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K2/Chogori Winter 2003

POLISH CLIMBERS ATTACK K2 IN WINTER

To ascend and to come back

They call K2 the Mountain of Mountains. Some due to its beauty, others because of the terror it causes among mountaineers. On December 16, the Netia K2 Polish Winter Expedition will set out for K2. It is going to be a historical event - no-one has ever tried spending the winter on K2's northern slopes (8611 m) - the Earth's second highest summit. The expedition is headed by Krzysztof Wielicki, one of the most outstanding mountaineers of the world. The base is to be established on New Year's Eve, the struggle to reach the summit may last until the end of February. "Rzeczpospolita" correspondent MONIKA ROGOZIŃSKA will be accompanying the expedition.

K2 lies in the Karakorum mountain range that is parallel to the Himalayas, on the border of China and Pakistan. Its form reminds one of a pyramid, equally hard to conquer from all sides. Swept with winds, it grows 600 m ahead of the nest of four 8000ers.

The history of conquering K2, long and dramatic, remains in the shadow of Mount Everest, which is higher then the former by merely 237 m. Though the names of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first people to set foot on the highest summit, are widely known, only mountain lovers know about Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. Those two Italians conquered in the summer of 1954 the then maiden K2, for which they had paid a high price - their chilblained fingers had to be amputated.

Polish successes and tragedies

Statistics say a lot about the difficulties concerning that mountain. Up until today, less than 200 people have reached the summit of K2. Only two mountaineers did it twice (the summit of Mount Everest was reached 1500 times in total by around 900 people). Every seventh person descending from K2 does not reach the base. This might be the reason why a mountaineer's rank is determined not by climbing Mount Everest, but K2.

Among the five women who set foot on its summit, Wanda Rutkiewicz was the first. Alison Hargreaves was the last. In a poll announced by the world's largest mountain newspaper, the Internet portal www.everestnews.com, to emerge the alpinists of the century, it was they who have won. A Briton, the only woman not to use oxygen from a cylinder there, did not survive the descent - the wind tore her off the slope and threw her into a precipice.

Our alpinists have many achievements on this mountain in the summer season. The decision not to use the help of height porters, taken in the year 1976 by the expedition headed by Janusz Kurczaba, was a sensation. On their new route, the unaided alpinist team missed the victory by a mere 200 m. Poles have marked or finished four of the nine routes leading to the summit, among them the legendary one, called by Reinhold Messner the Magic Line, as well as the one daringly marked by Jerzy Kukuczka and Tadeusz Piotrowski on the southern slope, called the Polish route since then, for which they paid a horrible price - the death of Piotrowski.

On this mountain, we have also lost other wonderful mountaineers: Halina Kruger-Syrokomska and Wojciech Wróża. At the foot of K2 lies the buried body of Dobrosława Miodowicz-Wolf. Those tragedies were intermixed with beautiful moments. It was here that Piotr Pustelnik earned the Fair Play Award of the Polish Olympics Committee.

We were first

Watching the struggle for K2 made Jerzy Kukuczka express an opinion, which had moved the international mountaineering circle. He compared Western and Polish expedition to cars: the former, being luxurious, turn out to be useful on good roads, while the latter, old and less showy, joggle along persistently also on bumpy roads. Presently, many himalaists consider this division to be true for mountaineers from the West and from the East.

Apart from the first Poles, Mount Everest was conquered in winter only by Japanese, Koreans and Sherpas from Nepal. Today it seems that the mountaineers ready to take any risk come from Russia and the countries that came into being after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

A winter expedition is the bumpiest road imaginable. It is not without reason that the American Space Agency NASA, preparing a manned expedition to Mars, tests the endurance of men on the slopes of the highest mountains and in the Antarctica, with extreme conditions and a landscape similar to the one on Mars. In winter, winds are raging around 8000ers. Climbing at that time is comparable to cosmic alpinism.

Nonetheless, seven of the fourteen 8000ers were conquered in winter. Polish expeditions achieved that goal first in the eighties.

Krzysztof Wielicki, head of the expedition

Today, there a few alpinists - in Poland as well as abroad - ready to risk that much, when the chance of success is so uncertain. The goal of the beginning expedition is to conquer K2 in winter through the Northern Pillar, on a four kilometers high ridge growing out of the northern slope - one of the most dangerous precipices of the globe.

