The World’s Most Difficult Mountain May Soon Be Fully Conquered

What happens to climbing when the “last problem of the Himalayas” is finally solved?

The rocky peak of K2 in the sunlight
K2, the Savage Mountain (Haider Ali / Getty)

There’s no one reason that K2 is often considered the most difficult mountain to climb. It’s not the world’s tallest mountain. It doesn’t have the highest fatality rate. It’s known for its steepness, yes, and for the unusually long distance mountaineers must trek just to get to its base, with no villages to stop at and restock supplies. But those factors alone don’t explain K2’s nickname, “Savage Mountain,” or its reputation as deadly and ineffable, or the power that this reputation holds over the human imagination. The legendary climber Reinhold Messner has described K2 as the most beautiful of all the high peaks: “An artist has made this mountain.”

K2 was first summited in 1954, but it remains uniquely unconquerable. In Himalayan mountaineering, there are three major categories of “firsts”: the first ascent, the first ascent without supplemental oxygen, and the first ascent in winter, when conditions are at their worst. All of the world’s 14 mountains with peaks that stretch more than 8,000 meters above sea level have been climbed with and without supplemental oxygen. All have been summited in winter, too—except for one. To borrow a description of the once-insurmountable north face of Switzerland’s Eiger—“the last problem of the Alps”—K2, in winter, is the last problem of the Himalayas.

This winter, an elite team of Polish climbers is attempting to solve this problem. After more than two years of preparation, the team began ascending K2 in early January. They’re led by Krzysztof Wielicki, one of the most famous climbers in Polish history, and include several other of the best living Polish climbers. Their journey seeks to extend a long national tradition: Until 2005, exclusively Polish teams had made every winter ascent of an “eight-thousander.” National Geographic nicknamed them “Ice Warriors.” Even the international team that broke this long run had a Pole in it.

Three previous attempts at K2 in winter by international teams, two of which included Wielicki, failed. Given what he learned from those attempts, this team’s combined experience, and an outpouring of support from fans on social media, there’s a good chance they’re going to make history. But the story of their climb is as much the story of K2 itself—and of everything mountains have meant for climbing. The first winter ascent will also be a “last,” completing a certain version of the story of human victory over mountains. And that introduces a whole new problem for climbers, as well as their fans, to contend with: What happens once the world’s most savage mountain has been domesticated?

The case of Everest might offer some insights. In contrast to K2, which only serious climbers attempt, Everest is the Himalayan peak crawling with amateur adventurers, whose bank accounts often exceed their mountaineering experience. The late Ueli Steck, considered by many to be the best high-altitude mountaineer in the history of the sport, argued that mountaineering is failing its most iconic mountain. More than 600 people summit per year, paying somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000 each. And more than 200 dead bodies, too costly to remove, remain in plain view, a particularly dramatic kind of human waste.

The commercialization of Everest came to public attention after Steck’s 2013 altercation with Sherpas, the native people of the region who work as porters for climbers, on the mountain’s notoriously difficult Lhotse Face. Accounts of the events vary, but they all agree that, at a certain point, Steck and the Italian mountaineer Simone Moro found themselves face-to-face with a mob of dozens of masked men wielding rocks and ice picks and yelling “no.”

Following the incident, Moro chalked up the Sherpas’ anger to jealousy of the pros’ climbing speed, and to professional competition: “Sometimes people like us, who are not clients, are considered not good for business.” But Steck had a more nuanced view of the tensions on Everest. “You have to look at how the whole system works,” he told Outside. More than simply matters of economic inequality or human psychology, the problems on the mountain reflect massive shifts, over time, in both climbing culture and the ways climbing reflects culture at large.

This “whole system” extends well beyond Everest. Such tectonic shifts were visible by 2002, when six winter ascents still remained besides K2. Wielicki, the 68-year-old leader of the present K2 expedition, was already a climbing legend, with the first winter ascent of Everest on his record. He issued a “Winter Manifesto,” enticing young Polish climbers to complete the project. “We have done one-half of the job,” the manifesto declares. “Now it’s your turn to finish it: you, the young, angry, and ambitious.”

