First Winter Ascents of 8,000ers (chronological)
Mt. Everest (8,848 meters/29,028 feet) 1980
Krzysztof Wielicki (Poland), Leszek Cichy (Poland)
Manaslu (8,163 meters/26,781 feet) 1984
Maciej Berbeka (Poland), Ryszard Gajewski (Poland)
Dhaulagiri (8,167 meters/26,794 feet) 1985
Andrzej Czok (Poland), Jerzy Kukuczka (Poland)
Cho Oyu (8,188 meters/26,863 feet) 1985
Maciej Berbeka, Maciej Pawlikowski (Poland)
Kangchenjunga (8,586 meters/28,169 feet) 1986
Krzysztof Wielicki, Jerzy Kukuczka
Annapurna (8,091 meters/26,545 feet) 1987
Jerzy Kukuczka, Artur Hajzer (Poland)
Lhotse (8,516 meters/27,939 feet) 1988
Shishapangma (8,027 meters/26,335 feet) 2005
Piotr Morawski (Poland), Simone Moro (Italy)
Makalu (8,485 meters/27,837 feet) 2009
Simone Moro (Italy), Denis Urubko (Kazahkstan)
Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters/26,361 feet) 2011
Simone Moro, Denis Urubko, Cory Richards (USA)
Gasherbrum I (8,080 meters/26,509 feet) 2012
Adam Bielecki (Poland), Janusz Gołąb (Poland)
Broad Peak (8,051 meters/26,414 feet) 2013
Adam Bielecki, Maciej Berbeka, Tomasz Kowalski, Artur Małek (Poland)
Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters/26,660 feet) 2016
Simone Moro, Muhammad Ali Sadpara (Pakistan), Alex Txikon (Spain)
K2 (8,611 meters/28,251 feet) ...
Right now, two separate teams of climbers from six different countries are slowly fighting their way up the flanks of K2 (28,251 feet/8,611 meters), the second highest mountain in the world.
Straddling the Pakistan-China border, K2 is the last of the world's 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) to remain unclimbed in winter. All 14 "8,000ers" reside in the Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges of Asia, and all were first climbed between 1950 (Annapurna) and 1964 (Shishapangma).
Considered by many to be the most difficult 8,000er, K2 also has the second-highest fatality rate. With a total of 306 summits (compared with 5,656 for Mt. Everest) and 81 deaths, roughly one person dies on K2 — "The Savage Mountian" — for every four who summit.
Fatality statistics for winter attempts on 8,000-meter peaks are even more dreadful. Winter expeditions regularly involve at least one death.
What's more, the chance of summiting in winter is extremely low. Basque alpinist Alex Txikon and two partners made the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters/26,660 feet) in 2016, but only after more than 30 expeditions had failed before them. Txikon is leading one of the teams on K2 right now.
So what possessed 20 climbers to attempt something so heinously difficult, dangerous and unlikely?
"With winter climbs, there's not much joy," explained Polish alpinist Adam Bielecki in a recent nationalgeographic.com article. "But the satisfaction of doing something that nobody's ever done — and isn't known to be even possible — this is something for sure."
Bielecki would know. He has made the first winter ascents of two 8,000-meter peaks: Gasherbrum I (8,080 meters/26,509 feet) in 2012 and Broad Peak (8,051 meters/26,414 feet) in 2013.
Cory Richards is a 37-year-old climber in Boulder and the only American to have climbed an 8,000-meter peak in winter. With teammates Simone Moro of Italy and Denis Urubko of Russia, Richards made the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters/26,361 feet) in February 2011.
"A winter climb on an 8,000-meter peak is essentially like stepping back in time," Richards told me. "What we've gained in technology and information about the mountains you're sort of stripping away by going in this incredibly inhospitable time of year."
Between Txikon's team and the Russian-Kyrgyz-Kazakh team, led by Vassiliy Pivtsov (who has climbed all 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen), the 20 climbers who started up the mountain in early January have already been whittled down to 14. Six have abandoned the attempt: five from injuries due to falling rock and ice and one from a pulmonary infection.
"K2 is it's own beast," said Richards. "Any incremental elevation gain above 8,000 meters is going to have compounding effects. The difference between doing Gasherbrum II in winter and doing K2 in winter are ... I don't even know how to say it. It's like two different sports."
Latitude also plays a devastating role. K2 sits 545 miles north of Mt. Everest and the other Himalayan 8,000ers and is therefore subject to much colder temperatures (we're talking minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and deadly, jet stream winds. "When you go up against an environment like the Karakoram Himalaya in the wintertime, it demands near perfect execution," said Richards.
On Gasherbrum II, a neighbor of K2, Richards and his partners had only 12 hours to summit from high camp and get back down before the turbulent wind returned to its regular, debilitating force — one that can, and does, easily blow climbers off the mountain.
Until this season, K2 had been attempted five times in winter, with the high point being just 25,100 feet — more than 3,000 feet short of the summit.
So far, the two teams currently on the mountain have each established Camp 2 at 6,800 meters (22,309 feet) on the Abruzzi Ridge, the mountain's most popular route. They're climbing side by side but not together, as each vies to be the first to claim winter's last unclimbed 8,000er.
"More than anything, winter amplifies the suffering," explained Richards. "It just makes it 10 times more miserable — and it's already pretty miserable. It really puts in perspective how finite we are."
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram: @christopherweidner and Twitter: @cweidner8