Bernadette McDonald is a Rockies-based climber, author and expert on winter climbing in the Himalayas. Her most recent book, Winter 8000, is a deep dive into the history of winter climbing on 8,000-metre peaks.
This month, the last 8,000-metre peak to be climbed in winter, K2, was ascended by 10 Nepalese mountaineers on Jan. 16. The climbers were Nirmal Purja, Gelje Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, Sona Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Kili Pemba Sherpa and Dawa Tenjing Sherpa. The history-making climb was celebrated around the globe.
As vice president of the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, McDonald became familiar with some of the most legendary climbers and climbs of all time. She she stepped down in 2006 to focus on writing, and has since published a number of award-winning books, such as Freedom Climbers, Alpine Warriors and Art of Freedom. Among her many honours, includes the Alberta Order of Excellence, the Summit of Excellence Award and several mountain literary prizes, like the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature in 2011 and 2017. She was also Canada’s representative at the United Nations to launch the International Year of Mountains.
We touched base with McDonald shortly after the news broke about the first winter ascent of the world’s second highest mountain. Watch the moment when the climbers reached the summit in this video by Nirmal Purja.
Bernadette McDonald on K2 in Winter
How significant is it that the first winter ascent of K2 was made by 10 Nepalese mountaineers? I think it’s very significant. Sherpas, in particular, have been the backbone of Himalayan climbing for so long, and they are rarely acknowledged like the western climbers who hire them. Nirmal Purja is a little different – more of a professional climber with a media and sponsor team to support his aspirations. But the cooperation that all three teams managed, once they got to the mountain and realized the enormity of the challenge is truly inspirational. In a way, this ascent harkens back to the historical ‘national’ expeditions, so it might feel a bit old-fashioned. But as Minga G. said, “It is not about claiming our independent identity; it is about giving justice to our future generations.” His statement reminds me of Andrzej Zawada’s aspirations for young Polish climbers back in the 1970s, when they first started going to the high mountains in winter. Zawada and his Polish ice warriors wrote a new chapter in the history of Himalayan climbing back then, and this Nepali team has written another great chapter. And I’m certain that the younger generation of Nepali climbers will be inspired to do more independent climbing as a result of this climb.
What does it say to you that big media, like CNN, never covered the winter ascent but wrote about Sergi Mingote’s death? I’m glad that they covered Sergi Mingote’s tragic accident, but it is their loss if they missed out on reporting the first winter ascent. It should be said that lots of mainstream media did cover the climb, particularly in Europe. It must have been covered somewhere in Canada as well, because my mom saw it on the news and, having just read my book on winter climbing, was all over it!
Where would this ascent fit into Winter 8000? I’m working on that at this very moment. There will be a Postscript to Chapter 13 – the K2 chapter – for the next English language edition as well as the foreign language editions.
How did this group of climbers succeed where others had failed? There are so many reasons for this success. The 10 Nepali climbers are strong, they have incredible stamina at altitude, they have good skills, lots of experience, were highly motivated and were willing to suffer. They had an amazing weather window with little wind, which is so important on any winter ascent, but on K2 is a gift. But I think possibly the most important reason for their success was their willingness to collaborate, to join three independent teams into one remarkable and unstoppable force.
Do you think other top Himalayan climbers are jealous about the ascent, or is it congratulations all around? For the most part, the congratulations are frequent and sincere. There have been comments about bottled oxygen, and that’s fair enough. When Nims announced that he had done it without bottled oxygen, and his statement was corroborated by his teammates, these comments died off a bit. There was one rather odd statement about the summit day more resembling “a day in the Dolomites,” but I think most people ignored it. Of course there is some envy of this climb, because it was such a prize. But there will be other winter ascents of K2. I’m sure of it. Maybe even this week, or later this winter. These climbers will have their day in the spotlight.
In your opinion, are Sherpas the world’s best high-altitude climbers? I guess it depends what is meant by ‘best’. It’s pretty hard to doubt their superiority at altitude when it comes to acclimatization, stamina and strength. Technically speaking, there are better high-altitude climbers, but we will have to watch the evolution of Sherpas as they evolve from being climbers for hire to being independent alpinists with their own aspirations. Again, quoting Mingma G., who is clearly balancing his paying jobs as a climber with his individual plans: “I have a plan for Annapurna in March, Lhotse-Everest in April-May; then I will come back to K2 again in Summer. After a year or two, I may go for first ascents on 6000m peaks in alpine style with just Nepalese climbers, not with clients.”
What is the future of Himalayan winter climbing? I think there will be continued interest in climbing the 8000ers with smaller teams, alpine style, Everest without supplemental oxygen in the true winter season, first female winter ascents and first winter ascents of smaller, more technical peaks.
What is one of your favourite stories about Canadians climbing in the Himalayas? There are lots of great stories, but since we are talking about winter, I would have to say I loved learning more about Louis Rousseau’s winter attempt on Gasherbrum I in 2011. It was a small, international team with Austrian Gerfried Goschl and Basque Alex Txikon, and they spent more than 50 days on the mountain. Although they were unsuccessful, they brought a refreshing, modern approach to an extremely difficult objective, and they went home as friends.
How have you been staying busy during Covid? I’ve been out on my skis a lot: touring, backcountry, x-country and even one day at the hill. And as the foreign language editions of Winter 8000 are rolling out, I’ve been working a lot with the translators and media in various countries. Launching a book during Covid is interesting, to put it mildly. I’m also working on a piece for Katie Ives for Alpinist.
Are you working on another book? Strangely, no. That could change in a week or a year, but I’m feeling a bit lazy at the moment.
Anything else that you’d like to add about winter on K2? As you can see by the reports, this winter season is not yet over. So, if people are interested, I would suggest staying tuned to see if Ali Sadpara can make it – that would be wonderful! And I’m watching Tamara Lunger really closely as well. She came so close on Nanga Parbat.