Tragedy and Triumph on Winter K2 as Sherpas Claim Last Great Himalayan Prize

An all-Nepali team of 10 climbers stepped together onto the summit of K2 (8611m / 28,251 ft) late this afternoon local time, making the first winter ascent of the world’s second-highest peak. As the team descended in darkness to Camp 3 (23,760 ft), word of Spanish climber Sergi Mingote’s death lower on the mountain tempered the historic triumph. According to preliminary accounts, Mingote fell while descending below Camp 1 (19,965 feet) after a night spent higher on the mountain.

K2 is the last of the word’s 14 highest peaks to be scaled in winter, an accomplishment many regarded as the last great first in Himalayan mountaineering. That prize now goes to a team composed mostly of Sherpa men who started their climbing careers as high-altitude porters. They came to K2 this season as members of three separate teams, including a six-person group led by Nepali speed-climbing revelation Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja and a three-man squad led by Mingma Gjele Sherpa, known as Mingma G. The tenth climber, Sona Sherpa, came with Seven Summit Tours (SST), a large commercial operation including 21 climbing Sherpas and more than 20 western climbers and trekkers.

“A very special moment. The whole team waited 10 meters below the summit to form a group then stepped onto the summit together whilst singing our Nepalese National Anthem,” Nimsdai posted on Instagram. The summit team also included Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Geljen Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Kili Pemba Sherpa, and Dawa Tenjing Sherpa.

Nine of the summiteers are Sherpa, whose fathers and grandfathers made possible many of the great mountaineering firsts, but until now had none to call their own. Nimsdai is of Magar descent, hailing from lower elevations in Nepal. American alpinist Renan Ozturk summarized the context and prevailing sentiment of the climbing community on a congratulatory Instagram post: “Inspiring teamwork and a big historic step in the decolonization of 8000m high-altitude climbing!”

Others questioned the Nepali climber’s use of supplemental oxygen, the specifics of which remain unclear. Mingma G told climbing writer Alan Arnette that he intended to climb without oxygen, and Nimsdai said months ago that if he were to attempt K2 in winter he would do so without gas. [Update: Nimsdai later said he did not use supplemental oxygen.] Even if one or more of the team may have reached the summit without supplemental oxygen, all would have benefitted from rope-fixing and trail breaking done with the assistance of bottled air. Purists can, and will, argue the nuance until the end of time. Today most seemed content to celebrate a history-making display of Sherpa climbing prowess, and mourn the loss of Mingote, 49, a veteran Catalan climber who fell while descending below Camp 1.

Sergi Mingote on K2 earlier this month. Photo: John Snorri via Instagram

Mingote, a husband and father, was engaged in a project to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen in less than 1,000 days. He knocked off seven in two seasons, including a summer ascent of K2, before Covid travel bans put that ambitious schedule out of reach.

A winter attempt on K2 wasn’t initially part of his plan, but he was fit and eager to get back to the mountains, so he accepted a position as assistant climbing leader on the SST expedition. The Nepal-based outfitter is providing support for 22 climbers and trekkers from around the world in several distinct climbing groups.

Mingote teamed with a group of European and Latin American alpinists committed to climbing without oxygen, including Chilean Juan Pablo Mohr with whom he reached Camp 3 two days ago. Mingote was descending to base camp when he fell from a point below Camp 1 almost to Advanced Base Camp. Mingote’s GPS tracker showed a fall of about 600 meters (1,970 feet), ExplorersWeb reported. Mohr and four climbers in ABC rushed to his aid and were later joined by a medical team from Base Camp, but efforts to resuscitate Mingote were unsuccessful.

The 10 climbers who reached the summit are expected to descend to base camp tomorrow. Several groups remain on the mountain and will presumably continue to climb, including Americans John Kedrowski and Colin O’Brady, who reached Camp 2 yesterday.

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