Nothing short of a miracle is now needed to see the return to base camp of legendary Polish mountaineer Maciej Berbeka and his compatriot Tomasz Kowalski, after their historic first winter ascent of 8,051m Broad Peak.
Led by Krzysztof Wielicki, arguably the most accomplished Himalayan winter mountaineer of all time, a small Polish expedition arrived in base camp on the 23rd January and began establishing camps on the Normal Route.
Early on the 5th March Berbeka, who 25 years ago came remarkably close to climbing Broad Peak in winter, Adam Bielecki, who one year ago made the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum I, Artur Malek, and Kowalski left camp 4 (7,400m) for a summit push.
They had been given a clear weather window, with good visibility, no wind, and a daytime temperature at ca 8,000m of -27°C, dropping to -35°C at night.
They reached the col (ca 7,900m) below Broad Peak Foresummit (8,034m) at around 12:30pm. Normally, it is a few hours from here to the top, but the team found unexpected difficulties and the climbers only arrived at the main summit between 5:00 and 6:00pm, shortly before dark.
On the descent the four split. Bielecki returned to Camp 4 at around 11:00pm, while Malek didn't make it until 2:00am the following morning. Berbeka (58) and Kowalski (27) were moving far more slowly and by 2:00am had only reached the col, where they were forced to sit out the night without bivouac gear.
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.
The following morning he communicated his condition had worsened, but it was thought that Berbeka might be making an attempt to descend. Just before dawn Wielicki, at base camp, spotted the light from a headlamp in the vicinity of the col.
At around that time the experienced Pakistan mountaineer, Karim Hayyat, set out from Camp 2 (6,200m) and eventually reached a high point of 7,700m. Visibility was good, but he saw no evidence of climbers above, and there were no further communications from Kowalski.
With a strong storm forecast to hit the area around midday on the 7th, all remaining members descended to base camp, though currently two more Pakistan climbers have set off up the mountain for what seems likely to be a final search.
Broad Peak becomes the third 8,000m peak in the Karakoram to be climbed in winter, leaving K2 and Nanga Parbat as the only summits of the world's 14 8,000ers not to have received a winter ascent.
This was the seventh attempt to climb the mountain in winter, though the first stands out as one of the most remarkable attempts in the history of winter Himalayan climbing.
In 1987-8 the great Polish expedition leader Andrezj Zawada, took a team to Pakistan to attempt K2. With a more northerly latitude and far harsher winter conditions, the Karakoram presents a considerably greater challenge than the high mountains of Nepal in the same season. Zawada's concept was well ahead of its time, and no 8,000m peaks in Pakistan were successfully summited until a couple of years ago.
By the end of February 1988 the Poles had failed to get higher than 7,000m on K2 but were well acclimatized. Berbeka and Aleksander Lwow, two of the strongest mountaineers of their day, were given permission to make a light and fast attempt on neighbouring Broad Peak.
Lwow gave up high on the mountain, leaving Berbeka to continue alone. He reached the "summit" in strong winds and gathering gloom, and during the descent bivouacked in a snow hole in the vicinity of the col, before reaching the top camp at 7,300m next day
Later, Berbeka realized he had made a mistake, having stopped on the foresummit only ca 400m distant from the main top.
Berbeka was certainly one of the major activists in the 1980s Polish scene. In 1979 he took part in the Polish expedition that made the first confirmed ascent of peak 29 (7,871m).
However, he really came to global prominence in 1981, when he made a new route on the South Face of Annapurna, climbing direct to the Central Summit on a line reported to be similar in difficulty to the North Face of the Matterhorn
He raised his game in January 1984, when he made the first winter ascent of Manaslu, only the second 8,000m peak to be climbed during the calendar winter season.
One year later, on another major Zawada expedition, he made the first winter ascent of Cho Oyu via a new route on the southeast pillar.
And in the post-monsoon season of 1986 he climbed a highly difficult new line on the left side of the south face of Dhaulagiri, reaching the Japanese route high on the southwest ridge, where he was unable to summit due to bad weather.
In the winter of 1990-91 he made an attempt to climb the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, and in autumn of 1993 became the first Pole to summit Everest from Tibet.
After this he appears to have disappeared from high standard mountaineering, though as a IFMGA guide he made more visits to the Himalaya, summiting Ama Dablam in 2006. His ascent of Broad Peak made him only the fourth person to make first winter ascents of three 8,000m peaks.