email a friend iconprinter friendly iconHimalaya Winter Climb
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Wielicki nods gravely. He's seen many people die in the mountains; he's lost a dozen friends. He quietly asks how bad it is and is visibly relieved to hear it's only a banged-up shoulder. Rubbing his graying handlebar mustache, Wielicki instructs his companions to bring Sadpara down to Base Camp as quickly as possible.

A veteran of 37 years of climbing, Wielicki was the fifth person to summit all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. Besides Everest, he made the first winter ascents of Kanchenjunga and Lhotse. From 1980 to 1989, he spent six months of every year climbing. He soloed Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Xixabangma, and Dhaulagiri. Essentially unknown in the U.S., Wielicki is one of the world's most successful Himalayan mountaineers.

He has assembled an unparalleled team of nine climbers for this expedition ("I am looking for the fighters," he said). There is the old guard—Wielicki (57), Krzysztof Tarasewicz (55), Jan Szulc (50), Jacek Berbeka (47), Dariuz Załuski, and Artur Hajzer (44)—and the young guns—Jacek Jawień, Robert Szymczak (29), and Przemysław Łoziński (35). Wielicki says he's trying to "infect" a new generation of Polish climbers with "the joy of positive suffering—because if something is easy, you will not enjoy it, really."

The Poles are attempting the 1976 Schell Route up the left flank of the Rupal Face, which ascends a jagged ridge with fierce gendarmes separated by steep sections of ice. Their plan calls for four camps, perhaps a summit-push bivouac, and almost two miles of fixed rope. But after only five days on the mountain, there are already problems. A foot of snow fell the day they arrived, and they have been dodging avalanches ever since.

"Winter is usually safe time to climb," says Wielicki, wiping his sharp, red nose with the sleeve of his parka. "But Karakoram is different than Himalaya. Colder, windier, wetter than I expected." They have also learned that their Base Camp, at the foot of the immense Rupal Face, is too low—at a mere 11,598 feet (3,535 meters)—which means the team is facing about 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) of climbing to reach the summit, an almost impossible distance in summer, let alone winter.

Despite these difficulties, the expedition moves swiftly during the first ten days. Sidestepping avalanches, they put in Advanced Base Camp at 14,829 feet (4,520 meters) on December 11, tucked safely under a rock overhang. Camp 1 is dug in on the ridge at 16,634 (5,070 meters) on December 12. The weather is nippy, minus 25°C (-13°F ) at night, "but for Poles," as Jawień says, "this is quite manageable."

Spirits are high, there's energy in the frigid air. Never mind the avalanches, the cold, the long ascent—the old Polish boldness is back.

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