Top 10 Expeditions of 2021: #2: The First Winter Ascent of K2

Over the last 12 months, ExplorersWeb has documented incredible adventures in climbing, cycling, running, walking, skiing, and anything involving force of will and dedication to a dream in the outdoors. As this year comes to a close, we present our countdown of the Top 10 Expeditions of 2021.

On the evening of January 16, 2021, as the sun set behind the Karakoram, 10 Nepali climbers stepped onto the summit of K2. With their summit, they made mountaineering history.

The Savage Mountain had finally been climbed in winter. A race that had started with the Polish “lords of winter” finished nearly 40 years later.

Nine out of 10 summiters were Sherpa (and the tenth, a Magar), the traditionally anonymous workers who form the backbone of the big commercial expeditions. That a Sherpa team took the prize added a feeling of historical justice to the event.

The summiters. Photo: Seven Summit Treks

 

The summiters were: Mingma Gyalgie Sherpa, Dawa Tenzing Sherpa, and Kilu Sherpa of Rolwaling, Nirmal Purja of Gandaky, Mingma Gyabu “David” Sherpa of Taplejung, Dawa Temba Sherpa and Sona Sherpa of Makalu, Pemchhiri Sherpa of Dolakha, and Gelje Sherpa and Mingma Tenzi Sherpa of Solukhumbu.

When they first set foot on the Baltoro Glacier only three weeks earlier, the 10 were not a single unit but part of three separate teams, with different plans but the same goal.

Mingma G at K2 Base Camp. Photo: Mingma G

Three teams, one goal

For Mingma G, Dawa Tensing, and Kilu Sherpa, it was their second attempt on Winter K2 after a failed commercial venture in 2019. Their previous expedition didn’t get much further than Camp 2. It ended with accusations from the two western members, John Snorri of Iceland and Tomaz Rotar of Slovenia, that Mingma G had ended the expedition for no good reason.

“This time, I will go without clients. It’s a burden and too much responsibility,” Mingma G said before leaving for Pakistan in the fall of 2020.

Sona Sherpa was the first to share a Winter K2 summit picture. Photo: 7ST

 

Sona Sherpa was working for Seven Summit Treks, by far the biggest team on the mountain. The company’s CEO, Chhang Dawa, had shocked the climbing community by announcing that he was willing to organize a commercial expedition on this last remaining winter 8,000’er. Only a handful of hard-core Himalayan veterans had attempted this mighty challenge, and winter K2 had repelled all of them.

After the puja ceremony in Base Camp. Photo: Seven Summit Treks

 

Newbies and veterans

The relatively low cost and the promise of glory attracted a number of Dawa’s regular clients. Some had limited 8,000m experience, and none had attempted the Himalaya in winter before. It looked like a recipe for disaster. Sadly, it eventually proved so.

Some other K2 winter hopefuls were quite experienced, such as Sergi Mingote and Juan Pablo Mohr. Both were friends and well into their own no-O2, 14×8,000’er projects.

Nirmal Purja.

 

Nirmal Purja and his five teammates, plus Adrianna Brownlee (a 19-year-old British girl aiming to reach Camp 2 as preparation for Everest the following spring) and photographer Sandro Gromen-Hayes, were included in the Seven Summit Treks permit but had their own agenda. They were the last to reach Pakistan.

John Snorri, Ali Sadpara, and Sajid Sapara. Photos: Elia Saikali

 

The third team on the mountain was the only one with no Nepali members. It was organized by John Snorri and assisted by one of Pakistan’s best climbers, Muhammad Ali Sadpara, the only man in the expedition who had actually summited another winter 8,000’er (Nanga Parbat). The third member of their team was Sadpara’s son, Sajid. Sajid was only 21 but had already summited K2 in summer.

Nirmal Purja during his first rotation. Photo: Nirma Purja/Elite Himalayan Adventures

 

At first, each expedition set its own strategy, although it was clear that they would need to collaborate to fix the ropes up the Abruzzi Spur. Then on December 29, Mingma G was fixing the route to Camp 3 but ran out of rope. Purja and his team reached Mingma with some spare ropes and a proposal.

