Photograph by Tommy Heinrich, National Geographic Creative
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A full moon illuminates K2.

Photograph by Tommy Heinrich, National Geographic Creative

Climbers Set Off to Be First to Summit World's Most Notorious Mountain in Winter

A team of Poland's most elite climbers will attempt to scale one of the deadliest mountains on Earth—a feat no one has accomplished.

At the highest peaks of K2, the world's second tallest mountain, wind speeds begin to rival those of hurricanes. Narrow jet streams tear across the mountainside, threatening to take down anyone on its slopes.

The wind is just one risk of climbing K2. In winter, temperatures on the 28,000-foot mountain fall below minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Daylight lasts for just a few hours. Inclines are some of the world's steepest.

Fourteen mountains in the world reach over 8,000 meters. All have been climbed in winter except for K2, despite attempts that began in 1987, 2002 and 2012. But an elite team of Polish climbers will set off today in an attempt to make history by summiting K2 in winter.

The team, which consists of 13 climbers, will fly from Poland to Islamabad, Pakistan, where they will travel to the country's mountainous border with China. Once there, it will take at least 100 porters to carry over a ton of equipment needed to establish a basecamp.

Only Mount Everest, which stands at 29,029 feet, is taller than K2, whose peak rises 28,251 feet above sea level. Climbers have reached its peak in the spring and summer, when conditions are less perilous, and have partially climbed the mountain in winter, but no one has reached the mountain's peak in winter.

Preparing for History

K2 is a more lethal mountain than Everest, and 84 people have died on the mountain since record keeping began. Only 306 people have ever reached the top, compared to the more than 4,000 that have completed the ascent on Mount Everest.

The Karakoram mountain range to which K2 belongs is colder than the Himalayan mountain range, notes climber and writer Bernadette McDonald, who has authored a book on Polish climbing.

“The combination of difficulty, temperature and wind make it a formidable objective,” she says of the new expedition.

Michał Leksiński, a spokesperson for the expedition, notes that "we have sent someone to space and put someone on the moon, but nobody has ever stood on the top of K2 in the winter."

The Polish team has been preparing for almost two years, purchasing the best climbing equipment and hiring a supplemental team of weather forecasters, dietitians, sports trainers, and doctors.

They encompass the world's best climbers and is overseen by renowned Polish climber Krzysztof Wielicki. The 67-year-old made headlines in 1980, when he became the first person to climb Mount Everest in winter. He has led three winter expeditions to different peaks on K2, but never to its tallest point.

The team includes climbers Janusz Gołąb, Adam Bielecki, Rafał Fronia, Marek Chmielarski, Marcin Kaczkan, Artur Małek, Piotr Tomala, Maciej Bedrejczuk , Denis Urubko, medical rescuer Jarosław Botor, filmmaker Dariusz Załuski, and base manager Piotr Snopczyński.

The climbers have trained in specialized rooms called hypobaric chambers, which allow trainers to manipulate air pressure and to prepare climbers' bodies for the high-altitude, low-oxygen environment of the mountain.

A History of Climbing

If any country is primed to reach the summit of K2 in the winter, it's Poland. Of the 13 mountains over 8,000 meters that have been climbed in the winter, nine were reached by Polish teams and one was reached by a team of Poles and Italians.

Climbing became popular in Poland after World War II. Eager to escape communist control in the country, men turned to climbing as a way to find freedom. Climbing clubs boomed in popularity, says Leksiński.

“I think this team will make it, but I'm not sure it will be this year,” says McDonald, explaining that it might take more than one season to iron out a climbing strategy. “I sincerely hope they do, because I feel that the Poles ‘deserve’ K2 in winter.”

The team expects to establish a basecamp around early January and to begin climbing shortly after. They climbers are wary of establishing a strict schedule, given the unpredictability of K2.

Read more about the team's progress here.