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The World of Winter Himalayan Climbing

An elite team of Polish climbers is awaiting a weather window that would allow them to attempt the summit of the hardest mountain in the Himalayas: K2. It has never been conquered in winter and for good reason. Gale force winds can literally blow climbers off their feet as they battle heavy snowfall and temperatures dropping below -50F.

Last month the climbers were forced to organize a rescue mission on the nearby Nanga Parbat. They rescued a French climber but were too late to help a Polish mountaineer who died of altitude sickness while sheltering from the elements in a crevasse.

After a dramatic and physically demanding rescue, it was uncertain if the team would return to their own objective. To complicate matters, one of the climbers decided to attempt to summit on his own, compromising the group’s integrity and morale. He was unsuccessful but returned safely to base camp where the team is now waiting for another opportunity.

The highest peaks, the highest stakes

The death to summit ratio on Nanga Parbat exceeds one in five and on K2 it’s one in four. Only Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain in the world, is more dangerous with an astonishing rate of one in three. By contrast, with a 6.5% death rate, Mount Everest is relatively safe.

Despite the odds, the highest mountains in the world have beckoned climbers for decades. After first ascents in the French Alps in the early 1800s, the mid-twentieth century saw first successes in the Himalayas. The first 8,000-metre peak to be scaled was Annapurna in 1950.

In recent years, thanks to  improvements in climbing technique and gear, mountaineers have started to deploy the Alpine tactics of fast, lightweight ascents in the Himalayas. Ueli Steck’s solo mission to the summit of Annapurna and back to base camp in under 28 hours is the crowning achievement of that style of climbing.

Himalayan summer is the best time for such feats but some climbers revel in the challenge of battling the elements. While winter conditions don’t lend themselves to fast ascents, the unforgiving environment makes for a different, even more dangerous adventure.

The frozen world

During Himalayan winters, temperatures drop to -20F, even at base camps. Climbers speak of eyelids temporarily freezing to eyes every time they blink. Higher up, incredibly strong winds strip rock faces of snow, making climbing more physically demanding, time consuming and even more deadly than in summer. Every minute in the death zone, where there isn’t enough oxygen for breathing, takes an unimaginable toll on the human body.

Less than three decades ago, it was believed that scaling peaks over 8,000 meters in winter was simply not possible. Yet in 1980 two Polish climbers, Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki stood atop Mount Everest in the dead of winter. Their ascent brought about a new style in Himalayan climbing: pushing the limits not when the conditions are the most favorable but when they are at their absolute worst.

At the time this blog post is being written, heavy snow is falling on K2 and the temperature is just shy of -40F. Next week is due to bring clear skies and less wind, potentially giving the current expedition a good shot at the summit.

We wish them all the best in their adventure and await to hear of their safe return.

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