Polish climbers hope to make historic winter conquest of K2

RZEDKOWICE, Poland (Reuters) - Polish climbers hope to pull off one of the last big feats of mountaineering in coming months by scaling K2, the world’s second highest peak and the only of the 14 exceeding 8,000 meters (26,246 ft) yet to be conquered in wintertime.

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If successful, their ascent will also mark the culmination of an era for the Poles, who pioneered winter climbing on the world’s highest mountains in the 1980s.

Krzysztof Wielicki, a small and wiry 67-year-old who will run the 10-person expedition from its base camp, was the first to scale the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, in the winter, nearly four decades ago. It took him four attempts to climb K2 in the summer, each time with months of preparation.

“K2 has taken 12-14 months of my life,” Wielicki told Reuters in his home in southern Poland. “Actually, it gave me those months because it is a wonderful thing to be near K2, to look at it. It makes you happy.”

First scaled by Italians in 1954, K2 is in the Karakorum mountains along the border between China and Pakistan and is notorious for high winds, especially steep and icy slopes and high fatality rates among climbers. In winter months, scant snowfall means the summit approach can turn into bare ice.

The Polish climbers - only the fourth team to ever tackle K2 in winter - will spend two-three months painstakingly laying out camps and ropes along the climb route, and storing supplies of food and fuel. They will wait for a window of good weather, maybe only a day long, to set out for the summit.

“The winds need to be below 50-60 km per hour, though even that is strong,” said Janusz Majer, 70, a veteran Himalayas climber who is organizing the government-funded expedition.

Only the fifth person to climb all of the world’s 14 highest mountains, Wielicki says the era of big Himalayan conquests is coming to an end.

With most peaks already conquered, only the most daring and dangerous approach routes are left to be explored.

“We were privileged, so much was to be achieved in the mountains,” he said of his earlier climbing days.

“People have to weigh safety versus success now. Is it worth it to sacrifice your life to cross serac that crumbles every third day?” he said. Serac is a column or block of glacial ice.

“We are moving now from risk to recklessness,” he warned.

High-altitude climbing gained popularity in Poland in the 1980s, when a government crackdown on popular unrest ahead of the collapse of Communism left many searching for fulfilment in professional life.

“The Poles went to the Himalayas a bit later than other climbers, so we missed the first ascents on top mountains,” said Majer, explaining why Poles pioneered the relatively unexplored skill of winter climbing at the time.

“When people asked us why so many high-altitute climbers came from Poland, which has few mountains, we said we are used to having little oxygen. We come from polluted coal-mining regions,” he quipped.

Additional reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Anna Koper and Pawel Sobczak; editing by Mark Heinrich