Climbing the world’s highest mountains in the coldest season
By Bernadette McDonald
- Hard cover
- 272 pages
- Vertebrate Publishing
- Available at Exclusive Books
- RRP: R538
Review by Tony Lourens
Polish mountaineers have always been considered to be a little on the extreme side. They seem to have a penchant for suffering in the most brutal of ways. They take to the high mountains during the most extreme conditions, and where most would surely die of the savage elements, the Poles seem to come out of it alive, okay, maybe minus a few fingers or toes, but alive nonetheless.
So, who other than the Poles would’ve been right up there at the forefront of winter ascents of the world’s 8000-metres peaks – the giants of the Himalaya?
It all started in 1980, when Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy made the first winter ascent of an 8000er and it also happened to be Everest, the highest of the lot. This started a bit of a trend with Polish climbers vying for slots on winter 8000 expeditions. I was amazed to discover that the first seven 8000-metre peaks climbed in winter were all by Polish climbers. Famous names like Jerzy Kukuczka, Adam Bielecki, Andrzej Zawada, Wanda Rutkiewicz and many others formed part of these expeditions, some of them, like Kukuczka even climbing two 8000ers in one winter season.
To climb an 8000-metre peak in summer conditions is not to be sneered at. It is high, cold and steep, and fraught with objective dangers. To climb an 8000er in winter is not really comparable to anything. It is brutal and savage beyond comprehension. The winds are nothing short of ferocious, reaching speeds of well over 100 kph. Temperatures plunging down to -50 ˚C, the air so cold it burns your lungs. Very short days, leaving you bivvying at altitudes sometimes above 8000 metres with no shelter, in dark isolation. There are not many people who can endure such conditions, but the Poles seem to revel in it.
Bernadette McDonald, the author of many mountain literature books, portrays the plight of the Poles and their quest to make the first ascents of the 8000ers in winter in spectacular fashion. When I read this book, I lived through the experiences and the terrible hardships. I felt the triumph of a hard-earned summit and the terrible sadness of the many tragedies that befell many young climbers who fought so hard in those deplorable conditions.
Of course, when half of the 8000-metre peaks had been climbed in winter, the rest of the world woke up and climbers from other countries also started jumping on the band wagon. Italian alpinist Simone Moro became the first non-Pole to climb an 8000er in winter, when he and Polish climber Piotr Morawski summited Shishapangma in 2005.
Each chapter deals with ascents of one of the 8000-metre peaks, with us left hanging on the final chapter on K2 of course, which befittingly still awaits a winter ascent. The reading is enthralling and riveting, and I cannot recommend this hugely inspirational book enough.
For me, one of the most powerful passages in the whole book, was when Krzysztof Wielicki made the first winter ascent of Lhotse, solo, strapped in a corset, shortly after spinal surgery and against the orders of his surgeon . . . just let that sink in for a minute!
After his ascent, the peak was attempted many more times but without success. The chapter ends with, ‘Eight expeditions to Lhotse in winter, some very near misses, an impressive ascent of the dangerous south face, but only one summit – by a slight Polish alpinist, without supplemental oxygen, alone, and in a corset.’