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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 27, 2013
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Tragedy in the Mountains
March 27, 2013   
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Euphoria turned into despair when only two Polish climbers returned to base out of the four who made history by being the first to conquer Broad Peak in the Karakoram mountain range in winter.

The successful winter ascent by Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Tomasz Kowalski and Artur Małek of Broad Peak, an 8,051-meter mountain on the Pakistani-Chinese border, was announced March 6. It was instantly touted as the biggest achievement of Polish mountain climbing in recent years.

When a short “weather window” permitted them to make the attempt, the four Poles quickly worked their way up to the summit from a camp located 7,500 meters above sea level. The accomplishment leaves only two of the world’s 14 mountains higher than 8,000 meters—all in central Asia—unconquered in winter: Nanga Parbat (8,126 m) and K2, the world’s second-highest mountain (8,611 m).

Then disaster struck. The way back turned out to be unexpectedly difficult for the Polish climbers. While Bielecki and Małek made a safe, timely descent in good physical shape and without suffering frostbite, Berbeka and Kowalski advanced much slower than planned and needed seven hours to cover a distance that had taken one hour on the way up. The younger of the two, 27-year-old Kowalski, was getting weaker by the minute; the last time he talked to the base by radio, he said he could go no farther. For unknown reasons, Berbeka, 58, did not report to base at all.

A sudden weather change brought a snowstorm, making a rescue operation impossible. Military helicopters used on such missions in Pakistan can only fly as high as 6,700 meters. Instead, an attempt to find the missing climbers was made by two expedition members, Małek and a Pakistani named Karim Hayyat. Hayyat made it to 7,700 meters, but failed to find any trace of either Kowalski or Berbeka.

After a 24-hour wait, Berbeka and Kowalski were officially declared missing. They were pronounced dead the following day. Their chances of survival in such weather were described as zero and finding their bodies would be practically impossible.

Kowalski’s body is believed to be located near a pass on Broad Peak’s Chinese side, 7,900 meters above sea level. Berbeka most likely fell off a slope at 7,700 meters.

Daring and determination
Berbeka was a respected figure among Polish mountain climbers who specialize in conquering Himalayan peaks, and had first attempted Broad Peak in winter 25 years ago. He joined the expedition at the encouragement of its leader, 62-year-old Krzysztof Wielicki, the fifth climber to conquer all 14 peaks in the world over 8,000 meters. In 1988, Berbeka had climbed the mountain solo, but success narrowly eluded him when he mistook a foresummit called Rocky Summit (8,028 m) for Broad Peak. He was now back to finally accomplish his goal, but he had not taken part in such extremely difficult expeditions for years. Earlier in his career, Berbeka had achieved the first winter ascents of two peaks above 8,000 meters and altogether he had climbed five such mountains, including Mount Everest.

Despite his young age, Kowalski was highly regarded as an organizer and was a member of a dozen or so climbing expeditions to the Alps, Andes, Pamir Mountains and the mountains of Alaska.

In just one season in 2011, he successfully climbed four 7,000-meter peaks in former Soviet territory.

Several days after Kowalski and Berbeka went missing, Berbeka’s younger brother Jacek, 53, a seasoned climber in his own right, said a Polish expedition would travel to Broad Peak in June to search for the climbers’ bodies. If found, the bodies will not be brought down, but buried on the mountain. Jacek Berbeka said he wanted to recover the bodies before the summer climbing season, which attracts numerous expeditions from around the world. It is not uncommon for participants in such expeditions to discover the remains of climbers, some of which have been missing for more than a decade. Funded by the families and friends of Kowalski and Berbeka, the summer expedition could also receive some financial and organizational support from the Ministry of Sport and Tourism.

Tragic history
Polish expeditions to the Himalayas and Karakoram Mountains have ended in tragedy many times and have claimed the lives of some of Poland’s most famous climbers. One of them was Jerzy Kukuczka, the second man in history to conquer all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. This feat was accomplished in just eight years while his predecessor, Italy’s Reinhold Messner, needed 16 years to do the same. Kukuczka died in 1989 when he fell off the face of Lhotse and dropped two kilometers into a crevice. In 1992, Kanchenjunga claimed the life of Wanda Rutkiewicz, the first female European climber to have made a successful ascent of Mount Everest and the first woman ever to conquer K2. Neither of their bodies has ever been found. More than a dozen other Polish climbers have died in the Himalayas from falls, snapping ropes, avalanches and extreme exhaustion.
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