The mountain rises glistening from an encasement of glaciers in the far reaches of the Karakoram. Pyramid-shaped, an austere link to eternity, K2 yields only to Everest in height and is deadlier. Its walls are vertiginous no matter the approach.
Only the most experienced climbers attempt ascents, and for every four who crawl to its peak, one dies.
And then there is winter. Fourteen of earth's mountains exceed 8,000 meters (26,246 feet), and climbers have reached the peak of 13 in winter. K2 is the forbidding exception.
Ten Polish climbers hope to make history by reaching the summit next winter.
These men will hike through knee-deep snow to a base camp at 18,645 feet, surpassing all but one mountain in the United States. Atop K2's near-vertical slopes, glacial icefalls dislodge car-size hunks of ice. Winds at the summit reach hurricane strength, and temperatures can fall as low as minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The climbers could wait two months in their tents, in hopes the gales relent for a few days. They have no margin for error; K2 routinely kills those trapped on its flanks.
This is the way of the Polish climbers, who for reasons of history and culture have earned reputations as the greatest climbers of the Himalayas in winter. They are prisoners of their dreams.
Janusz Golab is a long-limbed lion of a climber with curly hair that goes here and there like an ethereal nimbus. He is 49, still in his prime for a great climber, and he will be one of those charged with making it to the summit of K2 next winter. We talk as he stands in the darkened attic of a lodge in the Morskie Oko valley in Poland, looping purple rope in preparation for a training climb in the subzero of the Tatra Mountains.
To scale K2 in winter is not such modest madness. He has children and at least one girlfriend, and he appears filled with a love for life. It so happens he enjoys its deadly challenges. He has climbed in Antarctica, Greenland and the Himalayas. "Winter is the best season." He shrugs. "It's more challenging. It's obvious it's the best."
There's so much to unpack about this climb to the most hostile tip of the planet, a mountain that is 28,251 feet high and sits in the Karakoram range on the border of Pakistan and China. There are the technical and strategic challenges, and the task of picking a team in the individualistic world of high-altitude climbing.
These men will live and work in the worst possible conditions for months. Each knows he may not return.
Four climbers will make the final push to the summit without oxygen. Each has lost partners on climbs.
There is, too, the power that history exerts on the Poles. A decade ago, what remains of the old guard challenged a younger generation to test limits of flesh, endurance and creativity in the Himalayas. Their story, embedded in the urge of free spirits to slip the unsmiling bonds of a Cold-War communist government, offers our starting point.
Generations of Poles flocked like homing pigeons to the dark and jagged peaks of the Tatra Mountains, which rise on Poland's southern border with Slovakia. Men and women scaled its granite walls in summer heat and in the belly of winter. When photographer Max Whittaker and I accompanied five Polish Himalayan climbers to the Tatras in January, snow piled swollen on steep mountainsides and the temperature hovered near zero.
After World War II and its slaughters, the communists imposed a controlling regime. Its bureaucrats held all passports. Whether factory worker, engineer or mathematician, everyone scuffled for money. The mountains offered freedom from all that.
Poland's climbing clubs swelled with members. The most famous was found in Katowice, a steel town a few hours drive from the Tatras.
The Katowice club overlooked Frédéric Chopin Street; its coat of arms is an eagle and an ice pick. Many dozens of climbers each night talked mountains, life, and more mountains, and sang songs and drank vodka. To gain admission at that time, a young climber had to demonstrate technical prowess, sleep outside on a mountain ledge (known as a bivouac), pass written tests and show a command of mountaineering history, art and literature.
The blue-eyed Krzysztof Wielicki, who at 67 is among the most accomplished Himalayan climbers alive, will lead the K2 expedition. He remains limber and lively in his seventh decade, with a second wife and young children. He has climbed three Himalayan peaks in winter, including Everest, and has the bowlegged amble of a man with little left to prove.
His eyes glisten when asked about his youthful hunger. "We climb here, and here, and here," he recalls. "And if you climb OK, they say, 'OK, you have passed summer Tatra.'"
