When we think of the 8000ers, the world’s 14 highest mountains, we often think that all the major challenges have long been overcome, that these 14 giants are becoming increasingly commercialised, no longer simply the preserve of the elite but instead becoming more and more accessible to the amateur climber.
Yet one last great challenge does remain, one which has repelled the world’s strongest climbers for the last three decades. K2, ‘the Savage Mountain’, remains the only 8000m peak not to be climbed in winter.
Indeed, the awful weather conditions and notorious difficulty of the world’s second highest mountain mean that very few have even attempted to climb it in winter: but there have been a few attempts, by some of the world’s strongest mountaineers.
Here is a short history of the quest to summit K2 in winter.
The First Push: 1987-88
The first winter attempt on K2 was led by Polish mountaineering legend Andrzej Zawada. The 24 man team (13 Poles, 7 Canadians and 4 Brits) flew to Pakistan at the start of December, and arrived in Base Camp on Christmas Day, to heavy snow and strong winds.
In total, the team would have just ten days of ‘good’ weather in the three months they spent at Base Camp.
Despite the adverse conditions, Maciej Pawlikowski, Maciej Berbeka, Krzysztof Wielicki and Jon Tinker managed to establish Camp 1 (6100m) on January 5th.
A few days later, Wielicki and Cichy set up Camp 2 at 6700m, but due to stormy weather, the climbers did not reach Camp 3 (7300m) until March 2nd.
Wielicki and Cichy were the first to reach Camp 3, then Roger Mear and Jean-Francois Gagnon joined them on March 6th. However, that night, with hurricane winds raging, both Mear and Gagnon suffered frostbite, and had to be assisted down the mountain the next day. This brought an end to the expedition, and the idea of further winter attempts on K2 was forgotten for over a decade.
Giving K2 Another Go: 2002-03
In 2000, after many expeditions to other 8000ers, Andrzej Zawada began to prepare for a second attempt on K2, this time from the Chinese side. But in February 2000, Zawada tragically fell ill, and six months later he died.
Zawada’s team went ahead with the expedition planning, and in December 2002, a 14-strong team of alpinists finally set out. The team was led by Krzysztof Wielicki, and included members from Poland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
The team planned to climb K2 via the North Ridge. They reached Base Camp on December 30th, and by January 5th, Denis Urubko and Vasiliy Pivtsov reached Camp 1 at 6000m. On January 20th, after a period of bad weather, Urubko and Pivtsov established Camp 2 (6750m).
However, infighting within the team led to three climbers returning home, and majorly impacted the expedition’s chance of success.
Despite these setbacks, the remaining team members continued their progress up the North Ridge, and managed to establish Camp 3 (7300m) and Camp 4 (7650m).
After waiting out a spell of bad weather, on February 21st the team started their summit bid. Jurek Natkanski and Jacek Jawien went first to stock the camps, before Marcin Kaczkan and Urubko followed the next day. After three days they reached Camp 4, only to find the tent destroyed by horrendous weather conditions, meaning they were forced to sleep in a small bivouac tent.
After a terrible night, Urubko woke to find that Kaczkan was suffering from cerebral edema, and immediately called for help. Fortunately a rescue mission was able to return all climbers safely to Base Camp, but that was the end of the expedition.
Although the team had failed to reach the summit, there was guarded optimism that their efforts suggested it could be done. Piotr Morawsk wrote in the trip report,“Although K2 has once more held out in winter, this expedition showed that a successful ascent is possible.”
Russians Give K2 Their Best Shot: 2011-12
It was a further nine years before the third attempt was made to summit K2 in winter. A team of nine strong Russian climbers flew into K2 Base Camp at the end of December 2011, where they would attempt the Abruzzi Spur.
On January 4th the climbers established Camp 1 at 6050m, and from there made steady progress, even if at times it was frustratingly slow due to inclement weather. By the end of January, the team had fixed ropes for the entire route up to 7000m. On February 2nd, the team were stopped by huge storms, forcing all the climbers to return to Base Camp.
In the process, Vitaly Gorelik contracted frostbite, and was then also diagnosed with pneumonia. The team radioed for an immediate evacuation, but the helicopter was unable to reach Base Camp due to bad weather, and on February 6th, Gorelik tragically died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest. The expedition was called off.
Urubko’s Expedition Called Off: 2014/15
The Russian expedition of 2011/12 was the last to attempt a winter ascent of K2 to date.
In 2014/15, Denis Urubko planned an expedition from the North side. But just days before the team were due to fly out, they heard that they had been refused a permit. Undeterred, they transferred to a different agent, but unfortunately the Chinese government still refused them a permit, apparently because of a terrorist threat in one region they would be travelling through.
This meant that the expedition had to be called off.
A Polish expedition to K2, led by Krzysztof Wielicki, had been planned for this winter (2016/17), but it has recently been reported that, due to lack of funds and logistical challenges, this expedition has now been delayed until 2017/2018.
Whether that expedition ultimately goes ahead, and whether it has any more success than the previous attempts, remains to be seen.
But one thing seems certain: despite the danger, the hardship, and the brutal environment, as long as K2 remains unclimbed in winter, there will be climbers willing to risk their lives in an effort to claim what is arguably now the most coveted prize in Himalayan mountaineering.