Published: January 2008 Himalaya Winter Climb
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

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.

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.

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.

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.

The 1980s, as it turned out, were golden years for Polish mountaineers. After their first winter ascent of Everest in 1980, Polish climbers became national heroes—not unlike the U.S. hockey team that pulled off the "miracle on ice" by beating the Soviets at the Olympics that year. The climbers' faces were in the newspapers. They signed autographs and did lectures. Zawada even received a letter from Pope John Paul II, the first and only Polish pope.

State industry lavishly paid the best winter mountaineers to paint their belching factory smokestacks. Both the climbers and their clubs were subsidized as professional athletes, not unlike other Eastern-bloc athletes of the time. And they performed like pros.

"We were hungry back then," said Wielicki, "hungry to write our own story." To succeed, they had to do something that no one else had ever done. "No one had climbed the Himalaya in winter," he said. "But Polish know cold. Cold makes us more creative. An Everest winter ascent in 1980 was a beginning, first chapter."

In the winter of 1986, Wielicki and Jerzy Kukuczka climbed Kanchenjunga (28,208 feet, 8,598 meters). Among serious alpinists, Kukuczka is often considered the greatest high-altitude climber of all time. Described as a "psychological rhinoceros," unequalled in his ability to suffer, Kukuczka was second to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, but he did ten of them by new routes and four in winter. In February 1987, Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer summited Annapurna (26,502 feet, 8,078 meters); and Wielicki soloed Lhotse on New Year's Eve, 1988.In a mere eight years the Poles had managed to knock off seven first winter ascents of 8,000-meter peaks. They were hailed as the Ice Warriors, a new breed of hard-core mountaineers.

"Then suddenly in 1989 everything collapsed," said Artur Hajzer, one of the now white-bearded Ice Warriors. "Listen, I was one of the guys out there on the street marching. I was fighting for the fall of communism, but when the end came, so did our way of life."

Which, Hajzer revealed, was even more picaresque than it appeared. Painting smoke-stacks subsidized Polish expeditions in the '80s, but the money wasn't enough to support the climbers' families as well. So top Polish mountaineers became master smugglers. Purchasing cheap Polish products—down jackets, tents, mattresses, shoes—they hired trucks or even planes to transport them to Nepal, where they sold the items on the black market during expeditions.

"In the 1980s, the average income in Poland was ten, fifteen dollars a month," said Hajzer. "Smuggling Polish products to Nepal, we made thousands. Climbers and climbing clubs had a huge income. Everybody wanted to be a climber!"

When the communist state finally disintegrated, so did the whole brilliant life Polish climbers had devised. "No money, no possibilities," said Hajzer. No expeditions to the Himalaya.

Not another 8,000-meter peak was climbed in winter for 17 years (not until the winter ascent of Xixabangma in 2005, led by Jan Szulc). And no other nation or multinational mountaineering team stepped forward to fill the gap. Winter Himalayan climbing was a Polish thing.

It took more than a decade for Poland to find its economic feet. By then the knights of the Polish round table were grandfathers. Hajzer had founded a mountaineering equipment company. Wielicki had started an import business. The Iron Curtain was gone. Young Polish rock jocks could climb anywhere. They didn't have to suffer. They could go to Spain or Greece and climb in the sun.

And yet all the 8,000-meter peaks in Pakistan—K2, Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I and II—and Makalu on the border between China and Nepal were still waiting for a winter ascent.

In 2002 Krzysztof Wielicki delivered a Winter Manifesto to the Polish Alpine Association. It was a call to action to the "young, angry, and ambitious"—the kind of appeal Lech Wałęsa, had he been a mountaineer, might have made. "There is a fad for easy and pleasant climbing," he wrote. "It has to be fun. It has to be cool." But Polish climbers had a more important mission. Half the 8,000-meter peaks had been climbed by Poles. Half were left. The time had come for a new generation to finish it. "You may count on my generation, on our help, our experience, even our active participation. The choice is yours!"

December 18, 2006. The higher the team moves on the mountain, the more dangerous it becomes. Hajzer, Jawień, and Załuski spend three days fighting wind and cold to fix lines up a steep, long stretch of ice above Camp 1. They eventually put up more than 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) of rope, from 16,700 to 19,000 feet (5,100 to 5,800 meters). It is a heroic push, and they return to Base Camp exhausted.

Wielicki and Robert Szymczak, the team doctor, are up next. Their mission: Extend the lines another thousand feet and put in Camp 2 at approximately 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). On the 19th, above the fixed lines, they encounter a tower of rock on the snowy ridge, but instead of taking the time to look for an easier way around it, Wielicki boldly leads a line straight up the middle. This is classic Wielicki: choosing the hard way. It is sketchy climbing on bad rock. He hammers in pitons occasionally, but mostly just solos up and up. The rock is so rotten Szymczak must hide behind outcrops to keep from being killed by stones tumbling in Wielicki's wake.

Dusk forces Wielicki and Szymczak to bivouac near the top of the tower at only 19,500 feet (5,900 meters). It's 30°C (-22°F) below. They scrape out a shelf in the angled snow, survive a miserable night, and descend the next day badly fatigued.

The rest of the team is bewildered by Wielicki's choice of route. Although Camp 2 is eventually placed at 20,013 feet (6,099 meters) in a perilous crevasse directly above the "Wielicki spur," the spur is too technical and too steep for the porters. They drop their loads at its base and scuttle back down the mountain. Wielicki, thinking like the elite climber he'd been during the '80s, not like the team leader he is now, has led his expedition into a vertical cul-de-sac. ("For me, it was like a test," Wielicki will later say. "A challenge. A problem to overcome. It was necessary for me, for myself, not for the expedition.") Humping tents, bags, rope, food, and fuel up the short Wielicki spur grinds the team down. Krzysztof Tarasewicz is hit by a falling stone that mangles a finger. Almost two weeks are wasted battling up and down this small stone tower.

Finally, on January 1, Hajzer, Jawień, and Załuski discover a simple detour around the Wielicki spur. But precious, irretrievable time, energy, and enthusiasm have been lost. Wielicki himself said that the team needed to summit before the middle of January—when winter winds become so ferocious it's impossible to continue.

His dark prediction begins to play out. Putting in Camp 3 becomes an epic struggle against the air raid of wind. Climbers are almost blown off the ridge. It takes another week and three attempts before the team finally establishes Camp 3 at 22,146 feet (6,750 meters), chopping a small trench for a single tent in snow as hard as concrete.

Back at Base Camp there is a constant drone in the air: the deep-throated howl of the wind tearing at the summit. A sense of foreboding has descended on the team. The slow progress, crippling cold, and stress have begun unraveling the indispensable braided rope of teamwork. Climbers have taken sides against one another; there's finger-pointing and murmuring.

In an attempt to salvage the expedition, Wielicki makes a last-ditch plan to reach the summit—even though Camp 4, the high camp, has not been established and a summit bivouac is certain death. Załuski and Jawień will push up to Camp 3; he and Hajzer will go to Camp 2, then follow. Szymczak and Łoziński will stand by at Base Camp. Maybe, somehow, Załuski and Jawień can still put in Camp 4. Maybe someone will somehow struggle to the top.

Załuski knows better. This will be his fifth trip up the mountain. He and Jawień are already spent, skeletons of the men they were a month ago. Trudging like weary soldiers out of Base Camp, up toward one last battle with the cold and wind, Załuski is fully aware of the senselessness of their mission. But he goes anyway.

Three days later, on January 14, the fifth Polish winter expedition to Nanga Parbat is over.

But not the story of Polish climbing.

Before the team is even back home, they are planning to return to the Himalaya. Hajzer and Wielicki are thinking about Broad Peak. Jacek Berbeka wants to give Nanga Parbat another go. Załuski is hoping for K2, Tarasewicz for Makalu. Jawień, Szymczak, and Łoziński want to join Hajzer on Gasherbrum I or II. The old guard is scheming and dreaming with the young guns, just like in the old days.

In this story of mountains and men, winter and willpower, suffering and survival, eight chapters have already been written. There are only six left—and there's no doubt the Poles will write them. Who else could?

"What if all 8,000-meter peaks could be conquered in the winter by the Polish?" Wielicki had declared in his Winter Manifesto. "Wouldn't it be great? Can you imagine that! Let the name Ice Warriors be inscribed in the history of Himalayan climbing forever."

It already is.