(Angela Benavides) They overcame Jannu and Everest north walls; they forged a new route on the west face of K2. Returning to the savage mountain, they aim for its first winter ascent. The Russians are back: epic guaranteed.
They're the toughest climbers born to the motherland: Alexey Bolotov, Gennady Kirievskiy, Vladimir Belous, Nikolai Totmianin, Valery Shamalo, Gleb Sokolov, Vitaliy Gorelik, Illias Tukhvatullin, Andrey Mariev, Vadim Popovich, Evgeny Vinogradskiy, Nikolay Cherny, Sergey Bychkovskiy, Igor Boriseko and Vladimir Kuptsov.
The 16 multi-awarded veterans will once again be led in battle by Viktor Kozlov who spent years planning and preparing for the challenge.
While all the surrounding 8000ers have been climbed or at least attempted in the current renaissance of Himalayan winter climbing, K2 has been left alone.
Stories from the only previous attempt - in 2003 by Polish and Kazakh climbers - have discouraged everyone until now.
Eight years ago, a strong Polish team led by winter icon Krzysztof Wielicki launched a two months-long attempt on the peak in full-force Karakoram winter.
Members included Jacques Olek, Jacek Berbeka, Marcin Kaczkan, Piotr Morawski, Jerzy Natkanski, Maciej Pawlikowski, Jan Szulc and Dariusz Zaluski - basically the cream of Polish winter climbing.
Georgian Gia Tortladze, Uzbek Ilias Thukvatulin, and Kazakh high altitude steam engines Denis Urubko and Vassiliy Pivtsov completed the group. CTO Bogdan Jankowski, MD Roman Mazik and Monika Rogozinska (media) ran the operation from BC.
Reported Monika on February 18: "The upper base is buried in a snowstorm. K2 roars with hurricane winds from behind a wall of fog. Most mountaineers have descended to lower altitudes, where it is warmer. Some will not return."
"The visibility is so limited that one of our friends, who is a guest with the expedition, got lost on the glacier on his way back from the toilet. This comical adventure could have ended in tragedy."
"The upper base has started to resemble a strange kind of sanatorium, crowded with patients, where it's impossible to be cured."
In this final stage, leader Krzysztof Wielicki realized only two men were still fit for a summit push: Denis Urubko and Marcin Kaczkan, who had never reached an 8000er summit before. Denis thought about it and then accepted to take the risk. Going up with Marcin, on February 27 the climb took a dramatic turn in C4.
Push turned into rescue
After an epic night sharing one sleeping bag at -30º in C3 and hurricane winds, Denis and Marcin had moved to C4, finding the tent destroyed and the contents, including a first-aid kit, blown away. They went to sleep, but not for long."Something's wrong with Marcin," Denis radioed to BC. "He is not responding to what I'm saying. He can't even tie his boots."
"Marcin has never been at that altitude before," Monika noted. "Contrary to earlier plans, he did not take the oxygen tank." The men had no medication except for a single aspirin. The summit push turned into an emergency descent for Marcin's life. "We waited to see if Denis and Marcin would manage," the expedition journalist recalled. "We were relieved to hear that they had left. At one moment we could see them briefly on a snowy field below camp IV through a hole in the clouds. Slowly, but unassisted, Marcin was walking down holding on to the fixed ropes."
One day later, during the solemn dinner at the last Thursday before Lent, Krzysztof Wielicki announced his decision to end the expedition. "This caused a distinct feeling of relief among those present," Monika reported. "Only Urubko was disconsolate. He had counted on one more summit attempt."
Expedition leader Krzysztof Wielicki hoped for a second chance as well. Searching for a sponsor, he figured that a winter expedition to K2 should start in December and last three months because people get burned out just by existing in the conditions. Wielicki even proposed to divide the team into people preparing camps up to 7000 m and an assault group. "I will keep on looking for a patron who whishes to write the history of alpinism with us," Krzysztof Wielicki wrote in his debrief, "I want to return here as quickly as possible." While he would take part in other winter attempts on Pakistan 8000ers, Wielicki never returned to K2.
Meanwhile Kozlov and the Russians used a summer for recon - and to open a new route on K2's west face. It remains to be seen if they will follow any of the Polish advice: until now they've stuck to their military-style discipline - large team divided in two-men cells working relentlessly in shifts - fixing ropes and pitching camps through any possible conditions and dealing with exhaustion to the very end of their capacity.
Whatever the result get ready for some epic action, on the mountain of mountains, in the dead of winter.
Ed. Note: Some of the 2003 members will return to Karakoram this winter as well: Darek Zaluski will team up with Gerfried Goschl on GI; Denis Urubko (KZ) will be on Nanga Parbat; Polish climbers (names yet to be confirmed) will climb GI; and - most remarkably - Illias Tukhvatullin, from Uzbekhistan, will return to K2.
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