Updated: March 19, 2013 6:18PM
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It was a race against the clock, against the mountain and against the darkness — and two climbers lost their lives doing it.
Two Polish climbers who made world’s first winter ascent of a Himalayan peak of more than 26,000 feet (8,000 meters) gave a dramatic account Tuesday of their expedition to the summit. They also paid tribute to two colleagues who disappeared during the night-time descent and are presumed dead.
Adam Bielecki and Artur Malek earlier this month completed the ascent of Broad Peak, the world’s 12th highest mountain, located in Pakistan, along with Maciej Berbeka and Tomasz Kowalski, who vanished during the return.
Visibly depressed over their friends’ deaths, Bielecki and Malek said all four were in very good health and determined to reach the peak when they set out from camp in sub-freezing temperatures early on March 5.
“We knew that that was our last chance for good weather,” Bielecki told reporters at a news conference.
But then they came across ice crevasses and a challenging climb on Rocky Summit, a smaller peak on the way to the top, which slowed them down.
“We knew it was getting late and that we would have to climb down at night, but we saw no reason to turn back,” Bielecki said. “We were all fine, the weather was cloudless.”
He said other night descents of high mountains have been successful. However, a night descent means no visibility and very low temperatures, a serious danger to climbers already exhausted by the ascent.
Bielecki reached the peak first, stayed there for “about one minute” to take pictures. On his way down, he met the others, who still climbing. He said Berbeka was frowning but Malek and Kowalski said they were okay.
Bielecki and Malek returned to the base camp that night, but Kowalski, reached by radio, said he was too weak to walk on and was spending the night near the top. He did not heed urging to go on, according to team leader, Krzysztof Wielicki, who spoke to him.
Wielicki, at the base camp, said he could see Berbeka’s headlight moving down, but at some point near the crevasses, it vanished. After a few days of waiting, he realized the two lost men could be no longer alive in the Himalayan winter conditions.
Bielecki said it was a tragedy that they lost friends “but we will not give up climbing. Climbing is what drives us in life.”
Wielicki said the expedition was professionally prepared but has asked a panel of Polish climbers to investigate whether the team took unnecessary risks.
Polish climbers have a long tradition of scaling the highest peaks in the Himalayas.