Colin O’Brady was among the first climbers to arrive at Camp 3.
It was 4 February, the sun had dipped below the jagged horizon on K2, the world’s second highest mountain, and the American triathlete turned sponsored adventurer and Instagram star was getting worried.
Like his fellow climbers, O’Brady knew that the decisions he made that night could lead to glory, death, or something in between.
O’Brady, 35, had come on an expedition of more than 50 climbers to Pakistan to try to summit K2 in winter. It was a feat that was deemed impossible at a time of year when falling rock and ice, storms and temperatures of -50C can extinguish life in moments. K2 was the last among the world’s 14 summits above 8,000m never to have been conquered in winter.
O’Brady and his Sherpas, Lakpa Temba and Ming Temba, pitched their tent at Camp 3, an exposed ledge 1,400 metres below the summit. They had completed two days of treacherous climbing, passing up the Abruzzi Ridge from Base Camp. Now, it was getting dangerously late.
It would take at least 15 hours to reach the summit over steep, frozen rock. Climbers would have to pass the Bottleneck, a notorious couloir below a crumbling serac of car-sized chunks of ice. O’Brady and his team had arrived at 5pm. It was already -30C. To make it up and down again before high winds were due to sweep in the following day, earlier than originally forecast, all climbers needed to leave the camp by 9pm.
They had vanishingly little time to rest, melt snow for water, eat and change their socks. “We were taking pics and having fun, but I was getting nervous, man,” O’Brady told me, two weeks later from his home in Wyoming. He lives there with his wife Jenna Besaw and Jack, their Wheaten terrier, who has 1,000 Instagram followers (O’Brady has more than 250,000).
“I’m always calculating… at what point is it too late not to be able to do the plan?”
Chaos then descended on Camp 3.
Within hours, more than 20 climbers and Sherpas had arrived. Many came without tents, hoping to find equipment that they thought had been deposited weeks earlier. But any kit had long since been buried by windblown snow or stripped off the mountain by gale-force winds.
Soon, everyone squeezed into four small tents – a disparate gang of sponsored athletes, professional alpinists and wealthy amateurs. They included Tomaz Rotar, a Slovenian face surgeon; Noel Hanna, an ex-policeman from Northern Ireland; John Snorri, an Icelandic father-of-six. The group included two national heroes: Ali Sadpara and his son Sajid, who were carrying the weight of national expectation on their shoulders.
“I couldn’t even reach my own boot to unzip it,” O’Brady recalls of the crush. He radioed base camp in a fury. “Why the fuck aren’t there more tents up here?” he shouted at Arnold Coster, a Dutch mountaineer who was helping to run operations for Seven Summit Treks. The Nepali company had brought the majority of the climbers to K2, despite fears that such a large and unprecedented commercial expedition in winter could end in disaster.
As darkness fell, each climber had a decision to make: sit out the night and descend to Base Camp at dawn with dashed dreams, or step out into the darkness – many of them alone – and race a storm to the summit.
“I closed my eyes, took a number of deep breaths, and looked inwards,” O’Brady said. “I’ve been successful by pushing through hard moments… But there was another voice deep inside me saying, ‘No, this is not one of those times – this is the time when you say, you’re at the edge of your risk tolerance and limits and it’s time to turn around’.”
Other climbers were leaning the other way. They had come so far, and paid so much – at least £20,000 each – enduring weeks of bad food and boredom in the primitive surroundings of base camp. Many had used their Instagram accounts to update fans and sponsors. Their climbing permits would soon run out – there would not be another summit window.
“You’re missing your home, your family, you haven’t showered for months,” said Rotar, the Slovenian, who says oxygen deprivation at altitude can also cloud rational thought. “We had a good time but it’s also suffering, and all that suffering comes together on summit day. It’s like a venom, you know, like a venom in your veins, and you just have to go up… you just have to go up.”
K2 punches into the death zone, as the life-drainingly thin air above 8,000m is known, in a giant fist of rock, ice and snow. It sits on the border of Pakistan and China in the Karakoram Range, which includes four of the world’s 8,000ers (the other ten are in the Himalayas).
At 8,611m, K2 is only 238m shorter than Mount Everest. But it dwarfs it as a technical climbing challenge thanks to its steep, crumbling flanks and notorious hurricane-force winds. There are massive avalanches, crevasses and tumbling rock and ice. In many places, a mistake with ropes will send a climber falling straight to the glacier that crawls along the foot of the mountain.
