For decades, mountaineers have attempted to climb K2 in winter, with the most recent being Apricot Tours in 2020. They have all failed, but data shows promise that it can be done.
There is no shortage of explanation as to why K2, the King of Mountains, is the most treacherous in the world of mountaineering. Standing at 28,251 feet (8611-m) the peak measures just below the height of Mount Everest and sits at number two in the roster of 8,000-meter mountains.
Although it is slightly smaller than Everest, that does not take away from the devastating reputation that has seen mountaineers call it the “Savage Mountain” for generations.
K2 Climbing Seasons
K2’s high season is in the summer between June and July, with Mountaineers usually attempting to steer clear of an August summit bid. That’s when most accidents tend to occur. However, even with the most precautions being taken, it has seen its fair share of deaths and tragedies.
Still, teams have tried to scale its many routes in the summer and have succeeded. Some have even dared to traverse them in winter; however, K2 remains unconquered in the winter season.
K2 Summer Expedition Accidents
The mountain has had four major accident events that resulted in the deaths of multiple climbers, with the most recent being the 2008 K2 Tragedy. However, the disasters that have followed this mountain throughout time go as far back as 1939, before it was ever conquered by Achille Campagnoni in 1954.
The 1939 K2 Disaster
Coming just 800-feet short of the summit, a German-American mountaineering team made up of five ill-prepared men and one strong, dedicated climber set out to be the first to summit K2. They endured a lengthy reconnaissance expedition on the mountain in 1938.
After an ill-fated summit bid, the ascending team was forced to descend for more supplies only to find their camps abandoned and cleared of any useful tools or food. One man chose to descend further, leaving one other man at camp alone. He later had to be rescued.
The events of this expedition remained marred in mystery for decades until a newly available trip diary shed light on what happened, why the camps were abandoned and what role each man played in the tragedy. This story is recounted in the book, “K2: The 1939 Tragedy: The Full Story of the Ill-fated Wiessner Expedition.”
In total, four men were killed during the expedition.
The 1953 K2 Disaster
One year before the mountain was eventually first ascended by Achille Campagnoni, K2 was, again, the site of an expedition gone-wrong in 1953. An entire climbing team was ravaged by illness and relentless storms upon their descent. What they endured and how they were able to make it to safety remains a tale of championing survival cemented in the annals of mountaineering history.
This tale is retold in-depth in “K2, The Savage Mountain: The Classic True Story Of Disaster And Survival On The World’s Second-Highest Mountain.“
The 1986 K2 Disaster
In 1986, 27 men and women succeeded in climbing K2, but 13 would die in their attempt. In a series of tragedies, an avalanche buried two Americans. Seven other climbers were left trapped at 26,000-feet (7925 m) for six nights in the world’s most inhospitable terrain.
As a final insult to an already depleted crew, one man was killed after falling into a crevasse just feet from the relative safety of K2 Base Camp.
This became the worst mountaineering tragedy in history, until that is, the approach of the 1996 Everest Disaster and the 2008 K2 Tragedy.
The 2008 K2 Disaster
The 2008 K2 Disaster is the most recent of the four major tragedies to ever plague K2. During this expedition, 11 climbers would die, both on their ascent and descent of the mountain. Many versions were told and retold as to what went wrong.
The climbers, who decided to make a summit bid on 1 August 2008, did so late in the afternoon. They ascended under conditions when individual teams were not working together as they had previously agreed. All who summited were affected by a series of ice falls and the accidental falls of climbers. The exception to this was Alberto Zerain, who summited first that day and descended without injury.
Part of the expeditions o K2 that year was Fredrik Sträng, who would later give accounts of the tragedy with fellow climbers in the documentary, The Summit. He attempted to climb the mountain three more times in the summers of 2017, 2018 and 2019 without success.
(Alberto Zerain later died in June 2017 on Nanga Parbat, also known as the “Killer Mountain.”)
K2 Winter Attempts
With an abundance of fatalities in the summer on K2, climbers still have attempted to be the first to climb K2 in the winter. The most recent expeditions were that of the polish team led by Krzysztof Wielicki attempting to climb K2 in February of 2018, Alex Txikon in 2019 and Apricot Tours in 2020.
The 1988 K2 Winter Expedition – Andrzej Zawada
An expedition was also attempted in 1988 by a primarily Polish expedition led by Andrzej Zawada. In the three months the team spent on K2, they’d only see about 10 days worth of promising weather, the rest was plagued by strong winds and heavy snowfall.
Eventually, the expedition was canceled and no summit occurred. It would be another decade before a winter ascent would be attempted again.
The 2003 K2 Winter Expedition – Andrzej Zawada
In 2000, Andrzej Zawada attempted to scale K2 again, however, he fell ill and died six months later. His team continued the effort in 2002-2003. But a series of bad weather and fighting within the team led three men to leave the expedition. The remaining men attempted and succeeded in establishing Camp 3 and Camp 4.
Cerebral edema and bad weather resulted in a failed attempt. But it was one that showed promise in the idea that an ascent of K2 in winter could be done.
The 2012 K2 Winter Expedition
In 2012, a Russian expedition attempted to climb K2 in the winter but bad weather and a climber’s bout with pneumonia, which eventually led to his death, required that the expedition be called off.
It would not be attempted again until 2018 by Krzysztof Wielicki’s team. But there was an unsuccessful plan in 2015 to try. But the team led by Denis Urubko was denied a permit due to a terrorist attack in the area.
The 2018 K2 Winter Expedition – Krzysztof Wielicki
In 2018, Krzysztof Wielicki’s team experienced several delays in climbing K2. This included the incredible overnight rescue of Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat in January. Revol had suffered severe weather on the mountain and left her partner, Tomasz Mackiewicz, above to reach help below. The K2 team was able to rescue Revol but did not think an attempt to save her partner would be successful. He was left behind and declared dead the next day.
This led to controversies on the motives of the rescuers and whether or not Revol’s partner could have been saved. Leading climbers like Vannessa O’Brien claimed they could have “climbed higher” to save Mackiewicz.
At some point, after the Polish team returned to K2 from their rescue mission, they had split from their united front on their summit bid day. Denis Urubko decided to make a solo climb to the mountain on 25 February. But he later called off his attempt after spending a night out in severe weather at 26,322 feet (7,200 m)
Eventually, the expedition was called off on 5 March 2018. Heavy snowfall and bad weather covered their fixed ropes and made the climb unsafe.
The 2019 K2 Winter Expedition – Alex Txikon
In 2019, Alex Txikon set off to make an attempt at the summit of K2 in winter. His expedition was delayed by another rescue on Nanga Parbat similar to what occurred the year before. Txikon spent around two selfless weeks searching for Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi who had gone missing on Nanga Parbat on 24 February.
He eventually spotted two “silhouettes” using a high-magnification telescope. On 09 March, it was officially announced that the two shapes were the bodies of Ballard and Nardi. Txikon later went to K2 Base Camp to continue his 2019 Winter Top Appeal Expedition and be the first climber to summit the mountain in Winter. But, in mid-March, the weather on K2 caused him to put an end his expedition.
The 2020 Apricot Tours Winter Expedition
In late January of 2020, Apricot Tours sent out an expedition led by Mingma G. Sherpa and John Snorri. They were attempting a winter ascent of K2 via the Abruzzi Spur route. The expedition began fine, with only a three-day delay on the Baltoro Glacier. But once they arrived at K2 Base Camp, the team wasn’t on the mountain for more than a few days before they experienced some kind of emergency.
On 05 February 2020, Apricot Tours announced that the team requested a helicopter evacuation. Two helicopters air-lifted all five team members from K2 and transported them to Skardu. The expedition’s end was veiled in mystery as to what happened. But what we know now is that the expedition ended on 05 Feb. All team members began their journey home.
As of 2020, K2 remains unconquered in winter, but not because of the lack of trying. Overall, each successive attempt to climb K2 in the winter leads to more information and techniques that allow future generations to build upon the hard work of those who came before them. The 2003 expedition proved that a winter ascent could be done; which expedition will succeed will be determined by time.
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