How Poland’s ‘ice warriors’ aim to to become first team to summit K2 – the ‘Savage Mountain’ that kills one in four climbers – in winter
Feared Himalayan mountain is the last 8,000-metre peak that has not been climbed in winter, and a team will brave deadly conditions to close a chapter in Poland’s history
Only 375 people have conquered K2 since it was first climbed in 1954 by an Italian expedition, and 86 people have died trying. Compare that with 7,500 successful attempts to reach the top of Everest – some by the same people multiple times – and 287 deaths.
Now you begin to understand why K2 – the second-highest mountain in the world which straddles the border between China’s Xinjiang province and Pakistan – is called ‘The Savage Mountain’. That’s a 23 per cent death rate compared with a 4 per cent rate on Everest, according to climbing blogger Alan Arenette.
It is the last 8,000-metre peak that has not been climbed in winter, but that might be about to change. A Polish expedition will attempt to ascend K2’s perilous slopes this winter.
It should come as no surprise to the climbing community that it is the Poles who have decided to embark on this mission. Winter mountaineering is a national obsession, and of the 14 peaks over 8,000 metres in the world, 10 winter first ascents were made by Polish teams.
Three failed attempts have been made to reach the top of K2 in winter. Even during last summer’s season, no one reached the top.
Hong Kong climber Alain Chu, who has made first ascents in both the Himalayas and Mongolia, said: “Those who can climb K2 and come back alive are elite climbers. It’s not like Everest, where there are many commercial expeditions. K2 is a different story.”
Janusz Majer, head of the Polish Winter Himalayism project, proudly describes the 10 ascents of 8,000-metre peaks in winter as belonging to the Poles.
“Winter high-altitude climbing was a myth and an impossible thought before the Polish mountaineers summitted several Himalayan peaks in the 1980s,” Majer said.
Even getting permits for winter ascents was a challenge.
“People called it suicidal and unwise,” Majer said. “But Poles knew what they were up to it and they had been training for it for two generations.”
He said the trend started by winter mountaineering legend Andrzej Zawada.
And between 1980 and 1988, seven first winter ascents fell to the Polish – Everest in 1980, Manaslu in 1984, Dhaulagiri-I in 1985, Cho Oyu in 1985, Kanczendzonga in 1986, Annapurna-I in 1987 and Lhotse in 1988.
“These hardcore mountaineers were hailed as ‘ice warriors’ by the mountaineering world. This is our national pride and strength,” Majer boasted.
Majer said it was no surprise K2 is the last to be conquered.
“Sudden winds, freezing cold temperatures, very short weather windows for the summit push and key climbing difficulties over 7,800 metres make a winter climb on K2 one of the most challenging mountaineering expeditions in the history of climbing.”
But before they even face the elements, there is the task of fundraising. The logistical challenge of communication, marketing, gear and financial support, and physical preparation is a metaphorical mountain itself.
The team have developed an official project management structure under Michal Leksinski.
Meanwhile, another part of the team are in the Karakoram range, K2’s home, doing reconnaissance. They are deciding the line to take and are considering a route called the Casen Route, first completed in 1994, or the Kukuczka and Piotrowski Route, established in 1986.
The two climbers who made the latter route both died on the descent and the line has never been repeated. Majer said in winter, the optimal route may be to combine both Casen’s and Kukuczka and Piotrowski’s lines.
Physical preparation is key, and stamina and tolerance for the harsh winter conditions are a must. “That is why we want climbers who have previously climbed K2 in summer. Knowledge about the route is very important in winter conditions,” Majer said.
The team have hired renowned mountaineer Janusz Golab, who was part of the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum-I in 2012, as the sports manager to develop training programmes.
“People have to be very fast over the 8,000-metre barrier,” Majer said. “The window and the opportunity for the summit push will be, as it always is in winter, very short.
“So we will have to climb sometimes even in harsh conditions, so that the team will be in camp four when the weather will allow to go for a summit push. “
Majer believes at some point everyone will experience fear, but the belief in their ability and the sense of history will pull them through.
“With this achievement we can, as Poles, close the final chapter of the winter exploration of the Himalayas,” he said.