OPINION: A Trashed Reputation for Polish Mountaineers?

Milosz Pierwola outlines a case of climbers getting the wrong end of the stick, causing a social media uproar that nonetheless highlighted a strong sense of environmental ethics in the community...

Canadian mountaineer Jean-Pierre Danvoye recently shared a video that allegedly showed a mountain of litter left by Polish K2 expedition led by Krzysztof Wielicki. In the video, rubbish lays scattered next to a large blue tent and among the remains are Polish products including #K2dlapolakow logos. The video sent shock waves across not only the mountaineering community, but also in the Polish community as the world instantly reacted to the news.

Screenshot of the detritus allegedly 'left over' at K2 base camp., 122 kb
Screenshot of the detritus allegedly 'left over' at K2 base camp.

Not only was the team composed of seasoned and accomplished mountaineers, but in his book Mój Wybór, Wielicki even underlines the importance of waste maintenance and removal. For a people who have become famous for conquering the tallest mountains in the world in the most adverse conditions, news that they would be disrespectful towards those very mountains they climb was unprecedented. However, this did not prevent the video from existing, and questions had to be answered.

The reputation the Polish have for mountaineering is well earned and founded on environmentally sound ethics. The most prominent mountains in Poland, the Tatry, sit along the southernmost border and are shared with Slovakia. They are 80 km long across the main ridge and 19km at their widest, reaching 2,654.4 m at the tallest peak with temperatures that drop to about -7° C on average. Compare that with the European Alps at 1,200 km across and 4,810 m tall, or the Andes at 7,000 km long and 6.961 m tall. In addition, the Tatry are the first mountain range accessible as a destination for most of eastern Europe, making them extremely crowded. This humble mountain range is where most Polish mountaineers get their start, and where environmental consciousness is at the core of trained ethics.

The nature of the Tatra Mountains is critical to consider when speaking about Polish mountaineers. The relatively tiny mountain range was gravely threatened by the volume of tourists visiting, resulting in extremely strict laws established to protect it. It is illegal to walk anywhere but on established trails and camping is strictly prohibited except in life threatening situations. Mountaineering and climbing off-trail must be done with proper certification, insurance, and all climbers must provide detailed written reports about their activities. In addition, it is forbidden to place or remove in-situ gear without express permission. With such strict standards it is difficult to imagine Polish mountaineers being neglectful, especially on an expedition that aims to establish a world record, and the final challenge in completing all of the world's 8,000 metre peaks in the winter.

The social media video was an accusation that painted Polish mountaineers in a bad light and caused trouble. Expedition waste is a very serious topic in the Himalayas that appears in the news annually. An additional complication was that the accusation was made through social media. This circumvented any opportunity to verify the facts and made it impossible for the Polish expedition, Polish mountaineering organisations, or authorities to respond until people from all over the world were ready to crucify them. The video caused an instant uproar and improperly shamed mountaineers. It was a knee jerk reaction at a time when the environment, the last greatest feat of mountaineering, and the spotlight on a successful ski down K2's summer slopes by Andrzej Bargiel (a member of Wielicki's K2 expedition), are all hot topics. However, as inappropriate as this video was, it became an opportunity for the Polish team to demonstrate their professionalism.

Statement from Piotr Tomala., 220 kb
Statement from Piotr Tomala.

Within hours there was an official response from Poland. First came a statement (above) made by Piotr Tomala, the head of the Polish Winter Himalayism 2016-2020 project that included an honorable apology. 'The Pakistani agent assured us that in mid-July, a team appeared at K2 and fully cleaned up everything left there,' Tomala wrote. In the meantime, the manager of the basecamp for K2 Piotr Snopczyński joined Tomala and stressed that the climbers made every effort to clean the area before departing. They verified that the expedition packed all equipment into barrels and all waste into secured bags. Because the waste removal service that had been paid for by the expedition did not operate in the winter months, this expedition equipment and waste was properly secured and stored for pickup in the summer months. The climbing equipment was delivered to Poland in June and the video of the rubbish was made sometime between June and July.

A letter from the agency.

The day after the video's release, the Pakistani Agency responsible for the logistics of the expedition produced an official response. The agency stated that the rubbish was collected and stored in the presence of K2 Expedition Liaison Officer Ejaz. In July, the agency received news from K2 base camp, by the first expedition porters of the season, that the waste bins were opened and litter strewn about. Whether this was due to animals scavenging or someone meddling with the rubbish for whatever reason is unknown. The agency 'took immediately notice without any instruction from Krzysztof Wielicki or any other person and cleared the mess on July 15, 2018,' states the official memo (above). Accompanying this document was a personal note from Officer Ramzan Mughal, mentioned in the agency's statement, that corroborated the agency's statement (below).

A letter from the Pakistan Air Force Squadron leader., 176 kb
A letter from the Pakistan Air Force Squadron leader.

While there are as of yet no photos from base camp on K2, this trail of documentation should provide anyone enough evidence to conclude that the Polish expedition followed appropriate expedition protocol. In spite of the ambush pressure put on the members of the team, Wielicki and his team were able to demonstrate good expedition organisation. If anything, their response reveals the collective expertise, efficiency, and effectiveness necessary to earn the high reputation generally afforded to Polish mountaineers.

Ultimately this incident has a happy ending, but it reveals a lot about such endeavours in today's global social media environment. First, this episode demonstrates how exact every aspect of an expedition must be. It is not enough that an expedition overcomes natural obstacles, but every single aspect must be expertly executed and documented from start to finish. Second, it reveals the sensitivity of the world to environmentally harmful behaviors. We should all be proud that such an extreme fate awaits anyone who trashes our world's most sensitive environments. Third, it shows how one simple observation, when shared indiscriminately can tarnish an otherwise impeccable record. The members on this very team had just participated in a rescue on K2 that saw them praised as selfless heroes and examples for others to follow.

Forums 5 comments

This article reads like a case defense. What I'm more interested in is how such an accidental littering could be avoided in future in order to stop the same happening again. I'm guessing they stored the rubbish in rice...
Saving effort, by spending a few bucks to have someone else deal with it. Which, to be fair, can be argued is good for the local economy. Sadly, the trash hasn't been dealt with as well as it might.  
Sigh... Just shows the danger of new media, allowing everyone to become 'news reporters'.  A proper reporter would have investigated the assumed story to check the facts, before going public.  Alas, with new media,...

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