It is certain: two of the four first conquerors of the Broad Peak of the eight-thousand-meter mountain in winter will not return home. They got lost during their descent – this is an official information

A success and just after it a tragedy. Extreme conditions and the same effort often lead to a tragedy. This is the way how climbing the Himalayas looks like, especially in winter. It was not accidental that the Broad Peak (8047 m above the sea) has never been conquered before as one of the three highest mountains, and many climbers have tried to.

The Spanish expedition in 2003, two Italian expeditions in the years 2007-08, two Polish expeditions in the years 2009-10, and also the Polish-Canadian expedition in 1988. The main person of this last expedition was Maciej Berbeka, an inhabitant of Zakopane, a lifeguard of the Tatra Voluntary Rescue Emergency, a man of strong health. 25 years ago he climbed not the main summit but, mistakenly – the nearby pre-peak Rocky Summit.

– Maciek had a score to settle with this mountain which turned out to be his mountain of destiny – says Jerzy Natkański, a climber of the Himalayas from Warsaw, a participant of the program Polish Winter Climbing the Himalayas, within which this year’s expedition onto the Broad Peak was organised. Onto the peak – for the first time in winter, and this is a real feat – four Poles decided to face the challenge: Adam Bielecki, Artur Małek, Tomasz Kowalski and Maciej Berbeka. Everybody dreamt about it, two of them did not survive it, got lost on the way to the peak somewhere in snow, ice and snowstorm.

The weather window

Who wants to reach the eight-meter peak in winter, must be prepared for a failure, because only every tenth attempt ends with a success. It was not accidental that two of last three unconquerable eight-meter peaks in winter are in Karakorum. The jet stream is stuck to these mountains in winter, the movement of air mass resulting from the rotation of the globe.

– Minus 45 degrees of centigrade is not so bad. Problems appear when it starts blowing and it is easy to frostbite, and there is also the lack of oxygen. Wind is sometimes so strong that it is impossible to leave a tent – said Krzysztof Wielicki, a senior of Polish climbers of the Himalayas to the ‘Sunday’ before the winter action onto the Broad Peak. – winds are like hurricanes, and lots depends on a good luck. A successful hit at the weather is half of a success.

– The wind hardly stops blowing. During attempts of conquer the peak the so-called weather windows are used, when it is a bit warmer, and the wind is milder a bit – says Jerzy Natkański, the conqueror of the Broad Peak in summer a few years ago. Also this year the Polish climbers from the team which had besieged the mountain since the end of January, came across such conditions as: hurricane winds and a very low temperature reaching the minus 40 degree centigrade. When, finally, at the beginning of March there was a short ‘window’, the four climbers assigned for the expedition set off. It was nearly certain that there would not be another ‘window’ this winter, that it was the last chance for the first wintery climbing up. They all climbed up after tens hours of the expedition one by one, on 5 March 2013. It might have seemed that the expedition would end with a success. They climbed the peak, and then they started a quick descent because of the coming darkness. Mountain experts know that descent is more dangerous than climbing. The exhausted conquerors lose their way, do not have enough strength to go on at this height, because of air dilution and the low temperature.

These were the conditions which the Polish climbers of the Himalayas had to face during their descent from the peak, but Bielecki and Małek were climbing up and down more quickly. Two others had troubles, especially everyone who has been to the Himalayas knows that one can rely only on oneself there because there is nobody who does not fight to live.

Adam Bielecki and Artur Małek won the battle, they managed to descend onto the border of death marked on the height of about 7000 meters in the Himalayas. Maciej Berbeka and Tomasz Kowalski lost the fight and remained in the mountains for ever. What happened to them – we will never find out. They might have lost strength and fallen asleep in snow, fallen into a particularly dangerous precipice on these heights.

Nerves of steel

This tragedy does not mean that Poles will stop climbing the highest mountains in winter, and the program Polish Climbing the Himalayas in Winter will be suspended. –During each expedition into the high mountains, it must be assumed that it may end badly. This time our colleagues were aware of a risk – says Jerzy Natkański. – In winter there are such conditions in the mountains that apart from skills or resistance, one must have nerves of steel.

Also Maciej Stańczyk – an alpinist of the young generation, a participant of the expedition to Makalu (8463 m above the sea), the fifth mountain on land, within the project of the program Polish Climbing the Himalayas in Winter before half a year and a hero of the mountain tragedy – is not going to hang crampons, ice axe and helmet lamp on a hook. He had a lot of frostbites at the peak, had parts of all fingers of his hands amputated but he is not going to give in and wants to return to the highest mountains one day, who knows, he may face up with Makalu again?

Being asked if he regrets that he went to the Himalayas then, that he climbed, that he lost his fingers and that he had to change his job (he had been a paramedic), he has a simple answer: - I do not regret. For one does not regret what one experiences in the highest mountains, although it was a tragedy.


"Niedziela" 11/2013

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl