrived early and fixed the lower routes to make possible catching this small weather window)!

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Adam Jin
Adam Jin
6 months ago

Bielecki is clutching at the phrase those grapes are sour. Howcome he has not managed to climb K2 till now in winter.

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greg
greg
6 months ago

Excellent acticle. I like to see it also along the lines of sport/art. Urubko is often heard saying that alpinism is a form of art. Nims in that respect is a the opposite of the spectrum, he gets the job done as if he was in a mission. As guides, the climbers of Seven Trek, prioritize the succes and the safety of the team and i’m glad they do. Nims has many times criticize the demonization of the use of 02 saying that if that can help with the safety of his team, he would see no reason not to… Read more »

TMartin
TMartin
6 months ago

The north face of Denali, the Wickersham Wall, hasn’t been climbed in winter.

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Paul
Paul
6 months ago
Reply to  TMartin

Hasn’t been climbed again at all by Harvard route
Avalanche danger is overwhelming

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Georgina
Georgina
6 months ago

I wonder if it was a team of Westerners that made it up fully sponsored if this level of critique would have been applied. What was accomplished last weekend was extraordinary. It also means so much to the people of Nepal that have helped endless explorers accomplish their dreams. For other climbers to say how something should be done, considering they have not been able to do it themselves is egotistical and poor form.

SO happy for the entire team and much respect to Nims for making it up without 02. A remarkable feat for all.

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Scott
Scott
6 months ago
Reply to  Georgina

If I was to hazard a guess I would think that if it had been Westerners that had done the exact same ascent that the criticism would be much more harsh. Most alpinist hold the Nepali people in reverence and are very psyched that they were able to attain this much sought after first. In my 30+ years of climbing I have never seen climbers hold back any criticism of other climbers when it comes to a debate on style. Style and ethics debates bring out the worst (and occasionally the best) in all of us. But of course it… Read more »

Paul
Paul
6 months ago
Reply to  Scott

I totally agreeK2 winter was always sought by the elite no O2 climbers
It was the Poles ice warriors holy grail
Nims no O2 ascent has taken that away from the western elite and there is a sort of anticlimax feeling
The criticism would have been worse if a similar mainly O2 team had been all Westerners or Japanese
Now the next grail is true alpine preferably by unusual route

You can see this starting with the idea of Everest winter solo by West ridge

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Navyo Eller
Navyo Eller
6 months ago
Reply to  Georgina

Well, living in Nepal some 30 years by now, i wonder how it can be said that this climb means al lot to the Nepalese people. Not seeing this happen right now. This is a rather western whish thinking than reality. More than one article very few media has published. Barely any Nepalese knows about climbers, except those in the business line. When they return to Kathmandu, there will be some noise, but just for nationalist feelings, then quick all forgotten. Alpinism is not much followed, very few Nepalis know Messner…

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Patrick Schofield
Patrick Schofield
6 months ago
Reply to  Georgina

Spot on georgina. As much as I have admiration for purists and am one myself and allthough I haven’t been to the greater ranges these comments don’t need to be made by alpinists. Just let it be and admire it. It’s a first of one of the last great himalayan feats that has been lingering for years. I wasn’t sure it was going to be completed in my lifetime….But for me what makes it so special is the Nepalese get this, their first winter summit and one of the hardest.After years of helping westerners and the imperialists realise their dreams… Read more »

Alan Arnette
6 months ago

Nice piece Ash, totally agree the Os discussion a sideshow. Note, the ” in-situ ladders and other remnants of fixed gear from past expeditions to pull on for the more technical sections such as House’s Chimney.” are placebos at best. They are rotten, unstable and dangerous. They serve no aid whatsoever. The crack is narrow enough to stem up without using any aid.

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ronald
ronald
6 months ago
Reply to  Alan Arnette

You as a climber and with your own website on mountaineering, know a lot about this. Having climbed K2 on your own i take your words more for granted than most. I dont like the debate at all since almost all the 8000rs have been climbed a lot and all have “normal” routes. Meaning there are probably old lines etc. When you look at it that way, almost no one can bag something new. Or you have to do something really different, like last winter on Everest (West by Jost).Mingma G said that Nirmal urged the others on the final… Read more »

GDS
GDS
6 months ago

Nims announced he didn’t use supplemental O2 on K2 this winter 🤙🤙🤙
So to those who criticised a bit too quick… just let it sink in.

