Four expeditions are attempting the first winter ascent of K2: Alex Gavan discusses current efforts

Posted on: January 13, 2021


UPDATE, January 16:A team of 10 Nepali/Sherpa climbers from separate expeditions climbed the final meters to the summit together as one group at 5 p.m., completing K2's first winter ascent. You can find our story about that here.

UPDATE, January 15: Alan Arnette reports that a new all-time winter high point has been attained—7800 meters—by Mingma Gyalje Sherpa and Seven Summit Treks leaders Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa and Sona Sherpa. They have reached Camp 4 and hope to stand on the summit within the next 24 hours.

K2 (8611m) looms above base camp on the Godwin Austen Glacier. [Photo] Alex GavanK2 (8611m) looms above base camp on the Godwin-Austen Glacier. The day Alex Gavan and Tamara Lunger arrived was "one of the few days in which we could fully enjoy his view," Gavan wrote. [Photo] Alex Gavan

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There are currently four expeditions laboring for the first winter ascent of K2 (8611m), which is the last 8000-meter peak yet to be climbed in the coldest, harshest season. The efforts between the four groups are in part both collective and separate. As of January 12, ropes have been fixed to Camp 3, just above 7300 meters, but that camp has yet to be fully established and recent high winds have destroyed and scattered gear at the lower camps.

The four groups include the large commercial operation of Seven Summit Treks (SST), a Nepali company founded by six brothers, two of whom have climbed all 14 8000-meter peaks; the three-person, Nepali/Sherpa team of Mingma Gyalje Sherpa ("Mingma G"), Dawa Tenzin Sherpa and Kili Pemba Sherpa; Nirmal "Nims" Purja's group that includes six Nepali/Sherpa climbers in support; and another three-person team that consists of John Snorri Sigurjonsson (Iceland) with Muhammad Ali Sadpara and his son Sajid (Pakistan).

The Seven Summits Treks expedition consists of 22 clients and 27 staff members. Not surprisingly, SST's ambition to guide people on a winter ascent that has yet to be accomplished by the best climbers in the world has brought plenty of controversy. Professional climbers Alex Gavan (Romania) and Tamara Lunger (Italy) are counted as members of the SST expedition, but Gavan told Alpinist that he and Lunger are only affiliated with the group for logistical support.

"We are sharing the base camp logistics with one other expedition for efficiency reasons but other than that we have our own climbing strategy and acclimatization schedule, our own decision making on and off the mountain and even our own base-camp dining tent," Gavan wrote in an email.

Gavan offered an interview to Alpinist to give readers his perspective on how things are going on the mountain. This is Gavan's first winter attempt on an 8000-meter peak and his first time on K2, but he has climbed seven other 8000ers without bottled oxygen, achieving first, second and third Romanian ascents of those peaks in the process. Lunger, meanwhile, has already climbed K2 without bottled oxygen, via the Abruzzi Spur in 2014. In 2016 she came within 70 meters of joining Ali Sadpara, Simone Moro (Italy) and Alex Txikon (Spain) on the summit of Nanga Parbat (8125m) for the first winter ascent of that peak. She has other winter expedition experience as well, including a winter attempt on Manaslu (8163m) with Moro in 2015.

The following Q&A with Gavan has been edited for clarity.

Lunger setting up the tent at the Japanese Camp at 5750 meters. Broad Peak is in the background with the Godwin Austen Glacier below. [Photo] Alex GavanLunger setts up the tent at the Japanese Camp at 5750 meters. Broad Peak is in the background with the Godwin-Austen Glacier below. [Photo] Alex Gavan

Gavan's most recent update from January 11:

The new forecast we got shows a good weather window over the next couple of days. Due to the usual unstable K2 winter weather, any reasonable fair weather window must be used at the maximum. So after thoughtful consideration, Tamara and myself decided to further our acclimatization and make another equipment deposit at altitude. The plan is to climb to Camp 1 on January 13. If the wind is too high, we will also spend the next day there. If not, we will establish Camp 2 and on January 15, climb over the Black Pyramid, set Camp 3 at around 7300 meters and spend another acclimatization night there. By January 16, we need to be back at Base Camp, because [on January 17 the wind is forecasted] to be more than 80 kilometers per hour (kph) at 6000 meters.

