Scaling the world’s most lethal mountain in the dead of winter

Never say die:In this file picture dated January 10, 2017, Kacper Tekieli, a barista and mountain climber, nears a summit in the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland.NYTMAX WHITTAKER

Never say die:In this file picture dated January 10, 2017, Kacper Tekieli, a barista and mountain climber, nears a summit in the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland.NYTMAX WHITTAKER  

The mountain rises glistening from an encasement of glaciers in the far reaches of the Karakoram. Pyramid-shaped, an austere link to eternity, K2 yields only to Everest in height and is deadlier. Its walls are vertiginous no matter the approach.

Only the most experienced climbers attempt ascents, and for every four who crawl to its peak, one dies.

And then there is winter. Fourteen of the earth’s mountains exceed 8,000 metres, and climbers have reached the peak of 13 in winter. K2 is the forbidding exception. K2, also known as Mount Godwin-Austen or Chhogori, is located on the China-Pakistan border.

Ten Polish climbers hope to make history by reaching the summit next winter. This is the way of the Polish climbers, who for reasons of history and culture have earned reputations as the greatest climbers of the Himalayas in winter.

These men will hike through knee-deep snow to a base camp at 18,645 feet. Atop K2’s near-vertical slopes, glacial icefalls dislodge car-size hunks of ice. Winds at the summit reach hurricane strength.

Janusz Golab is a long-limbed lion of a climber with curly hair that goes here and there like an ethereal nimbus. He is 49, still in his prime for a great climber, and he will be one of those charged with making it to the summit of K2 next winter.

The challenge is the key

He has climbed in Antarctica, Greenland and the Himalayas. “Winter is the best season.” He shrugs. “It’s more challenging. It’s obvious it’s the best.”

The blue-eyed Krzysztof Wielicki, who at 67 is among the most accomplished Himalayan climbers alive, will lead the K2 expedition. He has climbed three Himalayan peaks in winter, including Everest.

By the time the Poles reached Asia in great numbers, climbers from other nations had scaled all the 8,000-metre peaks. The Poles decided to climb those peaks in winter or by risky new routes.

The audacity of their ascents was legendary. Their ranks produced the first woman to summit K2 and the first man to scale three giant peaks in winter.

That climber and a partner scaled K2 in summer along a route so dangerous, even suicidal — it passed beneath unstable ridges of ice — no one else has attempted it. To this day, it is known as the Polish Line.

The grand climbers perished at a frightful rate. They were trapped by swirling tempests; died of altitude sickness; slipped and catapulted into the abyss.

There is no field of athletic achievement where death rides so insistently on your shoulder.

Mr. Wielicki noted an axiom of climbing: A young climber is the most endangered, as he does not know enough to worry. To that, he adds another: An older climber should not draw too much comfort from mastery of technique. That can prove a frail shield against the merciless randomness of the Himalayas.

Singular focus

On the mountain, climbers escape into concentration as pure as a monk’s repose. Life becomes detail: Click into the rope and unclick; secure boot crampons and dig for footholds. There is a whack of the ice pick and another one, and one after that.

The Poles mastered the dominant expedition style a half-century ago.

It requires a willingness to subsume ego in the collective. If a team numbers 10 climbers, six will take the role of worker bees, laying pitons and ropes and tents at camps higher on the mountain.

Kacper Tekieli has a tangle of dark curls and a mischievous smile, and is a philosophy major with a love of mountain literature.

At 32, he has built a considerable mountaineering reputation, although he cannot afford to give up working as a barista in the old quarter of Krakow. He watched a friend slip to his death last year in the Himalayas; he’s not sure he needs K2.

Mr. Tekieli talks of the singular focus needed to summit a Himalayan peak in the maw of winter. The universe narrows to a meter or two. “There’s something mystical. It’s not about the mountain, which is inert. It’s you. It’s what you discover about yourself in all those hours of concentration.”

New York Times News Service

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