As It Happens

These climbers from Nepal just became the first to conquer K2 in winter

On Saturday a group of Nepalese climbers — led by elite mountaineer Nirmal Purja, known as Nimsdai — became the first team to overcome K2's avalanche-prone terrain and frigid temperatures in order to summit during the winter months.

Avalanche-prone terrain, frigid temperatures add to steep peak's reputation as most difficult in the world

On Saturday a team of Nepalese climbers became the first to reach the summit of K2 during the winter months. (Submitted by Nimsdai)

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It's been called "a savage mountain that tries to kill you."

K2, the second highest mountain in the world, is steeper and more dangerous to climb than Everest. And until this past weekend, no one had ever reached its peak in winter.

On Saturday a group of Nepalese climbers — led by elite mountaineer Nirmal Purja, known as Nimsdai — became the first team to overcome its avalanche-prone terrain and arctic temperatures in order to summit during the winter months.

The Nepalese have shared little of the limelight in climbing circles, acting mostly as commercial guides for climbers from the West.

Pride in being part of an all-Nepalese crew is what fuelled the team throughout the climb, Purja told As It Happens host Carol Off from the K2 base camp near Skardu, in northern Pakistan, where the mountain straddles the border between China and Pakistan.

Here is part of their conversation.

Nimsdai, how are you feeling after that incredible climb?

I'm feeling good, I'm fully recharged and yeah, and I think that the whole endeavour, it wasn't about a personal goal, it was about the whole the Nepalese climbing community and all that. And in it together, we made the impossible possible. So absolutely, it was an honour to be part of that team.

You got a bit of frostbite, I understand.

A little bit, but that happened on my first rotation. So that's why it was so tricky to do having … frostbite on the first few days and all that, but managed to handle it well.

Elite climber Nirmal Purja, who goes by the name Nimsdai, led the team to the peak of K2, the second highest mountain in the world. (Submitted by Nimsdai)

Now, when you say how historic this is, because K2 is notoriously difficult to climb at all, but especially in the winter, this is the the first time this has been achieved. Can you tell us why it's so difficult to do this climb in the winter season? 

The biggest challenge here is the weather. So, you know, you can get the hurricane force [winds] and the temperatures up to -70 degrees Celsius. And the terrain itself is so technical, it's so steep. And you have to climb so many blue ice, and the rock, and it's the world's second highest mountain. So it's very challenging.

Did you say -70?

Yeah, -70 degrees Celsius.

Nimsdai is seen Saturday, the day he and the team summited K2. Temperatures on the mountain can reach -70 C in winter. (Submitted by Nimsdai)

OK, how do you deal with that? I mean, I know you have challenged yourself in so many ways, but are there just moments when you really wonder, what am I doing here?

To be honest, I didn't really have those kind of moments because for a mission like this, you need a purpose. You need a goal. You need a good reason why you are doing this. And I absolutely had that kind of purpose, reason and mission. But yeah, you are absolutely right. You know, on the summit day, on the summit push that morning, we started around 2 o'clock, and oh my days, it was extremely, extremely super cold. And some of the guys who are on the team are like top climbers and [those] team members were thinking of turning around and all that. So that's how extreme this is.

What was it like to stand atop K2? What were you feeling at that point?

We all stopped 10 metres away from the summit and we all kind of like hug each other shoulder to shoulder. And we sang the national anthem of Nepal and we walked to the summit together. And that was probably the most emotional part of the of the whole journey, being able to stand at the summit together with the same mission, same goal and same ambitions.

The same day, there was a man from Spain who didn't make it.

Yes, Sergi Mingote, he was a great friend of mine as well, and so many team members knew him and unfortunately, while he was descending an accident happened and he passed away, unfortunately.

He was a really good guy, really humble guy. And I absolutely believe that, you know, he unfortunately passed away doing what he loved doing.

Did he fall down a crevasse? Is that the story?

No, no. He fell off the mountain, you know, from like a 60 degree slope.

And he was a very experienced climber, as all of you. I'm sorry for your loss of your friend.

Yeah, he was [a] very experienced climber.

WATCH Chhiring Dorje Sherpa describes his rescue of a fellow climber on K2 in 2018.

High-altitude rescue on K2

5 years ago
Duration 2:25
Chhiring Dorje Sherpa describes the moment he finds fellow climber Pasang Lama, stranded above the treacherous bottleneck on Mount K2. The rescue that Chhiring pulls off is one of the most daring in the history of mountain climbing.

You are an experienced climber, you have climbed 14 mountains, the world over, where there's at least 8,000 metres, and now you have tackled K2 successfully in the winter. How does it compare?

K2 in winter is different, it's difficult. But you can't compare because that's a different kind of mission. 

Many other climbers are saying they're seeing more evidence of climate change. That the mountains are changing. The conditions are changing. Did you witness that?

I have seen that through my own eyes and hence the reason why I've been trying to raise awareness about climate change and global warming. The biggest thing that I can talk about was when I was in Nepal this year, where there was a huge glacier … now it's just a lake. And it's very sad to see, all the glaciers are melting away.

So one of the things that I'm trying to do through my platform is to raise awareness about global warming, climate change and how we know this decade is so important for our human mankind in order to [have a] sustainable environment.

Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Sonya Varma.