I grew up in the countryside around Łętownia, Poland. It’s an area where skiing is popular, but my family were poor, so I had very old wooden skis; I didn’t even know modern equipment existed. I couldn’t afford to ride the ski lift, so I used to hike up with the skis strapped to my back. It turned out that this was good practice.
I was first introduced to ski mountaineering (climbing mountains, then skiing down them) by my older brother, who had represented Poland in the sport. He taught me to respect the mountains. From there, I started doing bigger and bigger challenges: Shishapangma in China in 2013, Manaslu in Nepal in 2014. Eventually, people around me wondered if I would take on K2.
K2 is a monster, and it’s deadly; not for nothing is it nicknamed “savage mountain”. You hear the tragic stories: for every four people who reach the summit, one dies. I was too afraid to even think about skiing down it. Even the best ski mountaineers and guides thought it impossible to attempt.
But that changed after a training expedition to Broad Peak, a mountain about 8km from K2. I got a clear look at K2’s massive face, and it inspired me. I started to think it might be feasible. Over time, my skills improved and, by 2017, I didn’t feel the fear any more. I began my preparations.
Why attempt such a feat? I love wild nature, and I love setting myself goals – it gives me a sense of freedom. To be the first to do it just adds to the challenge. Fear is an important element of life; it stops us going wild and it can also keep you safe. But to ski down K2, I had to stop being afraid; I couldn’t worry about dying. When I’m preparing for something like this, I don’t tell people or talk about it much – I don’t like others worrying. I didn’t even tell my mother until just before the attempt.
When we arrived at base camp, I felt calm and prepared. There were no emotions or doubts, I just knew I could do it. I was in a deep state of mindfulness for much of the ascent.
Of course, there were challenges. At third base camp, 7,000 metres up, my safety guy Janusz Gołąb suffered a severe bout of back pain related to discopathy, a degenerative disease that affects the spine, and couldn’t even stand up or lie flat. The doctors and I decided it was best to wait, and my brother organised a shipment of special medication to be flown in on an unmanned aerial vehicle. We waited for 36 hours, unsure what would happen. But after taking the medicine, he got better, so I decided to proceed.
Then, at camp four, I accidentally set fire to my ski suit while boiling water. I put it out quickly, and the suit wasn’t damaged, but it gave me a scare. On a mountain like K2, losing your focus, even for a second, can be fatal. In total, it took about three days to reach the summit.
For many climbers, getting to the peak of K2 would be the defining moment of their lives. For us, it was where the real challenge began. It’s incredible to look out across the peaks and valleys – it really does feel as if you’re on top of the world – but I had to focus. Skiing down a mountain demands patience and endurance – at times you’re literally inching your way down. In some places, you use ropes, especially for traversing ice; in others, you’re constantly poking the snow with your poles, checking for crevasses. You’re always focused on the next few metres, the next danger.
The most treacherous part was the Messner Traverse. It’s really craggy and steep, pure ice, up to a 75-degree angle in places, with sheer drops on either side. You need to keep your turns and movements smooth and confident. No one had ever attempted it before, so it was a relief to cross it without a hitch.
In total, the descent took a little over seven hours. When I eventually skied into base camp, I was so relieved that for 90 minutes I simply lay in the snow, emotionally and physically exhausted.
I’m so proud of what I achieved. No one thought it could be done; even my own brother had doubts. It taught me the value of patience – and that nobody else can make your dreams come true.
• As told to Derek Robertson
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