In 1953, after failed attempts spanning half a century, an American expedition got stuck in a storm above what is now Camp 3. When Art Gilkey, a geologist, became seriously ill, his teammates risked their lives to lower him down the mountain, only for him to disappear, possibly in an avalanche.
The Americans built a cairn in Gilkey’s honour near base camp. The Gilkey Memorial now teeters under the weight of plaques honouring almost 100 people who have died trying to scale K2. Before this winter, there had been one death for every 5.5 successful summit pushes (on Everest, the ratio is around one death per 33 ascents). “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you,” George Bell, a member of the 1953 expedition, told reporters. The new nickname only added to its allure.
In a fit of high-altitude exploration between 1950 and 1964, all 14 of the 8,000ers would be climbed for the first time in spring or summer. An Italian team conquered K2 in 1954. In the 1970s, masochistic Polish mountaineers began trying to climb the same peaks in winter. Their ascent of Everest in February 1980 triggered a new, much slower and more dangerous race.
Winter attempts on K2 began in 1988, but were always thwarted, mostly by storms. When three climbers, including Pakistan’s Ali Sadpara, reached the top of Nanga Parbat (8,125m) in February 2016, K2 stood alone. Reaching its summit in winter became a coveted prize in an era in which “firsts” of genuine merit are in dwindling supply.
In the meantime, the sport had undergone a revolution – most dramatically on Everest. Once the preserve of alpine clubs and national expeditions, the relatively achievable peak became a multi-million dollar industry in the 1990s – and a bucket list goal for CEOs, spritely retirees and adventurers building personal brands.
For a price that today can dip below $30,000, climbers could enjoy base camp in relative comfort, and climb with the support of Sherpas, bottled oxygen and fixed ropes all the way. In the past decade, VIP packages of up to $160,000 have emerged. Today you can take a sauna at base camp.
But it was still a deadly mountain. A dozen climbers perished on Everest in 1996, inspiring Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and a bout of soul-searching. Disasters only seemed to draw bigger crowds. Photographs of conga lines of down-suited summit pushers are now as synonymous with Everest as the image of Edmund Hillary standing on its peak in 1953.
In 1993, glacial ice spat out Gilkey’s remains not far from his memorial at the foot of K2, 40 years after his disappearance. If it felt like a bad omen, it was not a deterrence; commercial expeditions began targeting the mountain the following year. Seven climbers died in 1995, including the British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves. In 2008, 11 people died.
“People today are booking these K2 package deals almost as if they were buying some all-inclusive trip to Bangkok,” the Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who was the first person to climb all the 8,000ers, said after the 2008 disaster.
Until this year, big commercial expeditions on K2 in winter seemed out of the question. Previous attempts had been undertaken by small, self-sufficient groups of highly experienced alpinists, who were themselves operating right at the limit.
But then, one operator joined the race to the summit.
By the time Colin O’Brady made it to Camp 3, he was in fact climbing for second place.
Two weeks earlier, a 10-man team from Nepal had stolen a march, moving fast in a rare good weather window and leaving the rest of the teams at base camp. Working together to reach the summit in a blaze of national glory, they had bagged one of the last big prizes in high-altitude mountaineering.
After they descended and returned to Kathmandu, to a whirlwind of adulation, more than 40 people remained at Base Camp – a disparate mix of professionals, adventurer influencers, and serious amateur enthusiasts who now knew the winter ascent could be done.
Three of the climbers – John Snorri, Ali Sadpara and his son Sajid – were running their own, largely self-sufficient expedition. They had not been ready and had seen different weather forecasts weeks earlier when the Nepalese team stormed to the summit. After failing to climb K2 the winter before, Snorri was determined to succeed.
Everyone else still on K2 was a client of Seven Summit Treks, which had brought 22 climbers and as many Sherpas to base camp, along with all the cooking facilities, oxygen bottles and ropes a large expedition requires. Founded in 2010 by six brothers from the Makalu region of Nepal, the company rose on the Everest profits that were at last elevating the Sherpas who had lost lives and fingers while serving western expeditions.
