History of Winter Climbing K2

“We do not blame ourselves because we did everything that was humanly possible in those inhospitable conditions,” Andrzej Zawada, winter-climbing pioneer, commented about first unsuccessful winter attempt on K2, of which he was expedition leader. Winter ascent of K2 is probably the finest unclaimed title in Himalayan mountaineering. Multiple factors including extensive funding required for such a complex expedition, complications in approach, the technical difficulties of the mountain, harsh conditions and absence of climbable weather windows, the great altitude and logistical challenges have discouraged several climbers from having a shot on K2. The mountain has been attempted just thrice, compared to 21 attempts on Nanga Parbat.

The 1983 Reconnaissance
After first winter ascent of Everest in 1980, the Polish mountaineers wanted to attempt K2, the next big thing. However, the cost of the expedition was out of Polish climbers’ budget. So, Andrzej Zawada reached out his contacts in Canada for financial support, and luckily the response was encouraging. To conclude the details of expedition and prepare a definite plan, Zawada and a Canadian-resident Polish national Jaques Olek visited Baltoro in 1983.

The situation didn’t look promising; authorities weren’t willing for winter permits, cost was well beyond previous estimates and the logistics were complicated. So, some British climbers were included in the team to gain more sponsors. The dedication of Zawada and his partner paid off and by 1987, everything was set for first K2 winter attempt.

First K2 Winter Expedition 1987-88
First attempt on K2 was made from South side via Abruzzi Ridge. It was a big expedition consisting of around two dozen climbers (13 Poles, 7 Canadians and 4 Brits) and was accompanied by a group of trekkers. To escape additional porter cost in winter, the baggage was shifted to BC in autumn. The team flew to Pakistan at the start of December, and made it to the Base Camp on Christmas day. They were welcomed by snowfall and harsh winds. By the end of expedition, team noted that they had merely 10 good weather days during three months 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. But then a prolonged period of bad weather arrived. C3 (7300m) couldn’t be reached till March 2nd. Wielicki and Cichy were first to reach C3. Roger Mear and Jean-Francois Gagnon also made it to C3 on March 6th. However, hurricane winds raged throughout the night. Both of them suffered from frostbite and had to be assisted down the mountain. The idea of further attempts on K2 was abandoned.

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. But in 2000 Andrzej Zawada started preparations for second attempt on K2, from Chinese side. In February that year, he wanted to reconnaissance the north side of the mountain, 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 the expedition planning and eventually in December 2002, 14 alpinists and as many members of support staff arrived in Karakoram. The team was led by Krzysztof Wielicki, and included four members from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. They intended to climb North Ridge.

The team reached 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 at (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 couldn’t work smoothly. Kazakh climber 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 supply them. Next day 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.

The climbers worked in small groups to fix the route. C1 (6050m) was established on January 4th, whereas temporary 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 lifted some gear to 7000m. They were followed by Iljas Tukhvatullin, Andrew Mariev and Vadim Popovich who fixed the ropes till 7200m. Hurricane winds arrived on Feb 2nd, forcing everyone to retreat.

Vitaly Gorelik suffered from 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.

This year’s expedition of Denis Urubko, Adam Bielecki, Alex Txikon, Artiom Braun and Dmitry Siniew will be fourth attempt on K2 in winter (second from Chinese side). They will be attempting an unclimbed route (NE Ridge from China).
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