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The ascent of K2 in the dead of winter was a historic first. Yet, it came with 5 deaths, including 3 bodies yet to be found. It was a story entailed with rivalries between base camp teams, nations, among the media and on social networks. But it also encapsulated the long term rift between Westerners and those that have for a long time now been the makers of their past success: the Nepalis and Pakistanis. After accusations were made by the survivors, jealous of the Nepali climbers’ achievement, tensions came to breaking point when rumours circulated about the Nepalese cutting ropes after their ascent of K2. Rivalries between high altitude climbers are to be expected, but this particular affair undoubtedly went too far. Read on to find out more.

The outstanding achievement by a Nepali team to first climb K2 during winter was quickly overshadowed by a succession of tragedies that happened on the same mountain. First of all, the Spaniard Sergi Mingote fell to his death when descending the mountain on the same day. Then, after more than 2 weeks of strong winds and horrible weather, during a slim weather window at the beginning February, many climbers from different nationalities rushed to try their luck at a second summit push. Three of them, John Snorri, Juan Pablo Mohr and the very experienced Ali Sadpara, never came back. They have been reported missing. Atanas Skatov, a Bulgarian climber, also died in a fatal fall between Camp 3 and Base Camp.

Five deaths, a few survivors – including the son of Ali Sadpara who turned back during his father’s attempt – grieving families and one nation, Pakistan, in shock. In the weeks that followed, people started taking to social media to have their say about the events. Having only just come back from Pakistan and Base Camp, the Polish climber, Magdalena Gorzkowska, spoke to the Polish media, implying that the fixed ropes had been cut on the decent by the Nepalis. Sabir Nazir, a renowned Pakistani alpinist who wasn’t present that day on the mountain, supported this crazy rumour circulating on the internet, while cracks started to form in the foundations of the strong Nepalese-Pakistani relationship. Other alpinists present on K2 clearly wanted to settle their scores with the Nepalis.

The 10 Nepalis at the summit of K2, 16th of January, 2021.

Tomaz Rotar was one of the last people to see Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and Juan Pablo alive. The Slovenian was one the climbers to attempt K2 from Camp 3 on the 4th of February, nearly three weeks after the first winter ascent by the Nepali team. Rotar’s attempt was abandoned due to a seemingly impassable crevasse that forced him to turn back. But above all, Rotor was on K2 last winter as one of Mingma Gyaljie’s clients, one of the Nepali team to make it to the summit of K2. According to his interview with our colleagues at ExWeb, Rotar seemed to keep his complaints about Mingma quiet. This came after his last expedition was called off by the expedition leader Mingma himself for reasons that Rotar was not entirely convinced with. In addition, the Irishman John Snorri was part of this earlier attempt and was also one of Mingma’s clients for the ascent of K2 in the summer of 2017 with Mingma’s company, Imagine Nepal. So, it’s safe to say these three men were rivals, having not wanted to team up this winter, with John Snorri asking Ali Sadpara, Rotar asking the company Seven Summit Treks and Mingma creating his own team made up solely of Nepali climbers.

No one paid us to risk our lives to carry up and equip thousands of metres of rope for the benefit of everyone else. Nirmal Purja.

Was it a Nepali “secret plan” ?

Rotar confirmed that the Nepalis had kept their intentions quiet to Snorri on the 14th of January, while Snorri was also in Camp 2. Rather than revealing any detail, the Nepalis apparently preferred not to share their plans, pretending just to check the state of the tents in Camp 3. In Rotar’s opinion, if the Nepalis had told the truth that day, Snorri would have been able to join them and things would have turned out differently. But here’s the thing: the Nepalis, who fitted the mountain with ropes from Camp 2 – an exhausting and dangerous task – had no intention of sharing the ascent with someone not part of their team. This is the point Rotar was trying to make, lamenting the fact that the victorious Nepalis left out information on returning, such as the impassable crevasse, etc. Nirmal Purja explained his thoughts on the matter: “our team put in the ropes from Camp 1 up to the summit, while Ali Sadpara’s team did the same from Base Camp to Camp 1. No one paid us to risk our lives to carry up and equip thousands of metres of rope for the benefit of everyone else”.  Nirmal Purja pointed out that, on normal 8000m routes, clients and other climbers usually pay to have the ropes put up by a Nepali team.

Nims Purja hammered home the message: “we worked for free [to put up the ropes] and we were happy to do so, knowing that they could be used by anyone at Base Camp who wanted to make the summit”.