The two leaders talked in Camp 2 and returned to Base Camp just in time for a well-watered New Year’s Eve party, and a spell of bad weather that lasted seven days.

“On January 13, we started climbing again, and Nims Dai [Nirmal Purja] joined our mission. We eyed a common goal and merged both our teams,” Mingma G told Dreamwanderlust.

At first, things did not look great. The wind blew away tents and gear, and Mingma G feared that his team might not have enough equipment for a summit push.

A Nepali climber at House Chimney. Photo: Mingma G

 

On January 14, a fierce wind battered Snorri and the Sadparas in Camp 2. They stayed put for the night, then retreated the next day. Mingma G pushed for Camp 3 instead and found better conditions there. When Purja heard, he also headed to Camp 3. At some point, Sona Sherpa also joined the group massing at Camp 3.

At this point, the Nepali teams stopped communicating with Base Camp or on social media (as Mingma David told ExplorersWeb in this interview). While most assumed that their immediate plan was to set up Camp 4 and return, they were actually preparing to go for the summit. They planned to go all the way from Camp 3, with no ropes other than the ones left from previous expeditions and those they would be able to fix along the way.

K2 at 7,000m, where JP Mohr and Sergi Mingote set their “lower” Camp 3.

 

Also at Camp 3, slightly lower down, were no-O2 climbers Juan Pablo Mohr and Sergi Mingote. Mingote was the first to suggest the Nepalis “might try it” in a report. He also spoke of “the two Nepali teams on O2,” which brought some controversy afterward.

Mingote also mentioned that Sajid Sadpara had reached 7,000m carrying gear but that Snorri had retreated from the Black Pyramid. For Mingote and Mohr, a summit push was not an option before completing their acclimatization. Sadly, Mingote, one of the most experienced climbers on the mountain, lost his life in an accident the following day.

The route from Camp 3, the great Serac looming above. Photo: Mingma G

 

Meanwhile, the Nepali team set off from Camp 3. Mingma G went ahead to fix the route to Camp 4. At first, following the summer route was easy, but eventually, the three Sherpa climbers found an unpassable crevasse. The crevasse forced them to look for an alternative route. They retreated to close to Camp 3 and “moved more on the left through the Cesen route and finally managed to reach Camp 4.”

Mingma had wanted to summit without oxygen but eventually decided to use it because he was tired and very cold when they reached Camp 4. He also needed some rest. When Nirmal Purja arrived, Mingma considered turning around, but Purja encouraged him to continue. He left one hour later than the others and caught up with the team fixing ropes at the Bottleneck.

 

There are few details or pictures from the summit climb. Mingma G said that Mingma Tenzi fixed the last sections to the top, while he and Mingma David belayed him. Mingma G also noted that the final climb was less difficult than in summer because instead of loads of snow, the route was mostly ice.

K2 summit climbers, as seen through a camera at Base Camp. Photo: Chhang Dawa Sherpa

 

Meanwhile, climbers in Base Camp (and audiences glued to social media) could only rely on short posts from Seven Summit Treks’ leader Chhang Dawa. There were some hours of concern when, after a report that the team was close to the summit, hours passed without news. Eventually, word of their summit came through very late in the afternoon.

Twenty-four hours later, Dawa posted a summit picture from Sona Sherpa. He and Gelje Sherpa, with frostnipped faces, had come all the way down from the summit to BC non-stop! Other climbers rested briefly in Camp 2. The following day, the rest of the Nepali team reached Base Camp, triumphant, happy, and safe.

Gelje Sherpa, the youngest in the summit team, said he had been “kissed by K2”. Photo: Gelje SHerpa

 

There was unanimous applause from the climbing community, who waited for pictures, testimonies, and the summit push story. Surprisingly, there was nothing of the kind. Courtesy of the Pakistani authorities, the Nepali team took a helicopter back to Islamabad the next day. Later, back in Nepal, they received the heroes’ welcome that their remarkable feat deserved.

The summiters regarded their achievement as a matter of national pride. “[We paid] tribute to our nation, our national heroes,” Mingma G said.

In Base Camp, the sad loss of Sergi Mingote and the absence of the summit climbers made for a somber mood. Some abandoned the climb right there. The rest continued, hoping for another summit chance that never came. Worst of all, the mountain would take four more lives.

