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K2/Chogori Winter 2003

Strong winds blowing

As far as the logistically complicated winter expedition to the world’s most difficult mountain goes, so far almost everything has been going according to plan. The alpinists have established over two kilometers of fixed ropes on K2’s Northern Pillar. It is possible that camp II will be set up on Saturday at 6600 m. In order to be able to establish it personally, Krzysztof Wielicki decided to set out together with Jacek Berbeka from camp I (5950 m) during the night from Friday to Saturday. For three days, very strong winds have been blowing, making it difficult for the alpinists to continue their activities on K2’s northern slope.

The upper base under K2 (5100 m) - or “proper base”, as Krzysztof Wielicki, the head of the expedition, calls it - is the most magnificent winter base I have seen so far, with a fairylike beauty. Jagged ice pinnacles, protruding from all around, change colors depending on the illumination.

If there is no wind blowing, the base is surprisingly quiet. At this time of year, the local glaciers remain silent. It is too cold and the temperature fluctuations between day and night are too small for the hanging and creeping ice masses to “work”: to crack with an ordinary snap, a bang, groan or rumble; to collapse in the form of turquoise rock avalanches.

We have arrived here with the TV crew from the Chinese base after two days of exhausting marching over boulders and rocky screes of the K2 glacier, having covered 1200 m of altitude difference. The central section led for several hours through glittering, blue-green ice tunnels, with their faces and hanging icicles coming off picturesquely. The cold is particularly biting, and the sun does not bring any relief during the day. At night, the temperature usually falls below -30 deg. C. The gas lighters have stopped burning. The shoe heaters have frozen. You have to be careful when eating, since the cutlery freezes fast to the tongue.

The construction of a spacious dining tent, where a paraffin heater has been placed, has been finished only a few days ago. This kind of luxury, raising the temperature by a few degrees in the mess hall, animated the social life, manifested in the game of bridge. Until then, the alpinists would escape to their tents after dinner, at dusk, which falls here at 5.30 pm, taking shelter against the cold in their down sleeping bags.

There is no snow either at the base or on K2, only rocks, stones and pure ice, so hard that it broke one alpenstock. In this situation, the no longer needed deadmen, normally used for security, were turned into legs for shapely tables, built by the base engineer - Jan Szulc. An additional, big igloo tent serves in the morning as a room for drinking coffee and eating an early breakfast by those who set out for the Pillar. One sits around a table made, like the benches, of bamboo left in great quantities by previous expeditions. Those poles were designed as tracers, designating the trail in deep snow.

The toilet is in the open air, in a labyrinth of icy spires. Esthetic sensations have to compensate for discomforts and the chill.

That is how the alpinists have furnished their home in which they are anticipated to spend at least one month.

The intermediate base at 4750 m, wrongly called the Italian base (many years ago, the Italian expedition set up their tents an hour away from here and several hundred meters below), still functions. It is a storeroom for food and equipment, an intermediate stage for the continuous transporting activities of five very selfless Hunzas and three young and truly brave Poles (Jacek Teler, Jacek Jawień, Bartek Duda), who keep on covering the many kilometers of the K2 glacier in both directions, delivering heavy expedition cargo to the main base. The main shortcoming of the intermediate base is the tasteless, cloudy water obtained from melted snow, which contains loam in this section. Many people suffer here from stomach ailments.

In the comfortable Chinese base, the only ones left are Mr. Li, a Chinese liaison officer, his helper Young and Piotr Kubicki, whose young body poorly tolerates the altitude and requires slow adjustment. The place has its advantages: clear water from a stream, wood firing, a tent and good food. It is also relatively warm and sunny at 3900 m. Each alpinist may go down there and rest if needed.

Meanwhile, the conquest of K2’s Northern Pillar has been going on incessantly since January 1. For an adjusted alpinist, the Pillar’s base is an hour and a half away from the base. The ascent to camp I takes six hours. 2050 m of ropes securing movement and the transport of equipment have already been placed in the mountain’s face. For camp II to be set up at 6600 m, around 250-300 m of fixed ropes have still to be established. Recently, Denis Urubko and Wasilij Piwcow have done a great job on the Pillar, spending two nights at camp I (5900 m). This is one special team. The wind may be blowing, the temperature may be falling, little dust avalanches may be rolling by the Pillar along with the clouds, but to the question asked over the radiotelephone how things are, the alpinists from Kazakhstan give invariably the same answer: “Everything’s normal!”

Maciej Pawlikowski and Dariusz Załuski, who have established another 100 m of ropes, have just returned from the slope to the base. From the tent in camp I to the end of the fixed ropes, one has to climb three hours. The alpinists have done it under difficult circumstances, since a very strong wind has been blowing for three days.

“I had the impression that someone has dumped one and a half loads of gravel on our tent”, said Maciej Pawlikowski through the radiotelephone about the night spent at camp I. On the mountain, which is wrapped in clouds, there is a storm of frozen snow and ice.

Krzystof Wielicki, the head of the expedition, shows a particular determination and will to set up camp II. Today, he and Jacek Berbeka will spend the night at camp I. They want to establish ropes on the remaining 250-300 m to the place where camp II (6600 m) is located as quickly as possible and carry up the equipment needed for setting up the tent; that is why they have decided to set out to the mountains at night already. “We have got used to climbing from 9 am to 5 pm, that is during the day - said Krzysztof Wielicki over the radiotelephone. - I think it’s time to show the younger ones that you can also climb 14 hours a day. There is also a chance that the wind will be weaker at night.

We’ll just see. If you don’t try and don’t take risks, you won’t achieve anything.”

Monika Rogozińska

From the upper base under K2’s Northern Pillar

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

Dispatches