Published: January 2008

Himalaya Winter Climb

Himalaya Feature

Ice Warriors

Numbing cold, gale-force winds, avalanches, frostbite. Why risk your neck on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat in the middle of winter? Ask Polish climbers.

By Mark Jenkins
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Photograph by Tommy Heinrich

Unspeakable cold. A cold so unearthly, the two Polish mountaineers, even in their benumbed state, recognize it for what it is: the angel of death. She has wrapped their wasted bodies in her icy wings and is feeding on them while they're still alive—gnawing at their wooden fingers and frozen toes, eating away their waxy cheeks and hardened noses.

It is the 12th of January, 2007, the dead of winter, in Pakistan's Karakoram Range. Darek Załuski and Jacek Jawień are pinned down inside their tent at 22,146 feet (6,750 meters) on the southwest ridge of Nanga Parbat, Earth's ninth highest mountain. Everything is frozen solid—boots, socks, sunscreen, water bottles—as if left over from some ghastly ice age. They remove batteries from inside their underwear, fumble them into the radio, and call Base Camp. The wind is shrieking, snow strafing their nylon tent. Only a few desperate words can be made out.

"Wiatr . . . wiatr!"

The wind, the wind. Spoken like dying words. But Załuski and Jawień are not dying. Unbelievably, they are trying to decide whether to go up, or go down.

They have not slept for two days. They reached Camp 3 on the ridge the day before and spent the night huddled inside their tent, clinging to the poles to keep them from snapping in the wind. The temperature is minus 40°C (4°F), the wind gusting at 60 miles (100 kilometers) an hour. They are wearing everything they have—layers of fleece, thick down suits, gloves inside mittens, hoods, and masklike balaclavas. Exposed skin quickly suffers frostbite. They have cocooned themselves in their foot-deep sleeping bags, but still they are shivering uncontrollably, their speech slurred, body movements jerky. Even in this fugue of misery, they understand and accept the situation. They are Polish, after all, and this is a peculiarly Polish pursuit: high-altitude winter mountaineering.

Załuski, 47, and Jawień, 30, have been here before. They are veteran Himalayan mountaineers. Two years ago they were on the first winter ascent of 26,300-foot (8,020 meters) Xixabangma Feng (Shisha Pangma) in China. Another two-man team had reached the top, and Zakluski and Jawień were poised to make the second summit push when a storm slammed into the mountain. They were forced to turn around and barely made it down alive. Now it has happened again.

They have been on the mountain for 35 days. Big sponsors have paid big money to see them succeed. Websites are reporting on their progress. Poland is watching. Their comrades are watching. But so are Załuski's wife and his two teenage daughters back in Warsaw; and so is Jawień's wife in Tychy, cradling their eight-month-old daughter.

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