A team of Nepali climbers made history on Saturday after becoming the first to summit Pakistan’s K2 in winter, on the same afternoon a Spanish mountaineer fell and died lower down the perilous peak.
Dozens of climbers have been competing over the past few weeks to summit the world’s second highest mountain, the last peak above 8,000 metres (26,000 feet) to be topped in wintertime.
“WE DID IT,” tweeted Seven Summit Treks, a trekking company leading one of the expeditions.
“The Karakorum’s ‘Savage Mountain’ been summited in most dangerous season: winter. Nepalese climbers finally reached the summit of Mt K2 this afternoon at 17:00 local time.”
But the success was overshadowed by the death of a Spanish climber, Sergi Mingote, lower down the mountain.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez described him as a “great sportsman” on Twitter, writing: “He wanted to keep on making history… and a tragic accident ended his life.”
The Alpine Club of Pakistan said in a statement that the climber fell while descending to Base Camp shortly before 4 pm.
Secretary Karrar Haidri added the club was helping to coordinate the evacuation of the body, but with weather conditions expected to be poor overnight, it would be done on Sunday morning.
The name “Savage Mountain” comes from the punishing conditions there — winds can blow at more than 200 kilometres per hour (125 miles per hour) and temperatures can drop to minus 60 degrees Celsius (minus 76 Fahrenheit).
Since the maiden attempt in 1987-1988, just a handful of winter expeditions have been tried on the storied 8,611-metre (28,250-foot) peak in the Karakoram range along the Chinese border.
None had got higher than 7,650 metres until Saturday, when the good conditions allowed the successful team to push ahead.
The 10 Nepali climbers had earlier been spread across different teams, but formed a new group in order to claim the feat in Nepal’s name.
– ‘The recognition we deserve’ –
Despite being famed for their climbing expertise, there has never before been a Nepali climber on the first winter ascent of a peak over 8,000 metres.
One of the triumphant climbers, Nirmal Purja, who is also known as Nimsdai, described it as a “very special moment”.
“The whole team waited 10m below the summit to form a group then stepped onto the summit together whilst singing our Nepalese National Anthem,” wrote Purja in a social media post.
“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.”
At least one of the climbers, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, had planned to reach the summit without using oxygen.
The news sparked joy throughout Nepal, long used to watching foreign climbers seize the records.
“For decades, Nepalis have assisted foreigners to reach the summits of the Himalayas, but we’ve not been getting the recognition we deserve,” said renowned Nepali climber Kami Rita Sherpa, who has climbed Everest a record 24 times.
“The spotlight has always been on foreign climbers. It is wonderful that today on K2 ten Nepalis have made history and shown our bravery and strength.”
Nepali guides, usually ethnic Sherpas from the valleys around Everest, are considered the backbone of the climbing industry in the Himalayas for bearing huge risks to carry equipment and food, fix ropes and repair ladders.
“Sherpas are top climbers of the world, and it is a proud moment for us. But reaching the summit is only the first half. We hope now that they can all make it back down safely,” warned Ang Tshering Sherpa, the former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
– A lonely place –
One of the final technical difficulties to be overcome by the group was the dreaded “bottleneck”, a narrow and steep passage where 11 people were killed in August 2008 in K2’s worst known tragedy.
Many climbers have died trying to reach the summit, while others were killed on the dangerous descent.
Lockdowns and travel bans sparked by the coronavirus pandemic meant the summer climbing season last year was a bust in most of the popular climbing destinations in the region, such as Nepal.
With Pakistan’s borders open and few other places to go, this winter an unprecedented four teams totalling around 60 climbers converged on the mountain, more than all previous expeditions put together.
Unlike Mount Everest, which has been topped by thousands of climbers young and old, K2 is a much lonelier place.
Northern Pakistan is home to some of the world’s tallest mountains, including K2 in the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Nestled between the western end of the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush mountains and the Karakoram range, Gilgit-Baltistan has 18 of the world’s 50 highest peaks. – AFP