Monday 15 March 2021
Reaching the summit of K2 in winter had never been done before. In January, a group of mountaineers – professionals, amateurs, social media adventurers – attempted it. It ended in #triumph… and tragedy
[Clip: Sound from the mountain]
That sound you’re hearing – that’s the sound of fierce, freezing gale force winds, in –30 degrees, on the world’s second highest mountain.
A mountain in the Karakoram mountain range that straddles China and Pakistan.
And when there’s not a gale, there’s a depth to the silence – without birds, without people, with so little life – that’s like nowhere else
I’m Basia Cummings and it’s here that I want to take you for this week’s Slow Newscast. With the help of the award-winning journalist called Simon Usborne, I’m going to tell you the story of what happened, on K2, this winter. Where the forces of commerce, and ego and influencer culture all collided, and ended in triumph – and in tragedy.
[Clip: music + mountain]
So there are 14 mountains in the world taller than 8,000 metres, all in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges.
By 1964, all of the “eight-thousanders”, as they’re known, had been climbed in summer.
Then, in 1980, people started trying to climb them in winter.
And soon, it was only K2 left to climb. The only eight-thousander left to be summited in winter – after decades of failed attempts.
Because K2 is a deadly mountain.
It’s punishingly steep – a monster of ice and rock, punching into the death zone, where the air is so thin, that just being there is slowly killing you.
It’s so much harder to climb than Everest, partly because it’s so technical – so steep, so exposed to storms – and partly because it’s so remote – and so far from rescue teams.
In 1953, after an American expedition tried to summit it, a climber called George Bell told reporters, “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.” And the name stuck.
For years, commercial expeditions hadn’t dare go near the savage mountain in winter, since so many people had died in the attempt to scale it.
In 2020, a company called Seven Summit Treks announced that it would be taking people up for a winter attempt.
And when it was announced, many of the world’s most respected voices in mountaineering warned against it – they said that this was a folly that would end in death.
That’s when Simon took notice too, when it was announced on social media, and he’s followed the story ever since. And he’s going to help me tell it.
Simon: So really, we need to go back to January and to base camp. And first, I need to introduce you to a mountaineering star – a man called Nirmal Purja, but everyone calls him Nims.
Nims: You got to be brutal honest, and you know, that very decision of being brave and keep climbing, keep putting that extra further, can make you successful. But that very decision of being brave and keep pushing could literally kill you. If you haven’t been honest to yourself, 100 per cent in terms of being true to your ability.
Simon: Nims is a former Gurkha and British Special Forces soldier. And in 2019, he became a bit of a sensation in the mountaineering world after he climbed all 14 of those mountains above 8,000 metres in less than six months – which was a full seven years faster than the previous record.
And he’s just one of the big names who arrived on K2 this winter.
And look, this guy is a big deal – he’s part of this new cohort of mountaineers that have a really strong digital presence. He’s got almost 400,000 followers on instagram, he’s got this impressive team around him, big name sponsors like Red Bull and Bremont, the luxury watch brand. His book – which is called Beyond Possible – is a bestseller. He’s handsome, and he’s an unbelievably strong and gifted athlete.
Basia: The expedition began a bit before Christmas. Nims joined more than 50 other climbers and sherpas who assembled at basecamp – which was this ramshackle collection of tents more than a week’s trek from the nearest town.
And Nims’ expedition was one of three small crack teams of climbers.
There was his group of six people – all Nepalese.
There was another all-Nepalese group of three, and those two teams ended up working together for the summit push.
And then there was an American climber called Colin O’Brady, and his climbing partner and two sherpas.
Colin’s team were climbing under the Seven Summit Treks umbrella expedition, which was really made up of smaller groups and individuals all going for the summit. Some were professional mountaineers, others were influencer adventurers, and others were serious amateur enthusiasts.
And at base camp where they were all hauled up together, they shared their experience on instagram, under the hashtag #k2winter.
And it was there, from base camp, that Nims and his team spotted a window of good weather, after days of preparation.
They went for it.
