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First Winter Ascent of K2

18th Jan 2021

Nicknamed, The Savage Mountain, K2 is undeniably one of the deadliest mountains in the world. On his return from the mountain after the failed 1953 American Expedition, George Bell, famously told reporters “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”

That fated 1953 American Expedition was the fifth to mountain, and the first after WWII. Eventually, hurricane force winds and the deteriorating condition of the expedition party ended the climb at their Camp VIII at the shoulder, around 7800 m above sea level. On the descent, Bell himself slipped, pulling five climbers with him. Saved only by the strength of Pete Schoening, the climbers continued the descent, and some consider it remarkable that only one member of the team was lost on the mountain.  A year later, an Italian party lead by Ardito Desio put climbers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni on the summit for the first time.

A Nepali Team Just Made the First Winter Ascent on K2 | Outside Online
K2 stands proud at 8,611 m on the China-Pakistan border, making it the second tallest mountain in the world.

The Himalayan Database records that, as of July 2019, there have been 355 successful summits of K2, and 82 deaths. This  puts the death rate at about 1 in 4, highlighting the deadly nature of the mountain. While Everest is certainly higher (K2 tops out at 8,610 m, making it the second highest mountain behind Everest at 8,848 m), K2 is considered a far more challenging climb, due to the technicality, and crucially the weather conditions. By now, the mountain has been scaled via most ridges, but all successful summits were made in the July-August window, where the weather is generally more favourable. No party has successfully summited in the winter, making K2 the only 8,000 er never to be climbed in winter. Until now.

Between the winter of 1987/88 and 2017/18, only four attempts were made on a winter summit of K2. All four ended short of the 8000 m mark due to severe weather conditions. Then, fuelled by the success of Project Possible, Nirmal Purja put together a team of mountaineers who would make a bid for the summit over the winter of 2020/21. He was the leader of one of three teams with the same idea, all on the mountain at the same time.

Project Possible: The 14 highest peaks in just 6 months
Nirmal Purja seen on his Project Possible, in which he scaled the 14 highest peaks in the world in just 6 months


After several weeks on the mountain, in early January it seemed as though it had all been for nothing. On one of their rotations up to Camp 2, they discovered what Nims described as “a wreckage site.” He said “We have lost everything. Sleeping bags, mattresses, heated shoe insoles, summit gloves/mittens, summit base layers, paragliding equipment, cooking equipment, etc.” The high winds of over 120kph seemed to have put paid to one of the most hotly anticipated summit attempts in recent mountaineering history.

However, all was not lost. On the 15th January, Nims’ social media pages reported that a smaller group of Nepali climbers, who had come together from all three groups to form one new group, had reach Camp IV at the shoulder, and would push together to the summit. The next day, news broke that at 16:45 local time, Mingma G Sherpa had lead the group of 10 to be the first climbers to stand on top of K2 in winter. Nims reported: “A very special moment. The whole team waited 10 m below the summit to form a group then stepped onto the summit together whilst singing our Nepalese national anthem.” A day later, they were safely back down to base camp, where they could truly celebrate this feat. It is the first time that K2 has been climbed in winter, and to make the summit even more remarkable are the reports that Mingma G and Nims did not using supplementary oxygen; a feat that would be remarkable even on days with the best climbing conditions imaginable.

The achievement, and the fact that it was accomplished by an exclusively Nepalese climbing group, is being celebrated as a huge achievement not just for mountaineers but for the Nepalese and sherpas, who are a vital but sometimes overlooked part of the climbing community, and have had an especially hard year with the cancellation of countless expeditions to the Himalaya. Their show of solidarity and refusal to name any one climber as first to the summit shows that this was about more than personal glory for each member of the team. Mingma G. said:


For all the other 8000ers summited in winter, no Shepra was with them, so this is an opportunity for Sherpa to demonstrate their strength. Besides alpinists, all the climbers take help from Sherpa to fulfill their dreams of 8000m peaks. I have helped several foreign climbers to get to the summit of different 8000ers. I was a little surprised to see no Sherpa on winter first ascent. So this climb is for all the Sherpa community who are so known because of our friends and clients from different foreign countries.


It can be hard to know what is next when something of this magnitude is achieved. With other climbers still on the mountain acclimatising at lower camps, it is conceivable we will see the second winter ascent of K2 by the time winter ends. Much like Bannister and the 4 minute mile, now that the impossible has been achieved it will be interesting to see how the goalposts shift in the aftermath of this record breaking moment. One thing that we can be sure of is that this is an incredible accomplishment and a huge win for the Nepalese climbing community.