I guess the maturity of the exploration, or more accurately the business model, for popular mountain peaks changes over time. The summit of Europe’s Mont Blanc in 1786 was considered a fantastic achievement at the time. As was Everest in 1953, and even more so with Habeler and Messner’s no O’s summit in 1978.
Today, Everest can see close to 1,000 people summit each spring, the vast majority guided by professional mountain guides and Sherpas, most paid relatively well. So should we be surprised by what’s happening on Paristain’s K2 this winter?
Will K2 Become Everest?
As I argued in my 2016 post, Why K2 Will Never Become Everest. Everest and K2 are extremely different climbs and attract different people. These were my key points:
- K2 is a technical high altitude climb, limiting the attraction
- The local mountaineering support pales in comparison to Everest
- K2’s weather is worse than Everest thus reducing summit success
- K2’s death rate is much higher than Everest thus scaring many away
- The trek to base camp is long, hard, and uncomfortable discouraging some from trying
It’s said if you want to brag, climb Everest. If you want respect, climb K2. So as we watch 60 to 70 people, highly supported attempt to set a record with a winter summit, I guess it was inevitable.
Evolving Business Model
For almost every mountain, commercial guiding seems to be the downfall, and the driver of success measured by summits, employment of locals, and growing tourism revenue for the country. It has happened globally from the US with Denali, Argentina with Aconcagua, the Alps with Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and more, Russia with many high peaks including Mt Elbrus, Pakistan with their five 8000ers, and on and on. No country is immune to the siren call of money associated with their natural resources. Even pristine New Zealand markets ski tours on their Alps and tramping on the South Island.
However, often it’s one aggressive local company that is behind the most significant changes.
For the 8000ers, including Everest and K2, that company is Kathmandu based, Seven Summits Treks (SST). Founded by six brothers from the Makalu region, Mingma, Tashi, and Dawa are the principles. They started like most Sherpas do in Nepal, as porters. But they had a huge vision and ambition and formed their company in 2010. Knowing they needed personal experience to attract clients, Mingma and Dawa summited all fourteen of the 8000-meters peaks, the only brothers to accomplish this feat. The Brothers then parlayed their experience and business acumen to allow SST to dominate local guiding in Nepal and on all fourteen of the 8000-meter peaks. Their low-price strategy has succeeded in attracting price-sensitive clients primarily from India and China but also throughout the world. They have seriously loyal clients.
From a business model, they compete on price, often half what foreign companies would charge. They do this by keeping their cost low and having one of the brothers lead the climb. Some Sherpas claim SST does not pay fair wages. SST touts their focus on safety, however in 2019 on the 8000er, Annapurna, under the leadership of SST, 49-year-old Malaysian climber Wui Kin Chin, became extremely fatigued while descending from the summit late in the day, around 3:50 pm. I wrote about the incident in this post. There was poor communication between SST and Chin’s evacuation (not insurance) provider, Global Services.
In the deadly 2019 season on all 8000ers, again SST saw the deaths of clients. They had more clients die than any other operator, but when asked, Tashi Sherpa, Chairman of Seven Summit Treks proudly claimed on Facebook that they had 40% of the climbers this year … and they also had 40% of the deaths across the 8000ers: 4 of the 10. However, that metric does not track with the best operators in mountaineering. SST had deaths on Annapurna (1), Everest (2), and Makalu (3). Of the 21 deaths on 8000ers in 2019, SST had six or 28%. Tashi’s claim of 40% of the clients cannot be independently confirmed.
When I interviewed Dawa about Dr. Chin death on Annapurna, his answer was illuminating:
Dawa said “Can not stop any climber if they are well enough to go!! And did you see the summit photo of Chin? Chin climbed together with other 30 climbers, during the summit push he was as in level of fitness like others climbers…. This happens all of sudden, this is why they buy Insurance/ Rescue arranges yes? We cannot see future to stop anyone, can you give a point why I should stop him when he was climbing with team and his Sherpa reportedly in normal way! And even climber can decide to go with no Sherpa and no oxygen … it’s their selection !! Sir, we can never figure how personal climber is feeling and going through, if all seems ok then we go through normal climbing strategy. !!!”
I’m not picking on SST, Peak Promotions also had multiple deaths with Kangchenjunga (3) and Everest (1). The bottom line for me is that mountain climbing and guiding is not a business of large scales. Climbing is dangerous, clients come unprepared and the best operators, both local and foreign have smaller teams, usually around 10, with qualified staff and well through-out emergency plans. The business school model of price-elasticity” simply fails in alpine guiding.
All this said, it still comes down to the personal responsibility of the clients which take us to K2 Winter 2020/21
K2 Winter 2020/21
There are four teams currently on K2:
- Seven Summits Treks with 55 members (27 clients, 28 Sherpas)
- Mingma Gyalje Sherpa with three Sherpa, no members
- Icelander John Snorri Sigurjonsson with two Pakistani HAP support
- Nirmal Purja Purja Purja Purja has an unknown number of support staff with an estimated two clients, perhaps more.