Nims: It was really emotional to be honest, you know, when you step forward and the summit is literally there and everybody at the same point, walking, you know, in that straight line. Yeah, I didn’t really, you know, the scenic view was not the concern. I think nobody took to what it looks like, you know, the view wasn’t the concern, I think it was the emotional journey, the emotional success. And I think I will never have that experience again. I’ve been in so many expeditions, so many expeditions, but I have never been happy in my life as this one.
[Clip: Climbers singing the Nepalese national anthem]
Basia: And they did it.
That’s Nims, ten metres away from the K2 summit, ten metres away from history, singing the Nepalese national anthem with his fellow climbers.
For the country of Sherpas, who had for a century been overshadowed by the western climbers that they supported, this was a moment of national reclamation.
The news made front pages in Britain and beyond, and back in Nepal, the country just went crazy.
But – and listen this is a big but – this is just a part of the story of K2 this winter. Really, it’s just the beginning of this story…
Simon: Very quickly, this triumph gave way to tragedy.
It started only hours later, when a Spanish climber called Sergi Mingote, was climbing much lower down the mountain and fell to his death.
But worse than this was to come.
We know that the history books only remember the firsts, but the expectation from big sponsors, from social media is a different story.
And the climbers still at base camp didn’t just pack up and go home because K2 in winter had been done. They all had their own motivations for being there and for trying to get to the summit.
So although K2 is only 238m shorter than Everest – imagine that’s about 50 floors of a skyscraper – it dwarfs it as a technical challenge even at the best time of year.
From base camp K2 looks like a mountain should – it’s this massive pyramid of rock, ice and snow. It’s unrelentingly steep – and horribly exposed to fierce storms.
There are massive avalanches and crevasses and tumbling blocks of ice the size of houses. In winter, thick ice covers much of the rock, every step is really difficult. And if you do slip or make a simple mistake with the ropes, you’re probably not going to stop until you hit the glacier at the foot of the mountain.
Almost a hundred people have died trying to climb K2. Before this winter, there was one death for every 5.5 successful summit pushes. If you compare that to Everest, it’s more like one death for 33 successful summit pushes there.
And of course, we know that since the 1990s, all of this is happening while Everest is becoming a massive industry.
If you’ve got a spare 20 grand or more, and a bit of experience on tough mountains, you too can join the long lines of CEOs and adventurer influencers and climb Everest yourself.
[Clip: News clip, commercial crush]
Since the 90s, mountaineering has undergone this revolution. And we know, now, about the dangers that commercialisation can bring.
[Clip: News clip of 1996 Everest tragedy]
But if you thought mass death and queues on big mountains would put people off, you’d be wrong.
[Clip: Gale noise]
In a smaller way, K2 had become a product, as well, attracting big commercial expeditions in the summer months. But no company had dared to establish a big base camp in the winter months. The risks were just too high.
But that changed this year when Seven Summit Treks, a company run by two Nepali mountaineers, offered to take the willing. Packages started at around £20,000.
Not many of the 22 clients that Seven Summit Treks brought to the mountain had any experience climbing either K2 in summer or any 8,000m peak in winter. And that’s partly why other guides and mountaineers started to get really worried.
But Arnold Coster, a Dutch mountaineer who helped run the expedition for Seven Summit Treks from base camp, later tried to explain that they weren’t offering to guide inexperienced people up the mountain. He said they were only supplying infrastructure and logistics – things like tents and food, oxygen bottles, fixed ropes and Sherpas.
Arnold Coster: I also don’t see us as a guiding company or something. We are – we supply logistics. So it was what I said before, people pay for a certain package. And they add services to their needs. We’re not telling anybody we’re going to bring them to the summit, they know to have to climb to the summit themselves. Of course the price for the westerner to climb K2 in the winter is for maybe some of the people very tempting. If you climb K2 in winter, any of the members would have found a sponsorship easy for the next project. They would probably make some money out of it. And of course the fame they would get. I think that was the temptation for the western people
Basia: It’s now late in January, and the Nepali team is being celebrated back in Kathmandu.
Simon: Back at Base Camp, this mixed group of around 50 climbers and Sherpas were now waiting for their own moment to try to summit.
For different reasons, they hadn’t been in a position to go for it in the weather window the Nepali team had jumped through. Some weren’t ready, or hadn’t acclimatised. Others had seen less favourable forecasts.
Now, I’ve spoken to many of the climbers who were on K2. And as you can imagine – it’s a fraught business. Many had just witnessed terrible things. Many did not want to talk at all.
And I have to say, there was a lot of camaraderie and close friendship in base camp. Instagram was full of it when storms confined everyone to their tents for two weeks after the Nepalese team had gone home. But it’s also clear from the conversations I did have that divides were starting to form. The Nepali triumph, which included climbers from two expeditions – plus a Sherpa who had joined them from Seven Summit Treks – had shown the power of working together. But there was little cohesion among the groups and individuals who remained.
Basia: Three climbers are really key to this story.
The first is a Pakistani climber called Ali Sadpara.
[Clip: Ali Sadpara talking about mountaineering]
Ali is a 45-year-old national hero.
He’s the only Pakistani person to have climbed all eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, and he made the first ever winter ascent of the world’s ninth highest peak, Nanga Parbat.
He was born in a village in one of the river valleys in Pakistan’s extreme north. His family were farmers, but Ali saw the westerners coming to climb the mountains around him and he decided… yeah, he could do that too.
[Clip: Ali talking about his love of mountains]
There’s a really wonderful film of Ali on YouTube that I found. He’s beaming, he’s softly spoken, he’s mucking around in the snow – rolling around, singing, listing off his accomplishments to camera.
Ali had summited K2 before, but in summer.
And so had his son, Sajid, who was with him this winter on K2. In fact, in the summer 2019, Sajid became the youngest person to summit K2. So they were together, a father and son team.
And there was another very important climber at base camp: the 35-year-old American adventurer, called Colin O’Brady.
[Clip: Colin O’Brady talking about K2]
Simon: Colin O’Brady is this clean cut and supremely fit former triathlete – the son of hippies from Oregon. He’s got 250,000 or more Instagram followers and a whole list of feats under his belt. O’Brady was on the mountain, celebrating and spurred on by the Nepalese triumph.
Colin O’Brady: Stepping out into the unknown, I think for me, it actually taps into a deeper exploration of self. For me, some of my most valuable experiences have not been the external accomplishments of, say, my solo crossing of the landmass of Antarctica, which had never been done in that form before, etc. But what I take from that is actually, what that allowed to open up inside of my own body, mind and soul, which is more of a personal exploration and journey, which I find to be tremendously interesting and valuable, to find the edges of my own potential.
Ali, you know, has a laundry list of achievements, not least of which is the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. This guy has climbed arguably, an as, if not more, dangerous mountain in Pakistan, in the middle of winter. And so you look to a guy like that and you think, man, he knows, he knows better than me.
So we’ve got Colin who’s looking up at K2, on his own sponsored climb – which he’s branded the “Impossible Summit” – and he’s part of the bigger Seven Summit Treks team. Ali is there with a different kind of motivation, and a very different pressure, as Arnold Coster of Seven Summit Treks told me.
Arnold Coster: I think for Ali, it’s a little bit different. I think Ali got a lot of pressure after the Nepalese summited. That’s why he has been the best Pakistani climber to summit and was more for national pride for him, I think.
The weight of a country’s expectations was on Ali to emulate what the Nepalese climbers had just done, but for Pakistan, home to K2.
Ali was climbing with his son Sajid Ali, and in support of John Snorri, a father-of-six from Iceland who had tried to climb K2 in the winter before.
This is where it gets even more complicated – because these three guys are not part of the Seven Summit Treks team. But even within the Seven Summits team, there were individuals and pairs of climbers doing more or less their own thing. So it was this kind of strange mish-mash on the mountain.
Colin O’Brady, for example, was climbing with his partner and friend, Dr John Kedrowski, and two sherpas.
So we’ve got this kind of cast of characters at base camp.
[Clip: people at Base Camp]
The three man team of the Sadparas and John Snorri and then under the Seven Summits umbrella, multiple individuals and groups. And then they’re stuck in base camp for two weeks after the Nepali triumph – in a storm stuck in their tents, waiting for their own opportunity, until suddenly in the beginning of February, this small window of good weather had opened up.
K2 might just be climbable, again.
But conditions were still tough, and tensions and chaos were about to really bubble over.
Colin seized the moment, and started to climb up the mountain. And he made speedy progress.
