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Difficult Season Shuts Down High-Altitude Winter Expeditions

Crevasse falls, avalanches, illnesses, and bad weather have kept climbers from reaching prized winter summits

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K2 has will end another season without a coveted winter ascent.Stefanos Nikologianis/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

This winter season saw a number of teams attempting big objectives on 8,000-meter peaks, from first-winter ascents of K2 and Broad Peak to an unsupported, solo winter ascent of Everest. Unfortunately, due to various accidents, illnesses, and bad weather, the season has seen very little “success” in terms of climbers standing upon high-altitude summits. Here’s a summary of some of the notable attempts.

Simone Moro Falls Into Crevasse During Gasherbrum Traverse

Italian climbers Simone Moro and Tamara Lunger attempted the first winter traverse of the 8,000-meter Gasherbrum I and II, but had to call off their expedition after a crevasse fall. Moro detailed the accident on Facebook. On January 18, Moro and Lunger were navigating an icefield. They were roped up. Lunger crossed a snowbridge first, then moved into the “safety zone” 20-meters further from the bridge.

“Then it was my turn and after a split second, a chasm opened under my feet and I fell,” Moro wrote. “Tamara suffered such a violent tear that she literally flew to the edge of the crevasse while I [was] free falling upside down for 20 meters, banging [my] back, legs, and buttocks on the blades of ice suspended in the endless gut where I continued to descend.”

Lunger was able to self-arrest less than one meter from the crevasse. The rope was wrapped around her hand and pulling her toward the edge. “I screamed like I was being killed,” she wrote of the two minutes she held on while Moro put an ice screw in the crevasse wall to alleviate the weight from his partner.

Over the next two hours, Moro was able to climb out of the crevasse. He was covered in bruises, and Lunger’s hand was badly injured and partially numb. They descended to basecamp and were evacuated by helicopter, ending their winter climbing season.

Broad Peak Illness and Avalanche

Denis Urubko (Russian-Polish), Don Bowie (Canadian), and Lotta Hintsa (Finnish), attempted the first winter ascent of Broad Peak this season, and Urubko had hopes to attempt the first winter ascent of K2 after. During the Broad Peak expedition Bowie developed a chest infection and had bouts of violent coughing that worsened by the day. On February 7, he decided he could no longer continue. Bowie wrote on his Instagram: “I fought every day as hard as I could, climbing in the bitter cold day in and day out … Each night my lungs became more congested, my coughing fits more frequent and violent. Yesterday, at Camp 3, I finally threw in the towel and quit this expedition.” The team descended to basecamp where Bowie was flown to a hospital. X-rays determined he had bronchial pneumonia. Hintsa, with the loss of a team member and unpromising weather conditions, decided not to continue and flew out with Bowie.

Urubko, however, was undeterred and elected to continue on solo. He monitored weather forecasts and made his attempt at Broad Peak on February 17, alone and without a radio. The 46-year-old mountaineer made it to 7,000 meters, but was hit by an avalanche that slid him 100-meters down the mountain. By a stroke of luck, he came out unharmed and was able to descend under his own power. Urubko abandoned his winter expedition after the accident. In a message to his partner Maria Cardell, he wrote, “I fought despite everything. Is enough!”

K2 Setbacks and a Tough Decision

K2’s first winter ascent is one of the great unfinished objectives in mountaineering. A team led by Nepali guide Mingma Gyalje Sherpa planned to attempt the peak this winter. They were faced with constant setbacks from the start and ultimately had to abandon their mission. According to a message sent by Mingma G to Alan Arnette, the team had planned for seven days to reach K2 basecamp, but extremely harsh conditions stretched it to 11 days. The team arrived on January 22 with a late start on the mountain. Over the next several days they fixed ropes nearly to Camp 2, fighting deep snow, howling winds, and temperatures below -50°C.

No climbers on this expedition had previous winter experience on K2, and Mingma G soon realized that this was a mistake. He wrote:

“All we [four] Nepalese had done winter [8,000-meter] expeditions in Nepal, and we felt like we were experienced enough to go for K2 in winter. But the winter environment on K2 is completely different from Nepal. Our camp was completely on snow, and we had nights with less than -30 [degrees] in basecamp … Almost all our food [was] frozen. In all we had [a] very hard life during our trekking and climbing. I realized we should have taken one Sherpa from [a] previous winter K2 team so that we could prepare more.”

In addition to the team’s inexperience on the mountain, they faced other setbacks. By the time they’d reached basecamp, news of the Coronavirus had spread worldwide, and Chinese team member Gao Li worried about his relatives. Li was unable to get in touch with them because the expedition’s internet stopped working. Also, Mingma G developed a cough that inhibited his ability to perform on the mountain. Because of these reasons, both climbers retreated. They were joined by Slovenian Tomaz Rotar, who felt that the objective would not be possible without them. Back in Nepal, Mingma G learned that he had pneumonia.

John Snorri Sigurionsson (Iceland) and Sarbaz Kahn (Pakistan), along with three Sherpa planned to continue the climb. On February 5, while fixing lines to Camp 2 and above, Kili Pempa Sherpa was hit by falling ice blocks and knocked into a crevasse. He was rescued by his teammates, and with his legs swollen he was flown out by helicopter from basecamp. The remaining team members decided not to continue because of a poor weather forecast.

Remaining Expeditions

At the time of this writing, there are a few winter expeditions still underway. One is by Jost Kobusch, a German alpinist who is attempting a solo, unsupported, no supplemental oxygen, winter ascent of Mount Everest—a style in which the world’s tallest peak has never been climbed.

There is also a team led by Spaniard Alex Txikon on Everest that has seen numerous setbacks. They’ve been battered by high winds, team member Jonatan García fell 12 meters into a crevasse and was flown out due to rib injuries, and team member Oscar Cardo suffered from AMS and had to be evacuated. Txikon carries on with a remaining team of three Sherpas.

[Update: Since publication, all of the Everest teams have called off their expeditions.]

A Polish team led by Piotr Tomala is attempting the first winter ascent of Batura Sar, a 7,795 meter peak in Pakistan, to prepare for a 2020/2021 winter ascent of K2. On February 10 they had over a meter of snow in basecamp, delaying progress. The team is waiting for conditions to stabilize and will assess avalanche danger before continuing.