But Seven Summit Treks has also come to symbolise a new phase in high-altitude commercialism. With armies of Sherpas, its principal owners – Mingma Sherpa and Chhang Dawa Sherpa, the world’s only brothers to have summited all 8,000ers – straddle the top and bottom of a supercharged market, offering the cheapest and costliest packages available. Last October, for an undisclosed fee, they led Bahraini Prince Mohamed Hamad Mohamed Al Khalifa to the summit of Manaslu (8,163m).
Seven Summit Treks also offers infrastructure and logistics to semi-independent expeditions. Dawa Sherpa, who was at base camp this winter, didn’t respond to my invitation to talk. But Arnold Coster, who was jointly managing operations, said the company was not a guiding service on K2. “We’re not telling anybody we’re going to bring them to the summit,” he told me from Kathmandu. “They know they have to climb to the summit themselves.”
This model suited some of the smaller groups climbing under the Seven Summits umbrella, many of whom were hugely experienced in their own right. O’Brady was working with his friend Dr John Kedrowski, a geographer and mountaineer from Colorado, and a Sherpa each. To varying degrees, the company was also supporting the three smaller teams who had gathered at base camp: the two Nepali teams who had just succeeded in their feat, and John Snorri’s group.
All of this made for a fragmented base camp, where camaraderie, competition and nerves swirled awkwardly with the storms that frequently confined climbers to their tents. This was not a mass, unified attempt on an unclimbed peak, but a gathering of individuals with their own motivations, ambitions and schedules. In the downtime between rotations – shorter climbs designed to acclimatise climbers to the thin air – cultural differences also emerged.
Seven Summit Treks had installed a communications satellite at base camp, partly for safety (there is no mobile phone reception in the Karakoram), but also with connectivity in mind. The company paid $3,500 for 15 gigabytes of data – enough to allow its clients to share photos and video clips. Many climbers bought their own satellite equipment.
“That was one of the things that was so annoying about this expedition,” Coster, of Seven Summits, said. “Times are changing, you know, people are so busy with updating their social media that we, as an expedition organiser, hardly get a chance to solve our problems.”
O’Brady was among the professional adventurers funding their tickets to K2 with sponsorship and income from book deals and speaking tours. Seventy years after a messenger dashed down Everest with coded news of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s triumph, their Instagram accounts offered a fascinating – and, later, morbid – live view of modern mountaineering.
Tomaz Rotar, the Slovenian face surgeon, and Noel Hanna, the Northern Irish mountaineer, were among those self-funded climbers. “We had been joking and said we were tourists,” Rotar said. “You know, all the rest are professionals, because they were all the time on social media – they posted something, they took selfies – they were working, but we had so much free time. It’s a big difference, but I don’t know how those people cope with that. Is it a pressure, or not?”
“Not for me,” said Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja, the superstar climber with the biggest and perhaps busiest Instagram account, with almost 400,000 followers. The Nepalese former Gurkha and British special forces soldier, who lives in Hampshire, had become an instant star of mountaineering in 2019 when he climbed all 14 of the 8,000ers in six months. He had broken the previous record by seven years.
“That decision to be brave and to keep climbing can make you successful, but it can literally kill you,” Purja said from Kathmandu. “If you haven’t been honest to yourself in terms of being true to your ability – and if you’re just doing it for egoistic purposes or external pressures rather than internal strength, it’s not going to go well.”
Pressure for some of the Nepali climbers had been two-fold. Like O’Brady (who has written a book called The Impossible First), Purja had a brand to promote, and a book to sell – called Beyond Possible. Purja also runs his own guiding company, and has big sponsors behind him, including Red Bull and Bremont, the luxury watch company.
But for Purja, the expedition was also about national reclamation. While Sherpas have made up the backbone of 8,000m mountaineering for a century in support of western climbers, they have rarely enjoyed summit glory in first ascents – and never in winter. “I would say justice wasn’t there,” Purja said.
To this end, Purja and his team of Sherpas decided early in January to join forces with the other all-Nepali team at base camp, which was led by Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, known as Mingma G, a porter turned guide and expedition operator. They knew that success on such a forbidding peak in winter demanded teamwork, and the sacrifice of individual glory.
Working with Sona Sherpa, who was part of the Seven Summit Treks team, the ten-man group got into the perfect position to take advantage of a weather window. They reached the summit, hand in hand, on 16 January. “It was like I was shivering not because of cold, but because of happiness,” Mingma G told me.
