For the first time since 2014, K2 saw climbers on the summit. Lead by Mingma Gyalje Sherpa founder of the Nepali guide company Dreamers Destination, this 31 year-old Sherpa pushed the limits when other longtime, well respected guides said “no.”
While the Khumbu seems to be the home of Sherpas who have summited Everest, the Rolwaling valley is quickly becoming the home of the K2 Sherpas with 9 summits between the Sherpas who live there.
Not only did Mingma summit K2, his second summit of the world’s second highest peak, but he also summited four other 8000ers and nearly got another this year, and he is not finished yet in 2017!
The obvious questions include: What did he know that others didn’t? Why did he take the risk with five clients in tow? Did he push the envelope too far? Was he smart, lucky or both?
I wanted to go deeper than the traditional “How did it feel” question and Minga, true to form, was not shy talking about his experience in this long interview.
I met Mingma on K2 in 2014 when we both summited but on different teams. He impressed me then as a super confident, strong, smart young man with tons of ambition. I was to go to Dhaulagiri with him this year but a broken leg got in my way.
I caught up with Mingma while he was still in Skardu, Pakistan.
K2 2017 Summits
For the record this is Minga’s post on who summited K2 in 2017. He cites 6 Nepalese, 1 Pakistani, 3 Chinese, 1 American and 1 Icelandic:
1.Mr. Mingma G Sherpa- climbed in 2014 without oxygen and 2017 with oxygen. 2 times K2 summit/highest summit record.
2.Mr. Dawa Gyalje Sherpa- In 2014, his sister, Ms Dawa Yangzum Sherpa climbed K2 being first Nepalese woman and now they are the world’s only brother and sister to climb K2.
3.Mr. Tsering Pemba Sherpa- His first Summit on K2. Now we are 9 K2 Summiters from Rolwaling valley, Nepal.
4. Mr. Nima Tshering Sherpa- His first K2 summit.
5. Mr. Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa-He became the first K2 Summiter from Juving-1,Nepal.
6. Mr Nima Nuru Sherpa-He is third Nepalese to Summit K2 without oxygen after Pemba Gyaljen Sherpa in 2008 and Mingma Gyalje Sherpa in 2014.
7. Mr. Fazal-only Pakistani to climb K2 twice and also without oxygen
8. Mr Zhang Liang, China climbed 13X8000m peaks including K2
9. Mr Liu Yong Zhong,China climbed 10X8000m peaks including K2
10. Ms Dong Hongjuan,China climbed 9X8000m peaks including K2
11. Ms. Vanessa O’brien from USA completed 5X8000m peaks and became first American Woman on K2.
12. Mr. John Snorri became first person from Iceland on K2 and he will be receiving Medal of Honor from his country’s President. Congratulations John.
One note. Brothers Alberto and Felix Iñurrategi both climbed K2 in 1994.
As you will read, K2 is not an easy mountain. Often it is the weather that stops teams. High winds, deep snow and avalanches stopped all summits in 2015 and 2016.
The terrain is incredibly steep. Unlike Everest, there are no long flat sections i.e. the Western Cwm, and the objective dangers are constantly on the climber’s minds. While Everest is deserving of the utmost respect with regards to altitude, K2 is in different class. A bit of trivia, there are less than 200 people who have summited both Everest and K2.
Climbing in Pakistan
Pakistan is home to five of the 14 8000 meter peaks. With the unrest, some have been hesitant to climb in Pakistan, especially after the 2013 massacres of 11 climbers and support staff at the Diamir base camp of Nanga Parbat by about 16 militants, reportedly dressed in Gilgit Scouts uniforms. In my two trips there, 2006 and 2014, I felt safe and welcomed throughout Pakistan.
The past few years, more and more expeditions are bringing Sherpas from Nepal to support climbs in the Karakorum, especially K2. This has created hard feeling and in one case, a climber was banned due to this issue. With the Karakorum gaining in popularity and more commercial teams now offering climbs, a lack of support staff with High Altitude Porters (HAPs) aka Mountain Workers is seen as a limitation by some or a threat by others.
AA: Did you feel personally safe in Pakistan this year? How was the security?
MGS: Yes. People believe Pakistan is not safe to travel but once we are in Pakistan we don’t have that feeling. They have armies, policemen, security, rules and regulations as we do. so it is very safe here.
AA: How did the Pakistan Government feel about you bringing so many Sherpas? How many HAPs did you hire this year?
