Is the first winter ascent of K2 a turning point for Sherpa mountaineers?

It’s not very often that the ascent of an 8,000m peak makes international news headlines, but earlier this month something rather special happened.

At 5pm Pakistan time on 16 January 2021, a team of 10 climbers stood on the summit of K2 (8,611m), the world’s second highest mountain, believed by many to be the hardest of the world’s fourteen 8,000m peaks.

There were a number of reasons this climb was special (notwithstanding the fact that it had been accomplished amidst a global pandemic).

Nims Purja and his team of Sherpa climbers at K2 base camp (Photo: Nirmal Purja / Facebook)
Nims Purja and his team of Sherpa climbers at K2 base camp (Photo: Nirmal Purja / Facebook)

It was the first time K2 had been climbed in winter, a season when storms, snowfall, reduced daylight and extreme cold make Himalayan climbing impossible to all but the hardiest mountaineers. It was the last remaining 8,000m peak to be climbed in winter.

The expedition took three weeks from start to finish, about half the length of a standard 8,000m peak expedition, and considerably less than most winter expeditions, when teams regularly spend two or three months waiting for suitable conditions.

The expedition nearly ended a week earlier, when several climbers lost tents and equipment in a storm at Camp 2. They took advantage of a tiny weather window, with a single windless summit day. At Camp 3, winds were so strong that several climbers chose to shelter in a crevasse instead of a tent.

More remarkably, it was a true team effort. The climbers congregated 10m below the summit to wait for slower members, so that they could all reach the summit together, almost unheard of on an 8,000m peak, where climbers need to get up and down as quickly as possible.

But this wasn’t even the most notable factor of the climb. The most notable one was that all of the climbers were from Nepal, and except for Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja, a Magar, they were all Sherpas (and Nims, the only one of the 10 to climb without bottled oxygen, is no doubt considered an honorary Sherpa).

But before I tell you why this is important, here are their names, which deserve to be emblazoned in gold along Durbar Marg, the avenue in Kathmandu leading to the Royal Palace.

  • Nirmal Purja
  • Gelje Sherpa
  • Mingma David Sherpa
  • Mingma Tenzi Sherpa
  • Dawa Temba Sherpa
  • Pem Chhiri Sherpa
  • Mingma Gyalje Sherpa
  • Kili Pemba Sherpa
  • Dawa Tenjing Sherpa
  • Sona Sherpa

The reason this particular ascent is significant is because Sherpas have played an integral part in the history of the 8,000m peaks, but aside from Tenzing Norgay, who made the first ascent of Everest, they have generally been the supporting cast. This time, however, they were the stars of the show and its driving force from start to finish.

Ever since the 1920s, when British teams employed Sherpas as high-altitude porters for the first Everest expeditions, through the 1930s, when British, German, American and international teams made various attempts on Everest, K2, Nanga Parbat and Kangchenjunga, and then the 1950s, when nearly all the 8,000m peaks were climbed for the first time, Sherpas have been present in the background.

There have been successes and near misses. Pasang Dawa Lama came within 250m of reaching the summit of K2 with Fritz Weissner in 1939 (and probably saved both their lives by deciding to turn around). He was the trailblazer on the first ascent of Cho Oyu with Herbert Tichy in 1954.

Angtharkay was offered the chance to make the first ascent of Annapurna with Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal in 1950, but decided his feet were too cold (both Herzog and Lachenal lost fingers and toes to frostbite). Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa made first ascents of two 8,000m peaks: Makalu with a French team in 1955, and Manaslu with Toshio Imanishi in 1956, an achievement that only Hermann Buhl and Kurt Diemberger share.

Then there have been the heavy costs, which have fallen hard on the shoulders of Sherpas. Seven lost their lives in an avalanche on Everest in 1922. Three died trying to save the life of American Dudley Wolfe on K2 in 1938. Six died alongside their German teammates during a seven-day retreat in a storm on Nanga Parbat in 1934. Nine were killed in an avalanche on Nanga Parbat in 1937.

But until this month, no Sherpa had ever made the first winter ascent of an 8,000m peak. This may seem surprising, but winter ascents have been the domain of alpinists, a catch-all term for climbers who believe that mountains should only be climbed in a certain style.

These ascents have always involved small, lightweight and self-sufficient teams who reject Sherpa support on principle. It’s only recently that Sherpas have been able to afford the resources and attract the sponsorship necessary to fund their own expeditions.

At the start of this year’s winter K2 season, much of the attention focused on the size of base camp (some 60 climbers) and the presence of a huge commercial group from the controversial Nepali mountaineering operator Seven Summit Treks (SST).

