Winter conquest of K2 mountain takes adventure travel to the extreme

Ten Nepalese climbers achieved the first winter ascent on K2 in January 2021, but five climbers have died on the 'savage mountain' so far in 2021.

Nepalese climbers celebrate the first successful winter ascent of K2 mountain at the summit on Jan. 16, 2021.
Nepalese climbers celebrate the first successful winter ascent of K2 mountain at the summit on Jan. 16, 2021.

By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com

Even the most basic travel has been challenging amid the pandemic. Leave it to Colin O’Brady to take it to extremes. Because that’s what he does.

When you’ve trekked alone across Antarctica as O’Brady did in 2018, what do you do for an encore?

To begin 2021, the 35-year-old adventurer from Oregon set his sights on K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain, previously unconquered during winter and rarely during any season.

Adventure travel has become a major segment of international tourism since the first ascent of Mount Everest in the 1950s. But O’Brady is among a small community seeking more than high-octane adrenaline.

O’Brady has a thing for geographical firsts. His claim as the first to cross Antarctica alone and without assistance has sparked controversy regarding the 932-mile route he took. That’s for those in the polar expedition community to debate, and they have — see National Geographic: The problem with Colin O’Brady.

Any way you plot it, it was long, frigid hike in the snow (on skis, actually). This year’s assault on the K2 peak in Pakistan is on a whole other level — an imposing 28,251-foot monolith, and no shortcut to the top.

The peak of K2 mountain is considered a more treacherous climb than Mount Everest. The summit hadn't been reached in winter until a team of 10 Nepalese did so on Jan. 16, 2021.
The peak of K2 mountain is considered a more treacherous climb than Mount Everest. The summit hadn’t been reached in winter until a team of 10 Nepalese did so on Jan. 16, 2021.

More savage than Everest

Although not as high as Everest, K2 is regarded as considerably more treacherous and dangerous, long known as the “Savage Mountain.” In 2008, 11 climbers died there over two days.

The drama that played out over recent weeks, a tale of triumph and tragedy, has reaffirmed that reputation.

While such a remote and forbidding place might seem the most socially distanced travel destination in the time of COVID-19, that has not been the case. O’Brady was just one of at least 49 climbers who set sights on a historic winter ascent in early 2021.

A team of 10 climbers from Nepal took advantage of a rare break in the weather and succeeded in reaching the peak on Jan. 16, 2021.

But this winter breakthrough on K2 has come at a steep price. Two climbers have fallen to their deaths and three others have been missing since Feb. 5 when contact was lost with the base camp as they attempted the final push to the top through the perilous gully known as the Bottleneck.

Searches by military helicopters have failed to find any trace of the three: celebrated Pakistani mountaineer Muhammad Ali Sadpara, John Snorri of Iceland and Juan Pablo Mohr of Chile.

Climbers Juan Pablo Mohr, Muhammad Ali Sadpara and John Snorri have been missing since Feb. 5 when they attempted to make their way up the final segment of the K2 mountain in Pakistan.
Climbers (from left) Juan Pablo Mohr, Muhammad Ali Sadpara and John Snorri have been missing since Feb. 5 when they attempted to make their way up the final segment of the K2 mountain in Pakistan.

Three climbers missing since Feb. 5

Social media provided first-hand accounts of developments on the mountain as events unfolded over the past month, including Instagram reports by O’Brady and Canadian adventure filmmaker Elia Saikaly.

O’Brady made it as far as Camp 3 at elevation 23,000 feet, the last stop before the Bottleneck. He was there with Sadpara, Snorri and Mohr before “I, for some reason, chose to listen to my gut and turn back. The other three chose to press on and haven’t been seen since,” O’Brady wrote on Instagram.

American Colin O'Brady, left, and Bulgarian climber Atanas Skatov at Camp 3 on K2 about an hour before Skatov plunged to his death while descending. (Colin O'Brady, Instagram)
American Colin O’Brady, left, and Bulgarian climber Atanas Skatov at Camp 3 on K2 about an hour before Skatov plunged to his death while descending. (Colin O’Brady, Instagram)

O’Brady posted a photo of himself with Bulgarian climber Atanas Skatov taken just before beginning his descent from Camp 3. An hour later Skatov, also descending, fell to his death.

Saikaly, who also chose to turn back and was on his way down wrote, “[Skatov] flew off K2 right over our heads and plummeted to his death. I saw it all and yelled in horror.”

Saikaly, from Ottawa, was on the mountain to film a documentary on the efforts of Snorri, Sadpara and Sadpara’s son Sajid (who stopped at Camp 3).

“It’s hard to believe that I’m here again — a witness to tragedy on the world’s tallest peaks,” Saikaly wrote on Instagram after leaving the mountain. He has continued to post tributes to the lost climbers.

Catalan climber Sergi Mingote also died after a fall earlier in the season.

Napalese climbers get overdue glory

Ironically, it was due to the coronavirus pandemic that climbers were challenging K2 this winter.

The ten Nepalese climbers (nine of them ethnic Sherpas) who reached the peak of K2 operate as guides in the Himalayas. The pandemic shut down climbing activity on Everest and elsewhere for much of 2020, prompting plans for the winter expeditions at K2 by a number of teams.

