Scaling the World’s Most Lethal Mountain, in the Dead of Winter


Four climbers will make the final push to the summit without oxygen. Each has lost partners on climbs.

There is, too, the power that history exerts on the Poles. A decade ago, what remains of the old guard challenged a younger generation to test limits of flesh, endurance and creativity in the Himalayas. Their story, embedded in the urge of free spirits to slip the unsmiling bonds of a Cold-War communist government, offers our starting point.

Generations of Poles flocked like homing pigeons to the dark and jagged peaks of the Tatra Mountains, which rise on Poland’s southern border with Slovakia. Men and women scaled its granite walls in summer heat and in the belly of winter. When the photographer Max Whittaker and I accompanied five Polish Himalayan climbers to the Tatras in January, snow piled swollen on steep mountainsides and the temperature hovered near zero.

After World War II and its slaughters, the Communists imposed a controlling regime. Its bureaucrats held all passports. Whether factory worker, engineer or mathematician, everyone scuffled for money. The mountains offered freedom from all that.

Poland’s climbing clubs swelled with members. The most famous was found in Katowice, a steel town a few hours drive from the Tatras.

The Katowice club overlooked Frédéric Chopin Street; its coat of arms is an eagle and an ice pick. Many dozens of climbers each night talked mountains, life, and more mountains, and sang songs and drank vodka. To gain admission at that time, a young climber had to demonstrate technical prowess, sleep outside on a mountain ledge (known as a bivouac), pass written tests and show a command of mountaineering history, art and literature.

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Krzysztof Wielicki, 67, one of the most accomplished Himalayan climbers today, will lead the K2 ascent.

Credit
Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The blue-eyed Krzysztof Wielicki, who at 67 is among the most accomplished Himalayan climbers alive, will lead the K2 expedition. He remains limber and lively in his seventh decade, with a second wife and young children. He has climbed three Himalayan peaks in winter, including Everest, and has the bowlegged amble of a man with little left to prove. His eyes glisten when asked about his youthful hunger. “We climb here, and here, and here,” he recalls. “And if you climb O.K., they say, ‘O.K., you have passed summer Tatra.’”

He lifts his finger high in imitation of the hardened club members. “‘Now you have to do winter Tatra.’”

When Polish climbers obtained permission to climb the peaks of Western Europe, they discovered another problem: The West was terrifically expensive.

One night in January, I sit in the village home of Janusz Majer, 70, a burly climber who is working to obtain the $335,000 in government and private financing needed to underwrite the assault on K2. His friend and climber, Wojciech Dzik, joins us.

Over salamis and cheeses and a prodigious amount of wine, we talk of long-ago mountaineering adventures. They had finished a climb in the Dolomites in the 1970s when they saw a sign for cappuccinos. Dzik, a mathematician, did the mental currency conversion. “My God! It was one-tenth of my salary,” he recalls. “After that, we lived like Jesus, on bread and wine.”

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Janusz Majer in his library. He uses the material to find unclimbed peaks in remote mountain ranges.

Credit
Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The Poles turned to the mountains of Asia, where the technical challenge was magnitudes greater and the cost magnitudes less. In search of money, they walked into factory offices in Katowice and pointed to towering industrial chimneys. We’ll paint these at half your usual cost.

The factory managers winced. A scaffold, they said, costs more than your price.

We work Alpine-style, the climbers replied. Soon engineers and mathematicians and electricians rappelled down chimneys from dawn to dusk.

Then they hopped into old vans, Jack Keroaucs all, and set off for the Hindu Kush. No fancy equipment, no endorsements, no publicity; just freedom from the strictures of life in Poland. “Back then, to leave a job was O.K.,” Wielicki tells me. “You’re making just $50 a month. No big deal. Bye-bye.”

By the time the Poles reached Asia in great numbers, climbers from other nations had scaled all the 8,000-meter peaks.

The Poles decided to find fame Tatra-style and 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.

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Ryszard Pawlowski, a well-known Polish climber, used to earn money to go on expeditions by painting smokestacks in the 1980s.

Credit
Krzysztof Wielicki

Some climbers were artists who specialized in free climbs, with as little gear as possible. Others were expeditionary geniuses who plotted climbs like military assaults. Polish newspapers chronicled this as American newspapers do baseball.

To sit now with the Polish mountaineers, old and young, is to hear voices rise and laughter roll in like ocean breakers. They tell tales of supplies piled atop camels and flirtations with entrancing local women and negotiating with turbaned mechanics to eke a few more miles out of wizened vans. They recall Silesian dumplings and vodka in base camp and frozen bivouacs at 22,000 feet and fogged brains and hallucinations (they do not use oxygen when climbing). Always there were other worldly vistas.

“Up there at night, to hear glaciers calve: Boom. Boom. Boom. My God,” recalls Dzik, the white-haired mathematician. “I was just a poor bored lecturer in Poland. It was like going to heaven.”

Another visitor accompanied them: death.

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.

It is tempting to wonder if these men harbor a romance with two lovers, life and death. Wielicki, the leader of the upcoming expedition, was renowned for his solo ascents of Himalayan peaks. His stamina was unmatched. (As expedition leaders must, he will remain at base camp during the ascent of K2.)

I put the question of death’s allure to him and he shakes his head. He wanted to live, always, even if along the serrated edge of a knife. He 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 in the high Himalayas.

“You need luck,” he says. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

Rough sleep precedes a climb. It’s as if the dark imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch scamper through the cranium. A climber clings to a crumbling wall. Another sees a friend fall past him. Another feels creatures pulling at his feet.

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. They scale 27,000-foot-high puzzles. Sometimes climbers go a day or two without food; sometimes they fail to notice.

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