1981-Polish-American Climbing Exchange Program. In late March Tom Hargis and I were told that we had been chosen as the AAC representatives in the climbers’ exchange with Poland in the late summer. After four months of uncertainty, watching the headlines for each shift in Poland’s social and economic crisis, we departed for Europe at the end of July. Since we had not met each other until the flight over, we spent a couple of weeks rock-climbing in West and East Germany as a warm-up before travelling on to Poland in the middle of August. Our arrival in Poland was something of an epic featuring an all-night train ride standing up in an unbelievably crowded car and a communication mix-up which had our host waiting for us in Warsaw while we were already in Zakopane, the Polish Chamonix.
We spent slightly over a month with the Poles who treated us with their well-known hospitality. Their kindness and generosity was even more outstanding, given the severe economic difficulties in Poland duringthis year of crisis. Many people took us into their homes and fed us meals, at a time when getting food for even the simplest of meals required hours of waiting in line. It was a fascinating time to be in Poland, and the experience was an educational one. We had plenty of food for thought, even if not for the stomach.
While many Poles helped make the trip successful, we are particularly grateful to our two main hosts: Krzysztof Zurek, secretary of the local Klub Wysokogórski, who visited the U.S. as part of the Exchange in 1980, and Jan “Joshi” Muscat, who was our host and constant companion, a man of warmth and energy.
While the kindness of our hosts was insurpassable, the weather was not. In typical Tatra fashion we had rain or snow during much of our visit. Normally mid-summer is a time of bad weather, with the late-summer and early fall often featuring a protracted period of good conditions. This summer had been one of the driest in years, but the bad weather made a comeback just in time for our visit. However, we still managed to get in some good climbing. In the limestone West Tatra we climbed routes on several of the fine crags in the very beautiful Koscieliska and Chocholowska valleys. In this region the higher summits are mostly rounded, but numerous crags, some up to 1000 feet, though mostly in the 300-to-400-foot range, rise in the valleys. The limestone is of variable quality. Amongst the routes we did here were Falling Stars (F10) and Twelve Bottles (F9) on Raptawicka and Dancing on the Table (F10+) on the Stoly in the Koscieliska Valley, the latter being a first free ascent, and the loose Test 81 (F10) on Siwianskie Turnia in the Chocholowska Valley.
In the granitic High Tatra, the mountains are much more rugged, many of them featuring knife-edged summit ridges. Though the altitude is not great—Rysy, the highest Polish summit, is 2499 meters, or 8299 feet—the relief is dramatic, with faces approaching 3000 feet rising directly from the shores of easily accessible lakes. The largest faces are somewhat broken-up, with a great deal of grass and loose rock, and are at their best in winter when the Tatra serve as a training ground for the Polish winter successes in other ranges, but many smaller faces and pinnacles are made up of perfect granite. At Hala Gasienicowa we climbed an interesting F9 route—Droga Dziedzielewicz—on impressive Koscieliec; the route took a zig-zag line threading its way through impressive overhangs in five pitches.
We spent a week of fine weather in the Morskie Oko Cirque, which contains the highest and most impressive peaks of the Polish Tatra. Most of our climbing was on the dramatic pinnacle, the Mnich (The Monk). The routes were short, of three to five pitches, but followed classic crack lines on the finest of rock. The best routes we did here were the Spresyna (F10) and Kant Hakowy (F11—). The largest wall in the Tatra is the Kazalnica (the Pulpit) on Mieguszowiecka. Tomand Joshi tried a mixed free-and-aid route on the main 2000-foot face, but were defeated by the extremely wet conditions, while Marek Danielek and I were successful on an easier (F9, AO) route on a shorter flanking wall. Several routes on Kazalnica have been done all free and obviously offer climbs of sustained difficulty. We also climbed on several limestone practice crags around Zakopane and outside of Kraków, finding climbs of very great technical difficulty. While many Polish climbers are still oriented to alpine-style techniques, increasing numbers are devoted to pure free-climbing and climbs of at least F12 have been made.
During the rainy spells we did some sightseeing, finding Kraków, which survived destruction during World War II, to be an especially intriguing old city while the reconstruction of Warsaw was fascinating. We left with warm feelings for the wonderful and brave Polish people, memories of beautiful climbs in spectacular scenery, and hopes to return again in the future. We both feel the Exchange to be a great success and hope that the AAC continues and expands the program in the future. We urge all climbers to participate, either as hosts to visiting climbers or as visitors themselves. Either way, you will have a highly rewarding experience.