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Climbers arrive in Pakistan to claim mountaineering’s last great prize: Winter ascent of K2

ISLAMABAD: Chyang Dawa Sherpa is in Pakistan to attempt what no human has ever achieved before: A winter ascent of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. He is not alone.

More than five dozen climbers from countries including Nepal, the US, Iceland, and Spain have arrived in Pakistan in recent weeks to claim one of the last remaining great prizes in mountaineering.

Of the 14 mountains that rise to at least 8,000 meters (26,246 feet), K2 at 8,611 meters is the only one unconquered during winter, when avalanches are an ever-present risk, temperatures can fall to minus 65 degrees and winds blow with the power of cyclones.

The peak has earned the nicknames “savage mountain” and “killer mountain” for the large number of mountaineers — 86 — who have lost their lives climbing it.

In 2008, 11 climbers from international expeditions died on K2 in what was considered the single-worst accident in the history of mountaineering.

“I really want to make this mountaineering dream come true,” Sherpa, 38, who is leading a team of climbers from more than 15 countries to K2’s summit, told Arab News.

K2 straddles the Pakistan-China border and though it is about the length of two-and-a-half football fields shorter than Everest (8,848 meters), it is widely considered to be the toughest and most dangerous mountain to climb. In fact, a winter ascent has only been attempted five times before 2019, according to the National Geographic.

“K2 is very technical and also very cold, very harsh weather, it’s very challenging,” said Sherpa, who until last year was the youngest person in the world to have conquered all 14 peaks over 8,000 meters, apart from K2.

His younger brother has now broken his record. “People who tried and failed; they say it’s very cold. They never see the sun on this mountain.”

But Sherpa is undaunted. He said: “This is a mountain … it’s risky, there is danger … Sometimes planes also crash but people don’t stop flying. In mountaineering it is also the same: Some people go missing, some accidents happen but we keep trying.”

More than 300 climbers have scaled K2 in spring and summer. Italians Achilli Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli were the first to reach its summit in the summer of 1954.

Gilgit-Baltistan tourism director, Iqbal Hussain, said three teams of climbers had been given permits for the K2 winter expedition this year.

“Two teams of climbers have kicked off their expeditions while the third team, comprising more than 50 members from over 15 countries, will leave Skardu on Dec. 21,” he added.

Geographically, Pakistan is considered a climbers’ paradise, rivaling Nepal for the number of peaks more than 7,000 meters high. Other than being home to K2, Pakistan also has four of the world’s 14 summits higher than 8,000 meters.

Northern Pakistan’s unscarred beauty was once a major tourist attraction, but the industry was destroyed by years of violence, starting in the early 2000s when militant attacks led to a decrease in the number of expeditions and wrecked communities dependent on climbing for income.

But security has improved dramatically in recent years, with militant assaults down sharply in the mainly Muslim country of 220 million people.

Hussain said the trekking business had also picked up again in recent years and the K2 winter expedition had gained momentum since 2017.

“Despite the fear of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), three international teams are vying to defeat K2 in the winter. This is a good omen for Pakistan’s tourism sector,” he added.

Sherpa’s team, the largest one attempting the winter summit this year, plans to reach K2’s base camp by Dec. 24. The team comprises 27 climbers from Nepal and 23 from the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Poland, Greece, Spain, Canada, Finland, the US, Chile, Italy, Romania, and Slovenia. Pakistani climbers Imtiaz Hussain and Akbar Ali are also part of the expedition, which has been organized by Blue Sky Treks and Tours.

Another three-member team from Nepal, led by Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, left for the K2 base camp on Dec. 8.

A third team of three members, John Snorri from Iceland and Pakistanis Muhammad Ali Sadpara and his son Sajid, has already reached the advanced base camp. The group had planned to fix lines up to camps 1 and 2 but bad weather forced them to return.

“The Christmas lights are ready. Today it is sunny, minus 11 degrees and it feels like a heatwave, really nice. But the weather is still harsh in the mountains, so we are waiting,” Snorri wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday, sharing pictures of a tent decorated for Christmas.

“Limber winds and most chilly weathers are the main obstacles to reach the top of K2; that’s why no one can scale K2 in the winter,” Karrar Haidri, Alpine Club’s general secretary said, adding that he was hopeful of success since such a large number of climbers were attempting the ascent this year.

Noel Hanna, 54, from Northern Ireland, who has summited Mount Everest nine times along with many other peaks, including K2 in the summer of 2018, said this year would be his first attempt to climb K2 in winter.

“Obviously, I will just have to see how to cope with the cold carefully and will not act stupidly by putting my life into danger,” he told Arab News.

“If the weather does not cooperate, then no one can climb the summit. But we are hopeful that we may get favor from the weather and will succeed in our mission.”

Nepal-based Arnold Coster, 44, from the Netherlands, said he had climbed mountain peaks above 8,000 meters 21 times in his life.

He told Arab News: “I have no fear of scaling K2 in the winter as we have enough experience. We have a big team with well-experienced climbers and are hopeful to defeat K2 in the winter.”

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