Sergi Mingote, Mohr, and the Sadparas behind. Photo: Sergi Mingote

Summit details

The flow of information was unusual. Two days after leaving Base Camp, Nirmal Purja stated that he had summited without O2. Mingma David said that Purja decided to climb without O2 shortly before the summit push and that they planned to keep it a secret until the release of a documentary about the climb. However, they changed their minds.

Purja’s photographer, Sandro Gromen-Hayes, didn’t join or document the summit climb and Purja never answered ExplorersWeb’s questions about his ascent. While there is no reason to doubt his word, such a remarkable achievement, especially considering that Purja climbed at the same pace as 10 super-strong Sherpa climbers on O2, deserves a more detailed account.

A new tactic?

As expert Dr. Robert Szymczak told ExplorersWeb, it is possible for a climber to keep pace without O2 while the rest use gas, as long as the rest of the team work on his behalf, much like a professional cycling team. Such a strategy, not common in high-altitude mountaineering, would be an interesting new tactic.

Purja’s many fans have aggressively denounced any questions about the lack of transparency. But requests for details are nothing new in mountaineering. Slovenian Tomaz Humar was questioned after Dhaulagiri and Spanish climber Kilian Jornet faced many uncomfortable questions after his Everest ascent. Perhaps Purja is waiting to tell the full story in a future film.

Mingma G was the first to start work on winter K2. On December 22 he, Kilu Sherpa, and Dawa Tensing fixed the way to Camp 2 at a remarkable speed. Photo: Mingma G

 

First account

It was actually Mingma G who first provided a detailed account. In an interview with Dreamwanderlust on January 23, he explained that after their summit, the climbers were conveyed from one place to another, from celebration to celebration. On January 24, all the K2 summiters and Chhang Dawa shared the same summit video on their social media, accompanied by text written by Purja:

Brother to brother, shoulder to shoulder, we walked together to the summit while singing the Nepali national anthem. We all stopped around 10m before reaching the summit to huddle and make our final steps together as a team to mark this historical feat, the first ascent of K2 in winter.
No individual agendas, no individual greed but only solidarity and joint force of Team Nepal with a shared vision. Super proud of all the team members for earning this for Nepal and humanity through hardship, selfless effort, and most importantly UNITY proving that Nothing is Impossible! We are honored to be sharing this moment with communities all across the world.

 

 

Asked by Explorersweb, Mingma G explained who was who in the summit video. He also strongly denied the baseless accusations in Pakistani media suggesting that the Sherpas may have cut the ropes as they retreated.

Mingma Tenzi Sherpa holds Nepal’s flag on the summit of K2 at sunset. Photo: Mingma Tenzi Sherpa

Looking back

One year later, the climbing community remains stunned by the incredible strength of the Sherpa team. The group pushed for the summit from Camp 3 and some made it all the way back to Base Camp the same day. Mingma G’s group had also been fixing ropes from Camp 3 to Camp 4 just hours before. They displayed an iron will, and the impact they have made, not only among the Nepali mountain communities but on mountaineers from around the world, is incredible.

As time has passed, the Sherpa climbers have spoken of their competitive fire, and their determination to ensure an all-Nepali team bagged the first ascent of winter K2. Mountaineering has a long history of nations racing to plant their flags on top of the 8000’ers. More than anyone, the Nepalis deserve their place in history.

K2 at night. Photo: Chhang Dawa Sherpa

 

In the end, the no-O2 aspect of the climb has dimmed in importance. The Nepalis’ unity and incredible strength were the focus of the climb.

The challenge of winter K2 is still there, for those dreaming of a completely no-O2 ascent, or by different routes or in small teams. But Nepal has rightfully claimed the hardest and last of the 8,000m winter firsts for itself.

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!


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Don Paul
Don Paul
4 months ago

What’s going on Nims? Why don’t you want to talk to Explorers Web?

fred west
fred west
4 months ago
Reply to  Don Paul

Maybe he would talk to a different reporter.This reporter has a long history of writing articles about Nims which do not do him justice.

