The K2 Winter First Ascent


At 5pm (local time) on January 16th, 2021, ten Nepali climber’s completed the K2 winter first ascent.  Last week we reported on this amazing ascent here, but wanted to share some more details about this incredible achievement.

A Team Ascent

If the team summited at 5pm, it must have been a minute or so before when they regrouped a short distance below the top.  Presumably they had decided some time before that they were going to summit as a group.  Once together, they marched to the snowy dome that marks the top as a united team. They were singing the Nepalese national anthem.  This gesture of unity ensured no single person would be credited with the first ascent. It also echoed the team effort that allowed them to succeed. The heart warming video below shows footage of their final singing steps to the summit.  It is hard to imagine how amazing that moment must have felt.

The Second Highest Mountain

K2, at 8,611 metres, is the world’s second highest mountain.  It is situated in the Karakoram Range which straddles the Pakistan-China border.  It is also notoriously challenging for various reasons.  Firstly, there’s the weather.  K2 sits to the west of the other larger Karakorum peaks. For this reason it takes the hit of the west to east fronts that rage across the range.

The second factor is the technical difficulty.  Although there are several 8000 metre peaks with extremely technical sections, when compared with Everest it is much harder.  The terrain is steeper and the sections of technical ground are harder and more sustained. There is also more objective danger from avalanche, rock fall or serac collapse.  

The final consideration is the lack of expedition infrastructure. A well organised system of support has built up around Everest. K2 is harder to get too, there is less scope for rescue and the availability of support staff is much reduced.   

Even in summer the extreme weather, technical difficulty and high objective danger make it a serious proposition. In winter those difficulties are greatly magnified. To put the challenge into perspective, over 7,500 mountaineers have ascended Everest. The number of ascents of K2 is under 400.

Previous Attempts

K2 was, therefore, the last of the world’s 8000 metre peaks to be climbed in winter.  The K2 winter first ascent is a massive achievement in the mountaineering world.  A large team first tried an ascent in the winter of 1987/88.  Despite over 3 months of effort, they failed.  They said they only experienced 10 days of good weather in their whole trip.   5 other teams have tried in the intervening years. These teams contained some extremely accomplished mountaineers. Even so, all were unsuccessful.

There were several teams on K2 this year.  At the time of writing many are still on the mountain and hopeful of their summit shot.    This year’s successful summit group was actually formed from members of different teams.  Initial discussion about joining forces appears to have been cemented into a definite plan after a storm destroyed camp 2.  It turned out to be a great idea.  The summit team members came from Nirmal (Nims) Purja’s team, some from the team of Mingma Gyalje Sherpa (Mingma G) and one from the large Seven Summit Treks team.    

Nims and Mingma G

The summit team were led by Mingma G and Nims and both have an amazing mountaineering record.  Mingma G is an IFMGA/UIAGM certified guide with 22 summits of 8000 metre peaks.  Nims is a former Gurkha and special forces solider. He became very well known in 2020 after summiting all 14 8,000 metre peaks in a record breaking six months and six days. The previous record, set by Jerzy Kukuczka, was seven years, 11 months, and 14 days.  We wrote about Nims Project Possible achievement here.   Nims and Mingma G have now become the only people with both summer and winter ascents of K2.  An important additional note is that Nims summited without using supplementary oxygen.

Besides Nims and Mingma G, the team comprised Gelje Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Kilu Pemba Sherpa, Dawa Tenjing Sherpa, and Sona Sherpa.  Collectively,  the team had over 100 summits of 8000 metre peaks to their name.

An Important Ascent

This ascent is of great significance for the mountaineering world, but also for Nepal.  The capabilities of Nepalese mountaineers have been proven over many decades of Himalayan mountaineering. Of course, it was Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who accompanied western climber Sir Edmund Hillary on the first ascent of Everest. But even so, perhaps, they have predominantly been seen as support to western mountaineers.  Certainly it is Polish, Russian and Italian climbers who’ve been the dominant force in previous winter 8,000 meter ascents.  This team have perfectly showcased the strength, determination and world class talent of Nepalese climbers.  

Kami Rita Sherpa offered an informed perspective on their ascent.  Kami holds the record for climbing Everest 24 times. He was quoted as saying “for decades Nepalis have assisted foreigners to reach the summits of the Himalayas, but we’ve not been getting the recognition we deserve. It is wonderful that today 10 Nepalis have made history and shown our bravery and strength.” A massive well done to all the team. The short video below gives a flavour of the K2 winter first ascent and includes an interview with Nims.

Nims is an Osprey sponsored athlete and we’ve been tested one of the Talon Pro 20 packs which he used during his expedition. Please do check out our review here and have a read about the expedition on the Osprey website here.