Polish kayaker Piotr Chmielinski, most famous for his first descents of the Amazon and the Colca rivers (both stories covered in National Geographic Magazine), interviews Bernadette McDonald, author of Freedom Climbers, her latest book about Polish Himalayan climbers. McDonald is a writer and mountain culture consultant based in Banff, Alberta. Her new book won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival and the Boardman Tasker Prize in the United Kingdom.
by Bernadette McDonald
Rocky Mountain Books
PC: When did you start being interested in mountain climbing yourself?
BM: My interest in climbing, and all mountain activities, goes back to my first summer job in Yoho National Park, forty years ago. The first thing I did was get a copy of the topographical map covering all of Yoho Park and I spent that summer ticking off each and every trail. And it was also my first introduction to rock climbing, which terrified me initially. I believe I cried a few times!
PC: Why an interest in Polish climbers?
BM: That happened many years later when I was working as Director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Banff, Alberta. My job was to know and understand the mountain world, including the most important characters. It became obvious pretty quickly that Polish climbers were special, particularly in the Himalaya. I met a number of them over the years, in various places and circumstances. By 2003, after one particular party in Katowice, Poland, where I met and socialized with a very large contingent of the world’s best Himalayan climbers — all of them Polish — listening to their stories and feeling their sense of loss at the number of Polish climbers who had died in the mountains, I knew there was a story that had to be told. I’m just surprised it took so long for someone to do it.
PC: Where did the title “Freedom Climbers” came from? Why?
BM: As I began to do the research for this book, speaking with climbers, with their families, their friends, I was always searching for the reasons and motivations that drove this particular generation of Polish climbers to dominate Himalayan climbing the way they did in the 70s and 80s. Of course there were lots of reasons, but the theme that kept resonating was that climbing represented a road to freedom for this amazing group of people. Because of the political situation in post-war Poland, and because of the economic and social constraints, climbing provided a way for these climbers to get out of the country, see the world, excel at something special and realize their true potential, all of which would not have been possible had they stayed at home and lived a “normal” life. So I called it “Freedom Climbers”: they climbed their way to freedom. It wasn’t just about climbing. It was about freedom.
PC: Why were Polish climbers so “late” in their high mountain accomplishments?
BM: Poland sent their first expedition to the Himalaya in 1939 to Nanda Devi East. Then the war broke out and nothing happened for six years. After 1945, other countries began going back to the high mountains and most of the “first” were accomplished. Poland wasn’t part of that history because the oppression continued after WWII with Soviet domination, restricted travel and military rule. It wasn’t until the 70s that Polish climbers began to leave the country to climb in high mountains, starting with the Hindu Kush.
PC: Why did the Polish Communist government partially supported Polish climbing and other expeditions after WWII?
BM: The Polish Communist government recognized climbing as a sport. And when they began to see that Polish climbers, who were extremely well trained and experienced from their climbing in the Tatras Mountains in Poland, could distinguish themselves on the international stage, the government supported a few expeditions each year. Those successes brought positive acclaim to Poland and it reflected well on the government.
PC: What was so special about Wanda Rutkiewicz that you wanted to meet her and to be in touch with her for many years after the first meeting?
BM: Of course I knew about Wanda Rutkiewicz, for she was the leading female Himalayan climber of her time. Nobody could touch her. She was years ahead of her time in terms of Himalayan accomplishments — an ambition! I attended a festival in France, specifically to meet Wanda Rutkiewicz because I wanted to invite her to be the opening night guest speaker at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. She agreed, although she explained that she had a number of 8000-metre peaks to climb before that could happen. But her plan was to climb them quickly so we stayed in touch, with the intention that she would come to Banff the following year. Sadly, her last letter to me came from Kathmandu, just before she headed off to Kangchenjunga, her last climb, as it turned out. She disappeared on the mountain, and her body was never found.
PC: Being a woman, did you see Wanda as a champion of woman’s “way” to conquer the highest mountains without man’s help, and maybe even ahead of male climbers?
BM: I think Wanda’s greatest contribution to the history of Himalayan climbing is that she championed the idea of women climbing in the highest peaks. She nurtured and led a number of women on amazing climbs, both in the Alps and in the Himalaya. An entire generation of Polish women climbers emerged from that time, and at least initially, it was under Wanda’s leadership.
PC: Did meeting Wanda spark additional interest in learning more about Polish “giant” climbers?
BM: Yes, of course Wanda spoke a lot about her community of climbers and it certainly sparked an interest to learn more. But it was probably that gathering in Katowice, where I met so many Polish “giants” at once, that made me realize just how unique this tribe was.
PC: Why did the Polish “giant” climbers wanted to go up by new difficult routes rather than on easy ones?
BM: There were lots of reasons, including the fact that Polish climbers were extremely well trained and they also had a lot of experience climbing in winter in the Tatras. But I think the most important reason was that Polish climbers were not part of those early years of exploration and accomplishment in the Himalaya because they were not allowed to leave the country. When they finally managed to get to the high mountains, they were highly motivated to make their mark on Himalayan climbing history, both with new routes and with winter climbs, something that had never been done before on 8000-metre peaks.
