Adam Bielecki’s Next Big Goal. Hint: It’s not Winter K2

Adam Bielecki Black Pyramid K2 2018

Adam Bielecki climbs K2’s Black Pyramid on the Abruzzi Spur route earlier this year.

With two winter firsts on Gasherbrum I (2012) and Broad Peak (2013), plus a bold attempt on K2 last January which included an even bolder rescue on Nanga Parbat, Adam Bielecki is often appointed the true heir to the Polish Winter climbing crown. He’s determined to return to K2, which he tags as “the worst place on Earth”, and solve the final winter problem of the 8000ers. But not this year.

During a climbing trip in Sardinia, Bielecki spoke to ExplorersWeb about the upcoming winter climbing season and revealed the major challenge he has planned for next spring.

EW: The winter climbing outlook seems strangely unsettled for late October. A Russian/Kazakh/Kyrgyz K2 team is still looking for sponsors; Daniele Nardi says that he will go to Nanga Parbat (but no details yet); Alex Txikon still uncertain on his plans… Why does everything look like a poker game, with players hiding their cards, rather than a climbing season?

AB: I think it’s more about the uncertainty if we’ll get the money or find climbing partners. For me, until the last moment, I never know if I am going or who I am going with. I honestly don’t think that the lack of details is intentional.

EW: What is clear is that you’re not going, right?

AB: Definitely not. I need a break. Winter is really demanding, both physically and mentally, and I don’t like going on consecutive years. This year, I plan to focus on technical climbing, maybe in Patagonia, maybe in Canada. I will also train for my big plan: the Northwest Face of Annapurna in spring, 2019.

EW: What’s the idea?

AB: I’d like to open a new route, alpine style. It’s my second attempt after a first bid last year [with Louis Rousseau, Rick Allen and Felix Berg]. Hopefully, I’ll succeed this time.

Bielecki on a classic climbing route in the Tatras

Bielecki on a classic route in the Tatras Massif, on the Polish-Slovak border.

EW: Speaking of winter K2, do you reckon that the Russian team has a realistic chance of success?

AB: I think so. They’re quite experienced. The Russians have already tried K2 in winter and this is very valuable. I don’t really think that any team can go to the winter Karakorum for the first time and summit K2, but if you learn your lessons, your options increase a great deal the second time. They’re a very strong and well-prepared team, they have both young and experienced climbers, and if they are lucky with the weather, find the needed funds and arrive with enough time and good planning, then with a bit of luck, they have a good chance.

EW: What if they do summit? Would that change Polish preparations for a winter K2 attempt in 2020?

AB: It’s hard to say, but if I go to K2, it will be because I want to climb it in winter. If that’s already done — I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it.

EW: After K2, is there anything major left to do in the winter Himalaya or Karakorum?

AB: We climbers are really lucky because we have endless new challenges. Even in the winter Himalaya, there are still 8000m+ summits to be climbed, such as Lhotse Middle or Lhotse Shar. It’s always been like this: First, people try to climb the mountain, then they attempt more difficult routes, then they climb in winter and then they do first winter solo. The story never ends! So I am not worried about any other team going for K2. I hope they succeed, it will not be the end of my world.

EW: But winter high-altitude mountaineering is not exactly a trend… I mean, we don’t exactly see teams flocking to repeat winter ascents on 8000ers as they do in summer. Is it perhaps beyond the threshold of difficulty most climbers are willing to assume?

AB: For sure, it is very demanding. There is a big part of suffering, you know? The cold, the risk of frostbite, the climbing which is much more technical because there’s much more ice than in summer. So maybe I can risk saying that winter climbing is the hardest thing we can do on big mountains. In summer, of course, you can go for technical routes, but winter climbing is even harder. Winter K2 is probably the most inhospitable place on our planet, except maybe an active volcano or some deep ocean place.

Adam Bielecki on Broad Peak summit 2013.

A walrus-tusked Adam Bielecki atop Broad Peak, K2 in background, 2013.

EW: Why, then, do you keep returning? What’s the bright side of hellish winter K2?

AB: Well, in climbing there is pleasure, and there is satisfaction. If I go for a nice climb on a beautiful day, and the route is not that hard, and I finish it eight hours later, I have a lot of fun, lots of pleasure. Maybe not that much satisfaction, because the goal was not too difficult.

On the other hand, if I climb a hard route in bitter cold, and I have a big fall, and after 20 hours, we get to the top, well, it’s hard to speak of pleasure, but the satisfaction of overcoming all the difficulties is huge. Most climbs are balanced between those two factors, pleasure and satisfaction. In the winter Karakorum, this balance is lost. You won’t get any pleasure, but the satisfaction of getting so high up and being the first one and writing your name in climbing history… That’s simply incredible.

EW: Another factor in winter climbing is the poor chance of rescue in case of trouble. Earlier this year, you and three other members of the Polish K2 team didn’t hesitate to move to Nanga Parbat in order to help stranded climbers Elisabeth Revol and Tomek Mackievickz. That was an amazing and widely admired feat, but would you expect someone else to do the same for you, if you were in trouble?

AB: Not really. But that’s part of the game. We climbers know that the possibilities of rescue are almost non-existent, especially in the Karakorum. Generally, if I climb in the winter Karakorum, I can count on my team members, but nobody else.

Adam Bieecki sport climbing at a local crag in Poland

Sport climbing at a local crag in Poland.

EW: Speaking of team members, there’s been disagreements and controversies among climbers on virtually all big winter expeditions. What are the reasons for such conflict?

AB: Climbers are just human beings, after all. Imagine yourself away from your friends and family, enclosed in a small space, in hard conditions for two or three months. Obviously, some misunderstandings or issues will appear. Such extreme challenges also draw climbers with very strong personalities, maybe with big egos. Hard conditions, limited space, strong characters combine into a sort of time-bomb, which eventually explodes into problems. But I think that’s just normal human behavior in such circumstances, it’s not specific to climbers. Surely sailors on a long journey face the same problems. And of course, the bigger the team, the greater the chances of  misunderstandings.

EW: What does it take to hold a team together in such difficult conditions?

AB: If you remember that the goal is to climb the mountain and that our personal problems may jeopardize that goal, it helps keep you focused and positive.

EW: Apart from winter K2, is there something else you’d like to climb above everything else?

AB: I am obsessed about climbing a new route on an 8000er, alpine style. I’d even dare to say that winter K2 is secondary to that.

EW: Is that what you have in mind for Annapurna?

AB: Yes, that’s it. Annapurna’s NW Face. There is only one route, it’s been climbed just once before. I tried to climb it alpine style a year ago but didn’t succeed, so next spring, I’m coming back for it. Felix Berg from Germany is joining me again, and we might add one more member to the team, but nothing’s confirmed yet.

Adam Bielecki, born in Tychy, Poland, 1983

Adam Bielecki, born in Tychy, Poland in 1983, leads the next generation of Polish winter Himalayan climbers.