K2 Last Standing 8k – Winter Expedition

A million Polish zlotys (~300,000 US$) for a winter national expedition on K2. In December Polish Himalayan climbers will go to the ice hell

A million Polish zlotys (~300,000 US$) for a winter national expedition on K2. In December Polish Himalayan climbers will go to the ice hell

Nearly 100 mountaineers did not return from K2, a lonely, dangerous giant in the Karakoram Range. Polish national expedition leaves for the last never ascended in the winter eight-thousand peak in December. The climbers received a million Polish zlotys (PLN) grant from the Ministry of Sport and Tourism to support their mission.

By Dominik Szczepański,

Warsaw, September 12, 2017

There will be ten of them. The tactics for the climb will be managed by 67-year-old Krzysztof Wielicki. The fastest climber of the world in 1980’s – the first to enter the eight-thousandth and descend within a day – will face the difficult task of mastering and managing the temperaments of the rest of the members of the expedition. He will be helped by the experienced climber Janusz Goląb. A few years ago at the beginning of this century, Goląb moved the boundaries of what was possible in Polish alpinism, setting new paths on the great of the Garhwal Himalayas and Greenland. Today he is 50 years old, and will go on K2 as a sports manager and will make decisions at places where Wielicki’s eye does not reach during climbing. He has experienced winter in the highest mountains of the world during only one expedition – in 2012 where, together with Adam Bielecki, he conquered Gasherbrum I. Bielecki, another climber called for the winter K2 climb, ascended the Broad Peak in the winter as the first in the world, and in the summer he also entered on K2 and Makalu. Recently, he has been thinking about setting up a new path for an eight-thousand peak at a new alpine style, but he says he could not pass the chance to enter K2 in the winter. Artur Małek, also the first winter conqueror of Broad Peak, will be on the expedition too. Then, in 2013, he and Bielecki descended from the summit, but their partners Maciej Berbeka and Tomasz Kowalski died on the way down and a controversy broke out in the country reaching far beyond the climbers’ community. Some defended Bielecki and Małek, others blamed them for the death of their partners. Other participants invited for the expedition, whose members were announced during the festival called Meeting with Mountain Films in Zakopane, are Marcin Kaczkan (was on K2 in the winter of 2002-03 to reach the height of 7600 meters, but stood atop K2 and Nanga Parbat in the summer), Marek Chmielarski (summer conqueror of Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak), Rafał Fronia (in the summer he successfully climbed Lhotse and Gasherbrum II), Piotr Tomala (in the summer he won Broad Peak and Cho Oyu), Dariusz Załuski (filmmaker, participant of seven winter expeditions, conqueror of five eight-thousand summits in the summer), and the mountaineer doctor, Krzysztof Wranicz.

All of them are Poles, because this is a national expedition. There is no such thing in modern alpinism anymore, because governments rarely sponsor climbing expeditions on eight-thousand meter mountains.


“We have to finish what we started,” said Wielicki last year about the last unscaled in the winter eight-thousanders; K2 is 8611 m above sea level.

Before the Poles appeared in the Himalayas and Karakoram and before the winter climbing became our hallmark in the world, all the eight-thousanders had already been won. People stood on them between 1950 and 1964, just when traveling abroad was only a dream in Poland.

Poles had to find another idea for the Himalayas. The Slovenes, who were, in a similar situation, focused on overcoming huge and technically difficult Himalayan walls. Andrzej Zawada, a legendary forerunner of Polish expeditions of the 80s, decided to lead Polish climbers to the Himalayan summits during the most demanding season of the year. “Tell me what you did in the winter in the Tatras, and I’ll tell you who you are,” he used to say.

With Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy, they began climbing Mount Everest in the winter of 1980. During the next 37 years, Polish climbers made nine first winter entries onto the eight-thousander peaks. Many of those climbers practically settled in the Himalayas. In the 70s and 80s, forty expeditions were organized to climb eight thousandth summits. The success was over 75%. It was not a mere “checking off” of the mountains, which is not straightforward in today’s Himalayan climbing. As Janusz Kurczab, one of the legendary leaders of that period recalls, Polish climbers established 20 new routes. On the way many of them died, also on K2. In July 1986, after leading a new, extremely difficult route from the summit, Jerzy Kukuczka’s partner Tadeusz Piotrowski did not return. One month after a five-day snowstorm at the height of 7100 m, the exhausted Dobrosława Miodowicz-Wolf died. – The blizzard was like a shark’s mouth. At one point, it closed up and imprisoned everyone – recalled another himalayanist Anna Czerwińska.

That summer, named later the black summer, killed a total of 13 climbers from different countries. A year later, Andrzej Zawada organized his first winter expedition on K2. It was unsuccessful. In 1989 on the south wall of Lhotse perished Jerzy Kukuczka, and his death set the end of the golden but also tragic epoch in Polish Himalayan climbing. It was necessary to wait until the 2005 winter for the Pole to stand again at the peak of eight thousand some meters in the winter.

„Poles are considered to be the best nation in this sport, but from the perspective of the years I have doubts whether we played that game professionally. Wasn’t a limit to the madness, rivalry, and competition exceeded? History presented us with a very high bill. Polish Himalayan power has come and killed itself”, – said Artur Hajzer, who ten years ago took on his shoulders the national program for organizing expeditions on eight thousanders in the winter.

He found the money and began training the next generation of ice warriors, as the Poles began to be called in the 80s. Hajzer died in the mountains in 2013, but the program did not cease to exist. Since its beginning, K2 has been the main target. Nothing more extreme in the winter in the Himalayas can be done.


There are plenty of reasons why K2 is effectively fighting off the climbers at this time of year. There are many, and probably many others, we still do not know about, because it is not known what the mountain looks like at a height above 7600 m.

More than 30 expeditions hit the Nanga Parbat in winter before Pakistani Muhammad Ali, Basque Alex Txikon and Italian Simone Moro ascent the summit in 2016. K2 was attacked only three times in the winter – two times by Poles and once by Russians.

The expedition to K2 is terribly expensive. Nanga can be reached in a day or two; but the route to K2 takes another week, which includes crossing the cracked glacier Baltoro, the longest iceberg below the polar circle. Zawada led the first winter assault to the second world summit in 1987. Equipment and food for 30 people weighing 17 tons was carried to the base by 1200 porters. Of course, today it would be possible to transport everything by the helicopter, but it is still even more expensive. The cost of this year’s expedition will amount to approximately 1.3 million PLN (370,000 US$). The climbers will get one million from the Ministry of Sport and Tourism and the rest will be added from the Lotto Lottery.

Expeditions on K2 are also rare because of the unlikely chance of success. During the earlier mentioned three-month long expedition, the Polish climbers had only ten days of good weather in which they could climb. To be recognized as the winter conqueror of the eight-thousander, one needs to be at the summit between December 22nd and March 21st.

“It was hell. The conditions were so difficult that at one point I simply did not have the heart to send out another group on the route” – Zawada commented on the 1987 expedition.

Even in the summer the summit often is not accessible to the climbers – it was in 2015-16 that no one managed to get there. For comparison, on Mount Everest there are several hundred people every year. K2 is not in the Himalayas, but in the Karakoram, the gloomy range to the north. The monsoons don’t reach there, the flora at the foot of the mountains is scarce and most of the plants have thorns.

In addition, K2 is located the farthest to the northwest out of all eight-thousandth of this mountain range. “It gets strong winds, and in the winter mountaineering in the wind is worse than the cold.

“I climbed K2 from all sides and everywhere the wind blows the same – there is no difference” – says Wielicki.

Winds in the winter in Karakoram are on average 40 km per hour stronger than in the Himalayas, and the temperature is about ten degrees Celsius lower.

In addition, in the winter, the jet stream arrives there – a hurricane wind raging across the troposphere and the stratosphere. It can race up to 400 km per hour, which is even faster than the hurricane Irma currently devastating the Caribbean.

So, the success of the Polish expedition will be determined primarily by the speed of the winds and the temperature levels. The wind factor intensifies the feeling of cold. At minus 40 degrees Celsius (it is difficult to get warmer in the winter on K2) and winds 35 km per hour (climbers will take such conditions any time), the temperature goes down to minus 60 degrees Celsius. “For me it is the limit of my endurance,” says Adam Bielecki, one of the candidates for the summit attack.

At a base located about 5,300 m above sea level, 900 m higher than the base of Nanga Parbat, it is obviously calmer – on the warmest days, the temperatures should get only to negative teens. Under such conditions, the bread turns into a brick and needs to be defrosted on a frying pan, and the cheese freezes to stone and needs to be chopped with an axe. Wielicki tested that 15 years ago. He was the leader of the Polish expedition, which reached the height of 7600 m, the highest in the winter history of winter climbing on K2. They survived the blows of the wind to the base, everyone returned from the expedition, although it was dramatic when Marcin Kaczkan suffered of brain swelling at over 7000 m. Janusz Gołb also experienced a blow of winds of that magnitude at the base camp, when in the winter of 2011q-12, the jet stream descending from the slopes of Gasherbrum I yanked his tent off the ice, tossed it around in the air (with Gołąb inside), and almost dropped him into the deep ice crack. Loss of the base equals the end of the expedition. And even when everything goes according to the plan, it is hard to live there.

Above 5000 m above sea level, the body does not regenerate, so every day climbers lose strength, even after resting in a warm mess and eating a few thousand calories a day.

– In the summer you can bask in the sun, in the winter there is no regeneration. After two months, everyone is thinking about returning home – says Wielicki.


K2 has not been conquered in the winter also, because of the fact that even the easiest route leading to its summit is more demanding than most of the routes leading to other eight thousandth peaks. “You look at this mountain and you know you have not just to enter it, you have to climb up and up to it,” says Bielecki, who accomplished the K2 summit in the summer of 2012. “In winter firn turns into hard gray ice,” says Wielicki. It is hard to use an ice ax, secure in the spikes of crampons, or screw in the bolt needed for safety. And the silhouette of K2 is different from most of the other snow-covered giants, where many kilometers of route are leveled. The towering rocky pyramid of K2 is only going up.

Of the eight-thousandths, only Annapurna has worse fame and climbers do not return from it more often than from K2. As of the last five years – this statistics has slightly improved – on the slopes of K2, every third climber has died.

It is not yet known which route the Poles will choose to reach the summit. “We’ll decide when we look at the mountain and check the weather conditions on it,” says Gołąb. “I am very cautious when they ask me about the chance for success,” says Wielicki, who led the last winter national expedition on the Broad Peak. First and foremost, it is important that we all come back safely.


Translation by Piotr Chmielinski from

wyborcza.pl (original publication: