Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Freedom Climbers, by Bernadette McDonald

Bernadette McDonald writes the history of the Polish Himalayan climbing phenomenon in her Freedom Climbers. In the 1970s and 80s, Polish climbers gained a reputation for tackling some of the world's hardest climbs, including dangerous lines and winter ascents on the world's highest mountains. (This legacy continues: last year, a Polish-centered team made a winter attempt on K2 and Broad Peak.) McDonald centers her story on a handful of the superstars of Polish mountaineering who make up the backbone of its early Himalayan history---Andrzej Zawada, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Krzysztof Wielicki, Jerzy Kukuczka, and Voytek Kurtyka. After a quick introduction to Rutkiewicz (who gets a lot of attention throughout), the book begins with a prehistory of Polish Himalayan climbing and discusses the possible early causes of Polish climbers' later success, including shoestring winter ascents in the Tatras, political repression in the 50s and 60s, Polish cultural history, and high-risk black market dealing. More a super-biography than a standard history, the book covers the early lives of many climbers and progresses from the overland trips to the Afghan Hindu Kush organized by Zawada, including the winter ascent of Noshaq, to the last climbs of Rutkiewicz. As climbers appear in the climbs, McDonald weaves their stories into the larger narrative, creating a semi-chronological, exciting storyline.

Freedom Climbers gives some much-needed attention to several of the under-recognized superstars of high-altitude climbing. Wanda Rutkiewicz (A Caravan of Dreams) and Jerzy Kukuczka (My Vertical World) have books in English about them already, and Krysztof Wielicki has issued a photo-narrative (Crown of Himalaya) of his 8000-meter peak quest, but these books have only provided a limited exposure to the English-language market. (You can also read a short biography of Voytek Kurtyka in Greg Child's Mixed Emotions.) McDonald fills in a large part of the story, based on a good deal of research and personal interviews. Zawada emerges as both a pioneering climber and a cutting-edge expedition organizer. Less-known, but important figures such as Cichy, Hajzer, Czok, Bozik, and Piotrowski are more than just names to me now. For the more well-known climbers, McDonald explores their motivations and emotions, such as what drove Kurtyka and Kukuczka apart and what drove Rutkiewicz over the edge. She gives climbs such as the 1987 Annapurna winter ascent depth by discussing personal animosities and anecdotes that didn't make it into earlier books.

Freedom Climbers is overall a fine book. It doesn't provide an exhaustive history of Polish Himalayan climbing, but it sure makes it interesting! Of course, it covers Wanda Rutkiewicz's 1978 climb of Everest, the 1979/80 winter ascent, as well as the 1980 South Pillar ascent. Much of the information on the 1978 climb is found in Caravan of Dreams, such as the power politics, the gender issues, and Diemberger's sleeping bag. However, I learned more about the winter climb's descent (earlier accounts tend to focus on the climb up...), and a lot more about the group dynamics of both 1980 climbs. I highly recommend this book. Happy reading!


  1. One correction; the winter attempt on K2 is in progress, but the team is Russian. A very fine team indeed.

  2. You're right! The Polish team was last winter! My mistake. Best wishes to the Russian climbers!

  3. Bob [the anonymous of the earlier post]January 4, 2012 at 1:12 AM

    An interesting site for you, in case you haven't spotted it yet; http://www.billbuxton.com/climbing.html

  4. Now , Jan 2018 polish winter ascent of K2 is ongoing ! godspeed !