An Oral History of the First Winter Ascent of K2

Sandro Gromen-Hayes, © Nimsdai
Natalie Berry UKC 22nd February, 2021

As one of the last great problems in high-altitude mountaineering, achieving the coveted first winter ascent of K2 (8,611m) was guaranteed to be a historic feat. The eight-thousander with the most nondescript of names but the deadliest reputation; the final of fourteen to be summited in winter. Its alias 'The Savage Mountain', paints a fuller, yet bleaker picture. On 16 January 2021, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a ten-strong all-Nepali team made history in more ways than one. One Magar and nine Sherpas started out in three separate teams, but united to reach a common goal. With mere steps to go, they gathered and marched to the summit in unison, breathlessly singing the national anthem of Nepal and bearing their country's red and blue pennant flag.

The second-highest mountain in the world, K2 is a savage alchemy of rarefied air, steep topography and harsh, localised weather systems. Writing in Alpinist in 2011, American Steve Swenson described it as 'absolute symmetry between chaos and order.' The pyramidal peak lies 40 miles from civilisation, guarded by a formation of Karakoram sentinels as it broods above the desolate Godwin-Austen Glacier, routinely shedding its mantle of ice and rock. Approximately one person dies for every six who summit K2, and in winter the risk of high winds up to 60mph on its steep and exposed routes in temperatures plummeting to -65°C — plus lower barometric pressure, reducing oxygen uptake by the lungs — make for limited windows of opportunity, especially given the short ten-hour daylength of the season. The slow and storied race to the first winter ascent of K2 began 33 years ago in 1987-88, when a Polish-Canadian-British team led by Andrzej Zawada made the first attempt. Five further winter K2 expeditions were made up until 2019-20. None succeeded.

Of the thirteen first winter ascents of eight-thousanders, none had been claimed by Nepali climbers, despite their having been the backbone of many a high altitude ascent since Sherpas were first employed on an expedition in 1907. Long overlooked by those in the upper echelons of Nepal and undervalued by foreign mountaineers who have relied on their technical and physical competencies to reach summits, the 2021 Nepali team not only entered the history books, but also put their ethnicity and country on the map. Nepali mountain people have progressed from their traditional Sherpa role as porters, to guides and leaders of expedition companies and climbing schools. A new generation of climbers is on the rise; young, professional mountaineers with sponsors, elite skills and fitness, breaking world records en route to the summit. When COVID-19 dashed hopes of guiding international expeditions in Nepal in 2020 and 2021, commercial expedition leaders — and others lacking employment and suddenly free to pursue their own climbing objectives — turned to Pakistan, where borders were open.

'When we joined hands, it was easier for us. In the beginning, we were actually competing against each other. When we joined hands there was no competition between Nepalese brothers, so it made the team stronger.'

Mingma G

Style matters in mountaineering, as the old adage goes. Fixed lines, bottled oxygen and the use of porters are widely debated, but less emphasis is placed on the intangible elements that can make or break an ascent; interpersonal and organisational skills, mutual understanding and respect in times of high tension. Nirmal 'Nimsdai' Purja, an ex-British Army Gurkha and UK Special Forces soldier who completed all fourteen 8,000 metre peaks in six months in 2019, and Mingma Gyalje 'Mingma G' Sherpa, an IFMGA guide and accomplished mountaineer, merged their teams along with Sona Sherpa of the Seven Summit Treks expedition. Through cooperation and compromise, they formed a group greater than the sum of its parts. Geljen Sherpa posed with a Liverpool Football Club shirt on the summit. 'We will never walk alone,' he captioned the photo. Nimsdai would eventually announce that he had summited without supplementary oxygen.

Amid the order and success of the Nepali team's summit, the winter 2020/2021 K2 season was ultimately tinged with chaos and loss. Sergi Mingote (ESP) and Atanas Skatov (BUL) perished in falls, while Muhammad Ali Sadpara (PAK) John Snorri Sigurjonsson (ISL) and Juan Pablo Mohr Prieto (CIL) are missing and declared dead on the mountain. No account of a historic climb would be complete without thought for those who died attempting to reach the same goal.

Despite the progress that has been made and the heights they've climbed to, the Nepali team remains grounded. Nimsdai and Mingma G were quick to thank the Pakistani porters, 'whose role has always been pivotal on this sort of expedition,' Nimsdai wrote on Instagram. 'We had the invisible footmen, porters, carrying all our stuff,' said Mingma G. 'All those porters were from Baltistan, Pakistan and they were very strong and always cheerful. Though we had better food to eat, wearing branded gear and carrying light bags, they were happier and faster than us on the snow. They are the ones who made our K2 successful in the beginning.'

In their own words — and in-between a succession of celebratory receptions in Kathmandu — Nimsdai Purja, Mingma G and Mingma David Sherpa recounted their individual experiences of the climb.

The 2021 Winter K2 first ascensionists.
The 2021 Winter K2 first ascensionists.
© Nimsdai

Nimsdai Purja (Team Nimsdai)

Mingma David Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)

Mingma Tenzi Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)

Geljen Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)

Pem Chiri Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)

Dawa Temba Sherpa (Team Nimsdai)

Mingma G (Team Mingma G)

Dawa Tenzing Sherpa (Team Mingma G)

Kilu Pemba Sherpa (Team Mingma G)

Sona Sherpa (Team SST)

Mingma Gyalje 'Mingma G' Sherpa (Team Mingma G): I'll start from the beginning. I was on K2 last year but I had to quit because of my health. I had chest pain and I was coughing all the time. This year, I wanted to go back but I didn't want to take any clients with me because I had in my mind that we should make the summit. If we took clients, it would be a burden for us and we might need to quit at some point.

Nims Purja (Team Nimsdai): My first motivation was that K2 was the greatest feat remaining in terms of extreme high altitude mountaineering, so that was a challenge and that's what excites me. Secondly, Nepal is the home of 8000ers and the climbing community here, everyone knows we're the finest mountaineers of them all, but 13 out of 14 first winter ascents were in the name of our international climbing friends. So we wanted to make one at least in the name of Nepal. Most importantly for me, I also wanted to show the world again that nothing is impossible and send a really positive message through this endeavour.

Mingma Gyabu 'Mingma David' Sherpa (Team Nimsdai): K2 is one of my favourite mountains, because it's challenging with so many different styles. It's one of the most technical mountains and most difficult. I like that it is mixed climbing. Some mountains are only easy ice climbing, snow climbing or rock climbing, but there is mixed climbing with ice climbing, rock climbing and snow. That's why I like it.

Mingma G: I started to build my own team and I heard about a K2 project by my Nepalese friends [ed. Mingma Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa and Chhang Dawa Sherpa] and many people were interested. But there were financial problems. For 2020, almost all the Sherpa remained jobless for the whole year. They didn't have any earnings and we were not certain about 2021 as well. All my friends were worried and didn't want to spend such a huge amount of money. So, I chose some friends from my home valley, Rolwaling. I have known them since birth.

Nims: My team comprised of professional Nepalese mountaineers: Mingma David Sherpa, a record-setting climber and rescuer; Geljen Sherpa, who climbed several Himalayan peaks with me in 2019; Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, a highly experienced mountaineer and Sirdar and Dawa Temba Sherpa and Pem Chiri Sherpa, both certified IFMGA mountain guides. Every team member had a sheer desire and determination to make this impossible ascent possible for humankind and for the Nepali climbing community, who have always been at the frontier of 8000m ascents but never received their dues.

Mingma G: It was very important to choose good people to go to K2 with because it was the last, the biggest and the most difficult mountain. I had to be very careful in choosing my team. Just before we left for Pakistan, one of my Sherpas left the expedition because he was worried about frostbite and losing his life. He put the other Sherpa in a dilemma. They wanted to go, but they were worried about safety. When I met their wives, they didn't want to send Kilu and Dawa with me. They were worried about their safety and the biggest problem was that we were climbing in a different country, so if anything happened it would be very difficult to help us. They were very worried, but I was able to convince them in the end and we travelled to Pakistan. Our mission begins from there.

