Winter K2 Wraps Up With Many Unanswered Questions

The recent winter expedition to K2 writes a new chapter in mountaineering history. Finally, a climbing team stepped on its summit in the dead of winter. But that was not the only first achieved. We witnessed unprecedented numbers of people on the mountain, many of whom had not even previously considered tackling this ultimate challenge. For some, it was a commercial opportunity. Others pursued a summit strategy which culminated in three teams merging into one on behalf of national achievement. Their summit push was flawless and 100% successful. But the season also featured a disastrous second bid, which ended with several people injured, others traumatized by the experience, and worst of all, four lives lost to the mountain.

 

From my point of view as a journalist, the expedition was not easy to cover. From the first, some participants rationed the information that they were willing to share, avoided direct questions, and referred only to their social media, where posts had more to do with PR and selfies than with simple, factual accounts of the events as they unfolded.

Mingma David Sherpa deals with a steep section.

 

From the glorious summit day on January 16 and the incomplete details that followed to the nightmarish hours following the night of February 4, we all wanted to know what was going on up there. Even now, we continue to have as many questions as answers.

A well-deserved summit — but why no details?

The lack of information or pictures produced not only anticipation but also some suspicion, warranted or not. It had never happened before that a climber waited 48 hours after returning to Base Camp to make the grand “reveal” that he had used no oxygen. Nirmal Purja’s summit video and official statement on social media, only released four days afterward, declared, “Brother to brother, shoulder to shoulder, we walked together to the summit whilst singing the Nepali national anthem.” It included a message of unity about making the impossible possible and ended with a warning about climate change. But there were no actual climbing details.

Nirmal Purja and Mingma G celebrate back in Nepal. Photo: Nepali Times

 

The discussion about style figures in all significant activities in the high mountains, but everyone, regardless of their style preferences, hailed the achievement. New summit videos, like this one by Mingma G’s group, continue to appear.

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

 

Unfortunately, the death of Sergi Mingote threw a shadow on that otherwise great day. Mingote had just completed an acclimatization round to Camp 3 and fell to his death on his way back to Base Camp.

Climbers too eager for a new summit chance?

After returning from the summit, all the participants left Base Camp (except for Sona Sherpa, perhaps continuing to work for SST). The remaining climbers patiently sat out a long spell of bad weather. In particular, John Snorri and the Sadparas surely regretted the missed opportunity. They had been the first to reach Base Camp, and had seen a large, well-coordinated team hurry past them to the top.

By the beginning of February, a new window opened, but just a slit. If there were to be a summit, it would have to be fast. No one was sure about conditions on the route, especially the ropes, after days of violent wind. But the climbers were understandably tired of hanging around the cold Base Camp, dealing with stomach bugs, and fighting those inner voices telling them to run for their lives. So they all jumped at this last, now-or-never chance.

Juan Pablo Mohr. Photo: Oswald Rodrigo Pereira

 

“Today, a team of eight Sherpas went up from Base Camp,” SST leader Chhang Dawa Sherpa reported on February 1. “The team will recheck all the equipment left in higher camps, repair the fixed rope, and deposit oxygen bottles as well; many parts of the route might have been damaged from the [two weeks of] harsh weather.”

The summit strategy depended on each climber’s pace. Many progressed one camp a day. Others delayed their departure and hurried upward, skipping one camp. All were to gather in Camp 3 on February 4 for a last short rest before heading for the summit on February 5. Everyone had to be back down by the afternoon of February 6, when winds were expected to pick up violently.

Elia Saikaly at work in Base Camp. Photo from Saikaly’s IG

 

What Happened at Camp 3?

The going from Camp 2 was tough. As Colin O’Brady reported, some ropes were buried in snow, which forced climbers to proceed unroped for a while. As the team members reached “higher” Camp 3 at 7,300m, some of them after nightfall, they discovered to their dismay that there were no tents. “We had been told that there were three [buried?] tents and stakes, and we needed to find them, but we never found a tent,” said Antonio Sykaris.

The only confirmed tents at Camp 3 that night were those carried by three climbers: Sajid Sadpara (to share with his father and john Snorri), Tamara Lunger (with JP Mohr), and Colin O’Brady, who was among the first to get there. A video by Noel Hanna also shows a fourth tent, but there were over 20 climbers around C3 at the time.

With temperatures dropping to -40ÂșC and some climbers already suffering from frostbite, everyone crammed into two- or three-person tents, unable to lie down, melt water, or rest. Reports indicated seven or eight people in each tent.

It is not known where the other tents were, or how the lead Sherpa team tried to deal with the issue. Elia Saikaly, who has supposed to follow and film Snorri’s team as high as possible, said that the oxygen he had purchased was not where it was supposed to be, forcing him and Pasang Kanji Sherpa to stop at lower Camp 3, thus “saving our lives,” Saikaly believes.

