“Winter climbing gives me the greatest satisfaction because it raises the difficulty bar, because it demands a lot from the climber. It shows us what we are capable of. For me this is the future of himalaism – the most difficult routes in the toughest conditions.” This was once written by the Pole Andrzej Zawada. The pioneer of winter climbing on the world’s highest mountains led the Polish winter expedition to Mount Everest, during which Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy succeeded in making the first winter ascent of an eight-thousander on 17 February 1980, – and eight years later also the first winter expedition to the 8,611-meter-high K2 in Pakistan.
To date, the second highest mountain on earth is the only one of the 14 eight-thousanders that has never been scaled in the cold season. Zawada would probably not have thought it possible that around 60 mountaineers from 19 countries would attempt K2 this winter 2020/21 – about as many as in a normal summer climbing season.
In the more than three decades that have passed since the first K2 winter expedition, seven teams have left Chogori – as the local Balti people call the mountain – empty-handed. The look back.
Polish-Canadian-British expedition in 1987/88
Wielicky and Cichy, the first winter ascenders of Mount Everest, were also part of Zawada’s team on K2, which consisted of 13 Poles, seven Canadians and four Britons. They tried to ascend via the Abruzzi route, but failed due to extremely cold temperatures and hurricane winds. In three months on the mountain, there was not a single viable good weather window. The highest point reached was Camp 3 at 7,300 meters.
International Expedition in 2002/03
Actually, Zawada had also planned the next winter attempt, this time on the Chinese north side of K2. But he died in 2000 and Wielicki took over the role of the expedition leader. The climbers came from Poland, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Georgia and wanted to ascend via the North Ridge. That year, too, temperatures were freezing, and several climbers suffered frostbite and abandoned the expedition early. Despite adverse weather, there was a summit attempt. Denis Urubko and Marcin Kaczkan made it to Camp 4 at 7,650 meters. Because Kaczkan showed symptoms of a high-altitude cerebral edema, they both descended.
Russian expedition in 2011/2012
The third winter attempt on K2 also failed due to extreme weather conditions with gale-force winds and freezing cold. The Russian team led by Victor Kozlov ascended via the Abruzzi Ridge and reached an altitude of 7,200 meters. Vitaly Gorelik suffered frostbite and pneumonia during this push. For days, his companions in the base camp fought for the life of the 44-year-old. However, the persistent bad weather prevented a rescue operation. Gorelik died. It was not until three days later that a helicopter was able to land. The expedition was aborted.
Polish expedition in 2017/2018
Again Krzysztof Wielicki led the expedition, which included four other winter first ascenders of eight-thousanders besides him: Denis Urubko (Makalu, Gasherbrum II), Adam Bielecki (Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak), Artur Malek (Broad Peak) and Janusz Golab (Gasherbrum I). The expedition was ill-fated. First, four team members participated in a rescue operation on Nanga Parbat for the Frenchwoman Elisabeth Revol and the Pole Tomek Mackiewicz. Urubko and Bielecki were able to rescue Revol, but not Mackiewicz. Back on K2, Bielecki and Rafael Fronia were injured by falling rocks on the Abruzzi route. Urubko reached the highest: up to 7,600 meters – in a solo attempt, which he had undertaken without consultation with Wielicki. The expedition leader excluded Urubko from the expedition because of what Wielicki called “selfish” behavior.
International Expedition and Spanish Expedition in 2018/2019
A team from Kazakhstan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan led by Vassiliy Pivtsov failed on the Abruzzi Route. Due to poor visibility, the climbers abandoned a summit attempt at 7,500 meters. The Spaniard Alex Txikon and his Sherpa team also returned without summit success. For them, the end of the line was at 7,050 meters. Txikon and three team members had previously taken part in the search for the climbers Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard who were missing on Nanga Parbat, thus putting their K2 ambitions at the back. Alex had finally discovered the lifeless bodies of the 42-year-old Italian and the 30-year-old British with a telescope in the rock of the “Mummery Rib” at about 5,900 meters.
International Expedition in 2019/2020
The expedition led by Nepalese Mingma Gyalje Sherpa ended after only two weeks: without summit attempt and in dispute. Icelander John Snorri Sigurjonsson and Slovenian Tomaz Rotar accused Mingma and other team members of coming to K2 ill-prepared. At 6,300 meters was the end of the line.