Savage mountain finally beaten by teamwork
Is it madness? A team of Nepali climbers has risen to the ultimate mountaineering challenge, becoming the first to conquer K2 in the depths of winter. But some wonder what the point was.
The sun was about to set on the great mountain. Thirty feet from the summit, the 10 climbers gathered together and sang the Nepalese national anthem. Then, as one man, they took their final steps to the top. Gazing down from 28,251ft, their leader Nirmal Purja declared: “History made for mankind! History made for Nepal!”
K2 is the second-highest mountain in the world – just 656ft lower than Mount Everest. But because it has almost no flat sections, it is considered the harder of the two to climb. In 1953, an American climber famously described it as “the savage mountain that tries to kill you”.
Part of the Karakoram Range, it is one of only 14 peaks in the world that are more than five miles high. At that point, mountaineers enter what they call “the death zone”, when a shortage of oxygen begins to shut down the human body.
One of the most dangerous sections of K2, known as the Bottleneck, lies in the death zone. “I don’t think you can prepare [for it],” said another climber, Alex Gavan, who is now attempting the ascent. "If you take one wrong step it's a vertical drop of about 3,000m to the crevasse and glacier below." Ten years ago, 11 climbers died there when an icefall swept away their ropes.
Traditionally, mountaineering expeditions have taken place in summer, when conditions are comparatively favourable. But since the first winter ascent of Everest in 1980, similar attempts have been made on all of the five-mile-high mountains.
Six teams tried unsuccessfully to conquer K2 in winter. With temperatures falling to minus 70 C, and winds reaching 125 mph, the nearest they got was 3,000 ft from the summit. And as if to remind the world of the terrible dangers involved, a Spanish climber fell to his death just a few days ago.
The Nepalese team’s success is a much-needed boost for their home country, which is in the throes of a political crisis. Many of their compatriots have been involved in historic Western-led expeditions, such as the first conquest of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. In achieving the sport’s greatest prize, the Sherpas have shown what they can do on their own.
The expedition has made a hero of Nirmal Purja, a former Gurkha and member of Britain’s Special Boat Service who lives in Hampshire. Unlike most of his companions, he grew up in the lowlands of Nepal rather than in the mountains, and only took up climbing at 29.
Seven years later, in 2019, he climbed all 14 of the world’s highest peaks in the space of six months. The previous record had been just under eight years.
But Purja emphasises that the conquest of K2 in winter was a joint effort. The 10 climbers involved started out as two rival teams but decided last week to pool their resources.
“We are proud to have been a part of history for humankind,” he says, “and to show that collaboration, teamwork and a positive mental attitude can push limits to what we feel might be possible.”
Is it madness?
Some say, yes: climbing one of the tallest mountains on Earth – particularly in winter – carries a huge risk of death or injury, and brings no real benefits. If you want to know what the world looks like from that height, you might just as well go up in an aeroplane. In terms of scientific exploration, there is far more to be discovered in the depths of the ocean.
Others argue that the need to test the limits of our endurance has always been an essential part of human nature. If we were not obsessed with challenges, we would not achieve nearly as much as we do. The K2 expedition will inspire other people to extraordinary feats and is a wonderful morale-booster for the Nepalese people at a very difficult time.
- Are climbers who risk their lives guilty of selfishness towards their friends and family?
- Is individualism overrated in Western society?
- Make a chart of the 14 tallest mountains in the world, showing their locations and relative heights.
- Imagine that you are the mayor of Nirmal Purja’s local town. Write a speech to welcome him home.
Some People Say...
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”Edmund Hillary (1919 - 2008), New Zealand mountaineer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that too many people are trying to climb the world’s tallest mountains, adding to the natural risks. In December an expert warned of congestion on K2: “Even with just a few people… it is dangerous enough. I fear the worst.” As many as 150 people have queued to reach the summit of Everest on the same day, creating hazardous bottlenecks. Guides complain that some of those attempting it are “climbing tourists” who barely know the basics of the sport.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether it is cheating for mountaineers to take oxygen with them. Purists say it makes climbing so much easier that it is like doing the Tour de France on an electric bike. Others argue that everyone has the right to make an ascent as they see fit. Nirmal Purja says that he climbed K2 without oxygen, but points out that even oxygen-free expeditions tend to rely on ropes left by earlier climbers who did use it.
- A country in South Asia bordered by India and Tibet. Situated mainly in the Himalayas, it contains eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains, including Everest.
- Karakoram Range
- A mountain range running along the borders of India, Pakistan and China. The name means “black gravel”. Four of its peaks are over five miles high: K2, Gasherbrum 1, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum 2.
- Alex Gavan
- A Romanian mountaineer. He and the Italian climber Tamara Lunger are making the ascent without oxygen.
- Political crisis
- The prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, controversially dissolved parliament last month to avoid a vote of no confidence. Elections are due in April. Meanwhile, China and India are both vying for influence.
- Sir Edmund Hillary
- The explorer reached the summit of Everest on 29 May 1953. He later took part in successful expeditions to both the North and the South Pole.
- Tenzing Norgay
- A Sherpa who took part in six Everest expeditions before Hillary’s successful one. A mountain range on Pluto has been named after him.
- A Tibetan ethnic group. They are highly regarded as mountaineers; in 2001, at the age of 16, Temba Tsheri became the youngest person to climb Everest.
- A Nepalese soldier. There are Gurkha regiments in the British and Indian armies, with high reputations for fierceness and bravery in combat.
- Special Boat Service
- An elite unit of the British Navy, with its origins in World War Two. Purja was the first Gurkha ever to serve in it.