Freedom Climbers. Bernadette McDonald. Rocky Mountain Books, 2011. 352 pages. Color photos. Hardcover. $29.95.
In Freedom Climbers Bernadette McDonald tells the story of the Golden Age of Polish Himalayan mountaineering, much of it done in winter: a 25-year period of triumph and loss. The “major Polish Himalayan climbs” catalogued in her appendix span the period from the first ascent of Kunyang Chhish in the Karakoram in 1971 to the first ascent of the northwest ridge of Annapurna in 1996. The catalog lists 40 major climbs, a high proportion of them first ascents or first winter ascents, and includes the three Poles, Kucuszka, Wielecki, and Pustelnik, who summited all the 8,000-meter peaks. While her sense of decorum doesn’t let her compile a list of the deaths, she does note in her epilogue that “an astonishing 80 percent of the best [Polish] high-altitude climbers died in the great ranges in that era.” Eighty percent.
McDonald performs a tremendous double service: to Polish climbers, about whom little has been published in English, and to English-speaking readers, whose access to reports of these staggering feats has been limited (mostly to the AAJ).
McDonald’s curiosity originated from a conversation with Wanda Rutkiewicz and a plan to bring her to Banff, where McDonald directed the Mountain Film Festival. The plan was never realized because Rutkiewicz died on Kanchenjunga in 1992 while attempting her ninth 8,000-meter peak. In later conversations with Polish climbers, an “ambiguous portrait” of Rutkiewicz emerged, and McDonald became compelled to try to reconcile the warmth she experienced in Wanda with the conflicting opinions surrounding her.
While this curiosity may have been the initial driving force, the book casts a wider net. The climbing careers of Jurek Kukuczka and Yoytek Kurtka receive coverage about equal to Rutkiewicz, and others are mentioned frequently, including Krzysztof Wielecki and Andrzef Zawada.
While this book focuses on personalities and specific climbs (not a definitive history of Polish climbing, McDonald asserts), one of its strengths is historical context. “Sixty years dominated by hideous violence and oppression, massive upheaval and miraculous rebirth. The ability of this tight-knit climbing community to co-exist with such a desperate political reality, and produce the very best Himalayan alpinists in the world, was puzzling. Did the hard times forge their ambitions, or only toughen them, train them in stoicism?” This book is McDonald’s answer.
McDonald resists the temptation to reduce the climbers to products of their environment. Instead she simply portrays that environment. Most of these climbers were born during the Nazi occupation and/or grew up during the Soviet occupation. All suffered poverty; some experienced work camps or relocations. Rutkiewicz’s brother was killed as a child playing with an unexploded grenade in 1948, and her father was murdered. Zawada, one of the golden boys of the Warsaw Mountain Club, was imprisoned for his political views; most of his friends were executed. They all had to navigate the politics of the club system to earn even scant government support, and they created their own black-market economy to finance their climbing. They all possessed tremendous drive in the mountains, tremendous capacity for suffering, tremendous ambition. McDonald is not trying so much to explain (which is probably impossible) but to describe, an impulse arising out of curiosity and admiration. Kukuscka: “I went to the mountains and climbed them. That is all.”
The deaths haunt us because there is such an air of inevitability about them. As I read I was only vaguely aware of which climbers had perished and which had survived. In the end I was happy that any of them survived. Jon Bilman has recently observed (and been criticized for saying), “… in an age when all the great firsts have been done, the new measure of adventure excellence is often the level of protracted agony.” These Polish climbers set the bar damned high for “protracted agony.” Alex Lowe’s famous dictum, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun,” would be hard to apply to the Poles: “fun” seems not to have been part of their alpine conversation. One finishes the book with admiration and a broken heart.
McDonald has long had an eye for little-known stories: biographies of Elizabeth Hawley, Charles Houston, and Tomaz Humar preceded Freedom Climbers. These are fine books, but this one rises to the level of a small masterpiece. Freedom Climbers has garnered for McDonald the prestigious Boardman-Tasker Award and the Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Prize, as well as being the deciding factor in her receiving the American Alpine Club's most recent Literary Award. I can’t recall alpine literary stars aligning with such unanimity, but Freedom Climbers deserves them.