2017/18 Polish Expedition to Conquer K2 in Winter
The next meeting of the PHC Book Club takes on the award winning book "Freedom Climbers" telling the incredible story of Polish high-altitude climbers and the two decades when they were the best in the world. Beginning in the 1970s, still quite a few years before Poland started breaking loose from the shackles of the communist regime, Polish climbers pursued their dreams of freedom conquering the world's highest peaks. Among the golden age titans were Andrzej Zawada, Tadeusz Piotrowski, Jerzy Kukuczka, Wojciech Kurtyka, Krzysztof Wielicki, Leszek Cichy and the queen of Polish mountaineers, Wanda Rutkiewicz.
Yet if you think that Poles are ready to give up, then think again. Just a few months ago the 13-people strong Polish expedition set off to make a winter ascent on K2, the world's second highest peak after the Mount Everest and the second most deadly mountain after Annapurna. Only 306 climbers have reached the peak of the "Savage Mountain" (as K2 is often called), while 84 have died on the way to the summit (i.e. one death for every four successful ascents). Moreover, with nearly vertical slopes dropping down on average 3000 m (9,850 ft) on every side, temperatures often falling to -62 Celsius (-80 Fahrenheit), deadly avalanches, ferocious blizzards, hurricane-strength winds and routine rock falls, the Savage Mountain has never been successfully ascended in winter.
As the only exception among of earth’s mountains exceeding 8,000 meters (26,246 feet), the hostile K2 was a natural target for Polish climbers known as the "Ice Warriors" for their unmatched wintertime exploits. Take for example Krzysztof Wielicki, the 2018 expedition leader at 68, who was the first ever to make successful winter ascents of Mt. Everest (with Leszek Cichy in 1980), Kangchenjunga (with Jerzy Kukuczka in 1986) and Lhotse (solo in 1988). Overall, Poles were the first winter summitters of 10 of the Earth's 14 eight-thousanders, i.e. peaks higher than 8000m. Poles are known also for taking on new, dangerous routes, such as the exceptionally demanding "Polish Line" on K2. Leading under very unstable ridges of ice, the route is so dangerous that Reinhold Messner described it as suicidal. In 1986, Jerzy Kukuczka and Tadeusz Piotrowski were the first to successfully climb it but no one else has even attempted to follow their tracks.
The 2018 expedition led by Wielicki took off by the end of December 2017. Its progress slowed in January 2018 when four of the team's strongest climbers took part in the heroic rescue mission on the treacherous slopes of nearby Nanga Parbat (French mountaineer Elisabeth Revol saved, Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz perished). Wielicki's expedition resumed on February 2 but came to a halt a few weeks later given the particularly bad weather that nixed any chances of reaching the peak before the climbers' winter ending on February 28th.
In terms of the route, the expedition first started along the SSE Spur, where rock falls seriously injured two team members. They switched then to the Abruzzi Spur and reached the elevation of 7400 meters before deteriorating weather made it too risky to continue. Frustrated with the slow progress of the expedition Denis Urubko (Kazakh who became Polish citizen in 2015) broke solo from the team and probably reached the 7600 meters before harsh weather forced him to retreat. So, like in all three previous K2 winter expeditions ever undertaken (1987/88, 2002/03 and 2011/12), the threshold of 7650 meters has not been crossed and the ruthless K2 still remains unconquered.