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Himalaism Two weeks after leaving Poland we should arrive at the K2 glacier. From there, we will have to carry the equipment on our backs for two days. A base at 5100 m will be our home for two months. Today is bidding farewell.

Christmas Eve among camels

On Monday, December 16, the very first winter expedition in history will set out from Karakorum to reach K2 (8611 m) from its northern, Chinese side. The international team of alpinists will be headed by Krzysztof Wielicki. "Rzeczpospolita" will be reporting on the course of the expedition.

This expedition will be an exceptional one. K2 is called the Mountain of Mountains not by accident. The 8000er, which is extremely hard for climbing, is generally considered one of the hardest summits in the world to defeat. The history of struggle for reaching it has brought it the name of the Cruel of Merciless Mountain. The adventure awaiting the expedition is to a large extent unpredictable, despite careful planning. The trip to the foot of K2 alone can bring along many surprises.

Shovels readied

We fly from Warsaw to Asia through London. At four a.m. next day we are supposed to land in the capital of Kyrgyzstan - Bishkek, on many maps still billed as Frunze, which comes from the name of a Red Army leader. The former fortress of the Kokan Khanate bore this name for a few dozen years, since the beginning of the Soviet reign in 1926. In Bishkek, another four expedition participants will join us: Gia Tortladze from Georgia, Denis Urubko and Vassiliy Pivtsov from Kazakhstan and Ilias Thukvatulin from Uzbekistan. After loading up the truck with equipment, we will be moving on the very same day.

We will be driving through beautiful and interesting landscapes. They were part of Chingis Khan's empire, China, Russia. We will pass the huge Lake Issyk-Kul, situated at 1600 m, surrounded by a ring of 4000er summits. We will have to claw our way through the huge Tien-Shan Mountain Range (2500 km long). Maybe there will be a lot of snow on the roads already. We are taking shovels with us - we will be digging our way through.

We are supposed to cross the border between Kyrgyzstan and China on the Torugart pass (3752 m). Here we will repack the equipment to local trucks, since the Chinese will no let foreign expedition personnel onto their territory. We will drive down to the edge of the Takla Makan Desert, to the ancient Kashgar Osasis, the famous bazaar on the Silk Route. From there, we will go by trucks in the direction of Karakorum, the Earth's second highest mountain range after the Himalayas, which are 200 km away.

Black scree

The range's name is misleading: kara means black, korum means scree. Magnificent glaciers are located there, taller than the ones in the Himalayas, such as Hispar (61 km), or Baltoro (58 km) and Siachen (75 km), both located near K2, the latter one being the longest and roughest due to long-term fights over the Kashmir region between Pakistan, India and China.

In the tiny settlement of Mazdar we will change to camels and set off south, higher and higher, repeatedly crossing the meandering Shaksgam River, swift and dangerous in summer. At this time of year, however, it is shallow and partly frozen, which we learned from the reconnaissance carried out two years ago. We will probably spend Christmas Eve in the caravan. Even earlier, we are going to try to send pictures and reports from our journey. The day before Christmas Eve, we will do everything in our power to be able to talk through the satellite phone and share the Christmas wafer.

Two weeks after leaving Poland, we should arrive at the K2 glacier. From there, we will have to carry the equipment on our backs for two days. For the next two months, a base at 5100 m will be our home, probably from New Year's Eve on. Weather permitting, one can clearly see K2's northern slope from the base - one of the world's most horrifying mountain precipices, with the clearly visible edge of the Northern Pillar. The alpinists want to ascend this 4 km high pillar to the summit which has never been reached yet in winter. From the base, we should be sending everyday reports home and elsewhere. The interest in the expedition is very strong. The struggle to reach the virgin K2 summit in the summer season lasted 52 years. Americans and Europeans competed with each other for the victor's palm - eventually it was the Italians who reached the summit first. Alpinists will use the way that has been marked out by the Japanese. We have received requests from several countries on three continents to allow them to reprint our reports.

Flag no 162

The expedition has been granted a special privilege. We will take the Explorers Club flag with us, an international association that will celebrate its centenary in two years' time. It was established in New York to support and popularize the exploration of Earth, ocean depths and outer space. It is also dedicated to "serve as a meeting point and unifying force for explorers and scientists worldwide" above all frontiers and divisions, as stated in the declaration from the year 1904. Among its members were or still are, among others, the first explorers of the Poles: Roald Amudsen and Robert Peary, the astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the sailor Thor Heyerdahl, the ocean explorer Robert Ballard, the researcher of the life of gorillas Diane Fossey, the head of the victorious Mount Everest Expedition - Lord John Hunt and the conquerors of summits Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary - present Honorary Chairman of the Club. The first honorary members were the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, as well as president Theodore D. Roosevelt. Today, The Explorers Club has around 3000 members gathered in 27 branches on several continents. Together with Krzysztof Wielicki, we belong to the Polish branch. Among our members was also Andrzej Zawada, who died two years ago - he was the initiator of winter himalaism, to whose memory the present expedition to K2 is dedicated.

Flags granted for important events are a significant element of The Explorers Club's tradition. Each one of them has a number and its own story. Each one is accompanied by a detailed report on the course and achievements of the expedition. A flag accompanied people during their first trip to the moon; one was on the space shuttle Columbia during its maiden voyage, Ballard also had one when he reached the wreck of the "Titanic". The one which we take along our K2 Winter Expedition has the number 162. It was witness to scientific research in the ice of the Arctic and the Antarctic, the Belize and the Amazon Jungle, it climbed in the tropical mountains of Cambodia and traveled the last corners of India. It is faded and worn through, for 42 years it has been accompanying generations of people with the desire to get to know and describe the secrets of our world. After us, others will take it over.

