It’s New Year’s Eve, 2020, at K2 base camp, a tent village of about 100 souls on a patch of icy scree 16,300 feet above sea level and five days’ march from the nearest road. The world’s second-highest mountain looms even higher above, its 28,251-foot summit still untouched in winter.
Outside it’s –20 degrees, but thankfully, the wind has tapered off. The hissing kerosene heaters in the Seven Summits Treks mess tent hold the mercury somewhere above freezing as Mike Posner, the U.S. singer-songwriter-turned-trekker, claps out a beat and launches into his 2015 signature party anthem, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.”
I’m a real big baller ’cause I made a million dollars
And I spent it on girls and shoes
Cellphone cameras pan climbers from around the world, their voices joining Posner in the chorus—all I know are sad songs—as he flashes a broad smile and raises his palms in encouragement, like some kind of puffy-coated orchestra conductor.
Pop-up performances from Grammy-nominated hitmakers are not the norm in mountaineering base camps, but a lot has changed in the 68 years since Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary first set foot on the summit of Everest. All the world’s highest peaks were conquered decades ago, and their standard climbing routes repeated, refined and finally industrialized. With fixed ropes strung from bottom to top, Everest and other Himalayan giants have become assembly lines, converting orthodontists and heiresses into summiteers for $65,000 a head, less if they shop around.
K2, topmost of the Himalayas-adjacent Karakoram Range and spanning a politically tenuous area of Kashmir administered by Pakistan and China, resisted this commercialization for decades, simply because it’s no place for amateurs. Though a couple of vertical football fields lower than Everest, K2 is far more difficult. Its slopes are relentlessly steep, fraught with technical cruxes and bombarded regularly by falling rock and ice. These challenges are amplified in winter, when temperatures often drop to –50 degrees and gale-force winds rake upper slopes for weeks at a stretch.
The world’s best alpinists had been testing Winter K2 since 1987 in well-organized national expeditions and small elite teams, and none came within 3,000 feet of the top. As the highest peaks surrendered their winter summits one by one, Winter K2 emerged as alpinism’s last great first: the world’s toughest mountain in the most dangerous season.
This past winter, more than 60 climbers constituting four teams of varying sizes came seeking the prize like so many Greek heroes scheming at the gates of Troy. The largest team was organized by Seven Summits Treks (SST), a guide company owned by Sherpas, the Himalayan ethnic group largely based in Nepal and renowned for their climbing knowledge and prowess. SST brought the first largescale commercial climbing operation to K2 in the summer of 2018. Following the pandemic shutdown of 2020, the company found an unexpectedly robust market for Winter K2, signing 26 clients of vastly different ambitions and abilities.
Some were world-class alpinists; others had followed fixed ropes to marquee summits around the globe. Sergi Mingote, an accomplished 49-year-old from Spain, was there to advance his quest of summiting all 14 of the world’s 26,000-foot peaks without oxygen in 1,000 days. Bulgarian Atanas Skatov, who had once claimed to be the first vegan to ascend Everest, brought along his fiancée. American Colin O’Brady came with a résumé of record-setting endurance feats but just one major Himalayan summit. And former Polish Olympic sprinter-turned-mountaineer Magdalena Gorzkowska arrived with a personal photographer in tow. Some seemed ready to risk everything. Others, including Posner, came merely to take in the scene or acclimate for other climbs and had no intention of venturing above base camp.
The two most formidable teams on the mountain were a six-man squad led by Nepali speed-climbing revelation Nirmal “Nims” Purja and a Sherpa trio headed by star guide Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, aka Mingma G. With the exception of Purja, who is ethnically Magar and climbed his first major peak at age 30, these men were Nepali Sherpas who had been breaking trail and humping gear for well-heeled clients since they were teenagers, continuing a tradition of serving as the flesh-and-blood engine driving every major Himalayan first of the last century. But now that just one great prize remained, these Sherpas were determined to take it for themselves.
THESE SHERPAS WERE DETERMINED TO TAKE THE GREAT PRIZE FOR THEMSELVES.
Astonishingly, considering the names and backgrounds involved, only one of the roughly 60 aspirants had ever stood atop a 26,000-foot peak in winter. Mountaineering pundits could hardly contain their scorn. “Are We Heading For Disaster on Winter K2?” asked a headline on the influential website ExplorersWeb.
That one high-altitude winter summiteer was Muhammad Ali Sadpara, from a nearby village, who started as a porter carrying 70-pound loads for $3 a day and became Pakistan’s foremost mountaineer by virtue of his strength and personality. “He succeeded because people appreciated his generosity of spirit,” says Amanda Padoan, who profiled him for Alpinist magazine after his 2016 first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world. That history-making feat fueled Sadpara’s fierce ambition to climb Winter K2, though it did not provide the means.
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