It was July 22. Clear skies. No gale. The sun was out.
Following a week of snowfall on K2 — the world’s second-highest mountain, which soars 8,611 metres above sea level on the border between China and Pakistan — and with winds reaching speeds of 80 kilometres per hour that could easily blow people away, meteorological companies had forecast a three-day weather window ideal for climbing.
In the wee hours of July 18, most of the teams at the K2 base camp had begun ascending the mountain along the Abruzzi Spur route so they could reach the top and descend in good weather.
Naila Kiani, a Dubai-based banker who had quit her job to join the K2 summer expedition, said her three-member team set off from the base camp the same day, but delayed their summit push from Camp 3 to wait out the rush.
On July 22, over a hundred climbers — mostly Nepali Sherpas and high-altitude Pakistani porters assisting their foreign clients — were snailing up just below a looming serac notorious for shedding ice upon near-90-degree slopes.
At 11 pm local time, Kiani’s team set off from the 7,200-metre-high camp towards the ‘death zone’ — a point at an altitude above 8,000 metres where the human body shuts down in thin air. Staying there for more than 20 hours is almost always fatal; hence, speed is key.
But it took Kiani an extra three hours waiting behind a line of climbers to cross difficult sections of the mountain to reach the top. The way back to the base camp was equally dangerous: amid the rush of climbers who had queued up, her team, like all others, had to descend from the death zone in time in order for their bottled oxygen and food and water to last. But people were getting sick and moving slowly.
Then the rockfall began. Stones as large as half a metre tumbled down as so many hands and feet landed on the sloped terrain, dislodging some rocks. This could lead to fatal falls.
“We constantly had to look up for rockfall when we should be looking down on where to place our steps on rock and ice,” she says.
The scenes were reminiscent of the 2019 spring expedition on Mount Everest, when 11 climbers lost their lives mostly due to overcrowding on deadly altitudes. Nepalese Nirmal Purja, a five-time Guinness World Record-holder in the world of high-altitude mountaineering and co-founder Elite Exped — and the person who took the iconic photograph of Everest's ‘traffic jam’ — posted the following on his Facebook page after summiting K2 with his 33-member team:
“This year around 300 people were on the Abruzzi Spur and I’m telling you - it was very dangerous, and anxiously worrying,” he wrote. “It was a challenge guiding the team safely on this mountain. Every other 2 minutes, there was rock fall [sic] and some of them were HUGE! Some climbers unfortunately lost their life [sic] to it.”
He announced that he is planning to open a different route on K2 next year to avoid the queues and rockfalls.
Thankfully, despite overcrowding, there were only six fatalities this summer on the Pakistani side of the Karakoram range.
Pakistan’s record-breaking season
Pakistan experienced a phenomenal season in high-altitude mountain tourism — a season that typically culminates by the end of August. Throughout the summer, electronic visa applications were pouring into the office of the tourism department of Gilgit Baltistan. Sajid Hussain, the office’s deputy director, says he approved more than 1,900 visa applications and issued over 550 permits to international climbers for the five 8,000-metre mountains in Pakistan. He compares these figures to those of 2014, when a mere 800 foreign tourists arrived in the region. Hussain claims that this season’s foreign exchange earnings were 450 percent higher compared to the previous year, helping the economy at a time when forex reserves are critically low.
The rush could be attributed to the ease of online visa applications, the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions, and peace that was restored following the 2013 terrorist attack that killed 10 foreign tourists and their guide at Nanga Parbat’s basecamp, says Karrar Haidri, secretary of the Alpine Club of Pakistan.
The huge interest in Pakistan’s 8,000-metre mountains has been matched by an increased number of successful summits this season. Haidri tells TRT World there were around 150 successful K2 summits this summer, compared to only 62 in 2018. There have even been years when all attempts of scaling K2 were abandoned.
Many other records were also broken. On July 22, the day Kiani summited the K2, around 120 climbers successfully scaled the mountain, compared to just five the previous day when the rope fixers began their work. Among them were 26 women mountaineers — the highest number in a season ever. There were many climbers who were the first to summit K2 from their respective countries — women from Iran, Qatar, Lebanon, Oman, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and men from South Africa, Malaysia, and the UAE. Mingma David Sherpa from Nepal summited K2 for the fifth time — the most it has been summited by any human ever — on August 28. Tsering Sherpa made a speed climb in just over 12 hours — the fastest in alpinism history — that same day.
Despite a record-breaking season, Alan Arnette, a US-based mountaineering consultant who scaled K2 in 2013, dismisses the notion that the so-called ‘Savage Mountain’ has become surmountable. “K2 remains a technically challenging mountain to climb,” he says. “What made this year relatively safer was the level of support provided by the operators and good luck with the weather.”
“The best thing about this season is that things are getting commercial in Pakistan,” says 20-year-old Pakistani climber Shehroze Kashif, who holds the record of being the youngest mountaineer in the world to summit 10 of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks, including Everest and K2.
Several local and foreign expedition companies licensed by Pakistani authorities offer professional and aspiring climbers a shot at scaling the country’s 8,000-metre mountains. All logistics are taken care of, including base camp services, provision of high-altitude porters to haul several kilos of luggage, expert guides to accompany climbers to the top, precise weather forecasts to ensure the ideal weather window, and supplemental oxygen to enable even the insufficiently acclimatised or undertrained climbers to survive.
Kashif has his eyes set on establishing a business after he scales all 14 of the 8,000-metre peaks in the world. Once he accomplishes this feat, opportunities are abundant: he could launch an expedition company, a private helicopter service or even a brand. The young mountaineer has already built an enviable social media presence. “This is an investment,” he says; his father has even sold property and a car to finance his expeditions because, according to Kashif, it is hard to get sponsorships for his sport in Pakistan.
Understandably, high-altitude alpinism comes with a hefty price tag.
Foreign expedition companies operating on the Pakistani side of the Karakoram typically charge $20,000 for basic services, with prices reaching $70,000 for all-inclusive experiences. Their Pakistani counterparts offer cheaper packages ranging from $7,000 to $10,000, and usually charge for porters and oxygen separately. A subscription with a weather forecast company may set one back up to $500, and the Central Karakoram National Park must be paid an environmental conservation fee of $200.
Mountain climbing in the Karakorum has been commercial — meaning it has attracted paying clients supported by Sherpas or professional guides — since the mid-1990s, says Arnette. “What changed in 2022 was the number of people, the level of experience, and the ratio of clients to support climbers.”
The rising commercialisation of the expeditions irks some professional climbers who appreciate the old-fashioned way of practising a sport that tests the limits of human endurance.
“Professional climbers who are sponsored to climb… have never accepted commercial operators with paying clients using supplemental oxygen, climbing standard routes, and supported by Pakistani or Sherpa climbers,” says Arnette.