Winter on Nanga Parbat: a good news story from Pakistan

I seem to have spent a disproportionate amount of time in the last couple of years blogging bad news from the Himalayas and Karakoram. Natural disasters and political turmoil have made Nepal an unhappy place recently. Both of these factors have spilled over into mountaineering, and Himalayan mountaineering itself has suffered from negative media reporting.

Pakistan’s mountainous geography has the potential to make it a great alternative travel destination to Nepal, but religious intolerance and a somewhat austere culture make it a difficult place for tourists. The most extreme example of this came in June 2013, when eleven mountaineers were massacred by Taliban at Nanga Parbat base camp.

But credit where credit’s due. Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain at 8125m, has experienced more than its share of disasters. I reported on a couple of these in last week’s blog post, so it’s only fair that I help to restore the balance.

The successful Nanga Parbat summit team of Ali Sadpara, Alex Txikon, Simone Moro and Tamara Lunger (Photo: Alex Txikon)
The successful Nanga Parbat summit team of Ali Sadpara, Alex Txikon, Simone Moro and Tamara Lunger (Photo: Alex Txikon)

Last week the international team of Simone Moro (Italy), Alex Txikon (Spain) and Ali Sadpara (Pakistan) made the first ever winter ascent of Nanga Parbat when they reached the summit on Friday 26th.

Txikon was the first Spaniard to make a first winter ascent of an 8000m peak, and Sadpara was the first Pakistani to do likewise. A fourth member of the team, Tamara Lunger (Italy), very nearly became the first woman to do the same, but had to stop on the summit ridge, a few metres short of her goal.

All four members of the team returned safely and without injury. It was an epic two months on the mountain for them, but the history of winter mountaineering on Nanga Parbat has been even more epic.

31 teams have attempted to make a winter ascent over the last 27 years. In the last five or six years competition to be the first has become particularly intense. K2 (8611m) aside, it was the last remaining 8000m peak yet to see a first winter ascent. The same people kept going back again and again. Four teams attempted it last year, and six were attempting it this year.

Sooner or later the mountain was going to yield, but why was it proving so difficult? Commercial operators have become adept at helping people up 8000m peaks in the last 25 years. It’s now possible for ordinary folk like me to climb some of the 8000ers in relative safety, and while it will always be a great personal achievement, climbing an 8000er is no longer such a great achievement in global terms.

The same is not true of winter ascents. An 8000m peak in winter is much colder, high winds blast the summit for longer periods, making it colder still. Multi-day summit windows are few and far between. Climbers must be prepared to launch their summit attempts in poor conditions in order to time their summit days for shorter weather windows. There is a lot more snowfall. This produces greater avalanche hazard, and is more exhausting because climbers are always having to break trail again. Just as significantly, days are much shorter. Climbers need to be stronger and move more quickly because temperatures can become unbearable during hours of darkness.

For the time being at least, winter ascents of 8000m peaks remain the domain of elite mountaineers; moreover, they are elite mountaineers of a certain type, able to tolerate long hours of extreme cold and suffering.

Some have become high-altitude winter specialists. Simone Moro is best-known to many as the man who started a fight on Everest in 2013 after calling a Sherpa the Nepali word for motherfucker. This is a little unfair. He is a trained helicopter pilot, who returned to Everest the same year and conducted a successful helicopter evacuation at a record altitude of 7300m. He is also a master of high-altitude winter ascents. Prior to reaching the summit of Nanga Parbat last week he had already made first winter ascents of three other 8000ers (Gasherbrum II, Shishapangma and Makalu). In other words, he’s some guy.

Nanga Parbat (8125m), the 9th highest mountain in the world, from the Karakoram Highway north of Chilas
Nanga Parbat (8125m), the 9th highest mountain in the world, from the Karakoram Highway north of Chilas

The Pole Tomek Mackiewicz was making his sixth winter attempt on Nanga Parbat in as many years. His climbing partner, Frenchwoman Elisabeth Revol, was making her third. Alex Txikon, Ali Sadpara and the Italian Daniele Nardi reached 7800m on the Kinshofer Route last year, and were only two hours from the summit when they took a wrong turn and were forced to retrace their steps. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for Sadpara was suffering from acute altitude sickness, and had he continued then he may not have survived.

One of the things that made this year’s race for Nanga Parbat such a great story were the advanced communications, which meant we could follow the events in real time. Most teams were able to blog and post photos by satellite. A few of them had people at base camp to communicate with while they were at the higher camps. A couple of them carried satellite tracking devices which enabled their position on the mountain to be plotted precisely.

I’m a bit too lazy to follow these things myself, but some of my fellow mountaineering bloggers are much more dedicated. Two in particular, Raheel Adnan and Stefan Nestler, did a fantastic job of reporting the climbs over the whole season, in two very distinct styles. Raheel, who keeps the Altitude Pakistan blog, was meticulous and precise, recording times, routes and positions in great detail. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the previous ascents, including routes. Meanwhile Stefan, who writes the Adventure Sports blog, used his background as a sports journalist to provide a human angle, interviewing climbers by email as they waited at base camp and fleshing out their stories.

And it was some story. The duo of Adam Bielecki and Jacek Czech acclimatised on 6893m Ojos del Salado in the Chilean Andes. They arrived early on Nanga Parbat, hoping to complete a summit dash in alpine style by mid-January. But they soon learned that Nanga in winter cannot be rushed. The weather closed in and they languished at base camp with very little opportunity to climb. They reached only as high as 5800m when Bielecki had a fall and subsequent hand injury. They left soon after.

