But going up is impossible. Going up is a death sentence, a march through bludgeoning snow straight into oblivion. Even going down they might not survive. They reach a decision.
In bright red astronaut suits, they crawl out of the flapping tent into the maelstrom. Blinded by snow bulleting their goggles, knocked to their knees by the wind, they reach for a rope whipping in space, and begin to descend.
Nanga Parbat, the "naked mountain," is one of the most coveted prizes for Polish winter mountaineers. Four previous Polish teams have attempted it, and all have failed.
Separated from the rest of the Karakoram by the Indus River, Nanga Parbat is a lone pyramid at the western end of the Himalaya. It was the first 8,000-meter peak ever attempted, in 1895 by Englishman A. F. Mummery, and, as if to warn the world, the mountain summarily killed Mummery and his two high-altitude porters. Twenty-eight more people would die on four inglorious expeditions before Austrian Hermann Buhl reached the summit in 1953.
Polish mountaineers would have given anything, including probably their limbs and lives, to have competed for the first ascent of Nanga Parbat. After World War I, Poland was recovering from the loss of more than a million people. During the 1940s, so much of World War II was waged on Polish soil that a fifth of the population—almost six million people, half of them Jews—perished. When the Cold War set in, intellectuals, activists, and anyone else with an opinion were held down by Soviet oppression. It wasn't until the rise of Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity trade union from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk in 1981 that cracks appeared in communism's stone edifice.
This prolonged period of suffering left its thumbprint on the nation's soul, and it was only the latest chapter in a history of sorrows. As a people, Poles had long ago learned to bear up against terrible odds, recognizing that heroes who struggle and lose may be heroes all the same. At least five times during the past millennium, conquerors had erased the nation from the map of Europe, vowing to obliterate its memory. Yet somehow the Polish identity had survived.
The same underdog spirit drove Polish mountaineers, who, during the communist era, were forbidden from joining expeditions to the Himalaya and Karakoram, thus missing out on first ascents of all the high peaks, from Everest and Nanga Parbat in 1953 to Xixabangma in 1964. Instead they focused their frustration on the mountains in their own backyard, the tiny Tatras.