It was fitting that the Nepalese climbers finally got the glory from what was viewed as the last frontier of mountain climbing — K2 was the only one of the world’s 14 26,000-foot peaks that hadn’t been reached in winter as well as summer. They have been the backbone of the sport without receiving much credit since Sherpa Tenzing Norgay helped New Zealander Edmund Hillary conquer Everest in 1953.

For decades they have done the grunt work, facilitators for many foreign adventure travelers to fulfill their dreams at extreme altitude.

So when the notorious winds atop K2 took a brief respite, the Nepalese climbers made their move through the Bottleneck as a group and claimed the achievement for their country by singing the Nepalese national anthem as they reached the summit.

The group was led by Mingma Gyalje Sherpa and Nirmal Purja Pun Magar, and included Gelje Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Kilu Pemba Sherpa, Dawa Tenjing Sherpa, and Sona Sherpa.

Making ‘the impossible possible’

In a statement from the summit, Purja said: “We set out to make the impossible possible and we are honored to be sharing this moment, not only with the Nepalese climbing community but with communities all across the world.”

There had been six unsuccessful winter attempts to scale K2 since 1987. Fewer than 400 have reached the peak during spring and summer.

American Colin O'Brady was among at least 49 climbers with aspirations to reach the summit of K@ mountain in Pakistan in the winter of 2021. Ten Nepalese climbers succeeded in reaching the peak. (Colin O'Brady, Instagram)
American Colin O’Brady was among at least 49 climbers with aspirations to reach the summit of K2 mountain in Pakistan in the winter of 2021. Ten Nepalese climbers succeeded in reaching the peak. (Colin O’Brady, Instagram)

A combination of factors combine to make passage through the Bottleneck virtually “impossible” in the winter: temperatures typically minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, exacerbated by winds that can blow 60 mph for days.

At elevations above 26,000 feet, climbers must move slowly to avoid high-altitude pulmonary edema which can lead to fatal cerebral edema. Meanwhile they are exposed to the perils of falling masses of ice common in the Bottleneck.

“Some pieces were the size of a house,” Purja reported of conditions on the day the team made the successful ascent. “You get intimidated by that. … I was just praying to the mountain. This time we needed passage, and the mountain allowed us permission.”

The willingness to take such risks for the chance to stand on a mountaintop — underscored by the deaths in the weeks that followed — is difficult for many of us to relate to. I look forward to returning to my favorite ski slope post pandemic, always thrilled just to be on the mountain.

Adventure travel has wide appeal

The adventure tourism industry has great appeal with those seeking to step out of their comfort zone and push personal limits, often in remote, exotic and even hostile areas.

The challenges and boundaries vary with the individual. Thus a wide range of adventure travel activities fall under the umbrella, classified from soft to hard adventure.

The impulse is rooted in the early explorers. Inspiration can be traced to the feats of people like Hillary and Norgay and polar pioneers such as Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott.

Commercial adventure travel led by professional guides and supported by sophisticated equipment and proven methods evolved from there.

Polarholidays.com is among travel agencies that book tours and cruises to the polar regions. (Polarholidays.com)
Polarholidays.com is among travel agencies that book tours and cruises to the polar regions, a popular segment of adventure travel. (Polarholidays.com)

The industry is growing rapidly, especially among a young demographic: The global adventure tourism market was valued at $586.3 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $1,626.7 billion in 2026, according to analysis by alliedmarketresearch.com.

Soft adventure tourism is especially popular, including activities such as backpacking, camping, hiking, scuba diving and kayaking (sea and whitewater), often led by professional guides.

Fishing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, eco-tourism and safaris also fall under the soft adventure category.

Here is USA Today’s list of the ten best adventure travel companies.

Mountaineering, polar trekking risky, pricy

Hard adventure tourism is for those seeking more of an adrenaline rush in riskier activities such as caving, mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing, trekking and sky diving.

Seven Summit Treks, based in Kathmandu, which leads expeditions to the world’s most challenging mountains, spearheaded this winter’s expeditions on K2.
Mountaineering is as costly as it is risky. A guided expedition to the most challenging mountains, including Everest, runs $100,000.

Polar trekking — in the Arctic and Antarctica — is popular and spans a wide range of challenges. The majority of the 50,000 tourists who visit Antarctica annually (pre-pandemic) come on cruises and opt for various excursions on the ice.

For the more adventuresome, there is Antarctica’s Ski the Last Degree expedition. It involves skiing the final ten days of the trek to the South Pole, using sleds to haul provisions. Adventure Consultants offers the 15-day adventure for $65,790.

Nirmal Purja was one of the leaders of the team of Nepalese climbers who reached the summit of K2. (Twitter)
Nirmal Purja was one of the leaders of the team of Nepalese climbers who reached the summit of K2. (Twitter)

The quest for historic firsts has gotten sparser with this winter’s successful summit of K2. But the desire to venture to places where few have tread may be stronger than ever.

Purja was explaining what drew his team of Nepalese on the death-defying climb on K2, but he eloquently summarized the allure for all adventure travelers:

“Mother nature always has bigger things to say and standing on the summit, witness to the sheer force of her extremities, we are proud to have been a part of history for humankind and to show that collaboration, teamwork and a positive mental attitude can push limits to what we feel might be possible.”

 

 

A novel by Craig Davis

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Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis