When we think of the 8000ers, the world's 14 highest mountains, we often think that all the major challenges have long been overcome, that these 14 giants are becoming increasingly commercialised, no longer simply the preserve of the elite but instead becoming more and more accessible to the amateur climber.
Yet, one last great challenge does remain, one which has repelled the world's strongest climbers for the last three decades. K2, infamously known as 'the Savage Mountain', remains the only 8000m peak not to be climbed in winter. Until 2021, that is!
Read below to see all the K2 winter attempts since the 1980s, and the find out about the first successful winter K2 expedition that happened in 2021.
A Brief History of Winter Attempts to Summit K2
Here is a short history of the quest to summit K2 in winter.
The First K2 Push: 1987-1988
The first winter attempt on K2 was led by Polish mountaineering legend Andrzej Zawada. The 24-man team (13 Poles, 7 Canadians and 4 Brits) flew to Pakistan at the start of December, and arrived in Base Camp on Christmas Day, to heavy snow and strong winds.
In total, the team would have just ten days of 'good' weather in the three months they spent at Base Camp.
Despite the adverse conditions, Maciej Pawlikowski, Maciej Berbeka, Krzysztof Wielicki and Jon Tinker managed to establish Camp 1 (6100m) on January 5th.
A few days later, Wielicki and Cichy set up Camp 2 at 6700m, but due to stormy weather, the climbers did not reach Camp 3 (7300m) until March 2nd.
Wielicki and Cichy established C3. Roger Mear and Jean-Francois Gagnon spent the night of March 6th at C3. Hurricane winds raged throughout that night and continued the next day. They were at that time the only people on the mountain and descended in high winds without incident to base camp. This brought an end to the expedition, and the idea of further winter attempts on K2 was forgotten for over a decade.
Giving K2 Another Go: 2002-2003
In 2000, after many expeditions to other 8000ers, Andrzej Zawada began to prepare for a second attempt on K2, this time from the Chinese side. But in February 2000, Zawada tragically fell ill, and six months later he died.
Zawada’s team went ahead with the expedition planning, and in December 2002, a 14-strong team of alpinists finally set out. The team was led by Krzysztof Wielicki, and included members from Poland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
The team planned to climb K2 via the North Ridge. They reached Base Camp on December 30th, and by January 5th, Denis Urubko and Vasiliy Pivtsov reached Camp 1 at 6000m. On January 20th, after a period of bad weather, Urubko and Pivtsov established Camp 2 (6750m).
However, infighting within the team led to three climbers returning home, which majorly impacted the expedition's chance of success. Despite these setbacks, the remaining team members continued their progress up the North Ridge and managed to establish Camp 3 (7300m) and Camp 4 (7650m).
After waiting out a spell of bad weather, on February 21st the team started their summit bid. Jurek Natkanski and Jacek Jawien went first to stock the camps, before Marcin Kaczkan and Urubko followed the next day. After three days they reached Camp 4, only to find the tent destroyed by horrendous weather conditions, meaning they were forced to sleep in a small bivouac tent.
After a terrible night, Urubko woke to find that Kaczkan was suffering from cerebral edema, and immediately called for help. Fortunately a rescue mission was able to return all climbers safely to Base Camp, but that was the end of the expedition.
Although the team had failed to reach the summit, there was guarded optimism that their efforts suggested it could be done. Piotr Morawsk wrote in the trip report,“Although K2 has once more held out in winter, this expedition showed that a successful ascent is possible.”
Russians Give K2 Their Best Shot: 2011-2012
It was a further nine years before the third attempt was made to summit K2 in winter. A team of nine strong Russian climbers flew into K2 Base Camp at the end of December 2011, where they would attempt the Abruzzi Spur.
On January 4th, the climbers established Camp 1 at 6050m, and from there made steady progress, even if at times it was frustratingly slow due to inclement weather. By the end of January, the team had fixed ropes for the entire route up to 7000m. On February 2nd, the team were stopped by huge storms, forcing all the climbers to return to Base Camp.
In the process, Vitaly Gorelik contracted frostbite, and was then also diagnosed with pneumonia. The team radioed for an immediate evacuation, but the helicopter was unable to reach Base Camp due to bad weather, and on February 6th, Gorelik tragically died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest. The expedition was called off.
Urubko's Expedition Called Off: 2014-2015
The Russian expedition of 2011/12 was just one of many failed attempts at a K2 winter ascent in the last decade.
In 2014/2015, Denis Urubko planned an expedition from the North side. But just days before the team were due to fly out, they heard that they had been refused a permit. Undeterred, they transferred to a different agent; unfortunately, the Chinese government still refused them a permit, apparently because of a terrorist threat in one region they would be travelling through.
This meant that the expedition was inevitably called off.
Poland's K2 Winter Ascent Attempt: 2016-2018
A Polish expedition to K2, led by Krzysztof Wielicki, was planned for the winter of 2016/2017, but due to lack of funds and logistical challenges, the expedition was delayed until 2017/2018.
After traversing through 80 inches of snow, Wielicki and his team were forced to abandon their attempt of a K2 winter ascent due to avalanche warnings in the area. In addition, there was the constant danger of rockfalls, which ultimately injured several members of Wielicki's team during their ill-fated climb.
Kazahkstan Give K2 A Try: 2018
In December 2018, a Russian-Kazakh-Kyrgyz joint climbing team attempted to complete their winter assent of K2.
Having successfully summited all 14 of the 8000-metre peaks, Vassily Pivtsov from Kazakhstan led the expedition. Other members of the team included Roman Abildaev, Vitaly Akimov and Eugeny Glazynov from Russia, Mikhail Danichkin from Kyrgyzstan and Vitaly Akimov and Ildar Gabbasov from Kazakhstan.
Sadly, the team was forced to give up on their long-awaited dream due to bad weather conditions, resulting in poor visibility on the trek.
Successful K2 Winter Ascent In 2021
The impossible was finally made possible by 10 Nepalese sherpas who successfully completed a winter ascent of the K2 on 16 January 2021.
Led by Nirmal Purja, a former member of Gurkha and UK special forces, the team made their way to the summit. This meant navigating their way along the infamous Bottleneck pass, narrowly escaping harrowing ice debris the size of houses at every turn.
In the end, it seems prophetic that a group of sherpas made the first successful K2 winter ascent. Sherpas are natural mountaineers and have assisted climbers with reaching the highest summits in the world for centuries.
One thing seems certain: despite the danger, the hardship, and the brutal environment, there will be always climbers willing to risk their lives in an effort to claim what has arguably become the most coveted prize in the Karakoram, now that it's been achieved just once in history.
Sources: National Geographic, Wikipedia, The New York Times.
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Respect for this huge savage K2 mountain
Maybe they should try the hot air balloon
I just met in a plane to Doha a team of polish alpinist going to climb k2 , they told me there are attempting the ascension in the next 3 months and that it has never been done.
Excellent blog you’ve got here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours these days.
I really appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!