National Geographic : 2008 Jan
BY MARK JENKINS NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICCONTRIBUTINGWRITER PHOTOGRAPHS BY TOMMY HEINRICH UNSPEAKABLE COLD. A cold so unearthly, the two Polish mountaineers, even in their benumbed state, recognize it for what it is: the angel of death. She has wrapped their wasted bodies in her icy wings and is feeding on them while they're still alive-gnawing at their wooden fingers and frozen toes, eating away their waxy cheeks and hardened noses. It is the 12th of January, 2007, the dead of winter, in Pakistan's Karakoram Range. Darek Zaluski and Jacek Jawien are pinned down inside their tent at 22,146 feet (6,750 meters) on the southwest ridge of Nanga Parbat, Earth's ninth highest mountain. Everything is frozen solid boots, socks, sunscreen, water bottles-as if left over from some ghastly ice age. They remove bat teries from inside their underwear, fumble them into the radio, and call Base Camp. The wind is shrieking, snow strafing their nylon tent. Only a few desperate words can be made out. "Wiatr...wiatr!" The wind, the wind. Spoken like dying words. But Zaluski and Jawien are not dying. Unbeliev ably, they are trying to decide whether to go up, or go down. They have not slept for two days. They reached Camp 3 on the ridge the day before and spent the night huddled inside their tent, cling ing to the poles to keep them from snapping in the wind. The temperature is minus 40°C, the wind gusting at 60 miles an hour. They are wearing everything they have-layers of fleece, Author Mark Jenkins, who lives in Wyoming, and photographerTommy Heinrich, who lives in Argen tina, are both veteran Himalayan climbers. 110 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JANUARY 2008 thick down suits, gloves inside mittens, hoods, and masklike balaclavas. Exposed skin quickly suffers frostbite. They have cocooned them selves in their foot-deep sleeping bags, but still they are shivering uncontrollably, their speech slurred, body movements jerky. Even in this fugue of misery, they understand and accept the situation. They are Polish, after all, and this is a peculiarly Polish pursuit: high-altitude winter mountaineering. Zaluski, 47, and Jawiei, 30, have been here before. They are veteran Himalayan moun taineers. Two years ago they were on the first winter ascent of 26,300-foot Xixabangma Feng (Shisha Pangma) in China. Another two-man team had reached the top, and Zaluski and Jawien were poised to make the second summit push when a storm slammed into the mountain. They were forced to turn around and barely made it down alive. Now it has happened again. They have been on the mountain for 35 days. Big sponsors have paid big money to see them succeed. Websites are reporting on their progress. Poland is watching. Their comrades are watching. But so are Zaluski's wife and his two teenage daughters back in Warsaw; and so is Jawien's wife in Tychy, cradling their eight month-old daughter.