This drew the ire of alpinists, who were concerned about the prospect of a commercial client who needed support reaching the summit first (though this was never a realistic possibility). There was quite a bit of fuss about whether the first ascent should be made without bottled oxygen.

Climbers in the Bottleneck Couloir during the first winter ascent of K2 (Photo: Mingma Gyalje Sherpa)
Climbers in the Bottleneck Couloir during the first winter ascent of K2 (Photo: Mingma Gyalje Sherpa)

Four teams were at base camp, poised to battle it out to be the first and (hopefully) open doors to a more lucrative climbing career.

As well as the giant SST team comprising 29 Sherpas and 25 commercial clients there was a 3-man Sherpa team led by Charles Bronson-lookalike Mingma Gyalje Sherpa (known as ‘Mingma G’); a 6-man Nepali team led by superstar climber Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja, a former British special forces soldier who came to worldwide attention in 2019 by climbing all the 8,000m peaks in a few short months, a seemingly impossible accomplishment he called ‘Project Possible’; and the only non-Nepali expedition: a 3-man team led by Icelandic climber John-Snorri Sigurdsson which included Pakistani climber Mohammed Ali Sadpara, who made the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat in 2016.

Nims had an axe to grind with those who derided his Project Possible because he had used supplementary oxygen. Again, he intended to do what nobody had done before, but this time he would do it their way.

What happened next was something that nobody predicted. Instead of racing each other to the summit, the three Nepali teams got together and collaborated: the 6 members of Nims’s team (Nims, Gelje, Mingma David, Mingma Tenzi, Dawa Temba and Pem Chhiri), the 3 members of Mingma G’s team (Mingma, Kili Pemba and Dawa Tenjing) and a single member of SST (Sona).

Whether the teams discussed the strategy in advance, or whether they realised they were ten Nepalis in a race together only when they set off on their summit push, we don’t yet know; perhaps we’ll never know. But the token presence of Sona suggests that it may have been planned at base camp.

SST’s Sherpas had responsibilities towards their 25 clients, while Nims and Mingma’s teams were free men. SST had been instrumental not only in providing logistics there on K2, but for Project Possible in 2019. It would have been good diplomacy for Nims and Mingma to let SST contribute to this joint Nepali effort, but perhaps a single Sherpa was all SST could spare.

The team were aided by an 11th Nepali, the unsung hero Krishna Bhakta Manandhar, a meteorologist in Kathmandu, who predicted a day of zero winds on Saturday 16.

Then there was the extraordinary decision to wait below the summit. We don’t know who waited for whom; we’re not supposed to know. I could speculate that Nims, the only one not using oxygen, was a little slower than the rest, but that’s just speculation.

People talk about oxygen as though it’s some magic elixir, but this magic depends a great deal on the amount of oxygen used. Had his teammates been climbing on 4 litres per minute (L/M), there would have been no way on earth that Nims would have been able to keep up with them. But if they were climbing on only 1 or 2 L/M, and burdened with 8kg of additional oxygen apparatus, then there’s a good chance Nims was nearly as strong (though a good deal colder).

In any case, it doesn’t matter. By waiting for each other, they were making a statement about teamwork. No single person should take all the glory. It was a breath of fresh air and symbolic of previous first ascents that had been built on the shoulders of Sherpas.

Nims also had a bigger message.

‘We are going to face the biggest natural crisis of the era that is global warming, climate change,’ he says in the following news report (which has some great footage of the ascent and interviews with some of the climbers). ‘And if the whole world unites together to make this impossible possible, we can do it.’

Their climb wasn’t over when they reached the summit. There have been some notable tragedies on K2 that happened on the way down. In 1986 five climbers from the UK, Poland and Austria died after waiting out a 3-day storm at Camp 4 on returning from the summit. In 1995, six people including British climber Alison Hargreaves were blown off the mountain while descending to Camp 4 from the summit, and in 2008 eleven climbers of many nationalities died from falls when the fixed ropes they had been relying on for descent were severed by ice.

For those 10 Nepali climbers standing on the summit of K2 at 5pm with darkness looming, history was ominous. Yet just a few hours later, they were all safely back at Camp 3 with no drama.

It was a great achievement, a triumph of teamwork against the odds, and a richly deserved victory for Nepali climbers.

Again there are nay-sayers, but their gripes are becoming increasingly obscure, such as whether it’s permissible to use fixed ropes that have been fixed by people using bottled oxygen. There have even been arguments about the benefits of ‘psychological oxygen’ (oxygen that is carried but not used).

‘Oxygen is doping,’ Russian mountaineer Denis Urubko told Italian media. ‘In boxing, running, skiing or cycling, athletes who dope get total contempt… but in mountaineering, people who dope become heroes.’

