15 February 2003

Hard to look at


Denis Urubko and Piotr Morawski have returned to the base after establishing camp IV at 7630 m. The weather forecast is terrible. What next? Will somebody be able to attack the summit?

The only person on the slope of K2 at the moment is Krzysztof Wielicki, the head of the expedition. Planning the attack on the summit, he intended to reach camp IV and spend the night there in order to adjust. Right now, Krzysztof races against the ghastly forecast, announcing a hurricane on K2 any moment and a long-lasting weather deterioration. He is climbing against a very strong wind to secure the camps against destruction. The sight we saw late Friday afternoon was piercing. The renewed leg injury takes its toll on the head of the expedition. Wielicki suspects that his calf muscle is torn. He keeps on climbing the steep, hard ice-fields, dragging one leg behind. This is truly hard to look at.

Urubko and Morawski have spent four nights and five days above 7000 m. At first they wanted to do some more work for another day in order to establish the last 250 - 300 m of fixed ropes on K2's Northern Pillar, up to the place where you enter the hanging glacier leading to the summit. Bad weather and the response of the head of the expedition to that idea, as well as their enormous fatigue made them both return to the base. This decision has probably saved Morawski's toes. According to the doctor, he should not climb further anymore if he wants to keep them.

This is giving Piotr a very difficult time. It was his first time at such great altitude. He marvelled at being above 7000 m, at his fitness, the understanding with his partner, the unusual sights and the nearness to the summit. After taking some rest, he was ready to give it a try and reach the summit, with the help of an oxygen cylinder. He has returned to the base seemingly in great condition, excited by this prospect. The following day, however, the condition of his toes and the pain quickly dampened his enthusiasm. "I would give a piece of one, already black toe in exchange for reaching the summit of K2 - said Morawski. - No more! Unfortunately, all of them are in danger".

K2's Northern Pillar is not a popular route. It was used the last time in the summer of 2000. Back then, five expeditions competed with each other. In such a crowd, conflicts could not be avoided. The German expedition, consisting only of two alpinists, arrived later and had to pay the Americans 3000 US dollars for using their fixed ropes. It turned out that the real danger awaited the Germans not above, but much further below - they almost drowned in the Shaksgam River in spate.

None of the 49 mountaineers from different countries, supported by 16 Pakistani mountain porters, reached the summit then. The American, Japanese and Taiwanese expeditions reached 7600 m (currently 7450 m, according to the GPS), the Mexican expedition reached 7800 m (GPS - 7650), and the German expedition 8100 m.

The present expedition is the thirteenth that uses K2's Northern Pillar, since the time this route was marked out in 1982 by the Japanese. Until now, 26 people have reached the summit using this route. Three of them died descending from the peak. The hanging glacier flowing from the peak and the huge distance of almost one kilometer from the last camp to the peak constitute a trap.

In the year 1994, alpinists managed for the first time to reach the summit in summer from two sides. Two Basques, Atxo Apellanitz and Juanjo San Sebastian, conquered the mountain from the Chinese side. They did not make it in time to the camp. They bivouacked under the peak. In the morning, San Sebastian was swept away by an avalanche. By a miracle, he came to a stop 400 m further below, at the bottom threshold of the hanging glacier. Meanwhile, his exhausted partner Apellanitz started showing the symptoms of height sickness - brain swelling. Juanjo went back for his friend and started taking him down. Despite the help he received from below, after seven agonizing days, Apellanitz died at camp II, where the whole team was delayed by a blizzard. San Sebastian returned home, but he paid for his adventure on K2 and his bravery with the amputation of seven fingers.

Who will be able and daring enough to follow the very same route now, in winter, from camp IV to the summit? During the last days, almost all alpinists setting out from the base to carry supplies to the camps turned back. Today, Maciej Pawlikowski and Dariusz Zaluski withdrew from camp III due to very strong winds. Jacek Teler did not reach camp II, for fear of feet chilblains. Doctor Roman Mazik, afraid of his hands being frostbitten, and Jan Szulc turned back from their way to camp I. Only Krzysztof Wielicki has stayed up

Monika Rogozinska "Rzeczpospolita" from the base under K2. Feb. 14, 2003