K2, 8611m (28,2251 ft)

A scathing reply from Mingma Gyaljie

Faced with a barrage of accusations, Mingma Gyaljie kept his silence until the 1st of March. It was on his Facebook page that he preferred to speak this time. What was said ? First, a note of common sense: on the 11th and 12th of January, many people knew that the Nepalis were making an attempt for the summit. However, due to the slim weather window and the relative lack of acclimatisation, the non-Nepali climbers, who also weren’t necessarily acclimatised, had totally dismissed the idea of the Nepalis attempting the summit. “Everyone on K2 that winter wanted to be the first, and so did we. We also kept our plans a secret. Nims chose the best climbers for his team and so did I. We therefore didn’t want to fail because of others. The more team members you have, the more problems you have” explained Mingma G. The second push on the 4th of February supports his last claim.  The fact that there were up to 7 people in the tents at Camp 3 instead of 3 or 4 created chaos and made life impossible. Chaos that probably had negative repercussions for Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and JP Mohr’s summit attempt.

These remarks were followed by words of anger : “these climbers cannot handle our success and their failure, and they are trying to hold us responsible for the deaths of those that lost their lives up there”, adding that they were jealous. Like Nirmal Purja, Mingma G. pointed out that the Nepalis equipped the mountain on their own, from Camp 1 to the summit. “When we fixed the ropes from Camp 1 to the summit, none of the other climbers were there to help us repair or transport the equipment and now they are shamelessly saying that we were paid to repair the ropes. I call them parasite climbers”.

As we were descending quickly, we left all the fixed ropes from our only ascent intact. Nirmal Purja.

And what about the ropes? Is it possible that they were cut or removed by the Nepalis? “When we got back from the summit, explained Nirmal Purja, certain members of our team, including myself, also started to get frostbite and were complaining about the cold. We tried to descend as quickly as possible to Camp 3, speed being our only chance of survival. As we were descending quickly, we left all the fixed ropes from our only attempt intact, so that others could use them. We didn’t have a minute to lose”. It is very unlikely that the Nepalis would have actually wanted to do this, or had the time to remove the ropes. Magdalena Gorzkowska, gifted at posting photos of herself flaunting sports bras at Base Camp on K2, since withdrew her comments. Apparently she had heard a joke about a cut rope from the Nepalis who had stayed at Base Camp, which had nothing to do with what really happened.

It has been hard to take for Mingma Gyaljie. In addition to the fact that the Nepalis were in a hurry to get down before nightfall on the 16th of January and therefore would not have had time to remove the ropes, Mingma also carefully explained that: “there were several Sherpas in the 7 teams looking to make the summit during the attempt on the 5th of February who were our friends and family. What makes you think that we would cut the ropes knowing that our own people would use them after ?” With that in mind, it is hard to believe this is what actually happened. Nevertheless, the accusations have still created a lot of animosity among those that claim it to be the cause of Ali Sadpara’s disappearance – a lie fed by Sabir Nazir and other Pakistani alpinists who could not take the fact that there was no explanation for the loss of their best Himalayan specialist.

John Snorri and Tomaz Rotar in 2020 ©Apricot Tours

Magdalena Gorzkowska at Base Camp on K2. Source : Instagram

When Tomaz Rotar blamed the lack of information about the route taken by the Nepalis, which would have highlighted the “impassable crevasse” or the possible lack of ropes above Camp 3, he failed to specify that, when the team of 10 Nepali climbers left Base Camp on the 20th of January, they didn’t necessarily have the time or want to explain everything to the next group of climbers, although according to Mingma G., one of them stayed at Base Camp until the beginning of February. More importantly, winds at more than 150kmh (90mph), sometimes reaching 200kmh (120mph), could have likely destroyed the fixed ropes put up by the Nepalis 3 weeks earlier. Likewise, the route found in order to cross the large crevasse above Camp 3 could have been changed by the evolution of the crevasse itself, making it impossible to cross.

There was undoubtedly a lot of pain, jealousy, and maybe some dishonestly from those that the Nepalis called “poor losers”. On the other side, there was undoubtedly no desire from Mingma Gyaljie to give a hand to his ex-clients who were not happy with him (whatever the reasons may be) and sought other guides. The Nepalis united (from 3 separate teams combined to one) to succeed alone. They weren’t there to fix the ropes and work so that others could make this first coveted ascent. They were there for themselves. Like others, with their strength and strategy which proved to work. All whilst others paid for an accumulation of mistakes and bad luck with their lives.

Nims Purja’s concluding thoughts (for now)

Following his speech in reply to the accusations, in which he made clumsy remarks about the “losers” that were “looking for excuses” – interpreted by many to be about those lost on the mountain – Nims Purja changed his approach by writing a few words of apology. “It is time for the alpinist community to support all [global] elite climbers no matter who they are”. Nims added clearly, “for too long I have seen Pakistani and Nepali climbers share the feeling of supporting others without reward or recognition when climbing eight-thousanders. Let’s make sure that this changes in the right direction. All climbers must unite. We have nothing else to lose, except the habit of judging each other”. There is still work to be done.

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