But, just before Camp 1 – one of the four main places you can rest on the way up – his partner Dr John got a bad feeling. He told me this:
Dr John Kedrowski: I mean it was 10-15 degrees colder and possibly 15-25 miles per hour more wind. So like a forecast showing 25-35 miles per hour winds and it’s like, how is that even acceptable. And then the second reason was I just felt like as I’m going up like, those guys had made it and they had a great, cohesive team. And as I’m going up, I’m seeing people that thought it was a free-for-all. Everybody was there for themselves and that’s just not the way to climb a mountain like that.
But both Colin and Ali Sadpara, separately, were powering ahead.
Colin O’Brady: I felt really strong. Just kinda got in my own space and my own flow. Kinda focused on the challenge of climbing. That climbing through there is, I guess I would say is the most technical of the entire route, it’s called through the black pyramid. A lot of really steep and exposed rock and challenging, complex climbing, at that altitude through there. And without even being totally aware of it, I guess I knew I was climbing by myself and alone, but I thought maybe people were five, ten minutes behind me, but it turned out that, you know, I ultimately was many hours, like about five hours, ahead of the main group of other people climbing in from seven summits track.
The next day at about 5pm, with the sun setting and temperatures already reaching -30 degrees Colin was one of the first to reach Camp Three, this snowy, rocky, fairly flat bit of ground, more than 7,000 metres up – it was going to be the final stop before the summit.
And it is important to be clear that Camp Three is not a campsite in the way you or I would think of one. It’s just this harsh, desolate ledge where mountaineers traditionally rest.
[Clip: Colin on the ledge]
Colin O’Brady: Usually, unfortunately, there’s, you know, scraps of old tents or things that have been left behind. And that might have been 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years ago, it’s hard to say, but like just old remnants. But it’s obvious that, you know, at some point someone had a tent set up and it got broken and they then get carried down and then it got covered by snow and ice from the following year, etc.
And camp three when we did get there was effectively that, again, not, I could see maybe the edges, sticking out from the snow from, you know, previous expeditions’ tents. And then there were obviously one or a few, couple flatter spots, that I’m assuming probably had been dug out or stomped down or flattened out by the Nepalese team that had been there a couple weeks before.
And so we started setting up our tent on this, you know, semi flat or snow platform, but I’m still at – I measure in feet – but 24,000 feet, 7,400 or 7,500, whatever that is in meters. And it just drops off on either side, basically it’s like, you can’t walk very far without it, you know, pretty much significantly dropping off or there’s crevasses in this area, etc. So it’s not as if it’s like this large expansive space by any means.
Colin and his Sherpas set up for a few hours of rest, and to get ready they needed to do things like melting snow for water, eating, changing their socks and generally gathering their strength.
And reaching Camp Three in itself is an accomplishment at the best of times, and how quickly you get there really matters.
Arnold Coster, the guy helping to run the Seven Summit team said that he had made this clear to his clients…
Arnold Coster: I gave them very clear cut off times. So I told them there’s a certain time to reach Camp One, a certain time to reach Camp Two and a certain time to reach Camp Three. And I told them to stop if they cannot keep those timings up because a foreign country to the summit is quite far and the Nepalese, they already took about 15 hours. For a westerner to do it at the same time would be quite difficult, even on oxygen.
Meanwhile, Colin already knew that the clock was against him. After some confusion with the ropes, he had reached Camp Three later than planned.
He knew it would take at least 15 hours to reach the summit from there – over steep, frozen rock and snow. Worse still, as Dr John had feared, the weather forecasts were shifting. High winds were due to hit the summit earlier the next day. To make it up and down again in time, Colin calculated that he needed to leave the camp by 9pm.
But over the next few hours, twenty more climbers and Sherpas arrived at this small, frozen ledge in the dark, thousands of metres into the air.
And, for reasons we’ll explore, there weren’t enough tents for everyone.
In some cases, latecomers had to beg to be let in.
Crammed into four small tents, climbers could barely move, never mind rest and prepare for the summit push.
They were a strange mix of characters, nationalities and experience levels, including some of the most accomplished climbers in the world.
They included a former Northern Ireland policeman and mountaineer Noel Hanna.
[Clip: Noel Hanna talking]
A Slovenian face surgeon called Tomaz Rotar who had also tried to climb K2 the previous winter.
[Clip: Tomas Rotar talking]
A Chilean architect and mountaineer Juan Pablo Mohr…
[Clip: Juan Pablo Mohr’s sister talking]
That’s his sister.
And a wealthy Greek businessman Antonis Sykaris…
Antonis Sykaris: And I say, please allow me inside, I will die. It’s not possible to stay out of the tent.
Up on that tiny ledge, 20 people fumbled in the dark. The clock was ticking.
Arnold Coster, who was on the radio at base camp through all of this, told me four of the climbers at Camp Three shouldn’t have been there, they had simply been climbing too slowly.
Basia: Up there, as they all crammed into tiny tents, the situation became more desperate, and tensions started to boil over.
Simon: Some clients of Seven Summit claimed they had expected to find tents stashed at Camp Three by Sherpas ahead of time. That’s how things normally work in these big expeditions.
But the mountain had just been hit by storms, and the chances of tents being buried or blown away were obvious to others, including Colin:
Colin O’Brady: I never expected that and I never heard anyone talk about that as a possibility until we were already in the bad circumstance that we are, which was with seven people inside of my tent and seven people inside the other tent and all smashed in there. And they, people were starting to say that, but I was obviously talking to everyone and I was on the radio and everything, and I never, one time heard anybody say, like, it’s not like I woke up that morning and said, “oh, don’t pack our, let’s not pack our tent. It’s fine.” You know, there’s other tents, like I’ve never in a million years would have considered that to be possible.
According to Arnold Coster, there had been a miscommunication…
Arnold Coster: Not all members, but a lot of members left Camp Two quite late. And the sherpas didn’t have much time to pack tents from Camp Two to Camp Three. So the sherpas also didn’t bring extra tents, actually even as a co-leader, I’m still not sure why nobody communicated about tents. Because everybody knew actually that those tents would, should be there, were there for a while. So the chances that something is lost are there, we knew that. So, it’s a miscommunication, in combination with members leaving late and arriving there late.
As you can imagine, emotions were running high.
Colin O’Brady: It’s a weird balance of emotions, I think in that moment, because obviously, yes, I mean, frustrated, annoyed, afraid both for my own safety at that point, and of course the safety of others, all of those emotions. But it’s also this weird thing because – how do I say this – if you’re maybe frustrated with somebody’s choices, but as a human being, at least for me with my code of ethics, my code of ethics doesn’t say, well, they didn’t bring a tent, let them stand outside in the cold by themselves, it’s their own fault. I’m going to zip my tent door shut and not let them inside. I mean, we’re at 24,000 feet. It’s -50 degrees outside, these people are arriving at night.
And all this really matters because huddled up there, these guys were about to have to make life or death decisions.
All twenty people currently at Camp Three had gone that far because there was the prospect of a short window of good weather to make the final push.
But they were now really behind schedule.
And those weather forecasts weren’t looking better..
Colin O’Brady: It was apparent to me that I needed to make the decision, whatever decision I was going to make, at least by then – originally, I was going to go for the summit at 9PM, and I could obviously bargain with myself an hour or two later, but it wasn’t going to be a decision I was gonna make at three o’clock in the morning, because the winds the following afternoon were forecast to pick up. So I made that decision around 10:30-11:00, and then of course, called down to the radio to tell John, my client partner and then had a couple of sat phone calls with my wife back home to let her know.
So Colin had decided.
In total, five climbers and their Sherpas, including Colin, decided it was too dangerous to step out of their tents and head up. They would stay at Camp Three until dawn and go back down. They abandoned.
But Ali Sadpara, Pakistan’s hero, his son, Sajid Ali, and John Snorri – were still determined.
Colin O’Brady: In that moment, in that night, when those decisions were being made, the time I spent with Ali in my tent, there was mostly jovial, kindness and laughter from him. And basically anyone who I’m sure you’ve talked to, who’ve ever told you about him, that was his way. That was his essence. I mean, he was no different that night than he was in all the rest of the time I knew him.
