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When 10 Nepalese climbed K2 together on 16 January last, some said it was the end of an era: the last page in the history of winter climbing seemed to be written. A year later, we can see that this is not really the case: winter Himalayan climbing is booming, with at least four attempts underway on Everest, Nanga Parbat, Manaslu and Cho Oyu. Why the rush?

Currently, there are climbers battling bitter cold on Nanga Parbat, Everest and Manaslu; Gelje Sherpa prepares an all-Nepali team to open a new route on Cho Oyu, and a commercial team is (still) expected on K2.

In addition, we have seen some top-end climbers performing on lesser peaks that seem to ‘grow’ when attempted in winter conditions. Such is the case of Marcin Tomaszewski and Damian Bielecki on a literally frozen up Uli Biaho, and multi-awarded Kazuya Hiraide completing a first ascent on a Shimshali 6,000’er, together with Takuya Mitoro.

Is Gelje Sherpa riding the K2 wave? ©DR

A win-win situation

Audiences, sponsors and expedition outfitters are delighted at the new growing trend. It’s a win-win situation.

In the over-commercialized Himalayan giants, winter has become a tag for excellence, an added difficulty that has brought back the enthusiasm of a wide range of public who, in later years, had passed from applauding Everest climbers as superheroes to despise the high-altitude circus of fixed ropes, tons of O2 canisters and dumb tourists dragged by Sherpa workers. Winter means struggle and suffering, and that pleases.

Logically, the audiences’ interest is closely followed by sponsors looking for a suitable environment to display their brands in, and who have found a new market niche and an unmatched benchmark to test their products, whether it is clothes, equipment, technology or food.

Nepalese agencies do not hesitate.

Finally, some agencies and outfitting companies are ready to take some risks and launch (sort of) commercial teams on winter 8,000ers, as a complement to their on-season catalogues. But not all of them. Western agencies are not keen on organizing winter expeditions: the risks are too high, the success options close to cero, and they have alternative activities to cover that season, expeditions in the southern hemisphere and shorter activities in nearer mountain ranges.

But the case is different with Nepal’s agencies, ever hungry for business. Sherpa staff greatly available in winter and some of them are willing to earn money and prestige by participating in a winter expedition. The biggest operator in the country, Seven Summit Treks (SST) was behind last year’s commercial expedition to winter K2 and currently is offering a seat on winter Manaslu, where they have put together a Sherpa team fixing the ropes up the normal route.

The first K2 in winter was only successful for the Nepalese… The Fantastic 10 team here, on their return from the summit ©DR

at least one climber suffered severe frostbite and three others died

Which is quite surprising indeed since the winter K2 experiment, while a triumph for the Nepali team who bagged the summit, was a complete disaster for the commercial team. None of their clients went further than Camp 3, many complained about lack of tents and scarce or non-functioning O2 system and, worst of all, at least one climber resulted seriously frostbitten, and three members died: two of them, Sergi Mingote and Atanas Skatov, in accidents, and Chilean Juan Pablo Mohr, the only team member who actually pushed for the summit, never made it back.

At the time, expedition leader Chhang Dawa sherpa alleged his was not a “guided” expedition but a venture in which each climber had to be self-sufficient beyond Base Camp. However, the expedition counted on a Sherpa team supposed to fix ropes and supply camps, and most of their foreign clients had assigned a personal Sherpa assistant, so they were far from a self-sufficient team.

Manaslu targeted this winter by a very diverse group ©Jocelyn Chavy

The Cho Oyu on the Nepalese side, an ambitious Sherpa project. ©Jocelyn Chavy

On the current Manaslu venture, everyone on the spot is working at the top of their capabilities to carry up their gear and camps, while the Sherpa force focuses on fixing ropes on the route. It will be interesting to see how group dynamics develop in the next few weeks: if the individuals find the way to work collaboratively as a team in the pursue of a common goal, their chances for a positive outcome of the expedition (with or without summit) will increase.

 

A growing trend or a one-hit glory?

Summing up, the new year has started with an action-packed Himalaya, no matter the cold. The contenders are on the field, the winter battle has begun, and bets are open about the final outcome on each mountain. Whatever happens in the next seven weeks will have a major impact on potential expeditions in future winters. Summits will attract climbers and encourage risk-taking outfitters to extend their marketing plans to the coldest months. Failure and, worst of all, drama, will discourage many. Yet, it is not all about results. Some hard-core climbers will surely keep motivated against all odds, uncapable to resist the call of winter.

Will we see some great stories this season ?

Overall, winter Himalaya offers high risk, certain pain and suffering, and possibilities of success close to nil. But for that same reason, the impact and prestige is equally magnified in case of someone reaching the summit (and making it back alive, that is). Quite resembling that ad by Shackleton recruiting people to race for the South Pole. And like in Shackleton’s adventure, even with no summit, the aura of extreme, danger and looming drama of winter will make for an unequalled experience, perdurable relevance of those involve. Will we see some great stories this season?

 

Read about the Himalayan winter climbs underway this winter

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