K2 Camps.
K2 Camps.
© Andrew Collins

Before us there was only John Snorri's team in BC from Iceland. They were at BC almost two weeks prior to us. When we reached BC on the 18th, they had fixed the lines to C1, on the same day. While we were making our camp they returned and we just got to say hello, then they came to greet us in the evening as well. Now, we had to work together and they told us we should be responsible for fixing the lines above C1. On the 19th/20th we took two days' rest, trekking from Skardu to BC, we dug the snow on the way. We were very tired when we reached BC.

Mingma David: From Skardu to BC normally takes people eight days, but it takes us just four days. We were quite a strong team and all guys were very experienced. Some of us had already summited K2 before. That's why we were quite fast. After just one day at BC we started to climb. We were all very experienced because we were a Nepalese team.

Nims: The first rotation was was pretty tough because we were not fully acclimatised, and our backpacks weighed more than 35 kilos because we were carrying rope, all the fixing equipment and gear. On top of that, we were carrying our own tent and also food and rations to survive for four days, so that was pretty hard. Normally when people go to BC in a day they chill for a bit, they take time to acclimatise, but we stayed at BC for only one day. So we were kind of operating at double speed.

Mingma David: I definitely thought it would be a challenge, but we we always had hope because we are all strong and six people fixing lines is enough manpower over 8,000 metres. That's why I felt this year we would definitely summit, I always felt that.

Mingma G: On 21 December my team started our plan. We didn't want to cause controversy because lots of people follow different calendars, some follow the astronomical calendar and some follow the meteorological. The astronomical window starts from 20 December, so we wanted to start from 21 December and we went to C1 with very heavy loads, almost 40 kg. We were carrying ropes, tents and gear for three days. We slept in C1 and on January 22nd we fixed the line to C2. On 23rd we stashed some of our gear and rope at C2 and descended to BC. When we were fixing from C1 to C2 it was quite windy and cold, and we were using big gloves on our hands. It was actually very difficult to fix, because from C1 to C2 there are some rocky areas and some icy areas which were more technical. Climbing with big gloves was very difficult, but we successfully fixed the line to C2 and when we returned to BC, Nimsdai and his team arrived.

Nims Purja prior to the summit push.
Nims Purja prior to the summit push.
Sandro Gromen-Hayes, © Nimsdai

Nims: BC was busy, but I always say hello to other people. I kept the morale of our team to ourselves because there were so many climbers. After the first rotation, morale was really low and some other climbing parties were saying 'Oh my God, nobody is going to summit K2 this winter'. Some were saying 'I'm going to give up this job, I'm going to give up my salary.' Basically they were saying that it was impossible, but for me I had been adamant in keeping up the morale of the team and everybody ultimately had a similar attitude. Most of the time we kept to ourselves and we were quite busy trying to make progress in terms of setting fixed lines.

Mingma G: We took two days' rest and then we went back up on the 26th to C1 and on the 27th we climbed to C2 and we set up our camp at 6,800 metres. We started fixing lines towards C3 on the 29th. We fixed to almost 7,000m. Nimsdai and his team were at lower C2 on 29th. On the 30th we requested their help for the fixing campaign. They came from lower C2 to C3. We were fixing lines in the morning and in the middle of the day we met Nimsdai and one of his Sherpas, Mingma Tenzing, and on that day five of us almost reached C3.

Nims: We had never worked together before, but I knew Mingma G was a great climber. I knew that he had done many things before and to be honest, between us we were like little rivals. But then we met at C3 when they were fixing lines and this relationship was made at extreme high altitude. We got back down, we had a chat and realised that our vision, our aim and our objectives were the same. He wanted to do something for the climbing community here in Nepal and for future generations. More importantly, there was no selfishness or agenda. That's why we decided to collaborate and work together. We managed to fix lines just below C3 and then we went back down. We had put our tents up at C2, we had all our summit equipment up there. The plan was to go back down to BC, meet the rest of my team and come up for the summit push the next morning. Unfortunately, this did not happen as when I got to BC, I found my team weren't ready.

Mingma G: We didn't want to go all the way up to C3 because there was a danger of avalanche. It's the most risky place on K2. It can wash away all the camps, but this time it was winter, so most of the snow had blown away and it was more stable. Two hundred metres below C3 we finished our fixing and we returned to C2. On the 31st, we all returned to BC. We met the rest of Nims' team at BC and had a big party because it was New Year's Eve. That created a very good bond between my team and Nims' team. We partied until almost two o'clock in the morning! There was this special moment which was created between both teams. Then we started planning together, we both joined hands to work further together because we wanted to climb to the summit of K2 this time. When we joined hands, it was easier for us. In the beginning, we were actually competing against each other. When we joined hands there was no competition between Nepalese brothers, so it made the team stronger.

Mingma David: When we met Mingma G and his team that made nine people and then [ed. with Sona Sherpa, Seven Summits Treks] we were ten people, which was more than enough manpower. We were now an even stronger team.

Nims: I wanted to take my team back up there for the summit, but then when I got to BC people weren't ready and there were a few issues. So I made the call to not go for the summit on 2 January, where we missed the weather window. Then a pretty horrendous storm arrived and I was upset. My paragliding equipment at C2 was gone as well as my summit equipment and all my insulated batteries for heating etc. I kept a lot of equipment high on the first rotation because then your backpack becomes a bit lighter on the summit push, since then you also have more ropes to carry. But I have a Special Forces background! Everything has a backup plan for a backup plan, but really it was just the paragliding kit that disappeared and otherwise we were fully re-equipped anyway.

Below the chimney.
Below the chimney.
© Mingma G

Mingma G: We got more confidence. We started the climb on the 13th and Team Nimsdai started on the 12th, because they had more loads to carry after C2 was blown away. Our plan was to meet at C3 on the 14th. There were a few foreign friends, they were following our plan too. We got a weather report on the 14th which was very accurate, but there was some problem with the foreign group's weather report, predicting winds at 7,000m or so at 60 km/h, but our report was predicting very good weather on the 14th. So the rest of the climbers stayed at C2, but my team and Team Nimsdai continued and we reached C3 on the 14th. On the 15th it was a lucky day for us, but an unlucky day for our foreign friends. On the 15th, when we were fixing from C3 to C4, we didn't have wind at all. There was wind but in the evening only, above 7,300 metres. There were high winds below 7,300 metres. So our foreign friends who were trying to summit with us couldn't meet us at C3. On the 16th, our plan was to go to the summit. We felt lucky and we felt that now K2 was only for Nepal. Only the Nepalese could make it at this time.

Nims: Personally, I had to calculate every risk to the death, because I was trying to climb without oxygen. I was also a leader and that means I cannot lead my five strong men from behind, so I knew that I had to keep up with them. Our summit plan was to reach the summit and sing our national anthem together, so for me that was something to consider because without oxygen you're gonna be colder and you're gonna be slower, and I didn't want them to wait for hours at the summit for me. Normally people who go without oxygen are four or five hours behind. The final issue was that I wasn't fully acclimatised. I had only slept up to C2 and had only been on the mountain for two weeks. When you climb without oxygen you have to sleep at C4. I also had frost nip on three fingers. But anyway, I made the call! I totally believed in my ability and I had climbed fourteen 8,000 metre peaks last year in just six months and six days. I had plenty of experience under my belt and all of those climbs were successful.

Mingma G: Mingma David, Mingma Tenzing, Sona Sherpa and I, we're all together on the 15th fixing from C3 to C4. We tried to follow the route which we used in the summertime in June/July. When we were close to C4, we found a big crevasse that was impossible to cross. We had to descend almost all the way to C3 to find an alternative way more on the Česen ridge, which took us almost the whole day.

Mingma David: The days of the summit push were the most important and difficult days in our journey. It was very difficult to find C4 this time. I had climbed on the mountain four times before, also in a fixing team. I had summited K2 twice before. In 2014 and 2018 I took different routes from C3 to C4 because there were some crevasses. This year there were also big crevasses and it was very difficult to find the route. Finally, we made it through at 5 p.m. and in just a few hours we had to leave for the summit, so we descended to C3 to rest.

