All-Nepali Team Makes History With First Successful Winter Ascent of K2
Last month, a team of 10 Nepali men completed “the greatest unclaimed feat in mountaineering”: the first winter climb of K2. The Herculean athletic triumph put the spotlight on long-overlooked Indigenous people, whose knowledge and skill is often left largely unacknowledged in the shadows of white men who receive recognition for climbing firsts.
The heroic effort was led by two expert climbers, Mingma Gyabu Sherpa and Nimal Purja, from two of Nepal’s Indigenous groups, the Sherpa and Magar, respectively. Sherpa people are well-known for their association with the Himalayan region surrounding Mount Everest, near their ancestral homeland in Solukhumbu Valley. Magars are the third-largest ethnic group in Nepal, where they inhabit the country’s western and central hills.
Before the expedition, Purja had already made a name for himself as a world-class mountaineer after shattering previous records. Over the course of just six months and six days in 2019, Purja summited all 14 eight-thousanders, the world’s highest peaks, which tower over 8,000 meters in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges. The former record holder was a South Korean, Kim Chang-ho, who completed it in 7 years and 10 months.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Purja set his sights on a particularly daunting target: K2 in winter. At a staggering 8,611 meters above sea level—only 237 meters lower than Everest—K2 is a grueling and dangerous climb even in ideal weather conditions. From 2000 to 2010, K2 had an even higher ascent-fatality ratio than Everest, with 6.52 deaths for every 100 ascents compared to 1.37 on Everest. Just three weeks after a successful winter ascent, three climbers from a different expedition went missing, reminding the world how perilous K2 can be.
While the Nepali team completed their climb safely, the journey was treacherous and, at times, seemed impossible. In a post on his Instagram account, Mingma David Sherpa gave insight to some of the main challenges his team faced, describing volatile weather with winds at “typhoon speed […] more than 30-40 knots on a good day,” vicious temperatures reaching -50°C (-58°F), and low air pressure dangerous to humans. Even after their forced retreat to a base camp due to the sudden disappearance of their tents with essential supplies, the group persisted onward.
To explain how they were able to endure the brutal trek, the team emphasized the importance of teamwork. Purja, who did the climb without supplemental oxygen, explained their success as “a joint team effort, a symbol of hardship, selfless effort and unity.” A climb of such difficulty that once seemed out of any individual’s reach was defeated by the collective strength of a unified group, steadfast with a common goal.
This collective attitude diverges from the individualistic and accomplishment-driven mentality common among prominent, mostly white male, mountaineers. The objectives of renowned figures like Swiss climber Ueli Steck to be the first to “conquer” mountains have often endangered local guides. In an infamous 2013 incident, a brawl ensued after Steck and two other European climbers attempted a dangerous speed ascent of Mount Everest’s west face. They did so despite the dangers of ice falling onto the Sherpa rope-fixers below them.
“We tried to stop them,” explained Everest guide Tashi Sherpa, “but they didn’t listen and continued to climb using our ropes.” One study analyzing the incident stated that such confrontations are not just an ensuing cost of white male climbers’ exploits, but also reflective of the distinct colonial social dynamics. For Steck, climbing Everest was about conquering the mountain and marking his status as an elite climber. For the Sherpas, guiding and assisting foreigners like Steck has become a means for economic opportunity at the cost of safety.
As GlacierHub has previously reported, Everest guides are “predominantly Sherpa, members of a Himalayan ethnic group with longstanding ties to the mountain, who have provided the core guides since the earliest expeditions of the 1920s.” Moreover, their presence in the mountains has been so tokenized in the west that the word “Sherpa” has come to be synonymous with the porters of foreign mountaineers.
Tsechu Dolma, founder of the Himalaya-based Mountain Resiliency Project, and an Indigenous Tibetan from Nepal, told GlacierHub that the ambitions of record-seeking foreigners “comes at the cost of high-altitude workers, all Himalayan people, to do hard work and risk their lives.” The massive mountaineering industry in the region has not only commodified the impressive landscapes, but also sacrificed the safety of Himalayan workers propping up the industry.
This historical context puts the significance of the all-Nepali team’s feat into high relief. Unlike most expeditions enabled by the risky work of mountain guides, the group fixed their own lines and used their own ropes. They braved the “Savage Mountain” not for a foreign client but for themselves, members of two Indigenous peoples from two different regions in Nepal.
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The achievement has been cause for great pride and celebration by Nepali communities worldwide, reflected in the wide circulation of a video showing the climbers reaching K2’s peak. Taking their final steps together, the team sang the Nepalese national anthem in unity. Dolma described the moment to GlacierHub as a symbol of “the future of Nepal,” a country in the dawn of a new era after adopting its current constitution just six years ago. Not only an inspiring moment of recognition for Nepal, the historic climb also showed the world yet again the strength and resilience of the mountains’ Indigenous peoples.
Correction (February 22, 2021): The original version of this post stated that Nirmal Purja summited all 14 eight-thousanders in 2018. In fact, the correct year is 2019. We have updated the post and regret the error.