Over the last couple of days all tents from Camp 2 were destroyed by the high winds, and many climbers lost also essential equipment. Our stuff in Camp 1 is still there since we took down the tent and packed it together with the equipment inside and secured it to the rocks.

Are all expeditions still focused on the Abruzzi?

This year all climbers are focused on the Abruzzi Spur, the original line of the mountain's first ascent in 1954.... The lessons taken from [previous winter attempts point to] the Abruzzi as the...the most probable route to follow for reaching a first winter summit of the K2. To date, the highest point reached during winter [is about] 7650m.

What is your high point so far? Do you know how the other expeditions are faring?

We were the last team to arrive at the base camp at 4970m, on the Godwin-Austen Glacier. The first to arrive were the teams of John Snorri, Ali Sadpara (who was part of the first winter summit team on Nanga Parbat in 2016), and [Sadpara's] son Sajid on December 5, then Mingma G's team on December 18 and Nirmal Purja on December 25.

In their first night at base camp, Snorri's kitchen tent was blown up by the strong wind, and one of the staff was totally bathed by a full bowl of water while immersed in his sleeping bag.

[As of January 7], the highest point reached [this season] is the lower Camp 3 at about 7300 meters, above the Black Pyramid. The route finding on the glacier from Base Camp to the Advanced Base Camp and then the rope fixing to Camp 1 was entirely done by Snorri's team; then the rope fixing from Camp 1 to Camp 2 has been made by Mingma G's team. And from Camp 2 to lower Camp 3 the line fixing was a combined effort by the teams of Mingma G and Nirmal [Purja].

Since Tamara and I arrived, we spent four nights in base camp for proper acclimatization then we took advantage of the only fairly good weather window, and on January 2, we climbed up to [the] Japanese Camp at about 5750 meters, where we stopped for the night, since the small spot of Camp 1 at 6070 meters can only accommodate six or seven tents, maximum, and this extremely small real estate was already booked for the evening. On January 3 we reached Camp 1 [and by then] the weather had completely changed from what the forecast predicted. The wind was picking up fast, and we decided to retreat to base camp the next day, postponing our climb to Camp 2 as initially intended. It proved to be the right decision. The climbing conditions [improved after that, as the wind scoured] the face completely dry. [There was] zero risk of avalanches and just perfect, firm snow and beautiful ice to climb on. My heart was full of joy climbing with just my two ice axes, not tethered to anything, but then I clipped a carabiner onto the fixed ropes after I saw some falling rocks, and then later I used an ascender for added safety.

One word about the route fixing: It is quite customary in Himalayan climbing, although not necessarily wise, to use old ropes or anchors from previous expeditions where it is possible to do so. Such it is the case with the current K2 winter season. Some of the ropes are indeed new, but significant portions of them are not. On December 4, midway to Camp 1, one of these old ropes snapped and it is truly remarkable that no one died.

How has the weather been up to now?

I think we were blessed to have such a good weather on the trek to the base camp. Then the following days were also wonderful—an unusual long period of stable weather compared to the previous attempts. In one of the days I even took a shower in our shower tent. At the time of this writing [January 7], everyone is at the base camp with no hope of going up earlier than on the January 10, optimistically. For January 8, one forecast says 105 kph at the summit with real feel of -77 Celsius and 45 kph at the base camp with real feel of -35 Celsius. We folded down and anchored our tent and other equipment the best we could at Camp 1, so hopefully it will still be there when we return*. We also heavily anchored all of our tents at base camp. Sometimes the air is so cold that it just hurts to have it in the lungs.

The main concern for Tamara and me is to avoid frostbite. It can happen so fast and we take care of this to the best of our abilities. Before we can contemplate a summit push, we first need to spend al least one night in Camp 3 to acclimatize at 7350 meters, if not higher. And low winds are crucial for surviving the extreme cold we will encounter during a potential summit day. All in all, I feel that K2 winter is about living fully and mindfully and responsibly one day at a time.