But this is false equivalence. Denis is referring to competitive sports which require a level playing field. Every mountain is different, with a different set of conditions depending on the time of year you climb it. Air pressure even differs from day to day. Scientists have calculated that Everest’s perceived altitude differs by as much as 700m depending on the weather.

More importantly, there are no rules, and everyone is free to climb in whatever manner works for them.

Denis made this statement a few days before the Nepali ascent; perhaps he is more magnanimous now. Of all people, he will know just how challenging this climb was for the Nepalis. He also tried to make the first winter ascent of K2 in 2015 and 2018. By reaching the summit of K2 without oxygen, Nims has not only denied him the first winter ascent of K2, but the first winter ascent of K2 without oxygen.

The door is still open for someone to make a more lightweight ascent where no one is using oxygen and call it a first, but it would be somewhat esoteric. They could also make the first winter ascent without crampons. Alpinists fixate on the use of oxygen above all other artificial aids, but speaking as someone who has used both, I can confirm that crampons are far more useful on an 8,000m peak than supplementary oxygen!

There are also signs that others are softening their stance. One vocal critic of assisted ascents, the German climber Ralf Dujmovits, appeared to grudgingly offer Nims his congratulations.

In fact, this ascent has provided an opportunity for more enlightened members of the climbing community to make amends.

The reaction to Project Possible demonstrated how an obsession with style – a curse of the climbing world that inevitably leads to exclusion – caused a form of institutional racism. To clarify what I mean by this, institutional racism refers to in-built prejudices that lead to discrimination against ethnic minorities, whether that racial discrimination is intentional or not.

Here was a Nepali climber who had done something no one in the climbing community had come close to achieving before, and yet he was vilified because he had used techniques that are common in his own sub-community of Himalayan mountaineering. It was uncomfortable to watch heroes of the climbing world react in this way.

In the wake of MeToo and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, some members of the overwhelmingly white male climbing community have been re-examining how to make their sport more inclusive. Climbing routes whose names don’t belong in the 21st century are being renamed. The first winter ascent of K2 has given more enlightened members a second chance to give Nepali climbers the credit they are due.

Another example has been happening over on Manaslu where, even before they have climbed the mountain, two Nepali climbers attempting a winter ascent are having questions asked about the style of their ascent – questions that are not being asked of two European climbers on the same mountain.

While there may be valid reasons for asking these question for those who care about the relative importance of different climbing aids, it is highly likely that the Nepali climbers have not been granted the same chances in life as their European counterparts. For people outside the climbing community, this is a far more impressive and interesting aspect of the story than what equipment they use.

Those who decry the achievement of these Nepali climbers are missing the bigger picture. The climbers have not only made ascents of multiple 8,000m peaks, but multiple ascents of multiple 8,000m peaks. They have done so the hard way, carrying tents and equipment for others, going up and down each mountain multiple times, fixing ropes and carrying gear so that others can follow. This is far more work than any western climber with or without oxygen and regardless of the style of their ascent.

The reason these Nepali climbers on K2 have gone where other western climbers have failed is less to do with fixed ropes and oxygen, than the fact that they are significantly stronger and more experienced at extreme altitude.

They have demonstrated this fact countless times in the limelight of lesser men and women, but this climb has put them centre stage, and they have earned it in ways that none of their western rivals can claim.

And if scenes of the crowds and hugs that greeted them in Skardu seem surreal for those of us here in the UK, where thousands are dying daily of a highly infectious virus, they emphasise one certainty: that we will be hearing a lot more about the achievements of Sherpa and Nepali mountaineers in years to come.

For those who care about style, this is style:

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19 thoughts on “Is the first winter ascent of K2 a turning point for Sherpa mountaineers?

  • January 27, 2021 at 6:15 pm
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    AWESOME ACHIEVEMENT!!! SO PROUD!!!

  • January 27, 2021 at 6:25 pm
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    Absolutely an outstanding accomplishment on the most dangerous and toughest mountain in the world.. And in the Winter- just amazing. The Sherpa community has superheroes.

  • January 27, 2021 at 6:42 pm
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    Thanks for getting so much of the background information together in one place. Just a superb result for a great people.

  • January 27, 2021 at 6:43 pm
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    Mark,

    Those who criticize the use of O2 know NOTHING about physiology or how a mitochondria works. They remind me of the “stop-the-steal” crowd.

    Nobody in this group is climbing mountains either STARVING themselves (glucose) or NOT DRINKING (H2O), two key components of the KREBS cycle. Oxygen is also key, and it’s there as a trash collector to pick up excess hydrogen ions generated from ATP synthesis, and to avoid inevitable acidosis of cellular respiration.

    And let us not forget TEMPERATURE, since all these reactions require a body temperature close to 36.5 deg. centigrade for all the Krebs cycle enzymes to work properly.

