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Daring Himalayan rescue spotlights Poland's 'Ice Warriors'

4 min

Warsaw (AFP)

The daring Polish rescue of a stranded French mountaineer in the Himalayas this weekend was made possible by a long tradition of climbing that has seen Poles become first to reach the summit of most of the world's highest peaks in winter.

France's Elisabeth Revol was facing death on a Pakistan peak nicknamed "killer mountain" when an elite group of Polish climbers scaled part of the 8,125 metre (26,660 foot) Nanga Parbat in darkness early Sunday to rescue her.

Poor weather meant Polish duo Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki were unable to reach fellow countryman Tomek Mackiewicz, who had been climbing with Revol and who she left behind to save her life.

Pakistani climber Karim Shah, who was in contact with the expedition, said the rescue effort was unmatched in the climbing world, with the team ascending 1,200 metres in complete darkness along a treacherous route without a fixed rope.

"It's the next generation of 'Ice Warriors'," said Piotr Pustelnik, president of the Polish Mountaineering Association (PZA), referring to the nickname that Poles acquired in the 1980s after coming up with the idea to tackle the Himalayas in winter.

They invented the sport, and they dominate it. Poles were the first to reach 10 out of 13 of the world's 8,000-metre-plus peaks during the harsher conditions of the colder months. One summit still remains to be conquered.

"We had the misfortune of living behind the Iron Curtain, so we didn't have the opportunity to conquer the Himalayas in previous decades like our Western counterparts," Pustelnik told AFP.

"When we were finally able to go there, all the summits had already been conquered. So our friend Andrzej Zawada had the idea of climbing them in winter, something no one had done before."

- 'A little crazy' -

It was also a way to escape the drabness of everyday life under communism.

"We were young, we wanted to see the world, breathe a little," Polish climbing legend Leszek Cichy told AFP.

They trained by hiking around Poland's Tatra mountains in the cold, and when the time came to set off for the Himalayas, they aimed straight for the world's highest peak.

"If we are to fail at climbing an 8,000-metre peak, it might as well be Everest," Zawada had said at the time.

The expedition arrived at the foot of the mountain on New Year's Eve in 1979 and by February 17, 1980 Cichy and his climbing partner Krzysztof Wielicki had reached the summit.

"It was a moment of intense joy and satisfaction for our whole team," Cichy told AFP, adding that "it was really tough."

That success was followed by Poles setting more winter firsts by scaling another six of the world's highest peaks.

"After conquering seven '8,000ers' out of the total 14, we had a break for a few years," Cichy said.

It was only in the 2000s that they returned to the Himalayas in winter.

"We didn't really have much competition. We were competing against ourselves because no one else was scaling the Himalayas in winter. They all thought we were a little crazy, that it was too difficult."

- Beautiful loop -

The only "8000er" yet to be conquered in winter is K2, which at 8,611 metres is the world's second-highest peak but is considered the most difficult.

Two Polish expeditions and one Russian team had attempted the peak but had to turn back.

The duo that saved Revol are part of a new Polish national expedition -- featuring a second generation of Ice Warriors who are in their 30s and 40s -- trying to conquer K2 in winter.

"If we succeed, it'll be a beautiful loop, after 38 years. We started with the world's highest mountain and we'll finish with the hardest," Cichy said.

The head of Poland's latest K2 expedition is Wielicki, Cichy's partner from the Everest expedition, as well as the fifth person ever to summit all 14 8,000ers.

"We have to finish what we started," he said in December.

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