Four groups of climbers are currently battling fierce winds, loads of snow and extreme cold on four Himalayan 8,000ers. However, few of them would fit in the usual definition of a “team”. On the contrary, each mountain has become the field to play a game of announced alliances, hidden competitions, varied strategies and inner motivations. Only the final goal remains the same for everyone: climb on a 8000 meters peak in the middle of winter.
The different approaches and strategies applied on each peak this winter are a neat reflection of the current trends and styles present in the Himalayan climbing panorama, and the increasing tension among them. Not so long ago, the Himalaya was big enough for everyone and every style but, in the last few years, increasing crowding on normal routes and opposing criteria have shown a not so harmonious reality, in which contenders struggle to take over the place.
On the wild side of Nanga Parbat
The stylistically purest and probably the most exciting expedition this year is Hervé Barmasse David Göttler’s attempt to climb winter Nanga Parbat from the south, up the huge Rupal face (widely rediscovered by the public in 2005 after the ascent of Americans Steve House and Vince Anderson, who were awarded a Piolet d’Or, Ed.).
Style is more important than the top. Hervé Barmasse.
“[There will be] no pre-set camps, no help from outside, oxygen or fixed ropes,” Barmasse noted. Instead, the Italian-German pair will launch a single push up the 4,500m tall face, with only one 60m rope and 15kg on their backs each. The downside? Well, as David Göttler admitted: “Our chances of success are very, very slim. I think we have enough expertise to have a chance, but … so many stars have to align perfectly for us to be in with a fighting chance.” “The way we want to do things is more important than the summit we want to reach,” Barmasse concluded.
According to original plans, Barmasse and Göttler intend to launch their single summit push by mid annuary but, as usual, the weather will have the last word. Kudrat Ali will wait for them in BC, acting as liaison Officer and Base Camp manager.
So far, the team has decided to go for the Schell route, the longest but safest – from avalanches and serac falling- option. By the end of 2021 they manage to complete a first acclimatization rotation up to 5,670m, which does not seem a lot until you notice the team’s Base Camp is over 2,100m below. US’ Mike Arnold has accompanied the pair on the approach and the first acclimatization phase, but will not participate in the final push.
Everest : the hardest ?
Solo, in winter and up the West ridge. On Everest, the German Jost Kobusch is now fully committed to a second attempt, after a first try in January 2020. And this ascent can be considered to be of very high difficulty: glacial and mixed at the bottom, mixed again on the West Ridge and then on the Hornbein Couloir to the summit. In 2019, the young aspiring climber raised many eyebrows when he announced his goal (including sarcastic comments from Reinhold Messner). But on that first attempt he reached the altitude of 7,400 metres and this year his project is much more widely regarded. Moreover, the soft-spoken, young German counts with media’s sympathy and an increasingly enthusiastic audience, who follow his expedition as if he were a gladiator about to fight a (very big) lion.
Yet, Kobusch has proved skilled and smart enough keep himself alive and healthy, and has introduced some interesting improvements as he learns from experience. This time he has set HQs in Lobuche, where he will get a much better rest than in BC during bad weather spells, and with fix some short sections of the icefall to the Lho La pass, in order to secure a safer scape if needed. At the time of writing this story, he had reached 6,470m on the left side of the West ridge, dodging avalanches and crevasses.
They expect to have one of the Sherpa climbers assisting them during the final summit push.
Winter Himalayan figures in Manaslu
The situation on Manaslu is not that simple. Officially, a climbing permit has been issued for an expedition led by Spaniard Alex Txikon with Seven Summit Treks (SST). A group of Sherpas are being paid to fix the ropes on the normal route, and it is expected that a number of individual foreign clients will take on the route. Some of those are full-time professionals as Simone Moro (with four winter 8,000ers firsts!) and Txikon himself, who achieved the first winter climb of Nanga Parbat and has led several expeditions in the cold season.
Italian Moro and Spanish Txikon will climb with Iñaki Álvarez and in full cooperation with the Sherpa team. The rest are individual climbers from different paths of life, but all of them with previous 8,000er summits under their belts and winter background of some kind. Polish Oswald Rodrigo Pereira summited Broad Peak in summer and participated as photographer in last year’s winter K2; Paura Strenfell of Finnland has summited Everest and skied from the coast to the South Pole; Belgians Sophie Lenaerts (Everest, Khan Tengri) and Stef Maginelle (Everest, Gasherbrums I and II) have led several expeditions as independent climbers and skied in winter Karakoram. They have all hired logistics up to BC, paid their part for the rope-fixing team and, in some cases, expect to have one of the Sherpa climbers assisting them during the final summit push.
only the truly highest point will grant climbers to be listed as summiters
Basically, what we have is a heterogeneous group of climbers, similar to the kind of motley crew who used to gather in the 8,000ers 20 years ago: each with different skills, experiences and attitudes, all willing to use the help of ropes, but also knowing they will have to get along somehow and work collaboratively on the mountain if they want to have a summit chance. No one has mentioned use of O2 yet, although the Sherpa team might use it on the summit day, especially because it improves dramatically to bear the cold and avoid frostbite.