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Tolga
Tolga
6 months ago

In situ ladders and the other things like fixed ropes have always beenmthere for many years, this article is totally a shame which is trying to underestimate the success of sherpa people. İtnis also a shame for adam and Simone who tried their chances before and not succed. Lot of congrats to nims and his unbeliavable team.they’ve write the history, whatever the others says are garbage

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Damien François
Damien François
6 months ago

In this case, the debate has been very biased from the begining, for sure! Dheira dheira ramro job Nims and team, Nepal is so duly proud of you now! Geljen, so happy for you, mero sathi! And for amateurs like myself, the debate is unfait in general terms because for us (amateurs) it still is a tremendous achievement to climb an 8.000 m peak. We don’t write History, but we write on our own history. When an amateur climber, fit and experienced enough (granted, I have seen many who were not on Everest), takes O2 and gets help from “Sherpas”… Read more »

Paul
Paul
6 months ago

K2 winter marks the end of a long history. Many don’t fully appreciate that k2 also was the closest of all 8000 meter peaks to being climbed, first—arguably even more than Everest 1924 Weissner almost climbed K2 in 1939. He did this without O2 and in style that was so ahead of its time it has never been repeated. He climbed the cliffs instead of the bottleneck and traverse—and was just hours away from the summit in perfect conditions when the Sherpa he was with refused to climb at night for reasons of demons So in yet another way this… Read more »

Ande Rychter
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul

Winter K2 is not done yet!

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Alex Hibbert
6 months ago

I’m no mountaineer, so I’ll put it in terms I understand. 1. We first have to decide whether we care about whether someone can do something difficult in a dangerous place. Many armchair critics would, oddly, actually say they don’t. 2. If I were to ski 1000 miles over an ice sheet, something which is difficult, it would be easier if I were to have an enhanced red cell count, a kite, or another method of performance enhancement. Not easy. Easier. 3. If someone were to skidoo alongside me with spare equipment, spare food, and the pills/cylinders/kites from 2. then… Read more »

Shant
Shant
6 months ago

With/ without O2 is understandable, but with/without rope what does that mean, is he gonna fly up or just run up the mountain. When you are climbing on other people’s set up, then you are being baby-sitted.
Also Sherpas, born and breed in mountain shadows have exceptional physique in mountainous terrain than other existing human, which science has proved repeatedly, so ,why such fuss, writer?

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drewbach
drewbach
6 months ago
Reply to  Shant

Nims who did it without O2 is not Sherpa.

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Nat
Nat
6 months ago

Bileczky congratulated and mocked them for the O2 in the same tweet on the weekend. They had a pretty hard go at them actually. It was uncalled for. As a fellow mountaineer he should of just leave it at the congratulation part. Both him and Simone just as Dennis are great achievers ,and yes Adam saved Revole but they failed on the task of K2. So I call him bitter. It’s an ego game between mountaineers , which is fair enough. But then show the world how it’s should of been done in his opinion. Cause of a different style… Read more »

greg
greg
6 months ago
Reply to  Nat

Well maybe, like you said, it wasn’t the moment to have the debate and he should have abstain from commenting (like Urubko is doing), but to be fair to Bielcki he’s always been pretty vocal at condemning the use of O2.

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Hassan
Hassan
6 months ago

It is absurd that these questions have all come up when a an all Nepali team climbed. Why didn’t these questions come before ? The entire world knows that well renowned climbers have been using sherpas to fix all the ropes during their expeditions and pretty much taking a lift to the top ?
We owe respect and need to congratulate them on their achievement.

Btw Nirma didn’t use O2 at all.

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OxBreath
OxBreath
6 months ago

All these climbers who yap on about oxygen are a bunch of panties who have no tolerance for others. Who gives a shit man, so some people use oxygen, some don’t, calling it doping shows that such an idiot has totally forgotten about what his lungs need to survive. When you’re in a car accident next, your lung has collapsed, and you need oxygen to support your laboured breathing, I’m going to magically appear and tell the medic to not feed you oxygen because it’s doping. What a stupid fckng argument. Grow up, all of you, that includes you Denis… Read more »

Don Paul
Don Paul
6 months ago
Reply to  OxBreath

I agree, it’s a sick death cult mentality. There are plenty of ways to make climbing more challenging without the degree of brain damage caused by this.

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Uttam
Uttam
6 months ago

the dogs keep barking but the caravan moves on, as a Chinese saying goes. congrats to the Nepali team for the first winter ascent of K2 in their own style (with more collaboration and more team equity in terms of sharing of credit) and to Nimsdai for doing it without supplemental oxygen! they make the alpine style climbers who repeatedly decry the use of oxygen look like a bunch of selfish (even ‘toxic’) mountaineers, in comparison. the debate on the use of oxygen has indeed become toxic lately. i have no patience with the idiots who say the use of… Read more »

Sasa
Sasa
6 months ago

What Nepal climbers did was great job, but now we would like to see winter climb on north face of K2 or on magic line,no o2 of course! I believe in Polish strike team!

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Don Paul
Don Paul
6 months ago

Jumaring and pulling on fixed gear, exactly. Right near there is the Trango Tower, Shipton Spire etc. Hard and very technical climbing, in a community that would not approve of fixing the entire route from the base to the top. Only people who are already brain damaged climb at those altitudes without supplemental O2.

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Louis-Philippe Loncke
6 months ago

Answer to the last question: No.

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Patrick Schofield
Patrick Schofield
6 months ago

Is it not worth mentioning that nims has been mountaineering for only 8 years and is not a climber/alpinist. The competition element on himalayan beasts in winter is stupid and highly dangerous and in anycase nims went up using no 02….too much too soon for the egotistical and jealous climbers to take. Namaste

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