Mount Rysy, the highest peak in Poland, rises only 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). Unlike the neighboring Alps, the Tatras have no glaciers or year-round snow. But winter mountaineering, involving exponentially more pain and suffering than summer climbing—frostbite, hypothermia, avalanches—became an obsession of the Poles. The 1,762-foot (537 meters) Kazalnica face in the famous Morskie Oko valley became the Poles' personal El Capitan, but instead of sunny Yosemite granite, the most heralded routes were all done on icy rock.
One of the early practitioners of Polish winter mountaineering was a tall, lean Roman-nosed geophysicist named Andrzej Zawada. In 1959, Zawada completed the first winter enchainment of the Tatras, ascending over a hundred peaks and towers in 19 snowy days of continuous climbing. Dashing and charismatic, Zawada became Poland's most visible and visionary proponent of winter mountaineering. "Tell me what you have done on Kazalnica in winter," he used to say, "and I'll tell you what you are worth."
In 1973, when the Iron Curtain was cracking just slightly, Zawada was allowed to visit Afghanistan, where he led the first winter ascent of a 7,000-meter peak, summiting 24,580-foot (7,490 meters) Noshaq. The following winter, Zawada climbed above 8,000 meters on Lhotse with Zygmunt Heinrich, becoming the first people to reach the "death zone" in winter. By the late '70s, Zawada was audaciously suggesting that even Everest could be climbed in winter.
"At that time, climbing in the Himalaya in winter was going beyond what was reasonable," says Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks.
Undaunted, Zawada persuaded the Nepalese government to issue him a permit to attempt Everest in the winter of 1979. It was the first winter permit ever granted and de facto created an official new climbing season in the Himalaya. Many climbers still believed winter high-altitude mountaineering was suicidal. But Zawada knew something they didn't—the Poles had been training for this for two generations. By character, by desire, and by experience, Polish mountaineers were inured to cold, wind, darkness, and danger.
On February 17, 1980, Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki summited Everest, the first winter ascent of an 8,000-meter peak.
December 12, 2006. Wielicki is back in the Himalaya, leading the assault on Nanga Parbat. Climbers and high-altitude porters are ferrying loads up from Base Camp, set in deep snow beside an icy stream. Wielicki is slurping down a steaming bowl of tripe, when the radio crackles. He snatches up the receiver and responds.
A patchy, disembodied voice fills the frosty tent. Wielicki listens intently, his snowburned eyes staring at the nylon floor. There has been an accident; an avalanche. Hassan Sadpara, an experienced high-altitude porter, has been hurt.