Summit shots did not reach newsrooms in time for the next day’s newspapers. Even so, a portrait taken earlier in the expedition of Purja in a suit covered in Red Bull regalia, as well as his own logos, made almost all the front pages in the UK, and dozens more around the world.
In the coming days, as the climbers connected their smartphones and GoPro cameras, imagery began to flood social media. In one viral video taken in selfie mode, the group steps on to the deceptively gentle dome that marks the peak itself, each man summoning just enough oxygen to sing while willing one foot in front of the other.
Meanwhile, thousands of metres below them, a storm hit base camp, confining the climbers who hadn’t been in a position to follow the Nepali teams skywards. By this time, they were also mourning the death of Sergi Mingote, a highly experienced Spanish climber and member of the Seven Summit group who had fallen to his death while climbing on the mountain’s lower slopes, less than an hour after the summit triumph. When a small but narrowing weather window opened in early February, the remaining teams mobilised.
Colin O’Brady had built a career and brand on stretching the limits of possibility, despite an inauspicious start in life. “I was born on a futon and my mum had invited 30 of her closest friends to their communal house,” he said. “As the story goes, she played Redemption Song on repeat throughout my birth with a bunch of people watching…. It was a pretty non-competitive environment.”
O’Brady’s father, who is now an organic farmer in Hawaii, was a keen outdoorsman. The mountains of the Pacific Northwest were on the doorstep, and O’Brady remembers devouring mountaineering books and films as a child. For reasons he has not yet understood, he also became incredibly competitive. After swimming for Yale, and then competing for six years as a professional triathlete, he developed a yearning for greater adventures.
In 2016, as part of a challenge sponsored by Nike, among other brands, O’Brady climbed the seven highest peaks on each continent in a record 132 days, while also becoming the first person to Snapchat from the summit of Mount Everest.
In 2018, in an expedition branded “The Impossible First”, he completed a record-breaking crossing of Antarctica and wrote a best-selling book about it. In “The Impossible Row”, he rowed from the tip of South America to Antarctica across the fearsome Drake Passage. K2 in winter was to be “The Impossible Summit”.
O’Brady resists the idea that his own profile added pressure on K2, or that he saw it in others. But he said he knows how it feels. He tried to imagine the pressure that might have affected John Snorri, for example, who had been so disappointed to miss out on a summit push the year before – and again when the Nepali team made history. “I could walk down that path and, and tell you why inside somebody’s mind, they might have felt that way,” O’Brady said.
O’Brady and his partner Dr John Kedrowski had set off from Base Camp on 3 February with their Sherpas, aiming for a 5 February summit push. Other individuals and teams who were part of the Seven Summit Treks group decided on their own schedules, as did the separate trio of John Snorri, and the father-and-son duo of Ali and Sajid Sadpara.
The weather window was marginal even to begin with. Many climbers became doubtful long before the crush at Camp 3. Several turned back. Kedrowski felt strong, but his concern boiled over just below Camp 1, the first of four established resting ledges on the ascent. “Camps”, it’s worth noting, are simply flat-ish areas of rock where it’s possible to throw up a tent, with a degree of shelter from the paths of avalanches and other hazards. If there’s time, supplies can be deposited at the camps during climbing rotations as part of preparation for a summit push. We’re not talking about campsites here, as you or I might imagine them.
Forecasts warned of summit winds of more than 20kph – and rising fast – and a wind chill of -60 degrees. Days earlier, some of the very strong Nepalese climbers had gotten frostbite on the summit in winds and temperatures that were half as extreme. “How is that even acceptable?” Kedrowski said. “Then I also just felt like those guys had made it and they had a great, cohesive team. And as I’m going up, I’m seeing a free-for-all. Everybody was there for themselves and that’s just not the way to climb a mountain like that… It was very easy for me to walk away.”
O’Brady, who now had two Sherpas to himself, decided to keep going – to postpone his own decision about whether to push on. After a night in Camp 2, he continued towards Camp 3 up the Black Pyramid, a dangerously exposed section of steep, icebound rock.
This was when the problems really started to hit. In summer, Arnold Coster – the man overseeing the expedition – says Sherpas would have made several supply runs to Camp 3 to leave vital kit up there. But, in the hurry to summit this winter, he says a “communication failure” led several members of his team to climb without a tent. O’Brady was not among them; he and his Sherpas had no expectation that any supplies left at Camp 3 would have survived the storms.
