History of Winter Climbing K2

We do not blame ourselves because we did everything that was humanly possible in those inhospitable conditions,” - winter-climbing pioneer Andrzej Zawada commented about first unsuccessful winter attempt on K2, of which he was expedition leader.

Winter ascent of K2 is probably the most-remarkable yet unclaimed title in Himalayan mountaineering. It has been attempted just thrice. [Compare it with 30 unsuccessful expeditions before first team made it to Nanga Parbat summit in winter 2016.]

There are several factors that discourage anyone thinking of climbing K2 in winter. It's a complex operation requiring huge sums of money and logistical experience. The approach to (and from) the mountain is difficult and dangerous. Weather conditions in Karakoram are worse than Himalayas. And then there is North-side of mountain which China can close at any moment.

The Reconnaissance 1983 
After first winter ascent of Everest in 1980, Poles wanted to attempt K2 for obvious reasons. However, cost of the expedition was way above their budget. Andrzej Zawada reached out his contacts in Canada for financial support, and luckily the response was encouraging.

In winter 1983, Zawada and a Canadian-resident Polish national Jaques Olek visited Baltoro to study field conditions and prepare a definite expedition plan. But the situation didn’t look promising; authorities weren’t willing for winter permit, cost was well beyond previous estimate and the logistics situation was more complicated. In other words, they needed more money!

To further attract sponsors, the team decided to include some British climbers in the mix and by end 1987, everything was set for first K2 winter attempt.

First K2 Winter Expedition 1987-88
The Polish-Canadian-British team attempted Abruzzi Spur on southside of mountain in winter 1987-88. It was a big expedition consisting of two dozen climbers (13 Poles, 7 Canadians and 4 Brits) and accompanied by a group of trekkers. The team shifted it's gear and luggage to Base Camp in autumn to avoid inflated porter wages in winter months.

Climbers flew to Pakistan at the start of December and reached BC on Christmas day. They were welcomed by snowfall and harsh wind. Treacherous weather conditions prevailed throughout the season. The team noted that they had merely 10 good weather days during three months stay at BC.

Maciej Pawlikowski, Maciej Berbeka, Krzysztof Wielicki and Jon Tinker established C1 (6100m) on January 5th. Few days later, Wielicki and Cichy surpassed House Chimney to install C2 at 6700m. Then a prolonged period of bad weather arrived. C3 (7300m) couldn’t be reached until March 2nd. Wielicki and Cichy were first to reach C3. Roger Mear and Jean-Francois Gagnon made it to C3 on March 6th. However, hurricane winds raged throughout that night. Both of them suffered frostbite and had to be assisted down the mountain. The idea of further attempts on K2 was considered unviable.

The K2 attempt was followed by an alpine-style push on Broad Peak, where Maciej Berbeka made it to Foresummit.

International Expedition 2002-03
After 1988, Poles turned their attention to Nanga Parbat and made several unsuccessful attempts on the mountain. In 2000 Andrzej Zawada started preparations for another attempt on K2 - from north-side this time. He had planned to reconnaissance K2 north side, but a sudden illness prevented him from traveling to Karakoram. Zawada remained in hospital for six months and died in August 2000.

Zawada’s team went forth with expedition planning and eventually in December 2002, fourteen climbers and as many members of support staff left for Karakoram. The team was led by Krzysztof Wielicki, and included four members from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. They intended to climb North Ridge.

They reached northside BC (5100m) on December 30th and started working on the route immediately. By January 5th, Denis Urubko and Vasiliy Pivtsov had established C1 at 6000m. After a bad weather break, Krzysztof Wielicki and Jacek Berbeka fixed 200m of rope through Rock Barrier, which opened the route to C2. On January 20th, Denis and Vasiliy installed camp 2 (6750m).

However, expedition suffered a major setback when Gia Tortladze, Iljas Tukhvatullin and Wasilij Piwcow left the team and returned home. The unification of Poles and Eastern members didn't work well. Only Denis Urubko decided to stay with the team.

Despite fewer resources the progress continued on North ridge. C3 (7300m) and C4 (7650m) were established on February 4th and 12th respectively. After bad weather patch, a summit attempt was launched on February 21st. Jurek Natkanski and Jacek Jawien went first. Their task was to check camps and resupply them. A day after former duo, Kaczkan and Urubko began the ascent. The two climbers made it to C4 on 25th and found the tent destroyed by harsh weather. Kaczkan and Urubko spent a terrible night in a small bivouac tent.

Next morning, Denis noticed that Kaczkan was suffering from cerebral edema. A rescue mission was mobilized immediately. On 27th, all climbers made it back to BC and the expedition was called off. “Although K2 has once more held out in winter, this expedition showed that a successful ascent is possible.” Piotr Morawsk wrote in expedition report.

Russian Attempt 2011-12
After multiple successful new routes like Lhotse Middle (in 2001), Everest North Face (2004) and K2 West Face (2007), a strong Russian team headed to climb K2’s Abruzzi Ridge route in winter 2011-12. The team consisted of nine climbers, a coach and a doctor. They flew to K2 Base Camp at the end of December.

Climbers worked in small groups to fix the route section by section. C1 (6050m) was established on January 4th, whereas an intermediate C2 was set up at 6350m on 14th. After being restricted to BC for several days, the climbers resumed the ascent above C2 on Jan 25th. By the end of January, route was secured till 7000m.

On Jan 31st Nick Totmjanin, Valery Shamalo and Vitaly Gorelik carried up some gear to 7000m. They were followed by Iljas Tukhvatullin, Andrew Mariev and Vadim Popovich who fixed the ropes to 7200m. Hurricane winds arrived on Feb 2nd, forcing everyone to retreat.

Vitaly Gorelik suffered frostbite during the attempt and was also diagnosed with pneumonia. An immediate evacuation was requested but bad weather prevented helicopter from reaching BC. On February 6th at around 11:30AM Vitaly died in BC, of Pneumonia and cardiac-arrest. Following the tragic incident, expedition was called off.

In winter 2014-15, Denis Urubko, Adam Bielecki, Alex Txikon, Artiom Braun and Dmitry Siniew planned to attempt K2 NE Ridge from Chinese side. However, a few days before their departure China cancelled their climbing permit and the expedition was abandoned.

Polish national team has been preparing for K2 winter attempt since past several years. This year, they're all set to go for SE or SSE ridge of the mountain.
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