Climbing an 8000m peak is a challenging endeavor. Combine this with winter and it becomes a game of endurance and courage undertaken by individuals who assent pain and sufferings beyond human limits. Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, once said that in a certain faraway land the cold is so intense that words freeze as soon as they are uttered, and after some time then thaw and become audible, so that words spoken in winter go unheard until the next summer. Was the Greek philosopher about talking the summit of an 8000m peak where chill averages below -70°C in winter?
Winter climbing: Why?
While the Himalayan mountain ranges have been there since millions years, the recent 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 wasn't an unusual thing. Years of experience and improvement in technique and technology turned 1950's into the decade of first-ascents of so called eight-thousanders.
A dozen of nations rejoiced the honor of first summits. However, Poland - the home of Tatra Mountains and a nation with a climbing history - were completely missing from the scene. It was the time when Poland was still recovering from the wounds of World War II, and was not in a position to arrange expeditions to Himalayas. So, they practised in their own courtyard, Tatras. To beef up the challenge, they started to climb in unusual circumstances - in winters.
By 1970s, the darkness on Polish mountaineering started to shed. They were eventually venturing on high peaks of Hindu Kush, Himalayas and Karakoram. They were ready to practice the art of winter climbing in Himalayas.
Winter Climbing: When?
Being at the summit of an 8000m peak in winter was merely an inane fantasy before the Polish practitioners started rocking the scene in 1980s. But beyond the challenge of climbing the mountain itself, the Poles had to overcome various other obstacles like the limited materialistic resources; very basic mountaineering gear and above all no one really believed that they could do it. On political front, it took them years to obtain climbing permits.
First winter ascent of Noshaq (7492 m) in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush range in 1973 proved to be the dawn of a new era in altitude climbing. It was the first instance of a human being scaling a peak above 7000m in winter (Tadeusz Piotrowski and Andrzej Zawada reached the top). It was a Polish national expedition, led by father of winter Himalaism, Andrzej Zawada.
Following year, the Poles were back in Himalayas with a bigger challenge - to climb Lhotse in winter. It was the first winter expedition to an 8000m peak. The team managed to reach a record altitude of 8200m. Andrzej Zawada’s team proved that they can survive above 8000m in winter. The team also wished to attempt Everest, however, the Nepalese government denied to issue such a permit.
Eventually at the end of 1979, the Poles got the permission to climb Everest in winter, and they couldn't let this chance go away. On February 17th, 1980 at around 2:40 PM, Base Camp heard over radio, “WE ARE ON THE SUMMIT! … Conditions are very tough. If it were not Everest, we would have given up!” Jubilant Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy had just made the history. So, today the mountaineering community talks about first ascent and first-winter-ascent of 8000m peaks.
Winter Climbing: The Challenges?
Before the start of winter 2004-05, Explorersweb examined several meteorological factors that make the winter climbing Everest (or any 8000m peak) such an immense challenge.
1. From October 20 until end of March, there is an almost constant Category 1 Hurricane (32m/s or 74 miles/hour) pounding the summit of Everest. During this period 3 out of 4 days experience above 32 ms/74 mph.
2. From Dec 21st until Feb 28 the temperature never rises above -33°C (-27°F) at the summit. A combination of this with 75mph wind gives a less than 5 minute frostbite time.
3. During January the average wind chill drops to -70°C (-90°F). This makes Everest summit not only the tallest, but also among the coldest places on earth to humans - if not the coldest. Also, Average wind chill for Everest Base Camp is -30°C (-21°F) during winter. Its important to consider the way an expedition is conducted. The summit is reached quickly in a couple of days when the weather briefly holds. However the tedious process of establishing camps and carrying supplies can not wait for good weather.
But what about snow? The probability of snowfall can be estimated through humidity level. High humidity indicates high risk of snow.
4. The summit of Everest is predominantly dry. October and November are very dry, followed by a slight monthly increase in snowfall over the winter months. The humidity level is one of the few (only) positive factors for a Himalayan winter expedition.
So basically, it’s the lethal combination of tremendously strong and extremely consistent wind that sweeps the summits of 8000m peaks, the awfully cold temperatures and the wind chill that makes climbing extremely difficult.
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