As fans of high-altitude mountaineering know, Polish climbers of Wielicki’s generation were some of the most accomplished climbers in history. Jerzy Kukuczka was the second man to ascend all 14 eight-thousanders, after Messner, but it took Kukuczka exactly half the time, and his speed record for all 14 peaks hasn’t been beaten yet. Wanda Rutkiewicz, still routinely considered the world’s greatest woman climber, was the first woman to summit K2. Wielicki himself was not only on the teams that had made first winter ascents of Everest, Kangchenjunga, and Lhotse; he had once “run” Broad Peak solo, and remains the only person to climb it from base to summit and back in 24 hours.

With the new generation, Wielicki complained, that hunger for adventure has been lost. “No one dreams of climbing the great walls of the Himalayas, of new routes, traverses,” he writes. Anyone can “climb Mt. Everest if you have cash.”

The Poles never did “finish it,” at least not as triumphantly as Wielicki had wished. Now, his bid for K2 takes place in a time when the failures of creativity and imagination that he feared are even more pervasive. Once a hero of solitary misfits, of the “angry and ambitious,” the high-altitude mountaineer has become an icon of corporate success and conventional life. Fit, focused, positive, well traveled, forever young, and, in much of advertising, literally climbing mountains, today’s successful person tends to be defined by upward mobility, both professional and personal, within the most predictable, unimaginative parameters. More and more climbing walls are popping up all over high schools and YMCAs, as if to prepare the person in progress for this form of self-realization, assumed to be inevitable.

As this winter-climbing season draws to a close, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation is in the process of applying for high-altitude mountaineering to be recognized as an element of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, with a proposal that boils mountaineering down to “the natural human spirit of searching for new achievements.” But is it self-evident that humans universally search for new achievements? The lone mountaineer on the summit has come to symbolize both professional and spiritual development so well that they appear to be the same thing.

Steck’s take on “the whole system” of Himalayan mountaineering was that it involved “so much bullshit.” In a video shot before he fell to his death while training for another Everest ascent, he reminds his fans that Everest is the highest mountain in the world, as if everyone watching didn’t already know that. Perhaps he feels the need to prove that the bullshit hasn’t compromised Everest’s height. George Mallory, who went missing on Everest in 1924, once famously said that one climbs a mountain because it’s there. Steck seems to present Everest’s thereness to his audience precisely because it no longer goes without saying.

K2 is, in some important sense, the last mountain, but its aura—and our awe—depends on it remaining unclimbable. A New York Times feature about the current climb describes K2 in awestruck tones, as “the most hostile tip of the planet ... mythical and moody and deadly,” and concludes its litany of warnings with an almost religious tribute: “And yet, God, that mountain.” But the drama of this moment hangs on the idea that this is precisely a final frontier. Writers and climbers trumpet K2’s remoteness and indifference, its immovability, its wilderness precisely because those features are endangered. Those are the features that, on some level, preserved the imagination that motivated mountaineering. The conquering of K2 will change that.

What would a Winter Manifesto for the present look like? It might take the form of an open letter to Wielicki, asking him to consider withdrawing his team. Not because they can’t do it, but precisely because they probably can. But such a letter might seem to disrespect all the enormous achievements and sacrifices of mountaineers—often in the form of their lives, like the most recent Himalayan tragedy, which overlaps with the current K2 journey. And it might seem to forget the elements of climbing that continue to inspire courage and curiosity.

Perhaps the question would be better addressed to mountaineering’s earthbound spectators. This historic climb is also about them, an opportunity to ask what has the same value for today’s young, angry, and ambitious as “finishing it” did for Wielicki’s generation. Climbing itself is in no danger of ending, as those climbing walls attest. But the future of mountains might require a completely different kind of sacrifice than climbers have made until now, perhaps even the sacrifice of the one thing that, in mountaineering, often rivals the value of life itself: the summit. It all depends on what people want from this pursuit.