The insurmountable conquest of the 8,611-metre (28,251 ft) high K2, the second-highest peak in the world after Everest, by 10 Nepali Sherpas on January 16, has reignited the debate about the magnetic allure of the Himalayan peaks notwithstanding the dangers they pose, and the lives they have claimed over the years.
The recent summit is particularly praiseworthy as it was done during the biting winter which sees strong winds and temperature as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius on the way to the accent. The expedition, which was the first successful winter summit of K2, notoriously called the ‘Savage Mountain’, was led by well-known Sherpa (ethnic people living in the Himalayas known for their expertise in mountaineering) and mountaineer Nirmal Purja, who was joined near the summit on the last day by others like Mingma Gyalje, part of another expedition.
The expedition led by Purja was almost called off a week back, in view of strong winds which blew away the entire Camp 2 (one of the four stopovers on the way to the summit). But on January 16, the 10 Nepali members of various expeditions joined together as a group after the wind speed dropped surprisingly to 10 mph.
“The impossible is made possible,” Purja tweeted. “History made for mankind. History made for Nepal.
Climbing K2 is considered almost as difficult as Everest and to attempt summiting it in winter is deemed as madness.
In 2019, Purja created a new record by climbing 14 of the world’s peaks which were 5 miles or higher. K2 is the most dangerous of them all with its peak ascending without any flat sections (unlike Everest).
The attempt to summit K2 against all odds is yet another show of Nepali pride, strength and mountaineering skills.
Call of the mountains
The highest point of the Karakoram mountain range, K2 is situated on the China-Pakistan border.
While attempts to scale the peak have been made since the mid- 19th century, the first successful summit was made in July 1954 by an Italian Karakoram expedition led by Ardito Desio. However, winter expeditions by several mountaineers have been failing since the 1980s, until Purja’s team made it this month.
Although India has well-known mountaineering institutes and clubs, the country is yet to make its debut in summiting the peak.
Indians, however, have shown a greater interest for Everest expeditions.
No attempt on either Everest or K2 is possible without the help of Sherpas. Well-known Sherpas are booked by agencies ahead of expeditions, some even two to three years in advance. An attempt costs around $100,000 per person. Around 5,000 people have summited Everest since the Hillary Norgay expedition in 1953. More than 300 have perished.
Everest, which stands tall at 8,848.86 metres (29,031.7 ft) is climbed through two routes – one from the southeast in Nepal and another from Tibet.
While the peak has been scaled by 488 Indians so far, a few unnerving stories of death and survival on the icy mountains, have been reference points for future climbers.
In 2016, a Bengali expedition of three led by Gautam Ghosh, and including a lady known as Sunita Hazra had attempted to summit Everest. But two of them perished after they were left to die by the lone survivor, Sunita who turned back with the Sherpas after they ran out of oxygen.
The New York Times had mounted another expedition in 2017 to discover these bodies and had made a mind-boggling special report of the event, covering their climb, their death, the recovery of their bodies and return of their bodies to their villages in Bengal. The story also recounted how Everest clubs in many parts of West Bengal had kept alive the Bengali interest in mountaineering.
Hundreds of people attempt to summit Everest each year. A viral photo snapped by Nirmal Purja in 2019, showing hundreds of climbers queuing up to summit the Everest, had shocked the world, following which Nepal clamped down on Everest licenses and commercial climbing of the peak as well as K2.
As if to coincide with this mountaineering record of ascending the K2 in winter, a new fascinating book released two months back, shows how enamoured some people were about climbing Everest and how they would go to any length (or heights!) to achieve it.
In The Moth and the Mountain, Ed Caesar narrates the incredible story of a British WW2 veteran, Maurice Wilson, who bought and refurbished a small Tiger Moth plane, flew all the way to India even though he was totally inexperienced in flying with only two months of practise in 1934. After many near death experiences on the Moth, arrival in Purnea and setting up a camp in Darjeeling, Wilson walked all the way, about 300 miles, to the base village of Everest in Nepal, via Sikkim, Tibet and the China border .
During the walk from Darjeeling, Wilson had three helpers or bhutias with him but he was alone on his final climb to the summit as the helpers were not equipped to climb. Nor was Wilson who had neither oxygen nor even the basic proper climbing equipment like spiked shoes or axes which he had hoped to take from the camp of the previous failed British expedition. He just had the will and the madness to attempt climbing Everest in 1933. It was the story of the first unsuccessful British attempt in 1933 led by George Mallory that he read in a newspaper that set Wilson on his mad and incredible journey.
Wilson had a “death drive” after escaping from death many times in the trenches of the war. Many who attempted Everest were those who fought in wars. But what Wilson attempted was not really known till Caesar published this book, adding another incredible chapter to Everest literature in which Jon Krakeuer’s Into Thin Air will be among the best, the most captivating first-hand experience of a tragic summit attempt told by a lone survivor.
“Was Wilson consciously or unconsciously committing suicide on Everest? It seems like a simplistic interpretation, at best. Certainly Wilson felt some of what the French term l’appel du vide, ‘the call of the void’. But Wilson’s attempt on Everest also emerged from a desire to be deathless to have his name written forever in the history books,” the book reads.
Wilson never made it. He perished in his third attempt. His body was found by the next British expedition in 1936, close to North Col,“ lying on its left side with the knees drawn up in an attitude of flexion.”
Wilson is among the most incredible stories of Himalayan valour which now mountaineers will come to hear.
For many climbers including Nirmal Purja, the ill-fated George Mallory, the successful Hillary or Tenzing Norgay, (the first to summit Everest in 1953) Everest had become “an exalted radiance, a sentinel in the sky , a symbol of hope in a world gone mad, ” as Wade Davis writes in his history of Everest climbing Into the Silence.