MGS: I am not sure about how Pakistan Government felt because all our permit and other legal documents to enter Pakistan are taken cared by Pakistani local agency but yes, the local people and our other Pakistani colleagues, staffs were very happy meeting with more Nepalese Sherpa. Also if you see, more foreign people are going on big mountains in Pakistan because there are more Nepalese Sherpa and success rate is higher and that gave more job opportunities to more Pakistani engaged in this field.
I feel sad when Pakistani climbers ask opportunity to work together with us. This is their country and we are supposed to ask opportunity with them to work together. But it is also changing now as more educated and responsible Pakistani climbers and organizer are emerging in market so we can expect better service in 4-5 years. Also working together with Nepalese Sherpa,the concept of Pakistani climbers are changing and they are learning together.
But there are some example climbers in Pakistan like one I am working together, Ali Reza Sadpara. He is very responsible and stronger than Nepalese Sherpa and I really feel they didn’t get opportunities to show who they are. Also like Ali Mohammad who climbed Nanga Parbat in winter and often hired to work in Nepal too. We had 3 Pakistani HAPS.
Mingma reported during the climb that an avalanche had occurred on the Abruzzi route near Camp 3. He feared that all the supplies of oxygen, tents, food and fuel had been swept away perhaps putting the entire expedition at risk. This is a section well known for avalanches and in 2013 an avalanche in this area took the lives of Marty Schmidt and his son Denali while they slept in their tent.
AA: Did the avalanche destroy your Camp 3 as thought?
MGS: we didn’t set up our camp3 in its previous place. Instead we moved our camp3 just above Black Pyramid and moved to camp4 from there. As you know, most of accidents and ending of expedition were happened from camp3, so we moved our camp3 in safer place for our own safety. But yes, our Sherpa made deposit of oxygen and some ropes below camp4. Again they were experienced climbers so they put all the deposit on a ice cliff so that they can easily find out and also can be saved from avalanche. Also we were lucky that there was no any avalanche but we found all our deposit covered by deep snow, almost 4-5ft.
K2 is a difficult mountain for weather forecasters. Even with a solid forecast, it can change quickly much to the surprise of forecasters and climbers.
AA: Did you use a weather forecasting service?
MGS: Yes. I used service from Mr Krishna Manandar based in Nepal who is also my teacher. I have been using his weather forecast since long time and he is very accurate all the time. The weather on K2 is completely different and unpredictable so I also used Michael Fagin’s service based in USA which was also so accurate. This year, we made summit because we had these two people behind us.
I reached out to Michael Fagin of Everest Weather for his thoughts on this season:
AA: Michael, forecasting weather on K2 is notoriously difficult, some would call impossible. This year, 2017, the weather on both Everest and K2 seemed especially elusive. How much is climate change impacting the weather on the world’s highest Peaks? And why is K2 seemingly in a league of its own with respect to weather?
MF: For Everest climbing season of 2017 models really struggled almost every day on wind speed. I think one of the issues there was a narrow band of strong winds (50 to 60 mph -80 to 96 km/hr.) that meandered close to the summit of Everest at times. One day it would be 200 miles+ (320 km/hr.) north of Everest with little impact on the summit. The next day these strong winds would wander over Everest but be above the summit (34,000 feet-10,300 meters) with little summit impact and then quickly mixed down to the Everest summit that would greatly impact the summit.
On K2 in 2017 there is a somewhat similar situation that we described above. Strong winds (40 mph- 64 km/hr.) at times just north of K2. Models seemed insist that these winds would stay north of K2 and many-many times but the models were wrong. I went with an ensemble forecast model (multiple models with weighted average ) which seemed to have a better handle.
Team Dynamics at BC
K2 is known for having many small teams and many independents climbing “alone”. The reality is almost every climber needs some kind of rope for protection from falls but amazingly some climbers show up with no ropes, pitons, pro, etc. They assume other teams will bring the rope, establish the route and they can use it – sometime for free. Obviously this creates great controvesery at base camp and on the mountain.
AA: How do you feel the teams worked together this year?
MGS: I think I had really strong team on K2 this year. Before I take any decision, I used to discuss with my team then we make our decision and everyone worked so hard as it was our decision, not mine. We told to everyone that our team can fix route all the way till summit and asked them to help us in taking 1000m rope till camp4 but no any other team members reached camp4 and we had to picked rope from camp2 and camp3 by ourselves.
AA: You mentioned independent climbers not wanting to pay for ropes. Did they ever pay?
