K2: Is The Style Debate Unfair?

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.