Review of Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald

Freedom Climbers
By Bernadette McDonald

After the commercialized palaver and generated news to come from the 2012 Everest season, it’s inspiring to read a different story in Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald. The book tells of the post WW2 achievements of Polish climbers on the world’s highest peaks; climbers who figured amongst the international elite and set numerous world records in the Alps, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayas. Yet these same climbers took a no-frills approach to their climbing completely at odds with today’s ethic of commercialisation and mass ascent. They climbed 8000m peaks without Sherpa’s, fixed lines or oxygen…and often in the dead of winter.

An event in 1996 recounted in Freedom Climbers gives a sense of the gulf separating the golden age of Polish dominance in the Himalayas from the current state of commercialised guided climbing. Only months after the 1996 Everest tragedy during which 15 climbers and their guides died, a Polish climber named Krzysztof Wielicki completed his summit of all fourteen of the world’s peaks over 8000 meters high . He was the fifth person – and second Pole – to do so. Wielicki’s initiation into Himalayan climbing came in 1980 when, as part of a two-man Polish team he made the first ever summit of Everest in winter. He summited his fourteenth peak, Nanga Parbat, in a solo climb, only twenty days after conquering K2!

And Wielicki was but one of the many legendary Polish climbers of the era brought to life by McDonald. Born during or following World War II, these Poles surmounted hurdles that climbers from the west could hardly imagine; the chronic shortages of food supplies and lack of proper alpine equipment within Poland, the insufficient funds to cover international travel and, even when climbers were granted permission to leave Poland, the void between communist control and the alpinists desire for freedom.

The life stories of three major Polish climbers are woven throughout the narrative. The most famous Polish climber was the strong and ambitious Jerzy (Jurek) Kukuczka, the second man and first Pole ever to complete the fourteen 8000m peaks only a year after Reinhold Messner. Kukuczka’s achievement was no less formidable: he climbed the Himalayas more ambitiously, in the winter and attempting new routes, and in half the time it took Messner.

Another is Kukuczka’s sometime climbing partner and temperamental opposite, Voytek (Wojciech) Kurtyka. Kurtyka became famous as a climber who specialized in challenging climbs that required technical lines and creative solutions. Like many of the Polish climbers, he preferred to climb in small groups, with minimal equipment. Unlike many, he managed to walk away from the mountains before they killed him.

No account of Polish climbing is complete without mention of Wanda Rutkiewicz, first Pole and first European woman to summit Everest. As a female climber, Rutkiewicz was an anomaly in a heavily male domain; yet she managed to summit eight of the fourteen 8000-ers, and was the first woman (and, again, the first Pole) to conquer K2. Beautiful, stubborn, confrontational, internationally renowned, often lonely (despite being twice married) and ultimately tragic – McDonald makes her the central figure of the book.

While she researching for the book, McDonald says she was always hunting 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.

“The theme that kept resonating,” she says, “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.”