People with experience

The following people will participate in the Netia K2 Polish Winter Expedition 2002/2003: Krzysztof Wielicki, head of the expedition, Jacques Oles, deputy head of the expedition, Roman Mazik, physician, Bogdan Jankowski, communications, Maciej Pawlikowski, Jacek Berbeka, Jerzy Natkanski, Dariusz Zaluski, Jan Szulc, Marcin Kaczkan, Piotr Morawski, Gia Tortladze, Denis Urubko, Vassiliy Pivtsov, Ilias Thukvatulin. They will be assisted by a group of mountaineers essential for the transport of equipment on the glacier: Bartosz Duda, Piotr Kubicki, Jacek Teler, Jacek Jawien, Mikolaj Zielinski and the veteran of many expeditions, Zbigniew Terlikowski, the head of the base. They will be joined by five experienced porters from Pakistan: Aslam Khan, Doulat Amin, Aman Ali Shah, Sarwar Khan, Rehmat Ali.

Many members of the expedition have already experienced winter in the Himalayas and climbed 8000ers. Krzysztof Wielicki reached in winter three of the four highest 8000ers first: Mount Everest, Kangchedzonga and Lhotse. He stood on the latter alone in the night of New Year's Eve. During summer seasons, he impressed with his style of conquering the Crown of the Himalayas. He "ran up" to Broad Peak alone in one day (which was the world's first climb on an 8000er in a day). He climbed alone on Dhaulagiri (in 16 hours) and Shisha Pangma, marking out new routs. Nobody accompanied him when he was reaching the summits of Gasherbrum II and Nanga Parbat, either. Wielicki knows K2 from all sides. He participated in four expeditions to this mountain. In the summer of 1996, he reached the top through the Northern Pillar with two Italian alpinists.

Maciej Pawlikowski has supported around a dozen expeditions into the highest mountains. He has helped others to reach the top six times. He himself has reached the summit of an 8000er only once - in the winter of 1985 on Cho Oyu, using an exceptionally difficult route, which has not been repeated until now. He participated in the only winter expedition to K2 from the Pakistani side, headed by Andrzej Zawada. Dr Roman Mazik, a speleologist, was also a member of that expedition, who in his every day life works as surgeon in Zakopane and rescuer in the Voluntary Tatra Mountain Rescue Team. 8000er summits have also been also reached by: Jerzy Natkanski (Gasherbrum II), Darek Zaluski (Gasherbrum II, Cho Oyu, Lhotse), Jacek Berbeka (Alpine style and solo: Gasherbrum I, Cho Oyu and Shisha Pangma; only defeated in this style on Gasherbrum II, accompanied by Krzysztof Wielicki, Carlos Carsolio and Ed Viesturs).

Snow Leopards

Denis Urubko has been the best alpinist from Kazakhstan for four years, and is one of the most outstanding himalaists of present days. Without oxygen, he has reached the summits of six 8000ers (Mount Everest, Kangchedzonga, Lhotse, Gasherbrums I and II, Shisha Pangma), eleven 7000ers, although it is enough to conquer five of them in order to get the title of a "Snow Leopard". He won that title within 42 days. He is a professionals athlete, beating records concerning the speed of climbing high summits without oxygen.

His fellow countryman, Vassiliy Pivtsov, reached the summits of Kangchenjunga, Shisha Pangma and both Gasherbrums without using supplementary oxygen. The Khan-Tengri 7000er looks like his training field - he has climbed it on numerous occasions from different sides.

The second "Snow Leopard" in this team is the Georgian Gia Tortladze, who also has stood six times on the top of 8000ers (Shisha Pangma, Dhaulagiri, Cho Oyu, Mount Everest). He reached the highest summit on Earth twice. The first time, he took pictures of 12 people standing on top. After returning to the base, he found out that his climb did not count, because he did not touch the top of the mountain with his foot. So he went back there once again two years later.

Ilias Tukhvatulin from Uzbekistan climbed Mount Everest. He specializes in climbing technically extremely difficult slopes, also in winter, in Pamir and Tien-Shan. His achievements have received such wide recognition that he has been invited by Russians to participate in the Mount Everest expedition next year. The 50th Anniversary of conquering Everest is to be celebrated by the attempt to climb through a new route on the North Face.

Businessman, manufacturer and cameras

Jacques Olek lives in Canada. Although he does not climb himself, it was largely thanks to him and his friendship with Andrzej Zawada that the only winter expedition to K2 so far took place - one of the longest, biggest and most expensive ones (1 million dollars) - along with a victorious one to Cho Oyu in winter. Those experiences have changed his life - in order to pay back the debts incurred for the undertaking, he became a businessman, supporting from this moment on Polish expeditions.

The winter expedition to K2 will be accompanied by a six-person TV team from Telewizja Polska (Polish Television). From December 6, 2003 on, direct transmissions from Karakorum will be shown on TVP 1. For the first time in the history of Polish himalaism, the expedition has its producer. Similar to the way the French went about it half a century ago, the Polish Alpinism Association entrusted a specialized company with collecting funds and numerous organizational matters. The company's name is Cosmos Entertainment. It's representative, an alpinist himself, goes to the mountains, too.

"Rzeczpospolita", who has been supporting the Polish program of winter exploration of the highest mountains, considers this expedition also as an opportunity to remind of the history of conquering the Himalayas and Karakorum. Soon, a hitherto unknown interview with Andrzej Zawada about the first winter expedition to K2 is going to be published, which for five years had to be hidden in the drawer. We will also write on the history of struggling with K2: the heroism, the meanness, the bravery, expeditions ending up in front of the judge, triumphs and tragedies. Climbing this beautiful, fascinating and cruel mountain has always stirred up extreme emotions. -

Monika Rogozinska, the correspondent of "Rzeczpospolita"