Mingma G: This was very tiring; I almost lost all my energy for getting to the summit. Previously my plan was to climb K2 without oxygen, but when we were fixing C4 I lost all my energy, so on the 16th I decided to use oxygen to go for the summit.

Nims on the summit push
Nims on the summit push
© Nimsdai

Nims: We made the summit push from C3, so that means it's a very, very long push and it was winter. We left C3 around 2 a.m. The weather was so, so cold. Honestly, so cold and next level in the mind - my toes were freezing, my hands were freezing and I was stamping my feet on the blue ice just to warm them up. That happened to all my team members. Everybody was like, 'Wow, this is so cold!' in -65°C, with windchill.

Mingma David: Nims and Dawa Temba started twenty minutes before as Nimsdai was climbing without oxygen. Every step was challenging, because it was very cold with high winds. That was the very difficult part. Every step. We also had to carry rope and make difficult preparations, like fixing rope and other technical things. Every step was very difficult. My main task was being the cameraman. I needed to take video to follow our story. That was one of the most difficult jobs because of the temperature and it was very difficult to use the camera.

Mingma G: When I reached C4 around 4 a.m., my feet were very cold. At that point I almost quit my climb because I felt so cold. I was very worried that I might lose my feet. I almost quit, but it was lucky that when I tried to contact my friends on the radio, their radios were off. It was not a good idea, without telling the others, to turn back then, anyway, so I continued further and after two hours there was sunshine, which was providing life to me. I continued behind the team. I was not leading the team on this day, I was lagging behind because I almost lost all my energy the previous day. I just continued with the team and it was just kind of encouraging, when everyone was climbing. If somebody turned back then, everyone would lose hope. When everyone continues, we encourage each other.

Mingma Tenzi, Mingma G and Mingma David after fixing C4.
Mingma Tenzi, Mingma G and Mingma David after fixing C4.
© Mingma G

Mingma David: I met Mingma G after the Bottleneck. I felt that he maybe needed help, but he's very strong and then he was always in front of me. I took some video. Night time was more challenging because of the wind, then the temperature. But preparation-wise, we managed everything.

Nims: It was a bit windy, but I think when your purpose and your goal is bigger than you, you're not selfish and you have no agendas. If you have a purpose that you truly believe from your heart and soul, then you get an inner strength and you have a reason why you want to push yourself even harder. Eventually, when the sun came out it brought life to us. Obviously it was getting a bit warmer and we started progressing. It was one hell of an amazingly, horrendously... emotionally... I don't know... a next level experience!

Mingma David: When we came into the sun it was quite good, because we could see each other and take care of each other.

200 metres below the summit.
200 metres below the summit.
© Mingma G

Mingma G: All ten of us made the summit at around 4:45 p.m. I had climbed K2 in 2014 and 2017, twice before, so I knew what I could see. I knew everything about K2, but this time it was something different, because it was a first winter ascent and no Nepalese climbers had made a first winter ascent previously, so this was a proud moment for Nepal. Now we can say we're in the list of first winter ascents. When we all reached the summit we were marching towards it singing the Nepalese national anthem. That was something heart-touching. Emotionally I cannot explain it, but this is one of my lifetime memories. It was kind of magical.

सयौँ थूंगा फूलका Sayaun Thunga Phulka/Made of Hundreds of Flowers

Woven from hundreds of flowers, we are one garland that's Nepali,
Sovereignly spread across from Mechi to Mahakali.

A shawl of unending natural wealth,
From the blood of the braves, a nation free and immovable.

A land of knowledge and peace, the plains, hills and mountains tall,
Unscathed, this beloved land of ours, O motherland Nepal.

Diverse races, languages, religions, and cultures of incredible sprawl,
This progressive nation of ours, all hail Nepal!

