On March 5, Polish climbers Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Tomasz Kowalski and Artur Malek completed the first winter ascent of Broad Peak (8047m) in expedition style. On the descent, Berbeka and Kowalski separated from their teammates and went missing on the mountain. Today, expedition leader Krzysztof Wielicki called off the search for the two men.
A veteran winter alpinist, Wielicki made winter ascents of Everest (8848m) and Kangchenjunga (8586m), and climbed Lhotse (8516m) solo in the 1980s. Berbeka and Bielecki also have significant winter experience on 8000m peaks. (Read more about Polish climber’s long history of high-altitude winter mountaineering in the March 18, 2011 Feature.)
Since 1988, Broad Peak has been attempted in the winter six times–four of which were made by Polish teams. During the 1987-1988 winter season, Berbeka was a part of an expedition lead by Andrzej Zawada on K2. However, when conditions and slow progress prevented a successful summit bid, the team turned to Broad Peak.
Zawada approved Aleksander Lwow and Berbeka for the winter attempt, and the two climbers started ascending the peak on March 3, 1988, in alpine style. With good weather, the duo made a summit bid on the morning of March 6. However, Lwow turned around due to exhaustion while Berbeka continued toward the summit.
In worsening conditions, Berbeka thought he had successfully summited the mountain in the winter. According to the 1989 American Alpine Journal, “When Berbeka reached the foresummit, a very strong wind blowing from the direction of the main summit drifted snow and prevented his seeing clearly where he was. When he saw photographs of the foresummit, he very quickly pointed out that that was the place he had reached and disclaimed having reached the true summit.”
This January, Wielicki’s expedition crew arrived at Base Camp in perfect weather conditions with nearly no wind. The team immediately started fixing ropes to Camp I. Over the course of several weeks, the climbers pushed to Camp III, enduring high winds that destroyed Camp II twice. “The only things left were a spoon and 200 grams of sugar in a plastic bag,” said Tomasz Kowalski. “A toilet paper hanging on a rope was also there.”
On February 15, Bielecki and Malek left Base Camp to in mediocre conditions. Two days later, they were turned around above Camp III, at about 7900m, because of a major crevasse. The same day, Berbeka and Kowalski left Camp II and pushed passed Camp III, setting up an assault camp at 7400m. The following morning, they terminated their summit attempt due to high winds. None of the four climbers would get another chance at the summit for several weeks.
After holding tight for 16 days, the four climbers ascended to Camp IV on March 4, hoping to catch a weather window the following morning. The crevasse at around 7900m posed a major hurdle between them and the summit. The Polish team successfully navigated the obstacle and summited the peak at around 5:30 in the evening, local time.
Bielecki and Malek summited first, followed closely by Kowalski and Berbeka. On the descent, Kowalski and Berbeka fell behind and decided to bivouac at 7900m. Meanwhile, Bielecki and Malek made it back to Camp IV, staying the night before continuing their descent. Bielecki reached Base Camp at 9:30 in the evening on March 6, followed by Malek.
A statement issued on polishwinterhimalaism.pl, says that Kowalski was having trouble breathing and felt fatigued. He later fell and broke one of his crampons and was having a problem fixing it. Base Camp officials reported seeing a figure in the vicinity of the crevasse near 7900m but no contact has been made with the missing climbers since 6:30 in the morning on March 6.
A major storm has closed in and overtaken the peak, restricting a helicopter rescue of any kind. Karim Hayyat and Artur Malek climbed back to Camp III to assist in a rescue, if needed. Hayyat even climbed as high as 7700m with no sign of the missing climbers.
With winds blowing up to 60 m.p.h. through whiteout conditions and temperatures dipping to -30 degrees Celsius, any descent attempt would have been extremely difficult. Earlier today, Wielicki called off the rescue effort:
Considering all the circumstances, conditions, my experience, history of Himalayan mountaineering, knowledge regarding physiology and high-altitude medicine as well as consultations with doctors and co-organizers of the expedition in Poland, I have to declare Maciej Berbeka and Tomasz Kowalski dead…. The expedition has come to an end. We are packing the Base Camp and start to descend. March via the Baltoro Glacier will take approximately five days. We will come back to Poland on approximately March 20.
Over the last several decades, Polish climbers have been making high-altitude, winter climbing history. As of now, nine out of the 14 8000m peaks have been summited in the winter by Polish alpinists. Until 2005–when Italian alpinist Simone Moro summited Shishapangma (8013m)–every winter ascent of an 8000m peak had been made by Polish teams. However, Moro summited the mountain with Polish partner, Piotr Morawski. The only two 8000m peaks that remain unclimbed in the winter are Nanga Parbat and K2.