Winter Climbing | The Bitter Cold and Wind, History, The Calendar Winter and More (Part-2/2)

Traditionally, one exquisite aspect of mountaineering had been the absence of definite rules. It was all about ethics and self-regulation, without any supervisory restrictions. However, with the development of new skills and styles, it became almost a necessity to categorize different kind of climbs separately - like new routes, traverses, solo ascents, alpine style climbs etc. Reaching the summit in wintertime got the obvious name of 'winter ascent' but unlike other categories, the boundaries of winter ascents are not so definite.

What is winter?
What divides the autumn and winter? There is no categorical answer to this question, as start date of winter varies from culture to culture and region to region. Traditionally, Nepalese and Chinese governments issued winter climbing permits starting from December 1st. During the first winter expedition to Lhotse in 1974, the authorities had instructed Polish team to return by the end of December.

However, the modern rules follow the calendar season definition of winter, “a climb that takes place between December 21st and March 21st.” A perfectionist approach further restricts that from arrival at BC to departure, everything should happen between aforementioned dates. Modern climbers like Simone Moro have strictly followed this definition of winter climbing.

The BAD Chart
The question arises here that between Winter Permits and Calendar Winter, which one is a real representation of wintery conditions. For the answer, we shall refer back to Explorers’ Web’s “Winter climbing: The BAD chart” series. After assessment of different meteorological parameters and combining their affect, the article concludes that,

According to the chart the lines jam up and things starts to get really bad during December, worsen slightly in January and stay bad during February. November is drier and warmer than the winter period and March is warmer and less windy.

The two most important factors for bad winter weather are cold temperatures and high winds. The extreme winds start already in October and run through February. Temperatures drop constantly during the autumn until Dec 21, when they reach bottom levels.

Temperatures stay low for just over two months until February 28; when Everest starts to warm up again. It is probably no coincidence that the weather charts show winter starting at the exact same date as the winter solstice (darkest day of the year), and the official beginning of winter according to the calendar.

December 1st was never considered the true start of winter climbing season. Brian Hall wrote in Alpine Journal 1985, “The season is officially from December 1 to January 31st, though the calendar winter season starts on 21 December - a date when the majority of successful expeditions have already reached the summit. The beginning of December has stable, clear weather, in fact more of an extension of the post-monsoon period, though the winds are higher and the temperatures colder. Also, the Nepalese government allows winter expeditions to reach Base Camp and even establish a Camp I (though not man it) before December 1st. Thus the winter season is not as unattractive as it at first appears.

Hence, today those expeditions with summit reached before Dec 21st are marked as late autumn climbs and doesn't appear in winter lists. It’s agreed that winter climbing should adhere to calendar winter time-frame. Climbing should start no earlier than Dec 21st and should end before March 21st.

The Winter First Ascents of 1980s
The idea of calendar winter expeditions (no climbing before Dec 21st) evolved quite recently, and it does not change the status of various ascents of 1980s. However, expeditions starting in autumn and summit being reached before the start of calendar winter are still categorized as Late Autumn climbs. A winter summit is where the entire summit climb took place after Dec 21st.

Nonetheless, the mountaineering community unanimously awards the first winter ascent of Lhotse to Krzyztof Wielicki, and that of Manaslu to Maciej Berbeka and Ryszard Gajewski. Hence only Nanga Parbat and K2 stand unclimbed in winter, now.

However, the stats do say that Kangchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Lhotse ascents were not full calendar winter climbs (i.e teams started climbing the mountain before Dec 21st).

Recent Years
On December 11, 2004, Frenchman Jean-Christophe Lafaille reached the summit of then winter-unclimbed Shishapangma and claimed it to be the first-winter-ascent of the mountain (start date of expedition was November 14, 2004). Lafaille's claim was entirely rejected by mountaineering community.

Later that season, Simone Moro and Piotr Morawski achieved the first ascent of Shishapangma in true winter conditions. It was the re-birth of successful winter altitude climbing. Since then, four more 8000m peaks have been climbed in winter, all following the calendar winter rules.

First winter ascent of all eight-thousanders, except Everest, has been achieved without using supplemental oxygen. The no O2 on taller 8000m peaks was a new thing when Polish team attempted Everest in January/February 1980. The mountain is still to be climbed without oxygen.

Sometimes, Ang Rita’s no O2 summit of Everest on December 22, 1987 is wrongly quoted as a winter summit. The expedition started in October and entire climb till C4 took place before the start of calendar winter.
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