A climb where one in every 5 climbers die? The world's 2nd highest peak.
THEY HAD ONE SHOT
Monday, February 21, 2022
In today’s newsletter, we report on one year on Mars, THE president of Presidents’ Day, the half-million people who described race in six words … and where the humble catfish was sacred.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINGMA DAVID SHERPA
By Peter Gwin, Editor at Large
In December 2020, with much of the world in COVID lockdown, a group of Nepali climbers made the frigid two-week trek to a base camp on the desolate Godwin-Austen Glacier in Pakistan. As they trudged through deep snow, they dreamed about pulling off one of the boldest feats in mountaineering history—climbing K2, the world’s second highest mountain, in winter.
Only the most seasoned mountaineers attempt to climb K2 in any season. It’s known as the Savage Mountain because, though it’s a little more than two football fields shorter than Mount Everest, it’s much steeper and requires far more technical skill to climb. One wrong move can lead to tragedy. For every four climbers who make it to K2’s summit and back down safely, another dies in the attempt—and that’s during the summer. In winter, a rogue’s gallery of mortal threats—from severe frostbite and hurricane-force winds to falling rocks and fierce blizzards—awaits anyone who sets a crampon onto its flanks.
So why would a mountaineer even consider such a death-defying climb? The short answer—it was the last unclaimed ‘first’ among the world’s biggest mountains. “It’s not complicated,” says Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, one of the co-leaders of the Nepali team. “We wanted to make history for our country.”
The great race to reach the planet’s highest summits gained momentum in the mid-20th century. Fourteen mountains rise more than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) above sea level, and in 1950, two Frenchmen became the first people to stand on the top of one of them—Nepal’s Annapurna. Over the next decade, teams led by climbers from Europe, the U.S., Japan, and China would claim first summits on the other 13, winning fame for themselves and glory for their countries.
Twenty years later, two Polish climbers upped the ante by ascending Everest in February, claiming the first 8,000-meter peak in winter. This achievement set off a new race. By 2016, 13 of the eight-thousanders had been climbed in winter, leaving only K2.
To Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, who goes by Mingma G, there was a glaring omission in the record books. Nepal has long been famous for its mountaineers—most notably Tenzing Norgay had joined New Zealander Edmund Hillary as the first two people to summit Everest—but Nepalis had never claimed a major first all their own. And in the winter of 2020-21, there was only one left.
So Mingma G rounded up a team. At the K2 base camp in Pakistan, he met Nirmal “Nims” Purja (shown at top), leader of another all-Nepali team. After a whiskey-fueled New Year’s Eve party, the two men agreed to join forces and began planning how they would make mountaineering history for Nepal on the Savage Mountain.
You can read our inside account of this epic climb in the February issue, and you can listen to Mingma G and Nims describe how they pulled if off on this week’s new episode of Overheard.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SANDRO GROMEN-HAYES
After summiting K2, here’s the first all-Nepali team to claim an 8,000-meter climbing record. Top row, from left: Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Gelje Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa. Middle row, from left: Dawa Tenjin Sherpa, Nirmal “Nims” Purja, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, Sona Sherpa, Kilu Pemba Sherpa, and (in front) Mingma Tenzi Sherpa.