MGS: In our first meeting at K2 base camp, I clearly told that we are not collecting money from anyone for using our rope and we need to fix rope from ABC to summit for everyone’s safety. We went to every camp asking for ropes but non of them brought rope. Our team had 5000m rope in total and we were hoping we could easily collect 1000m rope at base camp from other team. When found no ropes from them then we asked them that we need more ropes and it was agreed that by 3 other different team will collect money and order 600m more rope from Skardu. The problem came because bigger team on K2 previously collected money from smaller team though they had ropes and other climbing equipment. so this year they didn’t bring rope and this bitter experience was shared by Mexican couple.
Two large commercial teams were on K2 this season, Himex lead by Russell Brice and the Austrian guide company, Furtenbach Adventures. They both felt the weather window was too short for a summit bid and ended their attempt. Himex was on the Česen and Furtenbach the Abruzzi route.
In the end heavy overnight snow brought our expedition to an end. With 20cm falling from above C3 our chances to advance we’re now non existent and the danger of avalanche suddenly very real, and life threatening. Despite splitting the Sherps into 3 groups to descend they were still avalanched above C2, and when visibility improved mid morning it was clear that the upper snow slopes were now loaded and the wind was actively ‘transferring’ from C2 and above. The mountain was now not only difficult but dangerous as well. BC will be in mourning for a few days as we adjust to the end of our dream- for this season at least. In the days to come we will venture back to C2 to collect our gear and ‘clean the mountain.’ It will be a fitting way to say goodbye and to pay our respects to a ‘golden summer’ on K2. One final chance to climb her with courage, skill, and a touch of flair. True to form, I hope to lead it in a t-shirt.
I asked Mingma on his decision to go on with others had turned back:
AA: What were your thoughts when you were learned that both Himex and Furtenbach had ended their efforts this year?
MGS: Russell Brice and I discussed and agreed to meet at camp4 on 25th July and fix route till above bottle neck on 26th July and summit on 27th July but because of too much wind and little snow, it couldn’t happen. We were connected from our camp3 and he mentioned that his team is coming down. As soon as he mentioned that, I made phone call to my teacher but he mentioned that weather is not changed and it will be good from 26July. After that, there was no reason to change my decision as we were very sure that there won’t be avalanche. Though it was little snowing, there was high wind blowing so we felt it would be in good condition once we get good weather.
AA: You and Russell Brice interacted throughout the seasons. Do you have any interest in climbing K2 by way of the Cesen route in the future?
MGS: If I get chance then I definitely like to climb via Cesen route.
AA: Any concerns about climbing the Abruzzi with just your team?
MGS: This is one of my best team of my career so I was very positive that we could make it without having other team there.
Climbing K2 Above C4 – Delays, Wind and Snow
The climbing is difficult and extremely dangerous above Camp 4 on K2. In addition to the altitude, the 300 foot high ice and snow serac looms directly overhead. The common route is to take a gully known as the Bottleneck to the Traverse – a section of near vertical ice and snow. This entire section was the scene of the 2008 K2 disaster where 11 climbers were killed.
AA: How did you find the snow conditions above Camp 4? How was the avalanche danger?
MGS: We were 3 Nepalese UIAGM certified mountain guide in team. We discussed and we were very sure about having very good snow condition on mountain. The wind in earlier days were more than 50Kph everyday that blown all the fresh snow. When we were climbing above camp4, we got the same things. But yes again, the snow was very deep. We had to be very careful while opening the route because careless could put us in avalanche. so most of the places, I led myself because I was taller than other members which made little easier breaking trail in deep snow.
AA: How long did it take to fix the ropes across the Traverse?
MGS: It took me around an hour to fix the rope across the Traverse. We went directly through the couloir which made our traverse shorter and faster than 2014.
Traditionally K2 has been climbed more often than Everest without supplemental oxygen. Thru 2010 around 125 of the 300 summits were accomplished without Os. Today, the norm is to use Os with few exceptions.
AA: What level of supplemental oxygen did your clients use? 2lpm, 4lpm or more? Can you estimate how many bottles they used?
MGS: We gave them at 1.5lpm at the start and then went 2lpm from shoulder and 2.5lpm below bottleneck and 3 from bottleneck.
AA: You posted you started with 14 climbers but 12 summited. What happened to the other 2?
MGS: One Sherpa vomited and had pain so didn’t start from camp3 and another Sherpa had started having pain on his body so stopped after walking about 2 hours from our camp4. Since we were 14 climbers planning for summit after some members returned back from camp2, I mistook 14 instead of 13.
