It was a week of triumph and tragedy in the Karakoram Mountain Range of Pakistan. On Tuesday, a team of Polish mountaineers braved high winds, cold weather and plenty of snow to complete the first ever winter ascent of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain in the world. Unfortunately, two of the climbers went missing on the descent and after several days of searching, their ultimate fate remains a mystery at this time.
The climbers began their expedition way back in January, arriving in Pakistan early in the month. After spending some time organizing their gear and trekking through the Karakoram, the team arrived in Base Camp on January 23. In the weeks that followed they built four high camps, shuttled gear and fixed ropes up the slopes, while allowing their bodies to slowly acclimatize to the altitude. After completing their preparation however, bad weather settled in over the mountain, forcing them to stay in BC while they patiently waited for an opportunity to scale the 8051 meter (26,414 ft) peak.
That opportunity came early this week when a brief weather window opened, granting them access to the summit. On Monday, four climbers, Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Tomasz Kowalski and Artur Małek, moved up to Camp 4, located at 7400 meters (24,278 ft). The following day the winds died and temperatures improved just as meteorologists predicted, granting them access to the summit at last. The men set out on their final push amidst high hopes and those hopes were realized at 5:30 PM local time on Tuesday when all four of the climbers successfully reached the summit. It was the first time that anyone had stood on top of Broad Peak in the dead of winter.
Elated yet exhausted, the climbers didn’t linger at the top for long. The team started down together but soon found themselves drifting apart as they each moved at different paces. In the hours that followed Bieleck and Malek managed to straggle back to Camp 4, where they immediately crawled into their tents for a much needed rest. But their teammates, Berbeka and Kowalski moved too slowly and as a result were forced to bivouac above 7900 meters (25,918 ft) without a tent. The two men haven’t been seen or heard from since.
On Wednesday, Bielecki and Malek made their way down to Base Camp where they are reportedly exhausted but in good physical condition. Neither of the two men is suffering from frostbite, which is a common affliction amongst high altitude mountaineers, particularly those who make winter ascents. That same day, several members of the support team, consisting of high-altitude porters, went up the mountain to look for their missing teammates. So far, there has been no trace.
Things didn’t get any better yesterday when the weather window closed and conditions took a turn for the worse. Wind speeds have increased and temperatures are dropping, making it even more unlikely that Berbeka and Kowalski would be able to survive high on the mountain. But the team hasn’t given up hope just yet and they left Camp 4 intact just in case their friends appear and need to take shelter. That seems increasingly unlikely with each passing day.
Condolences to the entire team as well as the friend and family of the missing men.
[Photo Credit: Kogo via WikiMedia and Adam Bielecki ]