[*On January 10, Nims Purja posted on Facebook that Camp 2 was "a wreckage site." He continued: "We found that both our tents and all equipments that we had left here for the summit plan are all destroyed and swept away by the wind. We have lost everything, including all our kits, sleeping bags, mattresses, heated shoe insoles, summit gloves/mittens, summit base layers, paragliding equipment, cooking equipment etc. I am devastated to be breaking this news. Now, I have to reassess and replan everything." On January 11, he posted: "Setbacks are inevitable in life specially when you are pushing your limits and it should only make you become stronger. As you may know (or may not), I always have a backup plan for a backup plan. I am just a bit gutted about missing another summit window. However, the plan is still ON and summit plan will be pushed a bit late in the season. Today I will be regrouping with my team. We will need to do another heavy load carry to the higher camps just like last time but maybe a bit heavier. It will have to a bigger push this time. The plan is to complete fixing lines up to Camp 4, weather permitting."]

Did you start the trek on Christmas Day as originally planned?

Tamara and myself arrived in Skardu on December 22. We consider the winter Himalayan and Karakoram climbing season to follow the Northern Hemisphere calendar, from December 21 to March 20 [for 2021].... According to this view, for a true winter ascent, an expedition should arrive at the base camp no earlier than the official start of the winter and the summit is to be reached no later than the last day of the official end of the winter. Of course, the coldest months are January and February and some of the purists of the purists...consider that a summit should not be attained later than the last day of February. At the same time, true winter conditions are possible to be found also outside of this framework, but reaching the summit or organizing an expedition outside of this framework will probably start a never-ending debate as is often the case with many things mountaineering related. However, this is not to start any kind of controversy for the current winter K2 season, just to point out what [our] accepted framework of climbing in winter is. In the end, everybody has the free will to do whatever feels right for them and that is the magic of it.

We started our trek to the base camp on Christmas and arrived there on December 29. This was earlier than expected, mainly because of two reasons. First, the weather was unusually stable, with low wind and almost no new snow, even though the sky was overcast for most of the trek. The distance is [about] 100 kilometers in heavily fragmented terrain, mainly on the Baltoro Glacier, [one of the] longest glaciers [on] the planet outside of the polar regions. The second reason is that the distance is now shortened by a day. [In] the last year the Pakistan army [built] an extension of the road that initially stopped in the village of Askole—it now reaches Jhula, the first of our camping spots....

Since we are here to stay for an indefinite amount of time, [long enough to either climb the mountain or until we have reason to back off], all our personal equipment, food and the necessary things to keep us prepared and well for an extended expedition weighed no less than 320 kg (about 705 lbs.). And we took nothing we considered not to be truly useful....

How are you and Tamara feeling physically and emotionally?

I am deeply grateful to have Tamara by my side and I could not wish for a better partner than her for this expedition. We resonate to the deepest levels of our being when it comes down to the way we relate to the mountains, and in particular in the way we envision the upcoming two or three months.

Camp 1 at 6070 meters. [Photo] Alex GavanCamp 1 at 6070 meters: "After two acclimatization nights spent at altitude we look much more fresh than in reality," Gavan wrote. "Nevertheless we are happy to be here on such a magnificent mountain. We had to postpone our initial plan to also set up Camp 2 at 6760 meters because of changing weather. The Broad Peak massif is in the background." [Photo] Alex Gavan

Tamara has climbed K2 before; is this your first time on the mountain?

Yes, this is my first physical encounter with the K2, although I feel I met its spirit many times in meditation. It is like a larger-than-life non-biological form of life, a larger-than-life non-biological manifestation of existence, but a "being" nonetheless. Otherwise, out of the four 8000-meter giants of the Karakoram, it is only of K2 that I now kindly ask permission to allow me to touch its summit. I have climbed Gasherbrum I (8080m) in 2007, Broad Peak [8051m] in 2014 and Gasherbrum II [8034m] in 2019. Also, this expedition also marks the first attempt of a Romanian on an 8000-meter winter climb.

How does this experience compare so far to your other high-altitude forays?

Each mountain has its very own personality, its very own character. All of my seven 8000-meter summits were attained without supplemental oxygen.... Each and every one of them was a great lesson in itself and I am blessed to have received all of them. At the same time I am also grateful to all of the many mountains that did not allow me to step on their highest point. They have taught me priceless lessons as well. I feel K2 in winter can only be climbed by having and manifesting great loving kindness and by truly allowing oneself TO BE.

