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Read an exclusive excerpt from Bernadette McDonald's book Freedom Climbers, winner of the 2011 Boardman Tasker Prize and the Grand Prize at the 2011 Banff Mountain Book Festival in UKC Articles here.
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In the late 1980s I found myself in a Manchester restaurant with Voytek Kurtyka and Wanda Rutkiewicz, two of the biggest names in Polish mountaineering, then the leading mountaineering nation in the world, particularly at high altitude.
A waitress arrived with a plate of food for Kurtyka, who turned his head towards her. Voytek is still a handsome man, even in his mid 60s, but in those days he looked like Nureyev cast as a gunslinger. When the waitress caught sight of him, her jaw dropped, and so did the plate, which broke on the floor.
Later the restaurant staff came over en masse, presumably thinking there was safety in numbers.
'What do you do?' one girl said, thinking they must be movie stars.
Voytek looked at her with all the wild danger his blue eyes could manage. 'I am Russian roulette expert,' he said. The waitresses laughed nervously. They didn't understand he wasn't joking.
I was sitting at that table because of Andy Fanshawe, then the national officer of the British Mountaineering Council. Andy had charm of his own, and on a reciprocal climbing exchange to the Tatras had got to know and admire the Poles. They in turn had sold him a pair of pink nylon climbing trousers, which Andy wore almost continuously. That entrepreneurial zeal was another key competent in what even a callow 21-year-old could see was an exceptional story.
Just how exceptional is revealed at the back of Freedom Climbers in a useful table collating the dry facts of what was by any measure a period of relentless achievement, an avalanche of first ascents on the world's biggest peaks, including the Polish speciality of winter Himalayan climbing.
Beginning in 1980 with Everest, Polish climbers made the first winter ascents of seven 8,000-metre peaks. The first non-Pole to get the first winter ascent of an 8,000er was Simone Moro in 2005 – a quarter of a century later.
The obvious question is why? What was it about Polish mountaineering beginning in the Hindu Kush in the 1970s and culminating in the Himalaya a decade later that made them so successful? While Western Europe's economies surged ahead, how was it that a near-bankrupt Warsaw Pact nation could afford this expensive sporting luxury?
How was it that schools in Catholic Poland preferred to name themselves after a bearish mountain man called Jerzy Kukuczka rather than after Karol Józef Wojtyła, the first non-Italian to become pope since 1523?
In the Western imagination, Poland doesn't figure as a nation of mountaineers. Where did this compulsion come from? How was it that schools in Catholic Poland preferred to name themselves after a bearish mountain man called Jerzy Kukuczka rather than Karol Józef Wojtyła, better known as John-Paul II – the first non-Italian to become pope since 1523. Not even Chris Bonington can claim that.
Freedom Climbers is an attempt to answer these questions, an attempt rewarded on both sides of the Atlantic with the biggest literary prizes mountaineering has to offer – the Boardman Tasker Prize and the Banff Grand Prize. As most high-altitude climbing becomes routinely commercial, the story Bernadette McDonald tells couldn't come at a better moment.
Her previous books have been biographies of larger-than-life characters: Himalayan chronicler Liz Hawley, the American mountaineer Charles Houston and the Slovenian Tomaz Humar. She sticks to this genre in Freedom Climbers, braiding together the lives of three of the biggest Polish stars, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Kurtyka and Jerzy Kukuczka, with snapshots of many others along the way.
Wanda Rutkiewicz walks in to K2 Base Camp in 1982.
Vertebrate Publishing, Feb 2012
© Individual Photographers/Vertebrate Publishing
Her account of the beautiful, restless Rutkiewicz is the most balanced and fully realised. Wanda's story was tragic, her overbearing father murdered, her brother victim of an unexploded bomb as he played in the ruins of post-war Poland. Climbing gave her freedom and purpose, and she became a standard-bearer for women's climbing. But her ambition and individualism teetered into isolation and even paranoia even as she became famous.
Refusing to allow a broken leg to heal properly so she could lead an expedition to K2, she had to be carried into base camp and, McDonald suggests, never fully recovered her health. Sensitive to the male prejudice against her, she overcompensated, presenting herself as a lone fighter while relying on those around her when situations got tough and her weakened body failed. Stubborn and proud, the fact she emerged from a Karl Herligkoffer expedition looking more autocratic than he did speaks volumes.