Another guy, Juan Pablo Mohr, the Chilean, had been lucky. His tent, which he shared with one other climber – Tamara Lunger, an Italian – was really, really tiny, and there was no way anyone else could squeeze in. He was also feeling good, as his brother-in-law explained:
Matias Repetto: He felt great, strong. And he was the only one who’s had a good night’s sleep, that day in Camp Three because he was alone with Tamara in his tent. So probably amazingly, we always discuss what’s good or bad. And he was in great shape. He had a great night.
If he had had a bad night, probably he wouldn’t have taken the risk at all, but he had the bad luck of having that great rest. He was perfect, in perfect shape for going up.
But Colin’s gut had told him: get out of there.
Colin O’Brady: So my plan was, I’m going to lie here, you know, try to sleep, but let’s be honest, you’re not going to, given all the things going on. You’re not going to have a deep sleep or something like that, but close my eyes at least for a second.
And wait until the sun comes up, to begin my descent. And so that’s exactly what happened and a sequence of things happen in the night. Like I said, those guys leaving, regulars breaking, people coming back, other people leaving, other people coming back. And, you know, I talked to various people through the tents as they returned, like Tomas etc. And then the sun finally hit my tent probably around seven o’clock or something like that in the morning, and that’s when I said to myself, well, I want to try to descend as fast as I can. Not, not recklessly, but as quickly as I can so that I do most of this descent in the daylight.
Basia: I want to jump in here, because… the decision to go up, or to come down, was critical.
We know that there were so many competing pressures boiling over at Camp Three. The weight of national expectation, the weight of big sponsorship deals, the expectation of thousands of followers on Instagram – this was all swirling in the mix at 7,000m, in the hypoxic minds of people who had come so far already, and had paid so much, and waited for so long… to get to this point.
Tomaz Rotar, the Slovenian surgeon, described it to Simon like this:
Tomaz Rotar: It’s like a venom in your veins, and you just have to go up… you just have to go up. And I still don’t know why I turned back.
By 2am that night – far later than the 9pm cut-off that O’Brady had set for himself – seven climbers had made the decision to step out of the tents. And it’s worth pointing out that climbers in this kind of expedition generally aren’t climbing together because they’re all going at different speeds. So picture these men, one by one, throughout that period leaving the tents, alone in the dark with only their head torch to show them the way. For some of them it was a decision that was to prove fatal.
Basia: What happened to some of those climbers over the course of the next day is now the subject of much disagreement.
Simon: Two of them turned back very quickly, they were just unable to endure the extreme cold. And so that left Ali and Sajid Sadpara, John Snorri and Juan Pablo Mohr in the summit push.
There was also Tomaz Rotar, the Slovenian surgeon. He left Camp Three with a Sherpa – Temba – at 10pm, and followed the fixed ropes the Nepalese teams had used two weeks earlier.
At just under 8,000 metres, Tomaz hit an unexpected crevasse, he said it was about 2 metres wide. He couldn’t cross it, and so at that point he decided to turn back.
Tomaz Rotar: We realised that we cannot cross that crevasse. At that point although Temba suffered, he had an oxygen malfunction, like the canister started to leak or something. And that was just an additional reason for him that he said, I have to go down. He went down and I said, okay, I’ll follow. He said, “Tomaz, we have to go down, otherwise we will die”. And we turned around. And then just after a few meters, a few minutes of walking down, maybe 15-20 minutes, I met Snorri.
And I know it gets a bit complicated here – you’ve got people going in different directions, up and down the mountain in the dark. But when Tomaz Rotar bumps into Snorri, Tomaz is going down, John Snorri is going up.
The Icelandic climber told him that he thought he could cross this crevasse, and Rotar thought well I’ve gotta see this. And so having decided to go down, he turned around, joined John Snorri and went back up to the Crevasse. But when they got there it still looked completely uncrossable to Tomasz Rotar, so he wished Snorri good luck, turned back again and headed back to Camp Three.
On his way down he passed Ali Sadpara who was coming up at his own pace.
Tomaz Rotar: I went down, then I met like Ali, then I met Pablo, he was climbing without oxygen. He was strong like a horse and also fast like a horse.
Rotar arrived back at Camp Three just as the sun was coming up. He would soon join the descent with Colin O’Brady and the other climbers who had either turned back much sooner or stuck it out overnight in the tents.
