Alpine Rising

Bernadette McDonald

The name of Maurice Herzog, the first man to reach the summit of Annapurna, is widely recognized, but how many know Ang Tharkay, the Sherpa who carried the seriously frostbitten Herzog on his back for miles? Although rarely mentioned in published accounts of early expeditions, local climbers have long been significant members of first ascents on the world’s tallest and most challenging peaks. In Alpine Rising, award-winning writer Bernadette McDonald sets the record straight by shining a light on these too-often-forgotten heroes.

Now, in the 21st century, it is often local climbers who are setting records. A Nepali team was the first to climb K2 in winter; they reached the summit while singing their national anthem. Pakistani climbers like Little Karim and Ali Sadpara devoted their lives to helping others survive and succeed on and off the mountains and their stories deserve to be celebrated. Written with unprecedented access to climbers and their families, and assisted by researchers on the ground in Pakistan and Nepal, Alpine Rising will forever change the way readers see the history and legacy of mountaineering in the Greater Ranges.  

One Summit—Two Centuries

Ten Nepali climbers crept out of their tents at Camp 3. In the early morning hours, the sky above K2 was clear, heavy with stars. The otherworldly temperatures that hovered near –75°F felt like a punch in the face. Bent over and stiff from the uncomfortable night, the silent figures relied on instinct and experience as they attached their crampons and hoisted their packs. In twos and threes, the bobbing orbs of their headlamps began ascending toward Camp 4.

The ten climbers had coalesced as a team almost by accident. But now they were one unstoppable force.

There were four separate groups on K2 in January 2021, including over sixty climbers from nineteen countries. From three of those teams emerged a single group determined to make the first winter ascent of K2. Their presence signaled a growing trend: independent Sherpas with no client responsibilities. Sherpas climbing for themselves.

The highly respected Mingma Gyalje Sherpa (known as Mingma G) and his partners Dawa Tenjin Sherpa and Kilu Pemba Sherpa were among them. Born in Rolwaling, Mingma G had so many 8,000ers to his name it was hard to keep track, including two ascents of K2 in summer and one previous winter attempt. Serious, and at times blunt, he was clear about his intentions: “My dream, and my only real mission, was to see the Nepalese flag on the 8000 Meter Winter First Ascent list.”

Also at K2 was Nepali climber Nirmal Purja, known as “Nimsdai,” or simply “Nims.” He described the climb on his blog with his customary flamboyance as “one of the last remaining grand prizes in mountaineering, a feat regarded as impossible.” The smooth-skinned, baby-faced Nims had risen to fame in 2019 after claiming all fourteen 8,000-meter summits in just over six months. Even though he’d accomplished all his previous ascents with supplemental oxygen, Nims made it clear he intended to make the first winter ascent of K2 without it. And then to paraglide off the summit. As he tweeted upon his arrival in base camp: “Game is on, folks.”

Nims brought with him five high-altitude specialists: Mingma David Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Gelje Sherpa, and Mingma Tenzi Sherpa.

The final member of the summit team was Sona Sherpa, a professional climber employed by Seven Summit Treks (SST), based in Kathmandu. By far the largest group on the mountain, the SST team offered a fully commercialized approach to winter climbing on K2.

The Nepali climbers stopped to rest at Camp 4 and wait for the sun’s warming rays. As expected, their spirits rose with the temperature. Mingma Tenzi was out front, fixing lines. By 3 p.m. they had climbed through a steep ice gully known as the Bottleneck and were inching up the traverse toward the summit. Ten meters below the top, the men in front stopped, waiting to regroup so that all ten climbers could touch the summit together; this historic climb would be a shared experience. Somehow, they found the energy to belt out the Nepali national anthem as they stepped onto the pinnacle of K2 at 4:43 p.m., January 16, 2021.

Their triumphant video sped around the world, delighting millions. Slanting low in the sky, the sun lit their high-altitude suits like beacons of hope: brilliant red, shimmering gold. Their upturned faces defied exhaustion as they took those final steps to the top. Singing, yelling, whooping, and hollering. Sixty seconds of joy.

In the days and months that followed, social media was flooded with images of the climb, with some viewers speculating about the use of supplemental oxygen, and with many others posting congratulatory messages from every corner of the globe. Ten Nepali climbers became ten global superstars.

Turn back the clock to July 1954. There is only one team on K2, an Italian expedition led by Ardito Desio. Despite multiple attempts, the “Savage Mountain” had yet to be climbed in any season. Desio’s expedition began with eleven Italian mountaineers and thirteen Hunzas, accompanied by a “battalion of Balti porters” who carried thirteen tons of gear to base camp. By late July, only four men were in serious contention for the summit. Desio chose Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli as the A team. Supporting them was the youngest and strongest member of the team, the impossibly handsome, twenty-four-year-old Walter Bonatti.

Desio, who was in base camp, ordered Bonatti to lug nearly eighty pounds of oxygen cylinders up to Compagnoni and Lacedelli, who were positioned in the highest camp. Bonatti couldn’t do it alone, and he knew the only individual on the mountain who could help him was Amir Mehdi, a slight, sad-eyed high-altitude porter from Pakistan’s Shimshal Valley. Mehdi agreed, and off they went, carrying oxygen to the two lead climbers, supposedly camped at a designated spot at 8,100 meters.

But when Bonatti and Mehdi arrived at the location later that evening, there was nothing and no one to be seen. They scoured the slopes around them, shouting in frustration. Finally, they heard one of the lead climbers calling from above, “Leave the oxygen and descend.”

Mehdi was frantic by that point, pacing, kicking at the slope, and howling in pain. His toes were crammed inside Italian army boots two sizes too small. They were beginning to freeze. Bonatti felt it was too risky to attempt a night descent, so he stomped out a platform on which to bivouac until morning. Bivouac—a word that climbers have jokingly defined as “French for mistake.”

The night sky dazzled with a million stars so bright the two men could see their reflections in the snow. As the paralyzing cold encircled them, they shivered, clinging together, sharing their warmth on the highest open bivouac in history at that time. But the starlight faded when the first gusts of a blizzard moved in. Driving snow plastered the climbers’ clothing and coated their faces. The desperate night dragged on. At times, neither Bonatti nor Mehdi was sure if they were alive or dead.

Finally, shortly before dawn, Mehdi howled one last scream and stumbled off the platform, intent on reaching the tent more than 350 meters below. As Bonatti watched him reeling down the slope in the half light, appearing confused, clumsy, and out of control, he doubted that Mehdi would make it down alive.

He was wrong. Mehdi, his feet numb with frostbite and his face contorted in pain, eventually lurched into the camp, where Isakhan, another Hunza high-altitude porter, tended him. Bonatti arrived hours later.

At 6 p.m. on that same day, July 31, 1954, Compagnoni and Lacedelli summited, making the first ascent of K2. But their victory had come at a terrible price.

Mehdi was transported to a hospital in the city of Skardu and then to a military hospital in Rawalpindi, where doctors amputated all of his toes and a third of one foot. Eight months later, he returned to his home in Shimshal. He had lost the ability to climb and could no longer support his family. The Italian government notified him that he had been given an award, and over the years Compagnoni sent him various books and letters. Mehdi left them unopened. Defeated, suffering, and unheralded, he died in 1999.

The contrast between the two expeditions could not be more pronounced for the men who lived in the shadows of these great mountains. The ten Nepali climbers who topped out on K2 in 2021 became social media darlings. Their fame escalated as countless videos and victorious photographs—along with the spectacular video of them singing their national anthem—brought joy to a world mired in a pandemic slump.

Nearly seventy years earlier, Amir Mehdi had simply shuffled back to his barn, placed his ice axe in the corner, and announced he never wanted to see it again. He spent the remaining forty-five years of his life in pain and obscurity, supported by his family.

What had so fundamentally changed between 1954 and 2021? Was it that the ten Nepalis reached their summit, while Mehdi merely enabled the summit for others? Or that the Nepalis had control of their actions and could make their own decisions on the mountain while Mehdi was just following orders? Was the shift partly due to the enormous change in the skills and ambitions of local climbers? Did Western observers finally grow to accept and recognize, applaud and reward the accomplishments of climbers from Pakistan and Nepal? Was there an increasing awareness of the need to move beyond a colonialist view of mountaineering to one that was more inclusive, more equitable, and more just? And what part did social media have in this transformation?

Alpine Rising is about climbers with names few have heard; climbers from remote villages; climbers who were quiet, trusted partners; climbers whose expectations rose with their growing experience. Ultimately, it is about climbers who are transforming mountaineering in the highest mountains on Earth through their abilities to forge new ground, to guide and mentor, to create successful businesses, and to realize their personal dreams.

To understand more fully their evolution from silently supporting sahibs to basking—sometimes wilting—in the glow of the spotlight, we will have to go back much further than 1954, all the way to the end of the nineteenth century. Some of these stories may be troubling, even shocking, to many twenty-first-century ears.

In a world that is more divisive than ever, there can be a dearth of compassion and patience for multiple attitudes and historical perspectives. Navigating the truth is a difficult and complex process and involves memories that are sometimes selective, often patchy, but always worth hearing. Sherpas and Hunzas, Astoris, Baltis and Magars: I have done my best to listen and learn from them, at times trying to find echoes of long-vanished voices between the lines of archival records and historical volumes, other times hearing tales directly from protagonists still living and working in the heights. This is their story.

Excerpted from Alpine Rising: Sherpas, Baltis, and the Triumph of Local Climbers in the Greater Ranges by Bernadette McDonald (March 2024). Published by Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Purchase directly from Mountaineers Books

Bernadette McDonald

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Bernadette McDonald was the founding Vice President of Mountain Culture at The Banff Centre and director of the Banff Mountain Festivals for 20 years, and few people have the relationships that McDonald does with the world’s most accomplished alpinists. The author of more than a dozen books about mountaineering and mountain culture, she regularly lectures on a variety of topics for universities, festivals, and alpine clubs. McDonald lives in Banff, Alberta, Canada.

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