Moreover, Coster says, four of his clients (he prefers not to name them) had been told not to proceed to Camp 3 because they had been climbing too slowly to meet the summit targets he had set. “Plus their Sherpas, that’s about eight [extra] people,” Coster said, putting huge pressure on Camp 3 to accommodate everyone.
With everyone climbing at their own pace, and to their own schedule – and with confusion in the air about the number of tents – the “free-for-all” that Kedrowski had observed was about to come to a head.
In the few hours after O’Brady and his Sherpas had reached Camp 3, eight more clients of Seven Summit Treks arrived, with seven more Sherpas. So did John Snorri, Ali Sadpara and Sajid Sadpara. It was now dark, as 21 people tried to find space to prepare for one of the world’s hardest summit pushes in four tiny tents designed for a dozen bodies at most.
Among the last climbers to arrive was Antonios Sykaris, a wealthy 58-year-old Greek businessman who was trying to become the first person to climb all 8,000m peaks over the age of 50. “Please, allow me to come inside, I will die,” Sykaris remembers calling through the shell of one of the tents, by then packed with climbers.
Noel Hanna, the Northern Irish ex-policeman, let Sykaris in. The Greek climber’s toes were becoming frostbitten yet still he wanted to go for the summit. By then Hanna had, like O’Brady, decided to abandon his own summit dreams and descend to base camp in the morning. “Why take extra chances when there’s a chance that you don’t come back down or you go home with less fingers and toes?” he said.
High on the side of a remote mountain in the middle of the night, each climber wrestled with his or her own calculations of risk and reward, many of them also making calls home via satellite phone in search of weather updates and reassurance.
“That guy is going to kill himself,” one climber is reported to have said about another over the radio to base camp. Nobody I spoke to would tell me who said this – or whom they were referring to.
The Northern Irish former policeman, Hanna, began trying to persuade the Greek businessman Sykaris to give up on his own summit attempt. Sykaris welled up on the phone to me while remembering the anguished call he made to his wife by satellite phone from Camp 3. Hanna took the phone and asked the Greek climber’s wife for help in trying to persuade her husband not to go out into the night. “Finally I decided to stay but I felt so bad,” Sykaris said.
Tomaz Rotar, the Slovenian, knew in his head that the weather window was too short and that it was too late. “I think we all tried to stretch time in our heads – our hypoxic heads,” he said. Yet Rotar was among seven climbers who made the decision to go up, to step out of the tents and clip back on to the ropes.
Rotar, who remembers leaving with a Sherpa at about 10pm, made it further up the mountain. He followed the fixed ropes that the Nepali teams had used two weeks before, until he reached an unexpected crevasse at just under 8,000m. He remembers it being more than two metres wide.
Without a ladder of the sort mountaineers often use to bridge such gaps, he and his Sherpa shone their torches left and right – and into the icy depths – but could see no way across. Rotar turned back, defeated.
By now, between 11pm and 2am, John Snorri and the Sadparas had also left Camp 3 – one by one. So too had Juan Pablo Mohr, 34, a Chilean adventurer who was on the Seven Summit Treks ticket. Rotar, on his way down to Camp 3 from the crevasse, remembers first meeting John Snorri on the ropes coming up. When Rotar told Snorri about the crevasse, Snorri said he would try to jump cross it. “I said, ‘fuck, I’m going with you, I have to see that’,” Rotar said.
Rotar hiked back up to the crevasse with Snorri. “And then Snorri was just looking at this gap and he said, ‘We’ll try to cross it’. I said, ‘Snorri, I’m just too cold and I know I cannot jump across this crevasse… I wished him good luck and said, ‘see you tomorrow’, and went down.”
Rotar arrived back at the tents just as the sun was coming up. The weather was fine that morning, although light winds were a sign of what was coming. The climbers who had endured the night were in good spirits: they were relieved to have decided to descend – and nervously optimistic about the chances of the four strong mountaineers who were somewhere out of sight above them.