So now that leaves Ali Sadpara, his son Sajid, John Snorri and the Chilean, Juan Pablo Mohr, all continuing their push to the summit high up above the camp.
But at some point after the crevasse, Ali Sadpara’s son’s had a problem with his breathing gear, and so he decided to turn back to Camp Three.
And that’s where he would wait alone in a tent, for his father to return from the summit push with John Snorri and Juan Pablo Mohr.
Colin had told his wife he’d decided to turn back, but the two knew not to get ahead of themselves…
Colin O’Brady: Both of us are like, but let’s not celebrate until you’re back in base camp. I mean, you’re at 24,000 feet, you got to down climb some of the steepest craziest terrain ever. Like we’re not home free yet. You’ve made a decision to turn around, but your feet aren’t on the ground yet
The mood among those who were left at Camp Three as the sun came up that morning was good…
Colin O’Brady: We’re kind of looking around and it’s one hell of a view from 24,000 feet on K2. I’ll tell you that much. And so we’re kind of admiring where we were taking pictures. And I went around to each of the tents, which I have a little GoPro video of that I took, going into Noel’s tent, which had Noel, Antonio, Temba, Moss, and Bernard, all smashed inside of there. And I talked to them, just to check in on them, how they’re doing and basically said the same thing to every person. And I have it recorded of me just giving people hugs, and shaking hands and saying, “hey, we’ll see you guys back down in base camp. Let’s clip all the ropes. Let’s get down this mountain safely. And, we’ll celebrate with some warm tea and some soup, when we get down and safe, I’ll see you guys down there, you know, in a few hours”.
[Clip: Colin on the mountain]
But not everyone made it back.
Colin O’Brady: When Ming, Temba and I arrived at high Camp Two, which is where we had slept on the night of 3 February, we had still had left some stuff there, that we were going to pack up, put in our backpacks to carry down, that’s when the radio call, came through. It was in Nepali, so I didn’t understand it.
But he turned to me and he said Atanas is dead. He just fell.
Simon: A Bulgarian climber called Atanas Skatov had fallen to his death. We will never know exactly why, but the climbers who were with him think he made an error while clipping from one rope to another.
But Colin and the other climbers had to continue. And as they began to stagger into Base Camp, after a gruelling, deadly, one or two-day descent, there had still been no word from the summit.
Ali Sadpara, Juan Pablo Mohr and John Snorri had disappeared. The batteries in their location trackers, radios and satellite phones had all perished in the cold.
Sajid, Ali’s son, had been the last person to see them, before he turned back. It was at the Bottleneck, a very dangerous section below crumbling ice above 8,000 meters. Sajid later said that three three men had been strong and confident that they could make it. He said they had also jumped across that crevasse.
Arnold Coster had started to get worried at around 2pm on 5 February.
Arnold Coster: And of course we started wondering what was wrong. We started looking, but the trackers, we could see their trackers, but all the trackers had stopped, from the cold. So the battery went down. So actually we had no idea where they were and Sajid was not in contact with them. We only had contact with Sajid at Camp Three and of course it’s when the big worrying starts, but because we know the weather will change and if they were not on the way down already, things might go very wrong.
As the concern was beginning to set in at base camp, 7,000 metres up, Sajid was still at Camp Three, waiting for his father’s return.
Basia: In the end, it took more than 24 hours for the team at base camp to persuade Sajid to descend back down, by which point few people – including Arnold Coster and Colin – had much hope that the men would be alive.
Because the bits of mountains that rise above 8,000 meters are known as I said as the death zone, because there’s just not enough oxygen up there to sustain life. Brains become hypoxic, hallucinations are common. Lungs fail. You’re dying just by being there. Climbers have likened it to running on a treadmill while breathing through a straw.
Ali had been up there for a long time now, waiting for his father to return.
Arnold Coster: Well, actually, you feel very helpless because you know that you actually cannot do anything for them. Even if you were to send a sherpa up for rescue, it would take the sherpa maybe 24 hours to reach Camp Three. And then he doesn’t have the supplies to do a search either. So, you know, to organise like a real search or send real help for them is something will come too late.
Simon: Days passed and there was no contact from the three men or any sign of them.