He lifts his finger high in imitation of the hardened club members. "'Now you have to do winter Tatra.'"
When Polish climbers obtained permission to climb the peaks of Western Europe, they discovered another problem: The West was terrifically expensive.
One night in January, I sit in the village home of Janusz Majer, 70, a burly climber who is working to obtain the $335,000 in government and private financing needed to underwrite the assault on K2. His friend and climber, Wojciech Dzik, joins us.
Over salamis and cheeses and a prodigious amount of wine, we talk of long-ago mountaineering adventures. They had finished a climb in the Dolomites in the 1970s when they saw a sign for cappuccinos. Dzik, a mathematician, did the mental currency conversion. "My God! It was one-tenth of my salary," he recalls. "After that, we lived like Jesus, on bread and wine."
The Poles turned to the mountains of Asia, where the technical challenge was magnitudes greater and the cost magnitudes less. In search of money, they walked into factory offices in Katowice and pointed to towering industrial chimneys. We'll paint these at half your usual cost.
The factory managers winced. A scaffold, they said, costs more than your price.
We work Alpine-style, the climbers replied. Soon engineers and mathematicians and electricians rappelled down chimneys from dawn to dusk.
Then they hopped into old vans, Jack Keroaucs all, and set off for the Hindu Kush. No fancy equipment, no endorsements, no publicity; just freedom from the strictures of life in Poland. "Back then, to leave a job was OK," Wielicki tells me. "You're making just $50 a month. No big deal. Bye-bye."
By the time the Poles reached Asia in great numbers, climbers from other nations had scaled all the 8,000-meter peaks.
The Poles decided to find fame Tatra-style and climb those peaks in winter or by risky new routes. The audacity of their ascents was legendary. Their ranks produced the first woman to summit K2 and the first man to scale three giant peaks in winter. That climber and a partner scaled K2 in summer along a route so dangerous, even suicidal — it passed beneath unstable ridges of ice — no one else has attempted it. To this day, it is known as the Polish Line.
Some climbers were artists who specialized in free climbs, with as little gear as possible. Others were expeditionary geniuses who plotted climbs like military assaults. Polish newspapers chronicled this as U.S. newspapers do baseball.
To sit now with the Polish mountaineers, old and young, is to hear voices rise and laughter roll in like ocean breakers. They tell tales of supplies piled atop camels and flirtations with entrancing local women and negotiating with turbaned mechanics to eke a few more miles out of wizened vans. They recall Silesian dumplings and vodka in base camp and frozen bivouacs at 22,000 feet and fogged brains and hallucinations (they do not use oxygen when climbing). Always there were other worldly vistas.
Another visitor accompanied them: death.
The grand climbers perished at a frightful rate. They were trapped by swirling tempests; died of altitude sickness; slipped and catapulted into the abyss. There is no field of athletic achievement where death rides so insistently on your shoulder.
It is tempting to wonder if these men harbor a romance with two lovers, life and death. Wielicki, the leader of the upcoming expedition, was renowned for his solo ascents of Himalayan peaks. His stamina was unmatched. (As expedition leaders must, he will remain at base camp during the ascent of K2.)
I put the question of death's allure to him and he shakes his head. He wanted to live, always, even if along the serrated edge of a knife. He noted an axiom of climbing: A young climber is the most endangered, as he does not know enough to worry. To that, he adds another: An older climber should not draw too much comfort from mastery of technique. That can prove a frail shield against the merciless randomness of the Himalayas.
"You need luck," he says. "Everyone makes mistakes."
Rough sleep precedes a climb. It's as if the dark imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch scamper through the cranium. A climber clings to a crumbling wall. Another sees a friend fall past him. Another feels creatures pulling at his feet.
On the mountain, climbers escape into concentration as pure as a monk's repose. Life becomes detail: Click into the rope and unclick; secure boot crampons and dig for footholds. There is a whack of the ice pick and another one, and one after that. They scale 27,000-foot-high puzzles. Sometimes climbers go a day or two without food; sometimes they fail to notice.
Kacper Tekieli is one of the climbers whom Max and I accompany to the Tatras. He has a tangle of dark curls and a mischievous smile, and is a philosophy major with a love of mountain literature. At 32, he has built a considerable mountaineering reputation, although he cannot afford to give up working as a barista in the old quarter of Krakow. He watched a friend slip to his death last year in the Himalayas; he's not sure he needs K2.
Tekieli talks of the singular focus needed to summit a Himalayan peak in the maw of winter. The universe narrows to a meter or two. "There's something mystical. It's not about the mountain, which is inert. It's you. It's what you discover about yourself in all those hours of concentration."
Blood, sweat and strategy
Six K2 climbers gather on a winter afternoon in a Warsaw gym under the eyes of a trainer, Karol Hennig, who works with state health institutes. He invites me to join. I decline, pleading a sore Achilles and a severe attack of common sense.
The climbers range from their 30s to 63, and most are of modest build. They fill backpacks with iron bars and work stair-climbers. They do tortuous lifts and pullups.
Their fingers and toes are as adhering as those of a gecko. They retain one-third more oxygen than a well-conditioned adult. After the workout, their heart rates return to baseline as easily as an elevator descends from one floor to the next.
Two nights later, the Himalayan climbers are deep in the Tatras, taking a conditioning climb up the Monk, a saw-toothed 6,781-foot peak. Max the photographer is a skilled climber and accompanies them; I hike to an ice fall and wave goodbye. Janusz Golab is a force unto himself, climbing with precision and economy of motion, a strong-limbed cat.
Marek Chmielarski, 40, is one of the Tatra climbers and will join the K2 team. He paints oil platforms from the North Sea to Azerbaijan. He chuckles at the mention of their oxygen-retention scores: "Janusz scores pretty much at the bottom. And he has been to the top of K2 and is the best climber in Poland."
The climbers also monitor levels of vitamin D and iron, which help stave off hypobaric hypoxia, the process by which thin air deprives the body of replenishing oxygen.
No one can be certain how a body will react at the top of the world. At K2 base camp, the air has half the oxygen found at sea level. At 26,000 feet, climbers enter the Death Zone; it is devilishly difficult to draw a breath, and the heart strains to pump blood. When climbers reach the summit, their breathing will be a shallow, fast pant. They will vomit and suffer dehydration and begin to hallucinate.
Wielicki recalls a past-exhaustion night on a solo Himalayan climb. He huddled inside a tiny tent and made tea for two: himself and his companion, whose presence was no less intense for being imaginary. "I felt him," he said. "And, of course, he was not there."
K2 is a northern loner; it sits 800 miles northwest of Nepal's grand Himalayan peaks, exposed to winds that gust from the Arctic Circle. In February, its walls are colder and more wind-blasted than those of Everest.
All of which brings us to climbing strategy.
The favored mountaineering style today is Alpine, which is to say, going solo or with a partner, and without fixed ropes. A premium is placed on daring routes or the speed of the climb.
None of that would work on K2 in February.
The Poles mastered the dominant expedition style a half-century ago. It requires a willingness to subsume ego in the collective. If a team numbers 10 climbers, six will take the role of worker bees, laying pitons and ropes and tents at camps higher on the mountain.
These men will scale cliffs of pre-collisional granite to 25,000 feet, even as K2 threatens a rain of avalanches. The summit team will pull up those ropes and sleep in those tents. As they draw within 3,000 feet of the peak, they will go forward without oxygen.
How to prepare excites debate. I talk about this with Adam Bielecki, a tall drink of water with dreadlocks and a boyish ebullience. Age 33, married with a toddler and another baby on the way, he began climbing as a teenager. He is one of the elite, and a candidate to join the summit team.
He overflows with ambition and chafes at old ways. Bielecki favors a bottom-of-the-world strategy to prepare: Send summit climbers to Chile, where it is summer, and climb a 22,000-foot Andean peak. Stay put until bodies accommodate to the thin air. Then fly to Pakistan and trek quickly to base camp.
