American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, China, Karakoram, K2, Winter Attempt on the North Ridge

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

K2, winter attempt on the north ridge. The Winter Netia K2 Expedition (Netia is the biggest Polish TV company and during the expedition there were daily prime-time television reports) included four experienced alpinists from CIS. It departed from Warsaw on December 16, 2002 and arrived at Bishkek, the capital of Krygyzstan, where we were joined by four climbers from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. We all continued to Kashgar (Chinese Sinkiang) and then onward via Mazar by vehicle.

The expedition consisted of Krzysztof Wielicki as a leader, Jacek Berbeka, Marcin Kaczkan, Piotr Morawski, Jerzy Natkanski, Maciej Pawlikowski, Dariusz Zaluski, and the four-man team of experienced alpinists from CIS; Gia Tortladze (Georgia), Ilias Thukvatulin (Uzbekistan), Vasiliy Pivtsov, and Denis Urubko (both from Kazakhstan). There was also a support team for work on the glacier but a few of these became real high altitude climbers. These were Bartosz Duda, Jacek Jawien, Piotr Kubicki, Jacek Teler, Zbigniew Terlikowski, and Michal Zielinski (as a climbing cameraman). In total there were more than 30 people on the expedition.

Our aim was to climb the 1982 Japanese route via the north ridge and the prominent hanging glacier, well seen from a distance and lying left of the crest of the upper ridge below the summit. The route was well-known to Krzysztof Wielicki since his 1996 climb. On December 22 our caravan started from the Chinese border police station of Ylik near Bazar Dara. We took six tons of gear and food, and used 70 camels. Over five days we crossed the Aghil Pass (4,850m) to the Shaksgam River and then turned up the Qogir Valley. On December 26 we stopped in a place referred to as the Chinese Base Camp (3,900m) about three kilometers before the terminus of the Qogir Glacier (ca 4,100m). Two days later we reached Middle Base Camp (aka Pakistani BC, 4,650m) midway to the main Base Camp (5,100m), at which we arrived next day. This camp lies five km from the foot of the mountain. The days were sunny but cold, while at night in base camp the temperature fell below -30°C.

On New Year’s Day Gia Tortladze and Illias Thukvatulin fixed the first 250m of rope and by January 5 Denis Urubko and Vasiliy Pivtsov had established Camp 1—one tent inside a big snow cave—at ca 6,000m. One kilometer of rope had now been fixed. Over the next few days the wind was very strong and working on the mountain was difficult. There were steep fields of hard black ice and almost no place to rest. On January 16 we reached the big “Rock Barrier,” above which were long but easier ice slopes leading to Camp 2. On the 18th Krzysztof Wielicki and Jacek Berbeka fixed 200 meters of rope through the barrier. Unfortunately Krzysztof injured a calf muscle during the descent and this weakened his ability to climb over the next few weeks. On the 20th Denis and Vasiliy established a provisional camp 2 at ca 6,750m. Several days later Maciej Pawlikowski and Dariusz Zaluski were sleeping at this camp, when strong winds completely destroyed their tent, forcing them to descend at sunrise. The weather now got so bad that everyone returned to base.

After a few days of very bad weather Gia and Ilias decided they wanted to leave and the following day Vasiliy also decided to join them. Only Denis said that he had arrived with expedition and he would leave the mountain with the same expedition. It was a blow for us. We knew that the expedition would be much weaker without them and our chances of reaching the summit would decrease. On the other hand our team now consolidated and a few members of the support team (including a climber-film operator) decided to help in transportating the gear up to camp 2 and, in one case (Jacek Jawien), to camp 3.

Denis, Marcin, and I repaired camp 2 and started to put new fixed ropes above it. People were working very hard, carrying food and equipment. On February 4 Wielicki and Berbeka established camp 3 at 7,200m on a little snowfield. On February 12 Denis and I established camp 4 at 7,650m. We put up the tent on little rock ridge near the lower tip of the hanging glacier, which lies left of the crest of the pillar and leads to the summit. We hoped that the next team, Maciej and Darek, would improve this camp. However, the wind became so strong that they had to retreat. On the 15th we were incorrectly informed that the weather in our region was the worst for four years. A few days later we found out the real figure was 40 and not four.

With everyone down at base camp and most either frostbiten, ill, or not properly acclimatized, there were only really four climbers that were in a position to go above camp 3. These were Urubko, Wielicki, Kaczkan and Morawski. Our doctor told me that my frostbite was bad and if I wanted to save my feet, let alone my toes, I should not climb anymore. So I stopped and fortunately in the end lost only one toe.

The expedition took 14 bottles of oxygen, a few of which were carried up to camp 1. Thereafter the summit team decided not to not use them.

On the 21st the wind died and Wielicki decided to go up for the final attempt. It was the only chance. Jurek Natkanski and Jacek Jawien went first. Their task was to check camps and supply them. Next day Kaczkan and Urubko, both without oxygen, began the ascent. They planned to put 200m of fixed rope above camp 4, then maybe attempt the summit. The same day Natkanski and Jawien turned back from the rock barrier, due to considerable stone and ice fall.

On 25th it started to snow and the wind increased. However, Marcin and Denis reached camp 4 still hoping they would fix some ropes above. However, they found the tent destroyed, so they were forced to use a small bivouac tent, which they had carried for the summit push. They both spent a terrible night in one sleeping bag, lying on coiled ropes as they had no insulated mats.

Kaczkan was totally exhausted by the effort over the last few days and during the night began to deteriorate. In the morning after a radio call to the doctor, Urubko recognized that Kaczkan had cerebral oedema. He was unable to wake and the situation seemed serious. Camp 4 was an altitude record for Kaczkan (his previous record was achieved on a solo ascent of 7,439m Pik Pobeda during the past summer). A rescue operation was begun. Everybody who was still able to go above Base Camp did so, and a bottle of oxygen was taken to Camp 2. Fortunately, after a few hours of effort by Denis, Kaczkan was able to move and get dressed. Both climbers started to descend and Kaczkan became stronger with every meter of height loss. When ca 200m above camp 3 they both met Wielicki and all three carried on down. By the afternoon they had reached camp 2, where Kaczkan used the oxygen carried up by by Teler and Duda. All five descended to camp 1 where they met Zielinski and Natkanski. These last two and Kaczkan spent the night at this camp and after a good sleep on oxygen, Kaczkan was able to descend unaided the following day.

On the 27th Wielicki called off the expedition. The next day the wind was so strong that it destroyed our mess tent at base camp. Over the subsequent days, while most members were descending to the Chinese base camp, all the other tents were destroyed by the wind. The expedition returned to Warsaw on March 18. Although K2 has once more held out in winter, this expedition showed that a successful ascent is possible..

Piotr Morawsk and Grzegorz Glazek, Klub Wysokogorski Warszawa, PZA

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