So after a week of searches, using satellite imagery and Pakistani military aircraft, hope was lost. Finally, on 18 February – two weeks after their summit attempt, the three men were officially declared dead.
[Clip: Sajid Sadpara press conference speaking about his father]
This is Sajid Sadpara speaking about his father.
He said: “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.”
Sajid believes that the three men reached the summit, and ran into trouble on the way back down.
And now, there are serious questions swirling about whether this summit attempt should ever have happened.
Some people have suggested the Seven Summit Treks didn’t do enough to try and search for the missing men on foot.
But Coster defends his decision-making on the mountain.
Arnold Coster: Because our sherpas just came back from Camp Three and then sending our sherpas back would mean certain death for them. So I think that’s a very rational decision, totally backed it up. Because you cannot expect from a person that’s just been in Camp Three, taking care of people, to go back up immediately – without any rest, without any food, without any oxygen, without any supplies, to do a search, it is not going to be a search. That’s just going to create more problems.
It wasn’t just Seven Summits who came under scrutiny.
Wild accusations flew around. The Nepalese climbers were accused of concealing information about their summit push – including the location of the crevasse. Some have even implied that they must have faked the whole thing or cut ropes on their descent to stop the other teams succeeding.
Nims and some of his countrymen posted angry denials on Instagram, showing evidence that the allegations were wrong.
As for Seven Summit Treks, its Nepali owners have been defensive about their management of the expedition. They said they’d do it again. But Arnold Coster, who has his own expeditions company when he’s not working for Seven Summits, says he has no desire to repeat a commercial expedition up K2 in winter.
I asked him what he thought had really gone wrong. Team work, he said, or the lack of it.
Arnold Coster: I think on such a difficult climb, you need to go as a team and not as a team of individuals. I said that before, I think this is why things went wrong, even if we would have been 22 people, but we were a team and not all there for our individual like fame, then things would have been different. But in my opinion, everybody joined to be famous, including the Nepalis. And these are the wrong reasons to climb a mountain.
In the era of a social media, of commercial expeditions where climbers spend as much time on instagram as they do climbing, Arnold said he thought something fundamental had shifted…
Arnold Coster: Actually that’s a lot of things that’s so annoying about this expedition is that 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 problem.
Like for example, when Atanas fell down some people already posted on social media before we even know where he was. And of course we’re not sure what happened yet. We didn’t call the family yet. And this seems to happen more and more and more. You don’t even have time to organise a rescue, to organise a search, to inform the family, before things on social media already.
As for Colin, he flew back to Wyoming to be reunited with his wife. He was shaken by what he’d seen but 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.
Colin O’Brady: We all went over there, each with our own ambitions etc. There was still this carrot out there that was this world first – the first ascent of K2 in winter. And I don’t think there was anybody over there who didn’t think of or dream of being a part of that historic moment. When the Nepalis did it, particularly in the style and way that they did it, all kind of coming together and waiting for each other ten meters below the summit and getting to the summit altogether in the historic way they did, it was a celebration, and they did it in a way that will be remembered for a really long time.
Basia: Simon asked the families of the men who went up K2 this winter – and asked them, simply, why?
Simon: Juan Pablo Mohr’s sister and brother-in-law told me he could only feel truly alive while climbing big mountains. They said he was driven only by passion.
I also got in touch with Sheny Benzesh. She’s a lawyer from Bulgaria and was the girlfriend of Atans Skatov, who fell to his death during the descent from Camp Three. Sheny had made the trek with him to base camp, where she’d got to really know a lot of the other climbers. She collapsed in shock when Arnold Coster told her what had happened to Atanas.
In a message to me, 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, regardless of what national expectation, profits or media profiles can do when life-and-death decisions have to be made.
“The world should not accept them as madmen, but as dreamers,” she said. “And without dreams there would be no progress. I cannot say this for everyone in this expedition but in most of them I saw this flame in their eyes. For Atanas this wasn’t a competition.”
Basia: Around a tenth of the people who filled base camp are now dead.
A son waited for days for his father to never return.
Five families must now wait for the mountain to release their frozen bodies – it could take decades before they get answers about what happened up there, deep in winter, on the impossible summit.
Produced by Matt Russell
Photograph Elia Saikaly @eliasaikaly