They also knew they would need to get down quickly before the winds picked up. They packed up their tents and began a perilous descent. Then, disaster struck. While descending the steep Black Pyramid, Atanas Skatov, 42, an accomplished Bulgarian climber, suddenly disappeared. Elia Saikaly, a Canadian filmmaker who had waited out the night below Camp 3 and then joined the descent, was just below him. “A body flew directly over my head out of nowhere,” he later wrote. “There was no warning. There were no cries. There was no sound.” The climbers think Skatov might have made a fatal error while clipping from one rope to another. Saikaly remembers watching him fall for up to 10 seconds, his body eventually coming out of his down suit before coming to a stop at the foot of the mountain, more than 2,000m below.
When, over the next two days, the climbers limped into base camp, variously frostbitten, exhausted and shocked by Atanas’ death, concern grew that nobody had heard from the summit. Batteries in the men’s trackers, radios and sat phones had by now perished in the cold. By then, Sajid Sadpara – Ali’s son – had developed problems with his breathing gear. At the Bottleneck, not far from the summit, his father sent him back down to Camp 3 to wait.
Sajid stayed in Camp 3, mostly alone, talking by radio to base camp but with no idea about the fate of his father. After almost 24 hours, he was persuaded to descend. By then, few at base camp had much hope that the men were alive. “You feel very helpless,” said Coster, “Because you know that you actually cannot do anything for them.”
While this was unfolding on the mountain, Vanessa O’Brien, a former banker who quit finance to become an accomplished adventurer, was following via social media and in messages to several of the climbers whom she knew, including John Snorri. She had been “horrified” when she learned about Seven Summit Treks’ mass expedition. “It was grossly bloated,” she said.
Thirty hours after the now missing men – Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and Juan Pablo Mohr – left Camp 3, O’Brien texted the Seven Summit Treks team at Base Camp to say that she was worried. She was dismayed by the lack of interest she says the company expressed in launching a search – one that Coster puts down to the danger and futility of sending already exhausted Sherpas back up a mountain into bad weather.
“I’m hearing that response and saying, ‘OK, if that’s your attitude, I’m not going to depend on you whatsoever’,” O’Brien said. “And that’s about the time I said, we have to do something that we’ve never done before.”
Using links via the mountaineering community in Pakistan, and by corralling resources including space agencies in Chile and Iceland (homes to Mohr and Snorri), O’Brien managed a remote search from her kitchen table using military helicopters, fighter jets and satellite scanning technology. Dawa Sherpa went up in some of the helicopter searches, and reported that winds above 6,400m had reached 40kph.
“I’m looking for something that shouldn’t be there,” O’Brien said. “Something that is not part of a mountain – an aberration.” When the satellite imagery she was receiving revealed such objects, the helicopters were directed to get a closer look. Sightings of torn tents and the detritus of previous expeditions proved the surveillance was working, but bad weather thwarted the search. There was no sign of fallen bodies, nor any other clues.
Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and JP Mohr were declared officially dead on 18 February at a government press conference in Skardu, the gateway town for K2. Two weeks had passed since Rotar had wished Snorri luck at the crevasse. Sajid Ali was at the conference, and said that his father and the other mountaineers had been climbing well at the Bottleneck. He also said they had jumped the crevasse. That was the last he had seen of them.
“My family and I have lost a kind-hearted person and the Pakistani nation has lost a brave and great adventurous individual who was passionate about the Pakistani flag to the point of insanity,” he told a nation in mourning. Because the missing men had been in good shape when he left them, Sajid said he believed that theyhad reached the summit, and that something had gone wrong during their descent.
One by one, the Instagram feeds of the five dead climbers came to a halt, generally with a statement from their families. As more than a dozen children faced a future without a father, wider grief began to mingle with anger and recrimination in some of those who had come to K2.
This, too, carried echoes of previous disasters on high, commercialised mountains. Brains deprived of oxygen often produce conflicting memories and explanations for what goes wrong. Fights also break out over the narrative, and the right to tell the story – and to write the books and make the films that disasters tend to inspire.
Tomaz Rotar suggested Sajid Sadpara might have been hallucinating if he believed the men had jumped across the crevasse at 8,000m. There were suggestions that the triumphant Nepali team had concealed information about the summit push, or even faked it, despite all the summit videos. They were even accused of cutting ropes behind them as they descended.
Mingma G and Nirmal Purja posted angry denials. They wondered if such doubts would have emerged had a western team made it to the summit. “It’s time for the entire climbing community to support one another and bring the Nepali and Pakstani climbers into the same fraternity of elite climbers from around the world without any prejudice,” Purja said on Instagram.
