K2: How to Climb That Killer Mountain in Winter

K2 Mountain

The summit seems to be leader Krzysztof Wielicki’s last concern.

Final preparations for one of the last historic feats of high-altitude mountaineering are underway. Krzysztof Wielicki, 67, the leader of the Polish expedition to K2, has a clear view of what it takes to climb the dreadful mountain in harsh winter.


The fit, blue-eyed pioneer of winter ascents talks smoothly and doesn’t take but one single phone call during the interview. “This is important”, he mentions while apologizing for the interruption.

With little time left ahead of the departure, Krzysztof Wielicki must find the balance between his family and the final necessary arrangements to climb the remote mountain in Pakistan, where he and his team will head to on December 29.

It wouldn’t be quite wrong to compare this expedition to a military campaign, right? He smiles while taking a quick look at my piece of paper covered in scrawls.

“We will be a team of 13, not 11”. He adds two names to the latest available list that I had gathered from the media. These are Maciej Bedrejczuk, “a young ambitious climber”, and Piotr Snopczynski, “the Base Camp Manager”.

The Polish mountaineer has a beautiful, calm and clear handwriting. His thinking sounds the same. In the interview that took place mid-December in Katowice, in Southern Poland, Krzysztof Wielicki didn’t talk much about the management side of the K2 winter feat, though he is leading the operation. Wielicki used “team” dozens of times – a sign that this keeps his mind busy more than the summit itself.

How are the final preparations going?

Some gear and kitchen [supplies] were already sent to Base Camp at the end of September. Because we got the necessary funds quite late, this fall, we will have to carry the rest of the equipment. We had to hire 100 porters for that. We sent the cargo a few days ago. It will be around 1700 kg. We still need to buy some things.

There is a long way to Base Camp. How will you get there?

We will walk for around 7-8 days, in the case it will not snow heavily. I think we will reach K2’s Base Camp on January 7 or 8.

You said once that “a young climber may be in danger, as he does not know enough to worry”. On the other hand, “an old climber should not draw too much comfort from mastery of technique – this can prove a frail shield at high altitude”. What would be the average age of your team, Mr. Wielicki?

[He laughs, he seems surprised by this question]: I didn’t make calculations… But I think the age would be around 42-44.

And how is that, in your opinion?

When it comes to winter expeditions, a climber’s power is not the main feature to look at. His mentality and his resilience are essential. Technical climbing is important, of course, but the capacity to overcome sickness and to endure harsh winter conditions at high altitude makes the difference. About 70-80% of our team have winter experience and six of us have already climbed K2 in the summer season. To what I have mentioned earlier I would add that to know the terrain is really important.

So these were the criteria you looked at when making up the team?

[Picking up a team was a teamwork, as well]. Janusz and I have been working on that. [He smiles]

Denis Urubko joined the team at the last moment…

[Wielicki uses another verb for that, “to invite”, and he makes the correction quickly] Denis was invited to join our team. We have known each other for so long, he is a team player, he will follow the team’s rules. Besides, we are friends and he has a desire to climb K2 in the winter season. He is one of the best.

The veteran climber’s eyes flicker when recalling the old-school philosophy that had pushed Polish mountaineers to become one of the greatest climbers of the Himalayas in winter.

I noticed you use this word – team – frequently…

I never leave home without a team. For me, alpinism is not about the mountain you climb, but about the people who make this possible. Let’s look at our mountaineering history: in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, in times when the world’s highest mountains had already been climbed … Polish climbers (e.g. Wojciech Kurtyka, Jerzy Kukuczka, Wanda Rutkiewicz) did mountaineering in a different way so as to write history and make innovation possible… alpine style, world firsts, winter ascents… The team was very important back then. But now, this spirit is not strong anymore in the alpinists’ community. It’s rather about “I did that”, not about “WE did that”. In this coming expedition on K2, we will follow the old, classic way. We will act as a team.

You used to make solo ascents though, and fast ascents… Who inspired you the most?

We are not like in football here. Let’s suppose a young boy likes Ronaldo, he keeps a poster in his room and tries to become like Ronaldo. Polish climbers don’t do that. We don’t follow what other climbers achieved already… No heroes. We check our own powers. Think about solo climbing. There is no comeback here. You climb the summit and descend by following a different way.

Because you mentioned fast solo climbing and you have a lot of experience in this respect… What do you think could have happened in Ueli Steck’s fatal climbing accident on Nuptse this year?

I climbed a lot alone this way and I know what can happen. It is enough for a small piece of ice to be displaced…. you lose balance and fall down. Or a stupid mistake with your crampons… This happens… And if you climb alone [he shrugs]… You know what they say: everybody makes mistakes.

Let’s come back to K2 now. Of course, it is too early at this stage to talk about the summit day, but some names were mentioned… What do you think, who will be on the shortlist?

It is hard to talk about that at this moment. You never know. Sure, we can say that Adam, Janusz, and Denis have a solid experience, but again… one never knows. For instance, when I climbed Everest in winter time (at the age of 29 – the editor’s note), I hadn’t climbed an 8,000-meter mountain before. But I made it on the world’s highest mountain in wintertime (a world first – e.n.). As I said, you never know.

How did it feel to climb Everest in winter, as your first ascent at high altitude? You were young….

When I left for the expedition, I was sure that I would go there just to work, to give support for friendship… I never thought I would reach the summit. Our mentality was not that we go there to climb for ourselves, as individuals, but for our Polish association. When we descended, one of our friends, who was waiting for us down in Base Camp, was crying. He was not jealous or such. He was happy for us. It was a real, a real teamwork. But today…

… Today what?

… This seems impossible. [He is laughing] Show me the team who says: “If you climb, I will climb because you climb”... something like that, you understand…

… So the team spirit these days is…

Selfie… Myself only… Unfortunately, this is happening everywhere…

In business, too.

…Yes, in many fields… The press used to write headlines like this: “Climbers from Katowice succeeded (…)”. But who, who from Katowice? The focus was on the team, this is what I am trying to say. But these days, the focus is on one person. Individuals say in press conferences: “I climbed”, “I reached the summit”… “I did that and I did that”… Ok, I can understand it is a personal presentation, but did they make it to the summit with their own power only? They should say they were supported, that other people worked for their climb, too [e.n.: this is widespread on Everest for example, where the so-called pure climbers who claim the summit without Sherpa support are not honest; they all make use of the Sherpa’s work on the commercial routes].

Well, you have reputed climbers in your team, great mountaineers with strong personalities. It appears quite a challenge for you, as a leader.

It is. But I want to push these people to the old-school philosophy, to think and act like a team.

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Good luck to Mr. Wielicki’s team and to Poland in this historic feat!

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The latter part of the story with new excerpts from the interview with Krzysztof Wielicki will be published in January 2018, in Romanian.

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THE POLISH PROJECT (WINTER 2017/2018)

K2 peak was never ascended in winter. To be certified as a winter ascent, the summit has to be reached within the winter calendar (the Northern hemisphere, December 21, 2017 – March 20, 2018).

LEADERSHIP: Krzysztof Wielicki, 67, a pioneer of winter ascents at high altitude: Everest, 1980; Kangchenjunga, 1986; Lhotse, 1988. He is the fifth man to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders.

KICK-OFF. The Polish team is expected to leave for the Karakoram on December 29. They will approach the summit from Pakistan. The route is not certain yet. “I suppose and hope for the correct decision of all team and leaders eventually”, Denis Urubko commented for this article.

TEAM MEMBERS : Adam Bielecki; Artur Małek; Dariusz Załuski; Denis Urubko (citizen of Russia, Poland and Italy); Janusz Gołąb (official sports leader); Jarosław Botor; Krzysztof Wielicki (Expedition Leader); Maciej Bedrejczuk; Marcin Kaczkan; Marek Chmielarski; Piotr Tomala; Piotr Snopczynski (Base Camp Manager); Rafał Fronia.

RESOURCES: 1 700 kg of gear; 13 team members; 100 porters; USD 300 000 (financed by the Government); a full winter season;

15 YEARS AFTER: Krzysztof Wielicki, Denis Urubko, and Marcin Kaczkan have a common story on K2. In 2002 -2003, the winter expedition was led by the same Wielicki; Denis Urubko reached 7650 on North Ridge. The team had to abort the ascent, to rescue Marcin Kaczan, their stricken comrade. Denis left his ice axe around C4, hoping to come back for it one day.

SURVIVING IN EXTREME CONDITIONS: For the team to survive and operate well, Denis Urubko thinks that the temperature must not reach -50 degrees and the wind speed must not exceed 100 km/h. Urubko is a multiple Piolets d’Or winner; he made successful winter ascents on Makalu in 2009 and Gasherbrum II in 2011.

(Sources: Krzysztof Wielicki – interview 2017; Denis Urubko – interviews 2014 and 2017; ThoughtCo.; Alan Arnette; The Independent)

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© About the author:

Larisa Ghițulescu is a self-employed professional in the communications industry. Education, mass-media, leadership, and mountaineering are her top areas of interest.

She has started to keep an eye and report on the sports business in the mid-2000s, as a financial journalist.

Mountaineering is more than a hobby. It’s a source of inspiration in dealing with innovation, strategy, teamwork, crisis, ethics, fair competition, and value-driven actions. Larisa digs into true stories and turns them into learning experiences for teams and leaders in various fields. Her first two case-studies are based on two stories from the Himalayas.

Larisa has worked with several mountaineers throughout the years, including Denis Urubko (citizen of Russia, Poland, and Italy), one of the strongest and most accomplished mountaineers of all time.

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