Mingma G and Dawa Tenjin on the summit.
Mingma G and Dawa Tenjin on the summit.
© Mingma G

Nims: The moment when we stopped and everybody was brother to brother, shoulder to shoulder walking together on the summit... It was emotional. Some of my team members were in tears. There was a sense of achievement for everybody, it was a fair deal and when it's a fair deal, greater things happen. If just one man gets to the summit and the rest of the people were working hard, then it's not equal success, it's not good. But more than that, we wanted to send a message to the world as we've got so many issues going on right now with the pandemic, global warming and all these bigger crises that are out there. Nepal is a third world country, our country is very small and we're very poor people, but we have a big heart. We wanted to show that anything is possible if you unite and if you work together, so that was the agenda behind the summit.

Mingma David: I had climbed all fourteen 8,000 metre peaks, including Everest six times and K2 twice before, but this moment was quite different, quite important, as a Nepalese climber. We also climbed the mountain in a different style, all together. In all of my climbing career, this is the best moment.

Nims Purja on the summit of K2.
Nims Purja on the summit of K2.
© Nimsdai

Mingma G: We were quite late, but that was the plan due to the weather window. We were expecting to reach the summit before 2 p.m., but since this was winter it was more difficult and took more time. We had fixed lines all the way to the summit. When we reached the summit we were not worried. We were all feeling OK, nothing serious. The descent was easier for us, just rappelling very quickly.

Mingma David: Because I felt low energy levels the descent was difficult for me because of the cold and I was coughing. It was very slow and physical. I arrived at C3 at 9 p.m.

Nims: We stayed at C3 because there was an incident, there was a huge rock fall. Honestly, the speed of the rocks comes like torpedos, like artillery firing at you. A lot of people die coming down at night as there are so many loose rocks and we didn't want to have any fatalities or incidents, so we stayed at C3.

Mingma David: I heard the bad news one day before the summit. I heard on the radio that someone fell down below C1 but I didn't know who it was. Next morning at C3 I heard that Sergi Mingote had fallen. I felt bad because we met a very long time ago and then we also summited K2 together. We also summited Nanga Parbat last year when we were completing Project Possible. We took videos together at C2 and when we were both in Kathmandu.

Nims: We had mixed feelings because we lost our friend Sergi Mingote. We did not celebrate immediately on arrival at BC. Then there was a feeling of success, of human endeavour. The following days, the weather was bad. Normally, we always party, we always smile because what we believe as a team is that you don't have to be grumpy and stay hardened, you've got to smile and if there's a way that you can create a positive vibe then you should be doing that, because it's all about having positivity all around.

Mingma G: We didn't have celebrations when we arrived at BC. When Sergi died on 16 January, we only got the news on the 17th when we were descending as our BC team didn't want us to worry. When we reached BC we got all the news regarding Sergi and also another Sherpa accident [ed. Jangbu Sherpa was injured by a rock]. There was no point celebrating at BC. We were very happy inside and feeling very proud, but we were sad as well. We went to our tents, we ate, had our dinner and slept. We celebrated later and by then everything was out on the Internet. Now we are getting tired because of so many receptions and parties!

Nims: It's been overwhelming to be honest. It started with meeting the President of Pakistan, then the Chief of Army, one of the most powerful men in the world. Most importantly, the people of Pakistan made us feel like their own. The respect they were giving, the warm welcome was honestly top level. In Nepal we had a really good VIP welcome then we went to the Prime Minister's residence. Everybody knows about this and everybody's so happy and it's such a good feeling. I think we needed this at this time, with the pandemic, with the crisis going on, with the economy falling down. Everybody could be part of this, everybody could be happy through this climb.

Mingma David: Our summit is very important to Nepalese climbers, they are happy. Also, we climbed as ten people. People think climbing is more about competition from one person to another person, but if we were competitive with each other we would not succeed together. This is a good thing for Nepalese people and all climbers, happening for the first time in mountaineering history. Ten people climbing together, tied together and succeeding. We are very happy, and climbers and people all over the world are too, I think. Everyone is welcoming us warmly. Every day since, we are busy!

The team would like to remember the five lives lost on K2 during this latest winter season:

Sergi Mingote (ESP) Atanas Skatov (BUL) Muhammad Ali Sadpara (PAK) John Snorri Sigurjonsson (ISL) Juan Pablo Mohr Prieto (CIL)

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