PC: Reinhold Messner was trying to be the first on all 14 8,000-meter mountains, and succeeded before Jerzy Kukuczka only one year later. Did Wanda have other women climbers at her time, competing with her for that accomplishment?
BM: Wanda’s only competitors for the Grand Slam or Crown of the Himalaya, as it was called, were men. That’s not to say that there weren’t women climbing 8000-meter peaks. But none were after the entire collection at that time. It wasn’t until last year that this was accomplished.
PC: What was special about Polish Climbers in the 1970s and 80s?
BM: They were highly trained, extremely skilled climbers, both in winter and summer. They were highly motivated to make their mark in the history of Himalayan climbing. Their lives at home in Poland were not filled with interesting and lucrative careers so there wasn’t much that held them at home. They could maintain a more comfortable lifestyle by working short periods of time doing dangerous work on the high smokestacks of Polish industrial cities and then leaving the country to travel to India and Nepal, where they also made money by smuggling goods from Poland, returning with hard currency. And — most importantly — by climbing, they were leading fulfilling, interesting, adventuresome lives. They were living their dreams.
PC: Who was Andrzej Zawada and what was his role in winter climbing?
BM: Zawada was one of the most important leaders of Polish climbers during this time and he was also a very strategic man. He realized that winter climbing was something that Polish climbers could excel at and could distinguish themselves on the international stage. It was his dream to climb 8000-meter peaks in winter. He created this “niche” in Himalayan climbing and his very first success at that height was Everest!
PC: Why did winter climbing become “Polish” specialty and why did Polish climbers embrace this challenging way of climbing with so many deadly accidents?
BM: Polish climbers trained in the Tatras, on the border between Poland and what was then called Czechoslovakia. Much of their climbing was done in winter so they knew how to winter climb, how to survive the cold, how to bivouac in winter. Once Zawada opened up the concept of climbing in the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya in winter, he had the best qualified climbers to back him up. There were a lot of accidents, and certainly many deaths, but at least as many of them, or perhaps more, were not in winter. Polish climbers pushed themselves in all seasons.
PC: How did Polish climbers manage to support so many high mountain expeditions in comparison with western climbers during those years?
BM: Apart from the support that some expeditions received from the Polish government, climbers financed their expeditions in two ways. The first was what they called “high altitude” work, where they cleaned and painted the towering smokestacks of the industrial cities of Poland, particularly Katowice. This was high, dangerous and toxic work and the climbers knew how to do it quickly. They could make enough money in a couple of weeks to finance an expedition that lasted months. The other method was smuggling. They would take goods from Poland, bought very cheaply, and transport them to India and Nepal, sell those goods and bring back hard currency. They routinely came back from a multi-month expedition with more money than when they left.
PC: What are the main differences between style of climbing of Messner and Polish climbers like Zawada, Kukuczka, Kurtyka, Wielicki?
BM: Messner’s signature style was “by fair means”, which meant no supplemental oxygen, fixed ropes, large siege-style approach to the mountains. Each of the Polish climbers mentioned also had signature styles. Zawada led quite large expeditions and he certainly approved of fixed lines and traditional expeditions style, but his defining quality was winter. That was his stroke of genius. Kukuczka’s genius had to do with his ability to suffer, his patience in the high mountains and his incredible strength. He set the bar higher than anyone before him, insisting on climbing mountains by new routes or in winter. All of his 8000ers, except one, were done without supplemental oxygen. Kurtyka was a futuristic climber. He approached the highest mountains on Earth as if he were in the Alps: just a small team, no fixed lines, no planned camps, little food or gas. He called it “night naked”. Kurtyka was driven by aesthetics: a beautiful line, a stunning ridge, a magnificent face, a pure, uncluttered style. Wielicki was also a winter specialist, but I think his unique quality was his speed. He was a tightly-coiled climbing machine, which performed extremely well and quickly at altitude.
PC: How much did Polish climbers contribute to high mountain exploration?
BM: During the two decades of the mid 70s to the mid 90s I think it’s fair to say that the Poles dominated high mountain exploration in the Himalaya. Of course there were other individuals who did amazing things in the mountains, but as a group, the Poles dominated. They showed the way in so many ways: enchainments, winter climbing, new and difficult routes, speed, lightweight style, women’s climbing and of course, the collecting of 8000ers. Both Kukuczka and Wielicki climbed all 14, and Wanda was well on her way.
PC: Did you find that Polish history of constant fighting for freedom shaped the character of Polish climbers?
BM: Time and time again, people I spoke with would refer to their history. Not just the recent history of WWII and its aftermath, but the centuries of invasion, wars, domination, and struggle for freedom. It’s clear to me that there was an inner strength that existed in these climbers that was shaped and nurtured by their long tradition of perseverance and fortitude. Their values were the values of their ancestors.