    The no-O2-purists don’t climb without proper clothing, food, or water. It’s funny – those in this group protect their toes and fingers more than their brains! If we use their definition of purity, they should climb up naked, with no water bottles or candy bars and certainly, no boots or gloves.

    Finally, starving your brain from O2 is simply not a good idea. There are permanent sequelae that may show up later on in life, similar to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).

  • January 27, 2021 at 7:01 pm
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    Great, insightful article ! One small remark: Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa, Kurt Diemberger ànd Hermann Buhl (Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak) all share the record of having been the first climbers on 2 8000+ summits.

  • January 27, 2021 at 7:22 pm
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    Well spotted. Corrected 🙂

  • January 27, 2021 at 7:23 pm
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    Thanks, Mark, for a particularly fantastic post about this amazing feat. I’m so happy for that team of shining Nepalis. And how great that Nims used this opportunity to talk about climate change. And is that the best summit video in history? MMM….YES.

    I also think all who lost their lives, or were turned back by circumstances in their attempts to summit in the past. What a beast of a mountain.

  • January 28, 2021 at 12:57 am
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    Outstanding achievement sherpas are real climbers

  • January 28, 2021 at 4:50 am
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    Thanks, Mark. Well written. I am still thrilled at their achievement.

  • January 28, 2021 at 3:25 pm
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    great write up about the sherpas. after all these years these ‘porters’ of the the ‘climbers’ are getting recognised. actually i would love to see the ‘purists’ climb the Himalayas without the sherpas. any ‘purist’ take on the challenge ? to be frank it’s sour grapes to the snobbish clan of purists !! who was really first ‘ on the top ‘ tenzig or hillary ? interesting thought !

  • January 28, 2021 at 9:29 pm
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    A remarkable achievement indeed – hats off to the team!
    Which begs a question- who cares if they were Sherpa, Margar, Russian, white, black, male, female, etc. – does it really matter?
    Thought this blog was about mountain climbing- not about identity politics
    Let’s stick to something that unites us – not something that divides us.

  • January 28, 2021 at 9:59 pm
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    This blog isn’t just about mountain climbing. It’s always been broader than that and I’m not afraid to stray into politics if necessary. In any case, while I know some people consider discrimination a political issue, IMO it transcends politics. 🙂

    This story is all about identity. You only need to watch the one minute video at the end to see this. As for divisiveness, it’s necessary to acknowledge divisions if we want to break down walls.

    I completely agree with you that it doesn’t matter if they are Sherpa, Magar, Russian, even American, white, black, male or female. I hope the climbing community embraces these masters of high altitude climbing without reservation and gives them the credit they deserve for this great achievement.

  • January 28, 2021 at 10:29 pm
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    Awesome… Love This.

    Any chance this Nepali’s team strategy and first winter ascent of K2 was also partially inspired or motivated by the Simone Moro Ice fight at Everest? I would have to reconcile these summiteers names to know exactly -but it’s likely some of these were their that day and they would know bagging Moro’s life long dream would be quite the beautiful retort.

  • January 29, 2021 at 2:00 pm
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    With so much written all over the world about climbers who try to reach a summit and forget about their humanity on the away, it is great to see just how it should be done. Coming together as a team and summiting as a team, demonstrates just how great these climbers were, not just as mountaineers, but as people. It does not matter what tools they used, they did it together. When I first read of their success, it filled me with joy, something that is very lacking in the world today.
    Thank you to all of them for showing us just how great we can all be.

    Finally, thank you Mark for continuing to post thoughtful and interesting blogs. I continue to read and get inspired by your posts. Stay well.

  • January 31, 2021 at 7:49 pm
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    “even American”, huh? What`s that all about? See how this could be offensive to some folks… those who happen to be the Americans?
    Celebrate mountaineering and outdoor – not identify. Will be much more enjoyable reading.

  • January 31, 2021 at 8:46 pm
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    Ha, it’s OK, we can all like Americans again now 😉

  • January 31, 2021 at 9:51 pm
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    ^^^^^ Why would someone be offended by reality of American mountaineering history -there are things to laude and things to rebuke. Understanding history is the only way to improve.

    And yeah Mark -we are back!!! Apologies for the reprehensible behavior of our crony fascist populist movement for the last 4 years.

  • January 31, 2021 at 9:52 pm
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    I am so proud of these guys. What an amazing accomplishment. They worked hard for this and deserve it. The summit video is just icing on the cake. I shed a tear watching it.

  • February 7, 2021 at 2:36 am
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    Quoting Nirmal “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.”

    May this ascent force of the world governments to act on reducing carbon emissions and work on the shared vision of preserving this beautiful planet.

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