With well over 35 Sherpas and Pakistani in support of at least 30 clients, this is a truly “supported” season. In other words, the support staff will fix the ropes, especially above Camp 2, carry and set up tents, cook food at the base and high camps thus allowing the clients to only focus on climbing. I.E. the Everest model.
It’s been reported that SST charged each client between $35,000 and $45,000 each for this winter attempt K2. In the summer season, Madison Mountaineering charges $69,500.
So what experience is best for a client before attempting K2 in the winter? I suggest these as a minimum:
- Everest summit in any season
- K2 summit in summer
- Another 7,000-meter or preferably 8,000-meter winter summit such as Aconcagua or Manaslu
- Extensive winter climbing at any altitude but preferably above 5,000-meters
- Extensive experience rock climbing at a minimum YDS level of 5.5 in extremely cold (-60F) windchill conditions
- A one-month winter expedition with daily temps hovering at -40F.
If you review the Russian and Polish efforts over the past decade, they met these criteria at a minimum. When reviewing this years’ members, and some of the Sherpas’ experience against this list, very few qualify.
Yes, the Winter K2 effort is starting to get a lot of negative publicity – primarily around the commercialization of the climb. It feels like greed, ego, and pride getting in the way of logic, safety, and teamwork. Quite different than the previous decades of national teams, even considering their clash of egos and nationalities. All in all, a massive clash of agendas, priorities, and egos. As I wrote previously on this blog, these factors have to come together for ANYONE to summit:
- have good weather for acclimatizing and the summit push and back
- get ropes put in for the steep and dangerous sections
- stay healthy
- work cooperatively with the other teams and manage egos
- be lucky with objective dangers – rock fall, crevasses, and avalanches.
With a modern death to attempt rate of around 20%, it would not be surprising to see 5, 8, maybe ten deaths from the 50-60+ people on K2 this winter, assuming anyone gets above C2 and the Black Pyramid. The big danger is the objective danger – avalanche, and rockfall. Also, the vast majority of all of the climbers lack extensive winter 8000-meter experience. When I interviewed Minga G last year after his failed winter attempt, he said they severely underestimated the winter conditions’ cold and harsh nature.
There is very limited tent space at all of the camps except for High Camp, aka C4. When I was there in 2014, Camp 1 could only hold about six or seven tents, picture attached. With each tent accommodating two, three, maybe four people max, that suggests that only 20 or so people can be at C1, 2, and 3 at the same time – and that’s a lot of people! They will have to coordinate and work together, even to have a place to sleep.
Will anyone summit?
I’d say there’s an 80% chance and 100% that it will include one of the high-profile Sherpas.
Nirmal Purja Purja Purja has the strength, skills, motivation, and mental toughness but lacks winter experience. I don’t see his clients summiting. Mingma G was on K2 last winter and learned a lot. I think he has a good chance but will need to partner to make it. Also, both he and Nirmal Purja Purja Purja are not using supplemental oxygen thus making their efforts even more difficult but pleasing the purists. Snorri and team arrived well before anyone, for unknown reasons, and are spending precious energy fixing the ropes and could be punched-out by the time the real summit push comes.
And SST? Well, this is the wildcard. If their massive Sherpa team can offload the stress of climbing for the clients, there are a couple that has the experience and skills to make it, primarily. But many on their team have limited to no winter experience at extreme altitude i.e. about 7500-meters, limited winter experience and some have said publicly they have not trained due to COVID. Thus I give the majority of the clients a tiny chance of summiting. However, they can return to their home country, go on the speaking circuit, write a book, and claim victory citing some arbitrary reason they didn’t summit. We’ve seen this movie before.
There is an exception on SST, with the last-minute additions of Romanian Alex Gavan, Chilean Juan Pablo Mohr, Slovenian Tomaz Rotar, and co-leader Sergi Mingote. These are serious, experienced climbers who have a chance. However, I fear that even if they summit, their style will be questioned as being part of the SST commercial team.
Who Wins, Who Loses?
Cleary the operators will profit from this effort as will Pakistan and the logistics operators through permit fees and associated support services. If there are significant deaths, like Everest 2019, the high-altitude climbing industry will be cited for excessive ego, greed, and incompetence.
Calls will go out for more rules and regulations and nothing will change. If there is a winter summit, it will be discounted by the long-time pros for the level of support used, and potentially the use of supplemental oxygen. Overall this season is shaping up poorly.
That said, the climbers on K2 over the next few weeks will have a lifetime experience, learn a lot, and return home a revised version of themselves. I only hope they see the true big picture and return to the norms of decades-old national climbs where if one person summited, the entire team claimed victory.
I wish each person and those on Broad Peak and Manaslu safe and successful climbs. If 202/21 reveals anything, it will show that serious winter climbs require serious experience and preparation. The results will reveal the answer.
As for K2, you know, no one thought I had a chance to summit K2 in 2014 at age 58, but I did.
Memories are Everything
See my video of my 2014 K2 Summit Experience.