AA: Mingma nuru sherpa, Ngima norbu sherpa both summited K2 without supplemental oxygen. Were they guiding clients or climbing for their own purpose?
MGS: Mingma Nuru Sherpa (Ang Norbu) was one who returned from camp3. He was really strong and made Everest twice in spring season but unfortunately he had to return back on K2. Ngima Norbu Sherpa is an experience climber with 9times summit on Everest and he also climbed Everest without oxygen. So he wanted to help carrying more oxygen as other Sherpa had to carry rope too. Because of this, we took 4 bottles of oxygen up and down without us, this means we had plenty of oxygen for our clients’ safety. But he clearly told that he gonna use oxygen if he felt uncomfortable or had to help in breaking trail. Yes, again he helped in belaying the leading climber most of the time.
AA: Can you compare the summit push conditions in 2014 to this year’s – snow depth, weather, wind, temperature, avi danger, etc.?
MGS: I think 2014 was good and lucky year for us who made summit on 27July. We made summit on 27th July where the route waes fixed as most of climbers made summit on 26th July. We just followed the rope and did nothing extra but this year we faced everything like those who climbed on 26th July 2014.
I think there was more snow on K2 this year because we had to cut snow and can put enough tents above black Pyramid where previously some team hardly put one or 2 tents as deposit. Also we didn’t see falling rock on K2 as in 2014. I saw less ice above bottle neck in 2014 but this year, there was more ice which was again covered by heavy snow. While breaking the trail, we had to use our knee first and then put our leg inside to make hole in snow and then again hit the ice inside. For one step, we had to make 3 different style of effort.
We didn’t have that good weather on K2 this season. Most of the time, it was very high wind on mountain which again reduced the risk of avalanche.
The descent on K2 is especially dangerous with rock fall, avalanche danger and down climbing the Black Pyramid. It involves rappelling (abseiling) and setting up your gear with zero mistakes. Roughly one third of the deaths on K2 have occurred on the descent.
AA: How was the weather on the descent?
MGS: While we were on summit, we had very clear weather, no wind, no cloud and it was sunny. We spent more than 1 hour and still time was not enough to celebrate our success. The weather remained clear without wind till we reached our camp4.
AA: It seemed to have taken some of your members a long time to descend. Were there any issues?
MGS: I was the last one to descent from bottle neck. We started using torch light just from the point where we finishes icy section and touch the rocky section at bottle neck. At that time, John and Tsering were already in camp4. I reached camp4 at around 8:30 pm and I was the last one to enter tent. I always stay at last while descending back on every mountain to make sure all come back safely.
AA: How long did you stay in K2 Base Camp before leaving for the trek out?
MGS: We returned back to K2 base camp on 29th July making K2 summit and started on 2nd August for Broad Peak and again returned back to K2 base camp on 5th August making Broad Peak summit and left base camp on 6th August right after Broad Peak via Gondrogola pass.
Multiple 8000er Summits
Mingma summited four 8000 meter mountain in a period of about 2 months and came within meters of a fifth – extremely rare for anyone, including professional climbers.
AA: You started with Dhaulagiri, then Makalu, next was Nanga and K2 finishing with Broad. Was this planned or just how your season turned out?
MGS: It was plan. Dhaulagiri, Makalu and Broad Peak were in my list to complete my 14peaks. Nanga Parbat and K2 were part of guiding, more for my Chinese team who are also doing 14 peaks. So it was plan since November 2016.
AA: You must be tired. How are you feeling physically?
MGS: yes little tired but it will be fine resting and eating well for a week. I was 84kg in March and now I am 73kg but physically I am good and more fit now. Also we are already planning our next 8000m peak for September.
AA: This was quite the accomplishment Mingma. Few people have ever summited this many 8000ers in one stretch. How do you feel emotionally? Has it sunk in yet?
MGS: Except on Nanga parbat, we have been very lucky on all 8000m we climbed this year. But there are many other seen and unseen helping hands behind me for this success like our weather forecaster, good Sherpa team, supporters on internet etc. I know, many climbers can do this if they get chance. They are many other climbers who are stronger and more technical than me. Only the thing is that some don’t have time to do, some don’t get chance and some don’t have money to make this. Emotionally, I feel so good because I made 3 new 8000 in one year and I may not get like this opportunity again. But it is not over here, we have one more mountain still for this year.
AA: Please forgive me for this, but what is next for you?
MGS: Actually plan was to lead team on Manaslu but some of my friends want me join them for another 8000m which is in discussion everyday. Our decision is not made final yet.
Again, well done by everyone on this team.
Memories are Everything