His daily work is optoelectronics research at WUT Faculty of Electronics and Information Technology and teaching students. His escape from the routine is mountaineering. At the end of December, he is joining a team of Polish climbers heading up to Karakorum to make history with the first-ever winter ascent of the “Savage Mountain”, K2. PhD Marcin Kaczkan tells us how preparations are made for such a trip, what happens to a human body at eight thousand meters above the sea level and what it feels like after you have reached the top and why it is everything but not satisfaction.
When you scaled your first eight-thousander, did you feel you had stepped up to a new level? Does anything suddenly change after you have reached above those 8,000 meters?
It’s a conventional line; it’s more something stuck in your head than a reality that things are bound to suddenly change at those 8,000 meters. My adventure with mountaineering has unfolded gradually: the Tatras, the Alps, the Caucasus, the Pamirs and the Tian Shan as I pushed my target height further up. Then, eventually, the time had come for 8,000 meters but I didn’t feel any dramatic difference.
K2 is widely regarded as the most difficult mountain to ascend and it is the dream and most ambitious target of many climbers. The entire mountaineering community looks in that direction and everyone wants to be the first to conquer it.
K2 does not have an easy ascent, there’s lots of climbing there. Obviously, you have to be technically agile but technical difficulties do not determine your success or defeat with that peak. Any reasonably fit person on the lowlands would manage such a strain. What makes K2 so difficult to scale is a number of factors combined together such as the altitude, harsh weather conditions, low temperatures, wind, low pressure and insufficient oxygen. The supply of oxygen is only 30% of what is available in the air at the altitude we normally live at.
What happens to a human body then?
Insufficient oxygen makes the human body work entirely different: you feel totally out of steam and your performance falls dramatically making every step a huge effort. You can’t really get prepared for such conditions. The biggest challenge is to make your body get used to staying at high altitudes. Nobody has devised a super training regime yet to make a person feel very well once they are at the height of 7,000 or 8,000 meters. It is only the previous experience and acclimatization, or long-term exposure to those conditions (even for a month), ascending and descending uphill and downhill that can switch your body to the ‘mountainous mode’. I know many excellent athletes who achieve smashing results but are a total mess above a certain height. However, as a matter of fact, you can successfully adjust to an altitude of up to 5,000 meters at most. This is the height you normally set up a base camp at because it’s where you can still regenerate. Above that height your organism won’t regenerate at all and will only rapidly deteriorate. That’s why the timing is essential: a peak must be scaled fast.
So, you stay on the summit just for a blink of a moment, right?
Yes, it’s virtually just a few minutes or literally seconds in the winter. The tiredness is so overwhelming that I can’t bother to take out my camera, which I carry with me all the way up. But I always hear the yelling on the radio telling me a picture is a must!
Do you have the time to actually celebrate your achievement?
When I’m there on the top, I have two feelings. The first is the relief that there’s no more left to ascend. The second is the anxiety that I have to descend that peak too. The satisfaction only comes once you reach the base camp. You start to think about it only after you have cooled down and regained some strength.
So why do you do that and come back again and again to high-altitude mountains putting your health or even life at risk?
Some like fishing, some prefer to ski and some climb mountains. I happen to be one of the latter folk. I come from the Masuria, the Polish Lake District, so I have always been perversely attracted to the mountains. I wanted to see for myself how it is to be left to your own resources. I would grab my backpack and go away for 2 to 3 weeks to the Bieszczady Mountains, all alone. Then, I changed my destination to the Tatras and took to it. A bunch of my friends and I organized various trips to the Tatras, the Alps and the Caucasus. I loved the trips to seven-thousanders, the Tian Shan or the Pamirs. Those are beautiful mountains, very challenging and yet very cheap, which was key as I was a student then. My first trip (back in late 1990s), including the airfare, cost me 600 dollars. My companion on many trips was Piotrek Morawski from the Faculty of Chemistry. We met somewhere at a club and only then it turned out we were both part of WUT community.
You have scaled K2 in summertime. And it was winter 2003 that you and Denis Urubka and Piotr Morawski succeeded in reaching the highest altitude at K2 on a winter ascent: 7,650 meters. You could say you were very close to make it, weren’t you?
I wouldn’t say that. This was how the media put it, that we had almost nailed it. But we were still a thousand meters below and this is a long way to go. A couloir leading us basically to the top was right ahead of us but it was still an elevation range of one thousand meters. It’s very hard to go up and back down the same day, even in the summer. Days are much shorter in the winter so it would be a massive challenge.
Fourteen years have passed since then, it’s quite a while.
That was my first time on a eight-thousander. The first time and straight with K2, and in the winter, on top of that. It was a soaring gap for me. We joked with Piotrek Morawski that we were going there to polish shoes for our more seasoned colleagues, that we would look from aside and try to make ourselves handy. Actually, we were proven all wrong. The trip leader had much bolder plans for us. It was a real school of life. Everything we came across with was new to us. But we took everything as normal: it’s hard because it has to be. If you’re on K2 in winter, it’s got to be tough.
Such a trip is not only a great effort for high-altitude climbers on the spot but the very preparation is a complex logistics process.
It’s very hard to arrange for a caravan in wintertime so we send the cargo in the autumn as much as we can. Parts of the supplies are transported to the glacier: the equipment, food. Everything lies in there waiting for us. There’s no worry something will happen to it; there’s simply no one there. We are flying to Pakistan after Christmas. The ultimate destination we can reach by any means of transport is a small town of Askole. We have about a week’s walk from there to our base camp. It makes quite a nice trekking route in the summer but in the winter, it becomes quite a strenuous trail to go.
You will be the only crew at the bottom of K2 this winter.
Actually, it is for the best that we’ll be alone there. There are some attempts at a certain route but everything can change on the spot. The route we’ll use to start the attack may be too dangerous and we might have to choose another one. When we are the only trip, we have the mountain all to ourselves and we can take the best route for us. If there were more crews making an attempt, permits to enter the specific routes would be distributed for one thing.
You will live at the bottom of K2 for two months. What will you be doing there as the access to daylight is limited to 8 hours a day?
Those two months are for us to get adjusted to the local environment, fix ropes on the way, secure the mountain, set up 3 to 4 camps and stock them up. Setting up a camp sounds like a big thing but it’s generally just about finding the most suitable place to put up a tent where we can get some sleep, rest a bit and eat something hot. In the summer, you can at least dig some shelter in the snow. But in the winter the mountain in all covered in ice and the snow is scarce so to prepare a platform for a tent you have to forge the ice. So there’s a good deal of hard work ahead of us.
The leader of this year’s trip to K2, Krzysztof Wielicki, says the odds for a successful conquest are 5 percent. It’s not much. But you still take up that challenge.
That’s the risk involved. K2 will be conquered in wintertime sooner or later. There have only been three trips there to date. But of all the highest mountains in the world only K2 remains to be scaled in winter so I think we’re likely to see a growing number of trips year to year. And someone will ultimately succeed. The truth is that pretty much depends on your luck; whether you’ll happen to be in your top shape and the mountain will be properly prepared or not or whether your timing will be good enough to squeeze into a weather window or not.
And what’s your summer holiday destination: the mountains or the seaside?
(Laughs) When I go on holiday, I actually choose the seaside. But it’s mainly for family reasons; however, going to the seaside for a change is good for me too. Children in particular love lying on the beach and dipping in the water. It’s not my cup of tea but I make that sacrifice.