Two Polish Ascents of Everest

Publication Year: 1981.

Two Polish Ascents of Everest

Marek Brniak and Józef Nyka

The Winter Ascent. Polish climbers were the first to climb to a height over 7000 meters in winter. On February 13, 1973 Tadeusz Piotrowski and Andrzej Zawada set foot on the summit of Noshaq (7492 meters, 24,580 feet). On December 25, 1974 Zygmunt Andrzej Heinrich and Zawada got to 8250 meters but not the summit of Lhotse.

Permission for the winter ascent of Everest was slow in coming; not until November, 1979 did it arrive. But the expedition by January 5, 1980 was at Base Camp on the Khumbu Glacier. From the very beginning things looked hopelessly bleak. Wild winds blew from the north and the temperature stayed low. Above, on the high ridges, were jagged snow banners. The glacial streams froze and melted ice was the only source of water. In the Western Cwm the temperature averaged —25° C and on the higher reaches —45° C was recorded. Wind speeds reached well over 100 mph. As the days went by the color of the surrounding mountains changed. The peaks grew dark. Wind stripped the snow cover off the slopes, exposing rock and bare ice. Moving on the ice-covered stretches required double attention, extra belaying and fixed ropes on otherwise easy sections. Deep breathing with the mouth wide open to get enough oxygen caused throats, chilled by the icy, thin air, to become swollen and inflamed. The build-up of camps went slowly under these severe conditions.

On February 4 climbers in Camp II at 21,325 feet feared that Camp III at 23,500 feet had been destroyed by hurricane winds. At the altitude of Camp III the temperature never rose above —40° during the expedition. Under those awful conditions, the struggle to reestablish Camp III followed and new tents were pitched there only after the fourth attempt.

On February 11 Leszek Cichy, Walenty Fiut and Krzysztof Wielicki reached the site of Camp IV. Strong winds sweeping over the South Col from Tibet forced them to pitch the tent on the slope below the col. During the night the wind grew even stronger and the climbers were very nearly lifted with their tent and hurled down the Cwm. The following morning they hurried back down to Camp III.

During the next night the weather changed radically. The wind abated and it started to snow. In this weather, on February 13 Ryszard Szafirski and Zawada regained Camp IV. The next day, at dawn, they set out up the southeast ridge, but very low temperatures and high winds turned them back at 26,750 feet. They left their oxygen cylinders there. Szafirski was back at Camp III at five P.M., but Zawada was still making his way down when light failed. The second summit party found him, seated 200 meters below the camp.

In the meantime Base Camp had received bad news from Kathmandu. The government of Nepal was insisting that they withdraw on February 15. Thanks to the Polish Charge d’Affaires in Nepal, the deadline was extended to February 17. Immediately Zygmunt Andrzej Heinrich and Sherpa Pasang Norbu set off. They reached 27,400 feet but a raging snowstorm forced them to return.

On February 16 the weather turned exceptionally good, the best they had had in the last three weeks on the mountain. After the night’s snowfall, the sky cleared. It was still very cold but it was not very windy. Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki reached the South Col and slept at Camp IV. It was still dark on the morning of February 17 when they left camp. At 2:40 P.M. a radio message reached Base Camp: “We … are … on … the … summit!” They paused for breath and then reported: “Conditions are very tough. Some of the steeper sections of the ridge are free of snow with ice-covered rocks exposed. Strong wind blows all the time. It is unimaginably cold. Halfway up we were in clouds rolling at tremendous speed from the Tibetan side. If it were not Everest, we would have given up!” On the 18th the summit pair with the support team of Józef Pawlikowski and Krzysztof Cielecki and two Sherpas started their descent from the South Col. On the 19th all were safely back in Base Camp.

The other members of the expedition not mentioned above were Ryszard Dmoch, Ryszard Gajewski, Jan Holnicki-Szulc, Dr. Robert Janik, Bogdan Jankowski, Janusz Maczka, Kazimierz Olech and Krzysztof Zurek.

Marek Brniak, Kraków, Poland

A New Route, South Buttress. After the fortunate winter ascent, some of the expedition members returned to Poland, some rested in Nepal and Kazimierz Olech remained in Base Camp. Again under the leadership of Andrzej Zawada, a two-thirds-fresh, 12-man team was back in Base Camp on March 25. Camps I and II, at 19,850 and 21,325 feet were the same as in the winter. Camp III at 23,625 feet was established on April 7 by Eugeniusz Chrobak and Krzysztof Cielecki, while Camp IV at 26,400 feet was set up by Andrzej Czok, Zygmunt Andrzej Heinrich, Jerzy Kukuczka, Olech and Wojciech Wróz on April 28. Between Camps II and IV the route was new, taking a line through a series of ice slopes on the right side of the South Buttress. Ropes were fixed. Above Camp IV a 650-foot rock band barred the way and proved to be the most difficult section of the route. All the members were involved in overcoming this technically difficult problem. Camp V was finally established above the rock band at 27,225 feet on May 14 by Ryszard Gajewski, Janusz Kulis and Kazimierz J. Rusiecki. On May 18 Andrzej Czok and Jerzy Kukuczka moved up to Camp V, fixed 800 feet of rope above the camp and spent a difficult night in the camp, harassed by strong winds and snow. Undeterred, they began their summit bid at five the next morning. Throughout the day they encountered deep snow, wind and very low temperatures, which made the climbing slow and exhausting despite the use of oxygen. After 7½ hours of continuous effort, the two reached the south summit. Their oxygen finished, they decided nevertheless to push for the main summit without oxygen and at four P.M. stood on the “Roof of the World.” Their return to Camp V involved a long struggle deep into the night. When they finally reached the tent, they had been in action for 17 laborious hours. Throughout the expedition, the weather on Mount Everest was considerably worse than expected. Nearly every day of May saw snowfall, creating much avalanche danger. The Polish team was strong. Ten members had 8000-meter experience and seven ascents of 8000-meter peaks. The two summiters had scaled Lhotse in October of 1979 without oxygen. The new route, the seventh altogether, is not very difficult (UIAA III-IV, ice 50°-55°). It is the shortest way to the top from the south. It can be expected that this route in the future will become the most common route on Mount Everest.

Józef Nyka, Editor, Taternik, Poland