Triumph quickly turned to tragedy in the mountains of Pakistan last week when a team of climbers made the first winter ascent of the massive Broad Peak. The four climbers battled difficult conditions and extremely cold temperatures to reach the summit, but sadly two of the men died on the descent.
Last Tuesday, Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Tomasz Kowalski and Artur Małek, climbing as part of an all-Polish mountaineering squad, reached the top of the 8051-meter (26,414-foot) Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet. The four men accomplished that feat after spending weeks on BP building high camps, fixing ropes and acclimatizing to the high altitude and inclement weather. In doing so, they became the first men to summit that incredibly difficult peak during the harshest and most unforgiving season of the year.
But experienced mountaineers will tell you that the summit is only half way to the goal and that climbers still need to safely get back down as well. After spending a short time on top of Broad Peak, the men began the long, slow and exhausting descent back to their highest camp where they could rest before proceeding down to Base Camp the following day. Unfortunately, two of the men would never make it to that point.
In the hours that followed the successful summit, Bielecki and Małek managed to stumble back to camp and climb inside their tents for a much needed rest. But Berbeka and Kowalski were both moving far too slowly to reach high camp that evening. As a result, they were forced to bivouac at 7900 meters (25,918 feet) without a tent, leaving them exposed to the harsh elements overnight.The following day the team leader spoke to Kowalski via satellite phone who told him he was simply too tired to go on. No matter how much he was encouraged or cojoled, the climber didn’t have the strength or energy to get on his feet and so he sat in place, waiting for the inevitable. There was no further contact with him by mid-morning.
As for Berbeka, he was climbing without a satellite phone but was reportedly on the move and attempting to descend the mountain. He was last seen coming down from the site of his overnight bivouac but what became of him after that remains a mystery. It is believed that he was simply so exhausted by the climb and exposure to the elements that he inadvertently slipped into a crevasse while descending.
Over the next couple of days, other members of the team climbed up the mountain to watch for their teammates and lend assistance as needed. Both Bielecki and Małek were able to safely descend back to base camp but their companions were never seen again. A massive storm moved into region over the weekend, effectively closing off all chances of survival.
With the successful summit of Broad Peak, 12 of the 14 8000-meter mountains have now been climbed during the winter. Only Nanga Parbat, which also claimed a life this winter, and the dreaded K2 remain unconquered during the colder months of the year.
[Photo Credit: Adam Bielecki]