Ice Warriors | Poles and Winter Altitude Climbing

While the Himalayan mountain ranges have been there since ages, the true exploration and mapping of the region started no earlier than nineteenth century. Once maps and altitudes of significant peaks were established, the desire to climb such great heights was not an unusual thing. Most of early expeditions aimed first ascent of Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga or Nanga Parbat but in 1950 Annapurna-I became first 8000er to be summited. Years of experience and improvement in technique/technology turned 1950s into the decade of 8000er first-ascents. First summit of last 8000er, Shishapangma, in 1964 closed the chapter of first-ascents of 14 eight-thousanders. A dozen of nations rejoiced the honor of being first-summiteers of eight-thousanders. It was the period when Poland was under communism and mountaineers were not permitted to join expeditions to the Himalayas and Karakoram. The only available option was to climb in Tatras Mountains - a test too small for prodigious Polish climbers. It was then that they discovered and practiced the new direction; winter climbing. They trained themselves to absorb more pain and suffering than summer climbing.

Geophysicist, Andrzej Zawada, was amongst the pioneers of winter climbing in Poland. In 1959, he completed the first winter enchainment of the Tatras, ascending over a hundred peaks and towers in 19 snowy days of continuous climbing. Dashing and charismatic, Zawada became Poland's most visible and visionary protagonist of winter mountaineering. Being allowed to go to Afghanistan and winter climb Noshaq (7492 m) in 1973, proved to be the dawn of great Polish Mountaineering epoch in Himalayas. Noshaq ascent was a record in itself; the first winter ascent of any peak above 7000m. Next year Zawada went to Lhotse, reaching above 8000m but couldn’t summit. That was first exposure of human beings to a height above 8000m in winter.

Winter high altitude climbing was a myth and an impossible thought before the Polish mountaineers summited several Himalayan peaks in 1980s. During that period getting permits to climb 8000ers in winter was a big task in itself. People called it suicidal and unwise but Poles knew what they were up against and they had been training for it since two generations. Between 1980 and 1988, Poles achieved first-winter-ascents of seven 8000ers; Everest(1980), Manaslu (1984), Dhaulagiri-I (1985), Cho Oyu (1985), Kangchenjunga (1986), Annapurna-I (1987) and Lhotse (1988). This magnificent feat left the mountaineering world stunned and hence winter-climbing became an undertaking purely associated with Polish climbers like Jerzy Kukuczka, Krzysztof Wielicki, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Ryszard Gajewski, Maciej Pawłowski, Leszek Cichy, Wojtek Kurtyka, Maciej Berbeka and Artur Hajzer. These hard-core mountaineers were hailed as Ice Warriors by mountaineering world.

Unfortunately, 1989 was a devastating year for winter climbing. With the collapse of communism in Poland, government funding to support such expensive expeditions to Himalayas demised; “No money, no possibilities, no expeditions to the Himalaya”. Another blow to Poles was death of several renowned expedition leaders that year. Five climbers died on Everest in spring. Later in autumn, Jerzy Kukuczka died on the south face of Lhotse. Kukuczka was such an iconic climber that his death stunned and deflated the entire community. There were many Polish climbers during the 1980s, but their success relied heavily on the leadership of a few. Kukuczka was certainly one of these leaders, as were all five who perished on Everest. Momentum halted in the wake of these deaths. There were a few climbers who remained active in the Himalaya, but the "golden decade" was over and world didn’t witness even a single first-winter-ascent for next 17 years, until 2005.

But during all those years, Poles didn’t lost sight of the dream. Krzysztof Wielicki continued to climb in the region throughout the 1990s. In 2002, he delivered a "Winter Manifesto" to younger generations of Polish climbers. He called upon the "young, angry and ambitious" to finish the first-winter-ascent of remaining peaks. A series of unsuccessful attempts followed on K2, Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak. All of these peaks are in Karakoram and the western Himalaya, where it is colder, windier and more remote than Nepal. Doubtlessly winter climbing in Karakoram proved difficult and dangerous than Himalayas proper. But Poles are still hungry to finish what they had begun. Based on Wielicki's work, Artur Hajzer started a campaign in 2009 to finish first-winter-ascent of unclimbed peaks. The project called “Polish Winter Himalaism 2010-2015” aims to complete the objective between 2010 and 2015. A return to the fundamentals of winter climbing was essential to the plan. Winter training in the Tatras and Alps prepared the younger climbers for winter in the Himalaya. Expeditions in the summer months built the national teamwork that enabled the success of the 1980s.

Winter Himalaism Team achieved its first milestone when Adam Bielecki and Janusz Gołąb summited Gasherbrum-I in March 2012. But winter high altitude climbing is no longer a "Polish only game". Italian Simone Moro has already bagged three first-winter-ascents; Kazakh Denis Urubko seized two. This winter, apart from one Polish/Irish team, three teams with members from Italy, Hungry, USA and France are competing for first-winter-ascent of Nanga Parbat. Winter Himalaism Team is on Broad Peak. And of course, the biggest climbing challenge, going atop K2 in winter, is still there. Whether Adam Bielecki, Artur Małek and Tomek Mackiewicz are able to conclude the work started by Andrzej Zawada, Jerzy Kukuczka and Krzysztof Wielicki - probably we have to wait for a few years to know. But it can be safely said that Poles did change the course of Himalayan climbing.
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