"All we need is three days of good weather and we will get to the top of K2," he says. "It can be a revolution in high-altitude climbing."
Bielecki attempted that strategy during a winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, a 26,660-foot peak in Pakistan that goes by the self-explanatory nickname Killer Mountain. The climbers arrived acclimated, but a winter storm front descended and would not lift.
The younger generation of climbers views Bielecki's strategy as a good gamble. When I put the question to Wielicki, the old legend sounds distinctly unconvinced. He sees a young climber too sure of himself. "You need super luck to come from South America and find the weather to your liking," he says.
He offers a thin smile. "You cannot rely on super luck."
Death and a new generation
Polish Himalayan exploration all but ended in 1989. Its greatest climber, Jerzy Kukuczka, fell to his death, and an avalanche on Everest swept away five other well-known Polish climbers.
The communist government collapsed. As that wounded nation rebuilt, an age of entrepreneurs dawned. The life of a vagabond climber seemed frivolous.
Artur Hajzer was among the prematurely retired. Intense, a man of many faces, he had been a partner of the famed Kukuczka. After his friend died, he could face no more mountains. He opened a chain of climbing and outdoor stores.
Restlessness welled; he yearned for the Himalayas. He began to run and lost his pot belly. He and Wielicki issued a manifesto: "Young, angry, ambitious" Polish climbers should embrace "positive suffering" and return to winter Himalayan climbing.
Wielicki speaks of daily life as drained of excitement. "Job, home, eh, OK," he says. "If you want to feel great emotion, you must write a story."
They offered traditional training: winter in the Tatras, then the Alps, then the Himalayas. Their obsession was very Polish: to conquer K2.
They were not hand-holders. Bielecki courted Hajzer, emailing a list of his ascents, including climbs up 20,310-foot Denali in Alaska.
"Your list does not impress me at all," Hajzer wrote back.
Bielecki sent a longer list. Hajzer relented, a little: "OK, it looks better than I thought."
Bielecki had found a mentor. "He could get angry really fast. He never said he was sorry, but he was fair," Bielecki says of his teacher. "We were generational orphans, and he introduced us to Himalayan climbing.
"I loved him."
Generational tensions bubbled. The younger climbers had trained less and came of age in a time of individual branding. When apprentices returned from a Himalayan foray with severe frostbite, veteran mountaineers scoffed at the "preschool" climbers.
Success came rapid-fire, as did sorrow.
In the winter of 2013, Bielecki and three others set out to ascend the 26,414-foot Broad Peak. Two grew exhausted near the top, and Bielecki noted that nightfall and still more crushing cold approached. Perhaps they should retreat. The others disagreed.
Bielecki and his partner made it back to their tents, badly frostbitten. The slower duo perished.
A Polish mountaineering commission assailed Bielecki: You violated the brotherhood of the rope and deserted comrades. This was a too-harsh indictment. To wait for others at 25,000 feet in minus-25 degree temperatures is deadly. Ice forms thick on nostrils and goggles. Water and power gels freeze solid. Hands, feet and arms go numb.
A tomb forms around you.
Bielecki's voice is plaintive. "On top of a mountain in Karakoram in winter, your state of mind eludes words," he says. "We are beyond the edge of what people call fatigue."
Mountain deaths are dominoes; one precipitates another. Soon after, Hajzer flew to the Himalayas intent on finding peace by climbing. He carried the weight of too many deaths.
A storm coiled like a snake around a mountain. Hajzer lost sight of his young partner and descended quickly, looking for him. He lost his balance and fell 1,800 feet to his death.
He was 51. His body remains in a Himalayan crevasse.
"It was Artur's last lecture," a climber said at his funeral in a grand cathedral in Katowice. "People die in the mountains, even the best ones."
Wielicki is the remaining master. He must choose among their climbing children, and his eye is unsparing. For the summit, he must choose the elect of the elite. There is Golab, the climber who was with us in the Tatras.