Krzysztof Wielicki reached the summit in the summer of 1996. It was his fourth expedition to K2. In a poll carried out by www.everestnews.com, 52-year-old Wielicki was deemed one of the most outstanding, living alpinists.

The verdict stressed that he still takes up difficult challenges and does not rest on his laurels. Although he could. He is the fifth man to win the Crown of the Himalayas - fourteen 8000ers. He often did it pioneer style. Three of them, including Mount Everest, he climbed in winter as the first. He climbed on Lhotse alone on the night of New Year's Eve, in a corset he was wearing after injuring his spine in the mountains. He "ran up" Broad Peak alone in one day (which was the first climb on an 8000er within a day). Witness to his lone climb on Nanga Parbat, one of the biggest slopes of the world, were only Pakistani shepherds, watching his feat from distant meadows.

Wielicki knows K2 from all sides. He participated in four expeditions to this mountain. Only during the last one, in the summer of 1996, his perseverance was rewarded - he reached the summit through the Northern Pillar with two Italian alpinists. Pictures from the summit make a ghastly impression on everyone knowing how dangerous this mountain is - they were already made in complete darkness. After a bivouac not far from the top, the descent changed into a rescuing mission of the extremely emaciated Italian, which had a happy end.

"Next year, we have the fiftieth anniversary of conquering Mount Everest, which is to be a grand celebration - says Wielicki. - It's a good time to set the crossbar higher in the highest mountains".

14

Over 30 people are going to participate in the expedition. The hard core will consist of 14 alpinists: Krzysztof Wielicki - head of the expedition, Roman Mazik - physician, Bogdan Jankowski - communications, Maciej Pawlikowski, Jacek Berbeka, Jerzy Natkański, Dariusz Załuski, Jan Szulc, Marcin Kaczkan, Piotr Morawski, Gia Tortladze (Georgia), Denis Urubko (Kazakhstan), Wasilij Piwcow (Kazakhstan), Ilias Thukvatullin (Uzbekistan).

They will be joined by five Pakistani porters and several young Polish alpinists (supporting group), needed to transport the equipment on the glacier to the base which will be two days away from its front, two Nepal cooks and a Chinese liaison officer with his personal cook.

Accompanied by TV reporters

A novelty and an interesting experiment will be the participation of a Polish Television crew consisting of six people who want to make transmissions to a specially organized studio of Channel 1 in Warsaw. The members of the TV crew will not be climbing, however. Almost every alpinist has his own digital camera. Disks with the saved video signal will be carried down to the base, edited in the tent, which will turn into the highest located TV studio in the world, and then sent to Poland by means of a satellite phone. The expedition's third media sponsor - apart from "Rzeczpospolita" and TVP - will be the Internet portal Onet.pl.

On December 16, the expedition will fly to the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek (known in the times of the USSR as Frunze). From there, the expedition will go by trucks to China, and then through Kashgar, a bazaar-like city located on the Silk Route, to the settlement of Mazdar, where they will change to camels. The travel to the front of the K2 glacier will last six days. Further than that, to a base at 5100 m, all the equipment has to be carried on the backs.

Andrzej Zawada, originator of winter himalaism, during his last expedition (Nanga Parbat 1997/98)

Zawada's Team

This expedition was Andrzej Zawada's greatest dream. As originator of winter himalaism and boss of the first victorious winter expedition to Mount Everest, he headed at the turn of 1987/88 the only international expedition until know, whose purpose was to conquer K2 in winter from its northern, Pakistani side.

Three years ago, he started preparing the present expedition. In February 2000, he was to go to a reconnaissance - it was necessary to check whether it was possible to reach the foot of K2 from the north at all in that time of year. The day before the trip, physicists discovered a dangerous illness consuming him. Instead of to China, Zawada went to a hospital. Even when he was in a serious condition, he was making plans of conquering the Himalayas in winter. He made the reconnaissance happen, however - somebody else went. It seemed that an operation could save Andrzej's life. He died 6 months later.

On All Souls' Day, I visited Andrzej's grave at the Warsaw Powązki Cemetery. Somebody put a white piece of paper torn out from a notebook behind the plate. It said, "Rest in peace there. We're going to K2. Your team".

Written by Monika Rogozinska, "Rzeczpospolita"; translated by "Scrivanek".

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