On July 21 at 10:45 P.M. Pakistan time, five climbers stood on the summit of 28,251-foot K2. They were the first mountaineers to reach the peak’s top during the 2022 summer climbing season, after spending more than 24 hours battling their way to the summit. For Pasdawa Sherpa, Chhiring Namgyal Sherpa, Siddhi Ghising, Dorjee Gyelzen Sherpa, and Rinji Sherpa, turning around wasn’t an option, as hundreds of climbers further down on the mountain were relying on their work. This team of elite high-altitude workers from Nepal had fixed a series of ropes that would be later used by climbers waiting in cramped tents at Camp 4.
By the time the rope fixers began their descent, a hoard of climbers was already working its way towards the summit, leading to what was to become the most crowded day on the peak.
One of the climbers ascending the mountain was Nepali guide Mingma Gyalge Sherpa, better known as ‘Mingma G,’ who captured a video on Instagram that was quickly circulated around the globe. The video showed dozens of climbers waiting in a so-called “conga line” on the mountain’s infamous bottleneck couloir at 26,900 feet.
“Many of the climbers were expected to go to the summit on 20 and 21 July but there was no route fixed to the summit until 21 July at night so everyone made the summit push for July 22, that made the traffic jam,” Mingma G said in a WhatsApp message.
The scene marked a historic moment for K2, long called the “savage mountain” in climbing circles. In previous decades, K2 was off-limits to all but the most seasoned mountaineers due to its extreme danger and steepness. Now, K2 has exploded in popularity, driven by a generation of paying clients that seek a greater challenge than Mount Everest, and a coterie of expedition operators who specialize in getting climbers to the top—regardless of the dangers found along the way.
By the end of the day on July 22, well over 100 climbers had reached K2’s summit, which is notorious for brutal weather and a high fatality rate. In the ensuing days, this number continued to rise. As of Thursday morning, 145 climbers have notched the summit since July 21, a figure that has added 30 percent more total summits to the mountain’s tally since it was first climbed nearly 70 years ag0. Prior to the historic day, just 302 people had stood on the summit.
But this bonanza on the mountains produced the cringe-worthy moment on the bottleneck, and other scenes of crowding.
“I never thought this would happen on K2,” said Himalayan Database director and mountaineer, Bili Bierling, when she saw Mingma G’s video.
The bottleneck is notorious for danger. In February, 2021 it claimed the lives of three elite mountaineers: Muhammad Ali Sadpara, John Snorri, and Juan Pablo Mohr. The deaths sent shockwaves through the mountaineering community. In the video, the line of climbers stood below a soaring wall of seracs that are known to send tons of ice crashing down the mountain at irregular intervals. The video also echoes a viral photo shared by Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja in 2019 of an overcrowded Everest summit ridge. While in Purja’s photo the climbers are stacked on an open ridge and surrounded by blue skies, on K2 the traffic jam was positioned directly beneath the dangerous seracs.
The video generated more than 200 comments, and a simmering debate about the mountain’s popularity this year. “K2 is not Everest—it cannot be commercialized like this. What a pity,” read one comment on the video.
Pemba Sherpa, the founder of 8K Expeditions, a leading Nepali outfitter, told Outside that the increase in climbers this year was due to multiple dynamics, among them pent-up demand that occurred during the pandemic.
“So many people are on the way to climb 14 peaks,” Pemba said. “And so many people were stopped because of COVID and the financial downturn. Now, in 2022…. people are coming to K2.”
Pemba estimated there to be more than 200 total permits for the mountain this year. But he downplayed the danger caused by the crowding on the mountain. The conga line at the bottleneck was a large group that had been traveling together, and not a queue of disparate teams trying to reach the top.
“Two hundred people on a mountain of that size will get spread out,” he said. “The issue is when everyone wants to climb on the same day.”
When asked about his video, Mingma G echoed Pemba’s sentiment, saying that his company has seen a steady increase in interest for guiding on K2 in recent years. “Since 2017, we have seen summits every year on K2. It wasn’t like this previously,” he said. “And COVID-19 also increased the number of climbers on K2.”
Thanks to a patch of unusually stable weather in the Karakoram, summits on K2 have continued throughout the week. Notable ascents include Pasdawa Sherpa who, as part of the rope fixing team, became the fastest person to summit the five tallest peaks on the planet.
Norwegian climber Kristin Harila notched the eighth peak on her quest to climb all 14 peaks over 8,000 meters in six months and to draw attention to the role of women in high-altitude mountaineering. To prove her point, three women summited without the use of supplemental oxygen—Grace Teng from Taiwan, Andorran climber Stefi Troguet, and He Jing from China.
Huge crowds may be the norm on some of the world’s highest peaks this year. Thanks to a recent report by German archivist Eberhard Jurgalski on his blog 8000ers.com, that offered convincing evidence that the vast majority of recent ascents of Manaslu (26,781 feet) were, in fact, a few meters below the actual summit, operators in Nepal are expecting a wave of climbers to return to the mountain this fall. Sources told Outside that they expect to see several hundred climbers on that peak later this fall.
“For my company alone, we have 50 clients already signed up.” said Pemba Sherpa. “Everyone is coming to repeat Manaslu.”