Face to face with a man from Poland who scaled all the fourteen 8,000 m Himalayan peaks.
The man before me was of average height. He was in good shape, shoulders thrown back, legs set firm to the ground. His eyes wore the sad calm of someone who had seen a lot. He spoke English, choosing words carefully yet amusingly, for he had a sense of humour. We sat down for an interview that I never published because I didn’t know enough of his incredible world.
Just the previous day, I had heard him lecture at the Himalayan Club in Mumbai. It was funny, peppered with jokes despite the gravity of his exploits and the people he knew in his chosen field, famously called ‘the art of suffering’. I could ask questions that make him repeat his lecture. That would be stupid. His life and that of his friends were central to a book. But with that book not yet out when this meeting happened months ago, my homework was zero.
What do I ask?
The man was one of two people who climbed Everest for the first time in winter. Darjeeling falls on the old route to Everest. I remembered Darjeeling and Ivanhoe. Not Sir Walter Scott’s novel but a quaint hotel of the same name. At its reception, it kept a synopsis of its history, counting among past guests George Mallory who famously disappeared on Everest. However, Darjeeling’s signature view is the giant massif of Kanchenjunga.
Wanda Rutkiewicz was among the greatest woman mountaineers. She fought everything from unyielding mountains to male domination in climbing, all this while her own personal life was sufficiently tumultuous to cripple any of us.
Akin to Everest’s first ascent coinciding with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in England, Wanda’s ascent of Everest coincided with the installation of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. He hailed from Poland, where Wanda was born. On a quest to be the first woman to ascend the world’s fourteen 8,000m peaks, she was last seen high up on Kanchenjunga. Wanda and four others — Jerzy Kukuczka, Wojtek Kurtyka, Krzysztof Wielicki and Andrzej Zawada — dominate the narrative of Freedom Climbers written by Bernadette McDonald.
The book I should have read before that interview, it focuses on a phase in the 1970s and 1980s, when Polish climbers roamed the Himalaya establishing difficult climbing routes and winter ascents. They were the toughest climbers in the Himalaya.
Speaking in Mumbai this February, Bernadette said that the book had been a challenge to publish as it was perceived as a niche within a niche. She traces the Polish assault on Himalayan peaks to a Poland invaded by Germany and Soviet Union, the brunt of World War II in Poland and eventually the oppressive Communist regime that ruled the country after the war.
It shaped the psychology of a people. Uniquely, the Polish reign in the Himalaya — when they climbed as though to compensate for what history had denied them — was strong during the times of controlled market and politics.
It faded as Poland moved to free market and democracy. Today, Polish teams are still at work completing some of the mountaineering agendas born in that past, like climbing all the 8,000m peaks in winter.
But the mantle of ferocious climbing has moved on, as though the country found peace, yet turned soft with free market economics. Does the state of its economy influence a country’s alpinism? Good question.
One day in 1996, at the end of climbing season, my subject for interview had arrived alone at the base of Nanga Parbat (8126m) in Pakistan and asked some villagers for directions to a particular line of ascent up the peak, often called ‘The Killer Mountain.’
The villagers thought he was crazy. Famous for speed ascents in his generation, the man heaved a rucksack to his back and another to his front and climbed the peak solo. Nanga Parbat completed his climb of all the fourteen 8,000 m peaks. He was the fifth person globally to do so.
Krzysztof Wielicki smiled encouragingly as I struggled for the right question to start the interview.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)