Attention also focused on Seven Summit Treks, and the lessons that could be learned from taking on a winter assault on such a challenging peak. In an interview with Alpinism Online, Chhang Dawa Sherpa, the company’s chairman, echoed Coster. “We do not sell guided expeditions, we only provide infrastructure,” he said. He blamed slower climbers for arriving in Camp 3 against advice and said he would organise a similar expedition again if there were demand.
“We realized that K2 and winter is extremely risky, but climbers have the freedom to make their own decisions even if they go against our leader’s advice,” he added. “You can never make K2 winter climbing 100 per cent safe. In reality, the uncertainty and the fact that it has never been done is the attraction for most climbers to do it.”
Vanessa O’Brien understands this risk. “But it’s a business now,” O’Brien said. “And when there are economics involved, then for-profit companies are making for-profit decisions, and that’s not always in the best interest of the life-and-death decisions of climbers.”
Colin O’Brady flew back to Wyoming to be reunited with his wife, shaken by what he’d seen and relieved to be alive. He was soon back on Instagram, reflecting and plugging his book and sponsors. He was also still in awe of what the Nepali team had achieved in revealing the power of teamwork.
“We all went over there, each with our own ambitions,” he told me. “We all dreamed of being part of that historic moment, but when the Nepalis did it, all coming together on the summit, it was a celebration that will be remembered for a really long time.”
Meanwhile, five families are in the early stages of grief. For three of them, K2 took not only lives but bodies – and explanations. As Art Gilkey’s family learned, high mountains can be indefinitely cruel. They can ingest their frozen victims in glaciers or deep snow, sometimes spitting them out years or decades laters.
O’Brien plans to travel to K2 this coming summer with Lína Móey Bjarnadóttir, John Snorri’s wife, and four of the Icelandic couple’s children. They want to find him. Sajid Ali has announced his own plans to search for the three missing men, while also leading a clean-up operation to weed out the old ropes that may have contributed to the deaths of Mingote and Skatov.
The trip will also give O’Brien a chance to attend to the Gilkey Memorial. In 2016, during her second attempt to summit K2, she recorded all the plaques that had been added to the cairn and noted 20 missing names dating back 37 years. She got them engraved and installed them the following year, when she reached the summit. “I felt a kind of kindred spirit with them,” she said.
In a Zoom call to Santiago, I spoke to Carolina Mohr, Juan Pablo’s older sister, a month after his disappearance. Her husband helped to translate. Juan Pablo had had three children as a young man before an amicable divorce. The couple said the family had understood and supported his passion, but that they had worried when he set off for K2 in winter.
“We gave him books about it and he said, ‘yeah, I know. I know the risk,” Carolina’s husband said. “He was very aware of death… and he wasn’t afraid of it. He was very vocal about it, even with his kids… like, ‘if you make a mistake, you die.’ ‘Father, can you die on K2 in winter?’ ‘Yes’.”
Yet the family also knew that nothing else sustained him. “He used to say, ‘In the mountains is where I feel alive,” Carolina said. The family also plan to visit K2 later this year, and hope to engrave those words on a plaque for Juan Pablo at the Gilkey Memorial.
I also got in touch with Sheny Benzesh. She’s a lawyer from Bulgaria and was the girlfriend of Atanas Skatov, who fell to his death during the descent from Camp 3. Sheny had made the trek with him to base camp, where she got to know a lot of the other climbers. She collapsed in shock when Arnold Coster told her what had happened to Atanas.
In a message, Sheny told me she was proud of Atanas for making the right decision to go down. She also gave me a sense of what drives these people, without the weight on their minds of national expectation, profits or media profiles – without the pressures of modern adventure that created a storm in Camp 3.
“The world should not accept them as madmen, but as dreamers,” she said. “And without dreams there would be no progress.” She went on: “I cannot say this for everyone in this expedition but in most of them I saw this flame in their eyes… this wasn’t a competition.”
Photographs Elia Saikaly @eliasaikaly, Sergi Mingote @sergimingote, Nirmal “Nims” Purja @nimsdai, Juan Pablo Mohr @jp.mohr, Colin O’Brady @colinobrady, Atanas Skatov @atanasskatovathlete, Oswald Rodrigo Pereira @oswaldrp, Ralf Dujmovits and Getty Images