Great success overshadowed by a tragedy – 10th anniversary of Broad Peak

5 March 2013 was the greatest day in the history of Polish Himalayan mountaineering when Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Tomasz Kowalski and Artur Malek were the first in history to stand on the summit of Broad Peak in winter.

Broad Peak is the twelfth highest mountain in the world (8051 m above sea level), located on the border between China and Pakistan. A man first reached this peak on 9 June, 1957. This success was achieved by Austrian climbers. Broad Peak remained unclimbed in winter for a long time.

Berbeka had already approached this peak earlier. On 6 March 1988, he reached the so-called at summit of Broad Peak alone. He was convinced he had reached the summit. It wasn’t until downstairs that he realized the mistake. However, it was still a record, no one had climbed to such a height in Karakorum before in winter. „I was 100 per cent convinced that I was on the summit” – said Maciej Berbeka in 2013 on RMF FM. „After the descent, it turned out that I missed 12 meters. It was the next hill, about half an hour away from me. I was not aware of it in the falling dusk.”

 25 years later, Berbeka got a chance for a rematch. 27-year-old Tomasz Kowalski, 29-year-old Adam Bielecki, 33-year-old Artur Malek and 58-year-old Berbeka reached the main summit. The expedition’s leader was 63-year-old Krzysztof Wielicki, an Alpine legend who climbed 14 eight-thousanders.

 Maciej Berbeka in the 1980s was at the forefront of world Himalayan mountaineering. He had five eight-thousanders to his credit, including two winter ascents. When Krzysztof Wielicki invited him on an expedition, Berbeka thought for a long time. However, he decided to take part in it.

Artur Bielecki has made the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum I. Artur Malek has been climbing in the Tatra Mountains in winter for years. In the Himalayas, it did a great job in the harsh conditions of Lhotse.

Tomasz Kowalski, the youngest of all, has never been on the eight-thousander, but his achievements in various mountains attracted attention. In just 27 days, he climbed four seven-thousands in the former Soviet Union. He had experience with heights, it was known that he acclimatized well. He also ran marathons and ultramarathons.

They waited a long time for the opportune moment for the summit attack. Forecasts were favourable. During the entire expedition, the weather was perfect for this time of year. First of all, there was no wind. The temperature ranged from minus 29 to minus 35 (at night), it was completely cloudless, with full, unobstructed visibility. The climbers knew from Krzysztof Wielicki, who stayed in the base camp, that the weather would hold during the night and the next day.

On 5 March, at 5.15am a team of four left the assault camp at 7,400 m above sea level. Being just before the summit of Rocky Summit (8027 m above sea level), climbers divide into teams of two. They found unexpected difficulties on the way and the climbers arrived at the main summit shortly before dark. “Poles climb Broad Peak! Adam Bielecki at 17.20, Artur Malek at 17.50, Maciej Berbeka and Tomasz Kowalski at 18.00.” – was heard all over the news.

On the descent, the four split. Bielecki returned to Camp 4 after 22:00, while Malek didn’t make it until 2.00am the following morning.

Although each climber carried a radio, of the two high on the mountain, only Kowalski made contact with base camp, saying he was weak and had breathing difficulties. Tomasz Kowalski radioed several times that night with Krzysztof Wielicki and Artur Malek, who was already in Camp 4. The climbers were constantly cheering him to go down.

There has been no contact with Maciej Berbeka since reaching the summit.

The last contact with Tomasz Kowalski, according to Krzysztof Wielicki, occurred at 6.20 in the morning.

On 7 March, the leader of the expedition, Krzysztof Wielicki, considered the chances of survival of the two missing after spending two nights without camping equipment in extremely difficult conditions to be zero, and the expedition ended on March 8 in the afternoon. After a symbolic farewell and prayers for the dead, the descent into the valley began.

On 11 July, the body of Tomasz Kowalski was found at an altitude of 7,900 m above sea level by participants of the search expedition: Jacek (Maciej’s brother) Berbeka, Jacek Jawien and Krzysztof Tarasiewicz. “We transported Kowalski’s body a bit lower, carved out a special place, and finally, we put Tomek there. We tied the body with a rope, covered it with a jacket and stones so that it was known that it was a corpse and that no one would touch it.” – said Jacek Berbeka.

The search expedition did not find Maciej Berbeka’s body.


Author: Patrycja Bodzek-Kurzyńska

Photo: PHZ / Maciej Berbeka / portalgorski / Andrzej Iwanczuk / Jacek Hugo-Bader