A seven-strong Polish team were attempting the Rupal Face on what became known as the dark side of the mountain. It acquired this name not because of the shadow cast by the face, but because of their less-sophisticated communications, which seemed to consist of little more than a spot tracker. This meant that for much of the season we could only guess what they were up to by their position. At one point it revealed they were at 7500m, suggesting that a strong summit bid was underway. Sadly this proved inaccurate, and they eventually announced they were on their way home, having climbed no higher than 7300m. I guess the spot tracker must have been swallowed by a snow leopard, who then escaped upwards for 200m.

Tomek Mackiewicz high on Nanga Parbat (Photo: Tomek Mackiewicz)
Tomek Mackiewicz high on Nanga Parbat (Photo: Tomek Mackiewicz)

Meanwhile how about those human stories? Stefan Nestler interviewed Tamara Lunger and asked her how she passed the hours waiting around at base camp.

“I talk to all the men here about women.”

This seems like a wasted opportunity. For all the talk in the world they will never find out the answer. They could have used their time more fruitfully; for instance, by asking Simone to teach them Nepali.

But it turned out the race for Nanga Parbat was not so much a race as a bit of friendly rivalry. When push came to shove, the contenders proved ready to rally together in support, rather than stab each other in the back.

On 22 January, Tomek Mackiewicz and Elisabeth Revol made the first concerted summit attempt of the season. They climbed to Camp 4 at 7200m on the Diamir Route. It was believed by others on the mountain that they would climb a little higher to join the Kinshofer Route (known as the standard route to climb Nanga Parbat), which they would take the rest of the way to the summit.

The Kinshofer Route was the one Txikon, Sadpara and Nardi were climbing. They had fixed ropes as high as 6500m. On hearing Mackiewicz and Revol were on their way up, they didn’t panic and join the race for the summit, as you might think they would. They simply carried on fixing the route, happy to let their rivals use their ropes if they needed to descend that way. Meanwhile Simone Moro and Tamara Lunger carried gear up to Camp 3 on Mackiewicz and Revol’s route, and were ready to support them if they needed help on descent.

Sadly for the Pole and the Frenchwoman it wasn’t to be. They reached 7500m, but said it was much too cold to go any higher. They retreated safely and didn’t need the support of their rivals. Pity poor Tomek Mackiewicz. He had experienced hardship and suffering on Nanga Parbat for the sixth time in successive years, and had climbed as high as 7800m on a previous attempt. If anyone deserved its first winter ascent, he was the one. But it wasn’t to be.

The two remaining teams decided they were more likely to accomplish their goal by joining forces rather than competing.

“There never existed a competition here, but our two teams are grown together in this period and we share friendship,” Tamara Lunger posted.

But just when we thought things were getting a bit too sugary sweet, two of the climbers restored mountaineering’s reputation for self-centred egotism by producing their handbags. Alex Txikon took a swing with his Balenciaga (yes, I had to look that one up) by posting publicly about his constant arguments with Daniele Nardi. He accused his climbing partner of not paying his expenses for the expedition. Nardi responded by hurling his best premium-leather Dolce & Gabbana into the snow and quitting the expedition.

A calm was restored by the time the four remaining climbers left on their summit push at the beginning of last week. They had to climb in poor weather for the first two days, but were well placed when the good weather came.

They left for the summit at 6am on Friday 26th, and this is where Alex Txikon’s spot tracker came into its own. Raheel Adnan took his coordinates, plotted them on Google Earth, took a screen grab and tweeted it. I was able to watch the whole climb live by following the Altitude Pakistan blog on Twitter. OK, so it wasn’t exactly like the real thing. It looked like I was flying over a slightly cartoon landscape which somebody had stuck pins into, but it was a good deal more comfortable than following behind with a camera, and at least I didn’t get frostbite in my fingers.

They reached the summit at around 3.40pm, and the news was reported promptly. It wasn’t the time to celebrate. On March 24th last year I tweeted my congratulations to Samuli Mansikka after hearing he had reached the summit of Annapurna, his tenth 8000m peak. I should have known better. Sammy never received my message, and was swept away in an avalanche on descent. In March 2013 a team of Poles made the first winter ascent of Broad Peak, another 8000m peak not far from Nanga Parbat. Two of them did not return.

Broadcasting an 8000m summit attempt in real time is one of the miracles of the digital age, but sometimes it can lead us to forget that the summit is only halfway. It was all over Twitter that three climbers had reached the summit, but one of the team, Tamara Lunger, had not. If she had been forced to turn back on her own, then she must be struggling in a very dangerous location. But just how bad was she?

Thankfully this story has a happy ending. By 9pm Simone Moro posted that all four climbers were safely back at Camp 4, and Tamara had only been suffering from “extreme fatigue and early-morning-pukes”. So close to the summit; it must have been an agonising decision, but ultimately a very wise one. The next day they were back at base camp and could truly celebrate a job well done.

The story of the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat belongs to more than these four climbers. During those 27 years and 31 expeditions of extreme cold and untold hardship, there was only one fatality, when the solo French climber Joel Wischnewski went missing in 2013.

Too often in mountaineering we only hear about the bad decisions that lead to disaster. Winter on Nanga Parbat has been about some of the toughest climbers in the world battling hard and making good decisions on a mountain with a reputation for being one of the most dangerous. It is something to celebrate.

For a good summary of those 31 expeditions, see Raheel Adnan’s series of five posts on the Altitude Pakistan blog.

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One thought on “Winter on Nanga Parbat: a good news story from Pakistan

  • March 2, 2016 at 4:45 pm
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    I watched the climb live on Twitter too ! I screamed like I was watching a football match !

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