Ash Routen
4 months ago
Reply to  fred west

Nope, he cut the call when being patched through to me by his PR. Definitely the influence of SST. I had previously interviewed him.

Apy
Apy
4 months ago
Reply to  Ash Routen

I think that it’s now mainly the influence of his sponsors who want that his image be only positive. He has become a travelling salesman. Red Bull + vodka see link.
https://instagram.com/stories/rostovtsev_artem/2741667639518260105?utm_source=ig_story_item_share&utm_medium=share_sheet

Updates
Updates
4 months ago
Reply to  Apy

All I saw was a picture, no story. Instagram required my account reveal who say story to look at pic.

I thought Nims was a beer guy…. so this vodka bottle allows him to get paid to endorse a product. Only endorsers in this pic is vodka company and Red Bull.

Updates
Updates
4 months ago
Reply to  Don Paul

He doesn’t even speak to his funders, or internal fundraisers. Just notice all the endorser patches for Project Possible, compared to lack of endorser patches now. Observation will show lots of funders quit. Funders fund for publicity, but, for first chance to get insider details on expeditions they helped pay for. As for K2, one controversy is some reported Nims had oxygen til camp 2. Few made it to camp 3 at the time of summit push, so no outsiders to say if Nims no O2 til C3. It is known Mingma G was no O2 til C3, but decided… Read more »

don't be evil
don't be evil
4 months ago
Reply to  Updates

Like someone mentioned above earlier, Nims most likely does not want to talk to explorersweb due the the reporter’s prejudice towards him. Anyone who have been following this site regularly could easily see her disdain of Nims and her double standards when reporting the achievements of European vs Asian climbers. The no O2 comment just seems ridiculous. If you followed the K2 winter attempt from the beginning, you would know that Mingma G had publicly declared that he would attempt the summit without O2. Also, Mingma G and Nims were operating separately as competitors at the beginning of the expedition… Read more »

Jerry Kobalenko
Admin
4 months ago
Reply to  don't be evil

Fairness and impartiality also imply treating everyone the same even if you admire their accomplishments. That means expecting them to answer the same questions as everyone else with the same clarity, in order to understand their achievements and fit them properly into the history of mountaineering. Try finding an in-depth interview with Nims online. He only takes softball questions. Look at his social media: He is about controlling the message and answering detailed questions from any knowledgeable interviewer is, to him, counterproductive. That has nothing to do with ExplorersWeb, or whether Nims is from Asia, Europe, or the moon. This… Read more »

don't be evil
don't be evil
4 months ago

“Fairness and impartiality also imply treating everyone the same even if you admire their accomplishments.” I agree with this statement and I am not the only one here who feel that reporters at exploersweb are not adhering to your statement. Let me give you a recent example. I have great admiration for the three climbers who summited Annapurna III recently. I also have nothing against about their use of helicopter to both start and end the expedition. I believe they might not have even reached the base camp during the descent when they stepped on the helicopter. None of the… Read more »

Jerry Kobalenko
Admin
4 months ago
Reply to  don't be evil

You’re confusing our Himalayan coverage with how we cover original adventure vs what one might call repetitive adventure. It will be clearer to discuss this in terms of polar expeditions because that does not introduce the red herring of some imaginary bias toward Nims, “Asian” climbers, etc. Although this is changing, most polar travelers are Westerners. The overwhelming number of Antarctic expeditions follow the same few routes. Some are guided, some are not, but the routes are well-trodden. Many participants introduce various wrinkles to make their expeditions stand out – nationality, gender, speed. These are hard treks, and we cover… Read more »

Updates
Updates
4 months ago
Reply to  don't be evil

Reporters prejudice? Geez! Nims had prejudice towards me before any journalist knew his name. Nims started claims to support military, vets, Nepali schools, then mental health. Then even global warming support. But he stopped it all quickly. I never stated Migma G stated falsehoods. You did not read properly. I was stating Nims not honest about details all the way up, and others witnessed it. Observation of before, during, after photos, support the witness statements. I have a law background, worked for some attorneys, so witness statements, with evidence, give compelling testimony. That’s what I’m saying. p.s. Nims has discriminated… Read more »