 

In the early morning of February 5, John Snorri, Muhammad Ali Sadpara, Sajid Sadpara, and Juan Pablo Mohr headed up toward the summit. Some other climbers apparently followed them for a while, but turned around before 8,000m, at a large crevasse disrupting the way to the Bottleneck. Precisely at that spot (at about 8,200m) at 10 am, Sajid Sadpara’s oxygen system malfunctioned. Apparently, on the advice of his father, he decided to retreat and wait for the others at Camp 3. But they never returned.

Antonios Sykaris, exhausted and frostbitten, arrives back in Base Camp. Photo: Antonios Sykaris

 

How did Atanas Skatov fall?

Meanwhile, for whatever reason, the rest of the SST climbers called off their attempt began to head back down to Base Camp. Atanas Skatov of Bulgaria walked down at a good pace and without the help of an ice ax, behind his companion, Lakpa Dendi Sherpa. According to Sykaris, Dendi Sherpa and Elia Saikaly were just below Skatov and Lakpa. While down-climbing or rappeling a steep section, Skatov fell. Dendi Sherpa was filming the scenery at the time. When he turned to film Skatov, he was not there anymore.

“All of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, he fell down and disappeared,” Lakpa Dendi recalled, in shock. Skatov flew past Saikaly during his fall and did not stop until nearly Advanced Base Camp.

At the time, the first explanation was that a rope had snapped. Sykaris suggested that the ropes were buried at that section. Lakpa Dendi says he saw Skatov clipping his carabiners from one rope to another, but he didn’t see how Skatov fell.

Dawa Sherpa later said that Skatov made a mistake while changing from one safety rope to the next. Elia Saikaly recalls that the tangle of old ropes on much of the route made it sometimes hard to tell which was the right one to use. In the end, no one saw exactly how Skatov lost his footing, but the fact is that he fell to his death on a supposedly fixed route to Base Camp, where his fiancee waited.

John Snorri, Ali Sadpara, and Atanas Skatov.

 

What happened to the three missing climbers?

As the hours and then days passed without news from John Snorri, Ali Sadpara, and Juan Pablo Mohr, the internet filled with rumors, fake news, and several accounts impersonating the climbers, in particular Muhammad Ali Sadpara. Sadpara was probably the best climber on the mountain but also a genuinely kind man who had made friends on every expedition he had taken part in.

Pakistani authorities and relatives of the three climbers carried out an unprecedented search, tracking their GPS and satellite devices and surveying the route from helicopters, even in bad weather and above the helicopters’ service ceiling of 7,800m. Planes equipped with infrared cameras filmed the mountain; the high-resolution satellite and radar images were combed over, without finding any signs.

Moreover, four climbers from Sadpara’s village did not hesitate to risk their lives on ground searches from Base Camp. All efforts have proved fruitless. The search may continue in the future, but hopes of finding them alive have faded.

Conclusion: It’s not over

While K2 is finally deserted, the significance of this recent season will echo for some time. At ExplorersWeb, we will do our best to gather further information from those involved in the climb, in order to fill gaps. At the same time, it is clear that certain details will remain unknown.

Everyone engaged in this expedition was an experienced climber. Many of them were mountain professionals. The 10 summiters, in particular, achieved a great goal that should lead to new opportunities for them. It is only normal that audiences are keen to know more about the experience and to ask for details. Their climb will also be subject to public commentary, as with all the best mountaineers in history, from Messner to Urubko, or from Tenzing Norgay to Nirmal Purja. They deserve no less: Not scrutinizing the details of their climb in the same way that we scrutinize everyone else’s, because of some misguided delicacy over nationality, would be patronizing, disrespectful, and unfair.

He said he would made it, and he did: Mingma G on the summit of K2 in winter. Photo: Mingma G

 

In the field of expedition logistics, the Himalayan winter may have changed forever. Seven Summit Treks has shown that a fully serviced expedition on the wildest peak at the worst time of year is possible, so the market is open for future endeavors, for those willing to take the risk.

As for the first winter summit on K2, that page has been boldly written by (in alphabetical order): Dawa Temba Sherpa, Dawa Tenjin Sherpa, Kilu Pemba Sherpa, Geljen Sherpa, Mingma “David” Gyabu Sherpa, Mingma “G” Gyalje Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Nirmal Purja (without O2!), Pem Chiri Sherpa, and Sona Sherpa. The Nepali team has shown how to climb K2. Many other challenges remain in the high mountains, and no doubt some of these 10 will be taking part in them.

As for the missing climbers, and the two who lost their lives in accidents, the loss is irreparable. All had other projects to complete, families to care for, and many years ahead of them. In the case of Muhammad Ali Sadpara, a small silver lining comes because local politicians are now willing to support Ali’s dream to improve education for the children of Sadpara village. Hopefully, they might even start a climbing school to increase professional opportunities for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Then in time, as the Sherpas have done, they can take a major role in both the climbing community and the mountain tourism industry.

Ali Sadpara’s last portrait, taken by Elia Saikaly. His son, Sajid, said of him: “My father is like a Snow Leopard. He moves incredibly fast in the mountains.”