Bielecki, the man-child with the otherworldly endurance near the summit, is another natural choice. But his hunger for fame is a bonfire, and that worries the older man. Wielicki defended the young climber after the deaths on Broad Peak. To listen to him is to wonder if he harbors doubts.
"He is a very good climber, but he has climbed for himself," the older climber says. "He is pursuing me, I. Maybe it is a little strange on our team because we all must work together."
If a storm approaches, if darkness descends, the climbers must turn back, even if within sight of that fabled summit. "If I say, 'No, come down', they must listen," he says. "Everyone wants to be the best, and that is how we die."
He gives to ambition a nod of self-recognition.
"Logic competes with emotion. Everyone wants to write their own story."
To the brink or no?
We wander the medieval streets and bars of Krakow with the Himalayan climbers. The question of K2, to risk all for history, falls unevenly across their shoulders. Marek Chmielarski, painter of oil platforms, will go, although his wife, a teacher, worries.
"They think we are crazy." he says. "They are right, of course."
Golab is in: "Sometimes I wonder why I am doing this. I don't like to connect nationalism and climbing. But these are my friends and we are on a mission."
We run into Kacper Tekieli, the other Tatra climber, making cappuccinos in a coffee bar off Krakow's grand square. He could join the elite four who summit K2. That mountain, mythical and moody and deadly, once consumed him.
"I was captivated," he says. "I knew the Polish specialty is suffering."
He grew up in Gdansk, a shipyard city, and came to climbing as a philosophy student. He took solo trips (known in Polish as the lonely style) across the high Tatras in winter. He climbed Alpine and Himalayan peaks. Last summer he lost a friend in the Indian Himalayas, watching him slip away as rescuers neared.
"I was very, very close to him when he fell." Tekieli's dark eyes flicker and he fingers his wedding band, which hangs on a leather cord around his neck. "I will keep climbing, but I think I don't know the result of that yet."
And K2? He shrugs. "Mountains are very important to me, it's the original world, a place of passion. I want to keep finding beautiful paths up mountains."
He pauses. "I'm not sure I need K2 in winter."
Days later, Wielicki, the old legend, and I watch snow fall on a frozen lake. He acknowledges the age of winter climbing could draw to a close. Danger weighs on him as it did not decades ago. His wife is adept on cliffs, and he twitches as she moves up a rock face. He is pleased his children have not inherited his passions.
And yet, God, that mountain.
"It's not just the problem of the people in the Katowice club, but of the people of Poland. Always they ask: 'You go? Why not? You should write something historic. Finish your story.'"
Shadow of the beast
Those who stand within the shadow of that monolith in winter describe a sensation akin to having landed on an extraterrestrial world. All is black and white and gray with periodic wild flashes of razor-blue sky and sun. K2 sits 70 miles from the nearest village, at the end of a path that threads across the Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers. Periodically these ice flows disgorge the bones of dead climbers.
K2's fastness is so complete, it acquired no dependable name from the Balti tribes, who for millenniums did not know of its existence. A British geographer making a trigonometric survey gave the mountain its name, a clipped abstraction capturing its indifference to life and time.
The Polish mountaineers will arrive in late December and will wait days and weeks and months in hopes that incessant winds do not rend their tents. Here and there, they will climb that fantastically steep mountain and lay rope lines on its sides. Then they will slip into sleeping bags in 30- and 40-below temperatures. They will update expedition pages on Facebook and send emails to wives and girlfriends and children.
They will pray for a three-day break in the weather.
Why climb it? I put the question to Bielecki. He knows better than most that glory is not the inevitable reward of the Himalayas.
"Climbing is about pleasure and pain — in winter that balance is lost," he says. "There's no pleasure to be found in Karakoram in winter. You are uncomfortable every minute of every day. But the great emotion of making history, of making an accomplishment no one else did, that is immense, almost spiritual."
It's the allure of that diamond-hard and deadly pyramid in the deepest reaches of the Karakoram range.