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Wanda Rutkiewicz, 1943-1992



The mountaineering world suffered in 1992 the loss of the greatest woman climber of all time. Wanda Rutkiewicz was last seen when she chose to bivouac alone several hours below the summit of K2 during the attempt to climb her ninth 8000-meter peak. She was preëminent not only for her own accomplishments but equally for her championing of women climbers in the high mountains of the world. More than anyone else, she accomplished ending the male monopoly on climbing on the highest peaks.

Born as Wanda Blaskiewicz on February 9, 1943 in Lithuania, she moved with her family in 1947 to Wroclaw, Poland. She began climbing in the Tatras in 1961 and rapidly sharpened her outstanding skills. In 1970, she married and thereby acquired the name of Rutkiewicz, by which we have known her. Both this marriage and her second ended in divorce.

I shall not attempt to give a complete list of her mountain successes. Her first ascents of 7000-meter peaks took place in 1970: Pik Lenina and Noshaq. In 1975, Wanda organized and led the Polish Women’s Gasherbrum Expedition, to which she did add several men. Since 1964 Gasherbrum III (7952 meters, 26,089 feet) had been the highest unclimbed summit. With Alison Chadwick Onyszkiewicz, Janusz Onyszkiewicz and Krzysztof Zdzitowiecki, she made its first ascent. The next day, she sent Halina Krüger and Anna Okopinska to the summit of Gasherbrum II, making them the first European women to climb an 8000er. In 1978, she was the first woman to climb the north face of the Matterhorn in winter. On October 16, 1978, she became the third woman and the first Western woman to climb Mount Everest. She broke her leg seriously on Mount Elbrus in 1980. This hampered her and would have ended the career of a less determined person. She even led an expedition to K2 while convalescing, walking the many miles to Base Camp despite not being able really to climb. Her eight 8000-meter peaks were Everest 1978, Nanga Parbat 1985, K2 1986, Shisha Pangma 1987, Gasherbrum II 1989, Gasherbrum I 1990, Cho Oyu 1991, Annapurna 1991. This doubles the number of the next most successful woman.

Wanda was a most forceful, determined person. She would not be stopped by her badly broken leg, which at first received extremely bad medical care. In 1983, when she, I and others accompanied Chris Bonington and Jim Fothering- ham to their Base Camp below Shivling, it was still very painful, three years after the accident. But she never complained. She willed herself to get better and did seven of her highest climbs after her recovery. Hers was a pioneering spirit in fighting for female mountaineering. I always found her warmly friendly and thoughtful and she went out of her way to welcome me to Poland and elsewhere. We have all lost a good friend. Wanda has earned a permanent place in mountaineering history.

H. Adams Carter