Interestingly, none of them have made any comments about whether they will try to reach the mountain’s main summit, now that its location has veen made clear after Mingma G’s ascent in summer and the drone footage shared by photographer Jackson Groves. The Himalayan Database stated that, with the information available now, the point considered summit until now, where the summit ridge becomes a sharp arete, will be listed as “foresummit” and only the truly highest point will grant climbers to be listed as summiters.
Looking for Eldorado on Cho Oyu’s Nepali side
Finally, an all-Nepali team will head for Cho Oyu on January 20 with a highly ambitious (and risky) goal in mind. Gelje Sherpa will lead eight more climbers in the attempt to scout, open and fix a new route from the peak’s Nepal side, hoping it will become a new option for commercial expeditions. At a first thought, it’s a good idea: Cho Oyu’s normal route, on the Tibetan side of the mountain, is often difficult to access for foreigners and, since the COVID pandemic started, tightly crossed. Recent reports from China have made it clear that the situation will not change in the upcoming spring.
there is no easy route up Cho Oyu’s Nepali, southern side
Gelje Sherpa has an additional reason to climb Cho Oyu as soon as possible. He needs to tick off the the 8,188m summit in his quest to become the youngest ever 14 x 800’er summiter (at the age of 29, Ed.), a goal he must complete before November, 2022. In addition to Cho Oyu, Gelje will need to summit Broad Peak, but he has the entire summer season for it.
The problem is, there is no easy route up Cho Oyu’s Nepali, southern side. The last line up opened from Nepal was completed up the SW face by Denis Urubko and Boris Dedeshko on an epic 8 days-long push, back in 2009 (an ascent awarded by a Piolet d’Or, Ed.). The Nepalis will climb fixing on the go and surely with supplementary O2. But anyway, they have a very tough job ahead. After the first ascent of winter K2, in which Gelje was the youngest summiteer, this is the second (highly unusual) case in which a Nepali team climbs as an independent team and not working for others.
No more winter K2?
There is a fifth expedition, still tentative, to K2, consisting of a single Taiwanese climber, Grace Tseng, willing to put up together an entire team outfitted by Nepal’s agency Dolma expedition, in order to attempt the first female ascent on winter K2. Ms. Tseng cares little for alpine style, but neither did the first winter summiters last year. Her goal is to optimize her summit options as much as possible by using all available resources. She will use O2, sherpa-force, pre-acclimatization and training in hypoxic chambers… ad still she has little chance to reach the top – if she gets there at all. The Nepalese team was ready to fly to Pakistan since mid December, but there’s been no news since then. It is not known (at the time of editing this story) whether the expedition may be postponed or going ahead, but time is seriously running against them.
Back to the future: Will the trend prevail?
As we analyse in this new article on this new standard of excellence in the Himalayas, in winter, whether we are witnessing an extraordinarily popular winter season, or a trend here to stay, it will depend on the results obtained, but also on the climbers’ motivations.
There will be more teams as the one currently on Nanga Parbat. A handful of elite climbers will be willing to take enormous risks in the pursue of the climb of their lives. Hopefully, they will stick to principles of purity, exposure, and fair means. That is, after all, the essence of exploratory alpinism and, while it exists, it will fill the dreams and set the highest standards, of mountaineers all over the world. Equally, guys like Jost Kobusch are hard to find but – why not? The “even harder, taller, faster…” has always moved the bold ones.
Those in the quest for “firsts” will have to ponder pros and cons carefully. The fact is that the real deal, the first ascents to winter 8,000ers, have all been done. True, there are national ascents to be made, new routes, K2 with an all no-O2 team… but all they would be tagged as “second ascents” on the general statistics.
The silver medal is nevertheless worth something to Gelje Sherpa and his teammates at Cho Oyu: a commercial future, their careers. The dates of the expedition are a matter of personal interest to the team leader, but the goal of finding a suitable summit route from Nepal really matters so that the growing number of Nepalese agencies can develop their business free from China’s unfair decisions.