F v
F v
4 months ago
Reply to  Updates

On later pictures his nose was black and had started to peel off. I believe his no O2 claim but he didn’t “and yet lead” on summit day as he claimed. Ok maybe “leading” like organizing everything but Mingma Tenzi did most of the rope fixing. On the summit video you see Mingma Tenzi literally pulling Nimsdai the last meters to the top. I have my doubts about the claim they didn’t contact BC (especially Dawa from SST) about summit plans 15 or 16. After Nims lost essentiel parts for summit of his gear in C2 he appently borrowed it… Read more »

don't be evil
don't be evil
4 months ago
Reply to  F v

I have seen articles which mentioned that John Hunt “led” the first successful Everest expedition. So I assume, “leading” in mountaineering parlance can refer to managing/organizing.

jams
jams
4 months ago

Don’t get carried away with claiming this is some kind of historic justice for Nepali climbers. Just as western climbers could not have achieved many ascents without Sherpa assistance, these Sherpas could not have climbed K2 without western engineering skills and technology. It’s quid pro quo.

The clothes they wore, the climbing equipment, the internet forecasts, and even the airplanes and helicopters they flew in are ALL from western engineering.

Sid
Sid
4 months ago
Reply to  jams

I don’t normally post on EW but the comment above really got my goat. I’m from India and have grown up hearing things like “well yes the British pillaged your country for 300 years but they did give you Western education and the railways!”. Simply put: using largely unacknowledged, underpaid and underprotected Sherpa assistance has historically been an act of exploitation of an extremely poor community by significantly better-placed people. Modern Nepali climbers using Western gear, training etc is not an act of reverse exploitation, nor does it somehow compensate for historical (and in many ways current) exploitation. There is… Read more »

Jose Belarmino
Jose Belarmino
4 months ago
Reply to  jams

Wow! This is some “reverse colonial mentality” mind trick is it!
Maybe we should start by questioning who invented the wheel or who invented fire first.
lol

Random
Random
4 months ago

Long post but as this is likely to be one of the last posts on this topic, might as well comment something on it. If anything please read it with an open mind. Unfortunately, climbs like these will always be controversial in the eyes of the climbing community. You have the purists on one side arguing that climbing with any form of assistance that is not imperative to achieving a successful ascent is almost pointless/worthless/against the philosophy of mountain climbing, whilst you have the far more relaxed approach where anything goes, any advantage can be utilised no matter how small… Read more »

Random
Random
4 months ago
Reply to  Random

However, even if it is true I will be the first to applaud such a feat, I take issue with Nims’ no O2 ascent. There is no doubt he summited (if you believe the video which has virtually no discrepancies or problems e.g. logically right place, right time of day, right weather, right timing between camps and summit etc), Mingma G in his AAJ article specially mentions that Nims made the ascent to the summit without an oxygen mask and he checked his photos later to confirm that but there are some queries that raise eyebrows and may require some… Read more »

Updates
Updates
4 months ago
Reply to  Random

Worth the read.

Much more analytical thought, packed with historical evidence, historical comparisons.

F v
F v
4 months ago
Reply to  Random

Some sources saying they had or put a tent at c4 were they take a rest. “My body became numb,” Mingma G said from base camp on Monday. “I wanted to abandon the expedition. Others made up their minds to quit too.” Purja urged them all to continue. “We all had that common pride, a common goal,” Purja said. “This was for Nepal.” The men took shelter at Camp IV before dawn to rest and warm up. And when the wind died and the sun finally rose, morale brightened. “We’d gone through the pain barrier, and the sun gave us… Read more »

Random
Random
4 months ago
Reply to  F v

https://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/13201215979 Using the article above its pretty unlikely any of them went from C4. On 15th (day before summit push) Mingma G and other climbers climbed to nearly C4 on Abruzzi, encountered crevasse, went back to just above Camp 3 to join Cesen and got to about C4 before returning to C3. In the article above Mingma G specifically mentions ‘we’ when returning to C3 so that NYT article is probably wrong (either typo or the person writing the article doesn’t know a lot about mountaineering). Schedule was something like this: 16th 1am – 2am roughly climbers leave C3 6am… Read more »