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The time has come: Nepalese climbers emerge from the shadows to triumph at K2

The time has come: Nepalese climbers emerge from the shadows to triumph at K2

Nepalese mountaineers have worked for decades in the shadows as foreign climbers earn accolades for conquering the world's most treacherous peaks, but now a team has made the Himalayan nation a place in history by achieving the first winter summit of K2.

His mid-January ascent of the world's second highest mountain, Pakistan's notoriously challenging "wild mountain" at 8,611 meters (28,251 feet), shed light on his own climbing prowess.

"This is not just our success, it is for all Nepalese, so that our future generations can look back and be proud of the achievements of Nepalese climbers," one of the ten summers, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, told AFP.

Kami Rita Sherpa, who has climbed Everest a record 24 times, said the recognition was due a long time ago.

"Western climbers did not set records without the help of the Sherpas," she told AFP in Kathmandu.

"All the routes are marked by us, the food is cooked by us, our brothers carry their loads, they have not done it alone."

To reflect their immense pride in achieving achievement on behalf of their country, the team sang the Nepalese anthem, their distinctive national flag waving in one of their hands, as they approached the wild summit of K2.

- Invisible climbers -

Ever since the first British teams set their sights on the top of Everest in the 1920s, Nepalese climbers, mostly from the Sherpa ethnic group, have been by their side.

But they did not aspire to reach the skies; Among the poorest communities in Nepal, they risked life and limb to help foreign climbers achieve their lifelong ambitions because they needed to feed their families.

Ang Tharkay, who was part of the successful 1950 French expedition to Annapurna, the first recorded ascent of a peak above 8,000 meters, refused to be part of the summit team.

Being a part of the log books was less important to him than risking losing his fingers and toes to frostbite, which would endanger his livelihood.

Since then, the industry has become a lucrative sector, attracting hundreds of foreign climbers each year and generating millions of dollars in revenue for the government.

An experienced guide can earn up to $ 10,000, many times the country's median annual income, for several months of hazardous work.

The risks remain high despite the commercialization of the sector, with Nepalese hired by foreign climbers accounting for a quarter of deaths in the Himalayan mountains, according to the authoritative Himalayan database.

In 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese carrying equipment up to Everest, prompting an unprecedented close to the season and demands for better compensation and benefits.

- Taking control -

The exploits of the K2 team, which included Nirmal Purja, who last year broke the speed record for reaching the 14 highest peaks in the world, reflect the changing approach of today's Nepalese climbers.

In 1953, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa achieved international recognition when he completed the first summit of Everest with New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary.

But in the following decades, only four other Nepalese have reached the first peaks of the 14 peaks above 8,000 meters, compared to nearly 70 climbers, mostly Europeans.

Yet in recent years, climbers like Purja have broken record after record and hope his exploits will inspire the next generation of Nepalese mountaineers.

Meanwhile, local expedition groups, instead of playing a secondary role to foreign climbing agencies, now bring most of the paying clients to Nepal.

The legendary Reinhold Messner of Italy has seen the transformation first hand.

"When I heard the news from K2 I thought 'finally!'" Messner told AFP, recalling that on his first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978, the Sherpas would follow him as he sailed up.

In contrast, today's Sherpas stand in front of climbers, setting routes and guiding them.

"It is an evolution ... and this is also important for the future economy of the country."

Alpine journalist Ed Douglas, who has called for better protections for high-altitude workers, said climbers deserve credit for "taking control of their own industry."

The K2 winter summit showed Nepalese "are now mountaineers by right," added Dawa Steven Sherpa, who runs Asian Trekking, an expedition company.

"There is no question whether they deserve to be on the podium with all the other famous mountaineers who have come before us.

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