On January 4, at around 6000 meters, Lunger down climbs a steep section of the route shortly after starting to descend from Camp 1 because of high winds and worsening weather. [Photo] Alex GavanOn January 4, at around 6000 meters, Lunger down climbs a steep section of the route shortly after starting to descend from Camp 1 because of high winds and worsening weather. [Photo] Alex Gavan

How is everyone getting along in base camp? (By all accounts it is an unprecedented number of people in base camp for this time of year.)

I am not entitled nor wish to speak [for others], but Tamara and myself are here among both old and new friends.... [On January 6] we had a yoga session together with some of them. We are lucky to have them along on this magnificent journey.

One bit of wonderful news is that we spotted tracks of [a] snow leopard [that must have been] checking the camp for food leftovers. It is such an inspirational thing, given the fact that this animal is [so rarely seen, it's like] an apparition.

How do the commercial clients seem to be handling everything?

The commercial clients are not ours; we just share base camp logistics with them. To date, two people have been helicoptered out from the base camp. One high-altitude staff member [was evacuated for] frostbite and another climber for a hernia. At least two other people have minor frostbite and do not yet want to call it a day.... Indeed, there are more than 60 climbers with different levels of experience this winter season on K2. Certainly a record number. I just wish from the heart everyone to have the internal power and honesty to make their own decisions based on an egoless approach. Anything other than that could invite disaster. [Alan Arnette reported other health-related mishaps on his blog January 13.]

Out of all the climbers present now for the K2 winter, to the best of my knowledge...only four are confirmed to climb without supplemental oxygen: Sergi Mingote (Spain), Juan Pablo Mohr (Chile), Tamara Lunger and myself.

[A Rock and Ice article by Arnette posted on January 12 indicated that Mattia Conte (Italy), Magdalena Gorzkowska (Poland), and Mingma G have also avoided using bottled oxygen so far.]

A strategy meeting in the base camp dining tent with friends Muhammad Ali Sadpara (center right) and John Snorri Sigurjonsson (right). [Photo] Alex GavanA strategy meeting in the base camp dining tent with friends Muhammad Ali Sadpara (center right) and John Snorri Sigurjonsson (right). "Good vibes all the way," Gavan writes. [Photo] Alex Gavan

Anything else you wish to add?

For a long time now, I have promoted high-altitude climbing by fair means, meaning without supplemental oxygen and [high-altitude staff]—I cannot turn a blind eye to the current winter K2 situation. It is only honest to acknowledge that many sections in the upper part of the mountain will be fixed [with rope, aided by] the help of the gas. It keeps you warm, protects you from frostbite and influx you with renewed energy; it gives you the possibility to operate for a more extended period of time in that extreme environment, thus [there is a] much larger safety margin [for those using it] compared to the climbers who are not using it. With the combined manpower currently existing at base camp, and if K2 is meant to be climbed this season, it is only realistic to [assume] that the first party to arrive at the top will be wearing an oxygen supply. And at the same time, if K2 is to be climbed without supplemental oxygen this season, [those climbers] will definitely have benefitted from the work of the people [who used] oxygen. This is an undeniable truth. Anyone [who can] stand on the summit this season, with or without oxygen, will not do so individually but [because of] the combined effort of everyone working hard on the mountain, from the people [fixing ropes] to the kitchen staff in base camp and the local porters [who helped carry] the gear to the base camp. But let's just see how the energies will unfold....

Tamara and myself are not here for the race to be the first to the top of K2 in winter. Still more, we are not interested in this race and we do not belong to any kind of summit rush and fever. We are not in any kind of competition with other teams on the mountain. Instead we are bringing our energy and equipment for collaboration to work up the route together in the spirit of abundance, generosity and altruism. It is my deep belief that mountains are to be climbed not only with ice tools and crampons, which we all can have, but above everything else, with humbleness. For myself, climbing mountains outside is climbing mountains inside. To me, K2 is a great teacher and a great master that I revere, not some gigantic pile of rock to be desecrated by a Victorian mindset of conquest. Going without supplemental oxygen is not only a choice we deem ethical but the only fair means approach we can envision.... For us, being on the steep and icy slopes is foremost a spiritual matter, and only secondary a climbing feat. Ascension is always from within. [A version of this paragraph also appears on Gavan's blog.]

For more frequent updates on the progress of all the K2 teams, check out Alan Arnette's blog.

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