Her death on Kangchenjunga was tragic and well told here. She was left sheltering in a small scrape in the snow at 8,300m, still determined to push on, refusing the desperate pleas of her partner Carlos Carsolio to descend with him, an ageing star terrified her best years were behind her, her dreams still unrealised.
Be prepared – death is a grimly recurring theme in this book. The attrition rate among Polish climbers was cruelly high throughout the 1980s. All that success came at a price. It would take an essay of its own to examine the how and why, but one of the reasons was their willingness to take on huge risks, to suffer and do without Sherpa support, partly because they couldn't afford it.
Kukuczka in particular was relentlessly tough, losing a partner on four consecutive expeditions but still coming back for more. I can't think of another mountaineer who survived more bivouacs over 8,000 metres wearing little more than an extra sweater, even in winter.
The second man to climb all fourteen 8,000ers, his list, in contrast to Reinhold Messner's, comprised first ascents of one form or another bar Lhotse, where he died having almost completed the first ascent of the stupendous south face.
The character McDonald struggles most to pin down is Kurtyka. His father was the writer Henryk Worcell, who published an influential novel in 1936 based on his life as a waiter in Krakow's Grand Hotel. That intellectual hinterland has weighed heavily on the son, I think. Voytek thought – thinks – deeply about climbing and among all the Poles he had a vision of how climbing might develop – a vision that seems to be largely lacking in modern high-altitude climbing.
Kurtyka also developed the smuggling system Polish climbers relied on to pay for their holidays. In fact, the business was so profitable many climbers came back richer than they left. So dire were their prospects at home, those long months spent in the Himalaya actually made financial sense. It's all presented as a bit of a jape here, but I suspect it had its darker, more morally questionable moments.
This is certainly McDonald's best book. Her writing is more nuanced and complex, and she is less of a cheerleader for her subjects than she has been in the past. She deserves great credit – and I have to admit to envy here – for bringing this subject to a wider public. Pursuing the same aim, editors told me that there wasn't a market for this kind of thing. It seems McDonald is proving them wrong.
Her approach certainly helps. By focusing on the stars, and going light on Polish history, she has produced a story that hurtles along and is full of human interest. If you have no knowledge of what the Poles achieved, and in what circumstances, then you're in for a treat.
Those with a greater understanding of what Kurtyka dubbed the Polish Syndrome may feel they want a broader cast list and more context. It's a strange coincidence that Kukuczka died months after the Berlin Wall came down, as though the febrile combination of politics and culture that transformed mountaineering suddenly burst like a bubble. How much of the old Poland disappeared at the same time as Kukuczka's rope broke?
McDonald is certainly capable of exploring these themes. There's a dazzling passage at the start of Chapter Eleven where she lets the story deepen and expand. She quotes a telling passage from an unpublished account of Polish climbing by Ludwik Wilczynski, who was on Changabang with Voytek Kurtyka and the British climbers John Porter and Alex MacIntyre in 1976. Forget the stars he says, that "metaphysical think-tank" Kurtyka and the others, look instead in "the cellars... occupied by filthily dressed outsiders who, singing the no-passport-and-no-job blues and drinking low-quality spirits, gave us all the satisfaction of self-fulfillment and feeling of independence."
Communism may have failed, but community did not.
Many polish climbers funded their expeditions by working on the Katowice smokestacks.
Vertebrate Publishing, Feb 2012
© Individual Photographers/Vertebrate Publishing
About Ed Douglas
Ed Douglas is a traveller, writer and mountaineer. His first book, about Everest, Chomolungma Sings The Blues, was published in 1997. Other books include Regions of the Heart, a biography of mountaineer Alison Hargreaves, who disappeared returning from the summit of K2 in 1995, and the first full-length biography of Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, published by National Geographic in 2003. He wrote with Ron Fawcett, Ron Fawcett, Rock Athlete which has been shortlisted for this years Boardman Tasker Prize. He was founder and editor of On The Edge magazine and Mountain Review, and writes for the outdoor press and the Guardian newspaper. A former editor of the Alpine Journal, Ed is an enthusiastic climber, with winter ascents in the Alps and Himalayas. You can read more on his blog Calm & Fearless.
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