Nepalis on K2 make the impossible possible

Sonu Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks on the top of K2 on 16 January at 5pm. Photo: Seven Summit Treks

While their political leaders back home in Kathmandu fought tooth-and-nail for power, ten Nepali climbers from different expeditions decided to work together last week to achieve the first-ever winter ascent of the last 8,000m peak.

In a remarkable show of solidarity, ten exhausted Nepali mountaineers waited 10m below the summit for everyone to catch up, and then took the final steps together to the top of K2, singing Nepal’s national anthem in unison.  

This unique demonstration of unity put the leaders of Nepal’s ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and other political parties to shame for wasting nearly three years in an endless power struggle that has paralysed governance.

Immersed in rancorous name-calling, none of Nepal’s political leaders (except the RPP’s Kamal Thapa) has found it necessary to mention or congratulate the climbers for their record-breaking climb that has been praised by the mountaineering community worldwide.

The winter ascent of the 8,611m high mountain on the Pakistan-China border had been attempted many times in the past 30 years, and the successful climb by the Nepalis has been hailed as a singular mountaineering achievement.

Nepal’s high altitude guides have assisted many international expeditions on K2 and other mountains in Nepal to get to the top, this time they united their effort to set a world record and demonstrate that anything is possible when Nepalis work together.

The ten Nepalis from three different expeditions were Nirmal Purja, Gelje Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma G, Sona Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Kili Pemba Sherpa and Dawa Tenjing Sherpa. Despite unrelenting wind and cold, with temperature dipping to -70Celsius, the Nepalis decided not to go individually for the record, but collectively claim the achievement on behalf of Nepal.

Nims Purja on the summit of K2 on 16 January. He reached the top with other Nepalis, but did not use supplemental oxygen. Photo: NIMS PURJA/FACEBOOK

Nima Purja, who set his own record in 2019 by climbing the world’s 14 eight thousanders in a record-smashing six months and six days, was back on K2 to repeat the climb in winter. After descending to Base camp, he disclosed that he had climbed without the use of supplemental oxygen – which makes the feat even more remarkable.

“I took a calculated risk this time and I pressed on without supplementary O2. My self confidence, knowing my body’s strength, capability and my experience from climbing the 14 x 8000ers enabled me to keep up with the rest of the team members and yet lead,” Purja wrote on Facebook, laying to rest criticism from some that climbing with oxygen was not fair.

He added: “There are many cases, where climbers have claimed no O2 summits but followed our trail that we blazed and used the ropes and lines that we had fixed. Some of which are widely known within the inner climbing community. What is classified as fair means?” 

Another member of the summit team, Mingma G is also said he was climbing without using bottled oxygen. K2 is regarded as even more difficult to climb than Mt Everest because of the need for technical climbing in the ‘death zone’ above 8,000m. And winter expeditions face the additional challenge of hurricane force winds and blizzards.

In an interview from his Base Camp tent on Monday, Purja told the BBC: “It was super cold and every step we climbed was an effort… just 10m before the summit the whole team stop together and sang the national anthem of Nepal... the team members were quite emotional as well as myself, to make this impossible possible.” 

But K2 did claim a life this winter – that of Catalan climber Sergi Mingote who fell into a crevasse while descending from Camp I on the same day that the Nepalis were on top.

This winter’s K2 climb has been hailed in the international mountaineering community as a major milestone. Mountaineering chronicler Alan Arnette, who has climbed Everest and K2, wrote on his blog: ‘There have been questions why this Nepali national team was able to accomplish what world-class teams since 1987 have not. My opinion is that they worked as a unified team to get the camps and fixed line in early, they got lucky with the weather, especially in December and early January and on the summit push, they were able to stay healthy and avoid the objective dangers of avalanche and rockfall, they had a strong support team … and they were determined to show the world that Nepali climbers were amongst the best.’

Canadian author of mountaineering books, Bernadette McDonald, said the Nepali team had written an important chapter in the history of high-altitude winter climbing.

She added in a Facebook post: ‘This remarkable Nepali success is the result of many things: their strength, their abilities in the mountains, their motivation, their willingness to suffer, an amazing weather window and an outstanding collaboration between multiple teams. They formed one unstoppable team, one that paused only once, when they stopped 10 metres below the summit to ensure that all ten members reached the top together. Brotherhood of the Rope!’

McDonald, who is updating her most recent book Winter 8000 with the Nepali success on K2, added: ‘It’s hard to imagine a more perfect group of climbers to make the first winter ascent of K2, climbers who have been the backbone of so many successful ascents in the Himalaya, but have rarely reaped the glory.’

Nims Purja used to be in the British special forces, and unfurled a banner with the British and Nepali flags at the summit at 5PM on 16 January. He said: “What kept everyone going was that everybody wanted this to their bone to make the Nepali climbing community proud. It was that mutual support between each other that kept us successful.”

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