K2 Sherpa train pulls 145 people to the summit in one day

No fewer than 145 people summited K2 last Friday, more than doubling in a single day Savage Mountain’s highest yearly a total of 62 summits. With dozens of climbers still on the mountain, the number looks set to exceed 200 this season.

To put the July 22 summit total into context, before this month only about 500 climbers had ever summited K2. “Yesterday’s numbers totaled 20 percent to 25 percent of ALL people who have climbed Chogori,” commented mountaineering historian Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn on July 23, using a local name for K2, the world’s second-highest peak at 8,611 meters (28,251 feet). George Bell coined another name for the mountain after 1953 American K2 Expedition, telling a crowd of reporters, “It’s a wild mountain trying to kill you.” The moniker has been in the headlines ever since, along with the superlative deadliest and K2’s oft-quoted (and now outdated) death rate of one death for every four summits. But for alpinists, K2 is simply the Climber’s Mountain, revered as the hardest climb in the Himalayan pantheon.

Some of that luster has faded in recent years as the mountaineering industrial complex has slowly chipped away at K2’s once impenetrable facade. Almost as shocking as the sheer number of climbers atop K2 this season was the ratio of support climbers to paying summit climbers, as climbing blogger Alan Arnette calculated of 88 Sherpas, or Pakistani high-altitude porters, to 54 paying customers during Friday’s summit bonanza.

“The Everest model is now official on K2,” Arnette wrote.

While the conga line has been a fixture on Everest’s southeast ridge for a few decades now, climbers have long believed that K2 is immune to that fate. The mountain was simply too difficult, its location too remote and its technical cores too high to tolerate the kind of commercial carpetbagging endemic to Everest. Or so they thought.

Some trace the taming of Savage Mountain to 2017, when investment banker Vanessa O’Brien followed a train of Sherpas to the summit, where she posed for a selfie wearing a MAGA cap. But the groundwork was laid in neighboring Nepal, where outfitters perfected a plan for high-altitude success based on ample bottled oxygen, fixed ropes to the summit and armies of highly skilled Sherpa climbers. Soon enough, the successful model infiltrated the Karakoram. Now the Sherpa railway goes directly to the summit of K2, and any reasonably competent climber with a sufficient bankroll can punch his ticket to the top, given good weather and a bit of luck.

A rope-fixing team of Sherpa climbers working for the US Mountaineering in Madison and Nepal’s 8KE expeditions reached the summit after 10 o’clock on Thursday evening, July 21, and the summit was underway. By 3 a.m. Friday morning, all 15 Madison guides and clients had summited, only to find their way down blocked by dozens more climbers on the ascent. Imagine Nepal’s boss, Mingma G, posted a now-viral video of climbers queuing that morning at the bottleneck, the gauntlet of hanging seracs at 26,900 feet.

The descending climbers had to repair about 200 meters of new rope to get safely around the jam, company owner Garrett Madison said ExploresWeb from base camp. Fortunately, his crew had manpower to spare, with 13 guides supporting just two clients.

On the same day, 8KEExpeditions and Seven Summit Treks each put 11 people on the summit, and Furtenbach Adventures claimed 14 summits. Nimsdai Purja’s elite expeditions numbered 33. By Arnette’s count, about 145 climbers had reached the summit by the end of Friday, with more on the way up.

Successful climbers included Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman to climb K2, and Norwegian Kristin Harila, who is in pursuit of Nimsdai’s record of 14 eight thousand in six months and six days. They and the vast majority of commercially supported climbers used supplemental oxygen.

Wasifa Nazreen (right), the first Bangladeshi woman to summit K2, celebrates with her guide July 22, 2022. Via Facebook.

Among the notable exceptions were three young female climbers, Jing He of China, Grace Tseng of Taiwan and Stefi Troguet of Andorra. “I can’t believe it. I’m on top of K2, without O2. The hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Troguet tweeted from the summit via satellite tracker. She dedicated the climb to friends Sergi Mingote and Muhammad Ali Sadpara, who died on K2 in the winter of 2021, and Antonios Sykaris, who lost on Dhaulagiri last April.

The salute comes as a reminder that despite the abandonment of a record number of summits this week, K2 has not lost its edge. Even in this historic season of fine weather and clockwork efficiency, Savage Mountain claimed three aspirants. Afghan Ali Akbar Sakhi died on July 21 of apparent altitude complications at Camp 3. Canadian Richard Cartier and Matthew Eakin of Australia disappeared while descending from Camp 4 the next day. Their bodies were found near Japanese Camp 1 and Advanced Base Camp on Tuesday, not far from the rope lines that dozens of triumphant summiteers followed home.

Top photo: A frame from Mingma G’s shot of the queue at the K2 bottleneck taken on the morning of July 22, 2022.

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