Mighty K2, part of the Karakoram Range that straddles the Pakistan-China border, is the only mountain above 8,000m yet to be climbed in winter.
So unforgiving are the conditions on the 8,611m (28,251 ft) high peak, that it has long been referred to as The Savage Mountain.
It was a name that stuck after US mountaineer George Bell said of his own attempt in 1953: “It is a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”
Romanian Alex Gavan, 38, and Italian Tamara Lunger, 34, are aiming to claim one of the last great challenges in the world of high-altitude mountaineering: the winter summit of K2, BBC news reported.
At least 24 others, most of them Europeans, will try to do the same, prompting warnings that too many climbers will be risking their lives on one of the world’s deadliest peaks.
“It’s an extraordinarily rough landscape,” Gavan told the BBC in his Bucharest home, surrounded by books and climbing gear.
“Because of the strong winds the mountain will be almost empty of snow,” says Gavan, who is of slight build but is an intense character. “It will be a terrain of rock and ice.”
About 200m less high than Everest, it is widely considered the most demanding of all in winter — especially without supplementary oxygen.
“This challenge is even bigger because we’re not using supplementary oxygen,” asserts Gavan. “Climbing with oxygen is cheating — 8,000m with oxygen is like 3,500m without.”
Flanked by vast glaciers and thrashed by sub-zero winds, as well as frequent icefalls, avalanches, and rock-falls, a successful winter ascent will require a mix of technical prowess, unbreakable spirit and a measure of luck.
“Sometimes the velocity of the winter jet streams can be 200km/h (125 mph),” says Lunger.
She reached the peak of K2 in the summer of 2014, becoming only the second Italian woman in history to do so without oxygen.
But scaling K2 in the dead of winter when temperatures can fall to below minus 50C will present a far more gruelling task.
There’s a reason why K2 has not been climbed in winter.
Winter K2 is not Everest – not even winter Everest.
Mountaineering journalist Alex Txikon told ExplorersWeb that sunny days are common at Everest in winter, but not at K2. Last January, he built igloos at K2 Base Camp, which he did not need to do at Everest at the same time of year.
Winter veterans are skeptical about how long non-professional climbers can endure K2 Base Camp in January.
“Most of these clients will get to BC,” Italian climber Simone Moro told ExplorersWeb, “spend one or two weeks there, suffering like crazy, then run back home, with the entire fee paid but only five percent of the services used. From a business point of view, it’s really smart, while not so good for the history of alpinism.”
Others fear an Everest-like disaster in the making.
In 1996, two commercial expeditions vied for the highest number of clients on top. Very different personalities clashed in their pursuit of glory, and disaster struck on summit day. Eight climbers caught in a blizzard would die on Mount Everest while attempting to descend from the summit.
No one wants such tragedy this time, but the elements leading up to this K2 season do produce a sense of deja vu.
There is another factor here, involving Nepal-based Seven Summit Treks, which has rapidly grown from a local operator to possibly the largest outfitter for Himalayan expeditions, ExplorersWeb reported.
No doubt hurting like every other tourism company in the world, they are surely trying to salvage something from an otherwise disastrous year. When Pakistan became willing to accept foreign climbers, SST put together a grand adventure in record time.
For about $35,000, according to ExWeb sources, the fully serviced venture features plenty of O2, a rope-fixing team prepping every step of the way, as much comfort as possible in Base Camp, highly experienced Sherpa guides, and professional climbers Arnold Coster and Sergi Mingote, coordinating and overseeing progress.
A significant number of climbers have already signed on. Although all have summited several 8,000m peaks before, their skill level varies. Some have always been guided, while others have climbed in small, independent groups without O2. All are about to embark on a new experience involving a significant risk.
As of July 2018, there had been a reported 367 successful climbs of K2 and 86 deaths, which equates to roughly one death in every four.
“This will be the most interesting winter on K2 ever, that is for sure,” says mountaineering chronicler Eberhard Jurgalski, who fears there will be too many climbers, raising the risk of congestion and incidents.
“Even with just a few people, as it’s been with the previous seven (winter) attempts, it is dangerous enough. I fear the worst,” he told the BBC.
Winter veteran Jacek Teler foresees trouble when climbers rotate for acclimatization between Base Camp and higher camps, because of lack of space, especially at Advanced Base Camp and Camp 1 below the House Chimney, which can squeeze in just a couple of tents.
Meanwhile, if all goes to plan, Lunger and Gavan say they hope to reach the summit by around mid-February.
“I could be the first woman in history to complete a winter summit,” Lunger says of all the world’s 8,000m peaks.
In August 2008, 11 experienced climbers tragically died on K2 after a series of deadly icefalls on an infamously treacherous patch known as the Bottleneck, which needs to be skilfully traversed at 8,200m, BBC News reported.
The Bottleneck is well into the territory above 8,000m known in mountaineering as the “death zone,” when a lack of oxygen slowly shuts down the human body.
“No matter who you are. No matter your experience. No matter how fit you are. This is simply our biological limit,” Gavan says.
“I don’t think you can prepare,” says Lunger of the Bottleneck. “If you take one wrong step it’s a vertical drop of about 3,000m to the crevasse and glacier below.”
If successful the pair will become stars in the climbing world. Everything to gain … everything to lose.
“It’s a milestone in high-altitude mountaineering,” Gavan says. “I feel like everything in our lives came to this, and now is our chance.”
Sources: ExplorersWeb, BBC News, Wikipedia, South Tyrol