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K2 is widely considered to be the most formidable peak on Earth. Located in the Karakoram on the Pakistan-China border, the mountain reaches 8,611 meters above sea level—just 200-meters shorter than Mount Everest, but far more technical and far more deadly. K2 has been summited a total of 355 times—by comparison, Everest was summited over 800 times in 2018 alone—and 82 people have perished attempting K2. That is roughly one death for every four successful climbers.
Only 14 mountains on the planet rise above 8,000 meters, and all of them have been climbed in winter except for K2. Summiting K2 in winter is arguably the greatest unclaimed prize in mountaineering. Year after year the mountain beckons bold alpinists, and year after year their attempts are thwarted by the unfathomable conditions coupled with the unavoidable challenge of the climbing.
This winter, there are four main teams attempting K2, with a total of about 60 people in basecamp.
A three-man, all-Sherpa team led by Migma Gyalje Sherpa has so far pushed the highest up the mountain, establishing fixed lines above a feature known as the Black Pyramid, to 7,300 meters. They then returned to basecamp with the rest of the teams to wait out the screaming Himalayan winds. Migma Gyalje Sherpa has been above 8,000 meters 20 times in his mountaineering career, including two successful K2 summits.
Another likely candidate for the summit bid is a Nepalese/Sherpa team led by Nirmal Purja. In 2019, Purja made history by summiting all 14 8,000-meter peaks in just six months. Purja wrote on Facebook: “I promise the hardest, the last, and the greatest mountaineering feat #k2winter will belong to the Nepalese climbing community. I will not leave the base camp until the mission is accomplished.”
Icelander John Snorri Sigurjonsson is climbing with the father-and-son duo of Muhammad Ali Sadpara and Sajid Ali. The independent three-person team have made it as high as Camp 2 at 6,700 meters. This team has also been beaten back to basecamp by the hurricane winds. Sigurjonsson wrote: “The winter is hovering over K2. It looks like it’s going to be there until the 20th of January. The wind goes up to 250 km per hour in the higher camps. Meanwhile we are gathering energy, keeping our mindset focused and spirit positive for the next ascent”
The vast majority of the population in basecamp, however, are of the Seven Summit Treks team, which is a 49-person commercial operation with 22 clients of varying levels of experience and 27 Sherpas in support. A small team of rope fixing Sherpas have fixed lines to the Black Pyramid at 7,050 meters, but could go no further due to deteriorating weather. The team stashed enough rope and oxygen for a fixing team to potentially make it to the summit during the next weather window.
It remains to be seen whether or not 2021 will be the winter in which K2 relents and allows humans to stand upon its summit. For now, the teams endure the gale force winds and blistering cold, waiting for a proper weather window to try again.