Freedom Climbers

Freedom Climbers

by Bernadette McDonald


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Winner! 2012 American Alpine Club Literary Prize (USA)

Winner! 2011 Munday Award, Banff Mountain Festival (CANADA)

Winner! 2011 Boardman Tasker Prize, Kendal Mountain Festival (UNITED KINGDOM)

Freedom Climbers—the most honoured book of mountaineering literature published in Canada—tells the story of a group of extraordinary Polish adventurers who emerged from under the blanket of oppression following the Second World War to become the world's leading Himalayan climbers. Although they lived in a dreary, war-ravaged landscape, with seemingly no hope of creating a meaningful life, these curious, motivated and skilled mountaineers created their own free-market economy under the very noses of their Communist bosses and climbed their way to liberation. At a time when Polish citizens were locked behind the Iron Curtain, these intrepid explorers found a way to travel the world in search of extreme adventure—to Alaska, South America and Europe, but mostly to the highest and most inspiring mountains of the world. To this end, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nepal became their second homes as they evolved into the toughest group of Himalayan climbers the world has ever known.

Also available in hardcover.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781926855608
Publisher: Rocky Mountain Books
Publication date: 11/01/2011
Pages: 351
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bernadette McDonald is the author of eight books on mountaineering and mountain culture. She has received numerous mountain writing awards, including Italy’s ITAS Prize (2010), and is a two-time winner of India’s Kekoo Naoroji Award for mountain literature (2008 and 2009). In 2011 Bernadette’s book Freedom Climbers won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival (Canada), the Boardman Tasker Prize (UK) and the American Alpine Club’s H. Adams Carter Literary Award.

Read an Excerpt

Freedom Climbers

By Bernadette McDonald

Rocky Mountain Books

Copyright © 2011 Bernadette McDonald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-926855-61-5


Crutches to Crampons

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

— Edward Abbey, Benedicto

The trail was rough. Boulders of all sizes tottered underfoot and treacherous ice patches lurked under a thin layer of unstable sand. The ground trembled from the roar of the murky Braldu River, far below. A gaunt, hollow-cheeked woman hobbled along, pain clouding her dark eyes. She stopped and leaned against a crumbling rock wall. Reaching into her pocket, she found two painkillers and tossed them into her parched mouth.

It was 1982. Wanda Rutkiewicz was the most famous female Himalayan climber in the world. Her specialty was all-women teams. This was to be her summer: she had assembled a group of 12 women, all top climbers, many of them former climbing partners, for an ascent of K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. There was only one problem – Wanda was on crutches. She had shattered her femur in the Russian Caucasus Mountains a year earlier and there had been complications.

Most people would have abandoned the idea of hobbling in to K2 on crutches, but Wanda, like so many Polish alpinists, had been forged to an unimaginable level of toughness and determination. K2 was Wanda's dream, and she wanted to see it through, at least as far as base camp.

Grim-faced and intent, she limped along the 150-kilometre approach march, trying to keep up with the others. Her crutches teetered on the overhanging cliffsides as she balanced on the pencil-thin trail. Hour after hour. Day after day. The villagers were dumbstruck when they saw her – this exceptionally beautiful and rather small woman – forging ahead on crutches through the Braldu Valley. The local porters, who knew her from previous expeditions, were so in awe of her bravery that they began to inscribe messages on the rocks: "Long live Wanda. Viva Wanda."

After several days she reached the Baltoro Glacier, where the trail worsened. Pebbles and boulders gave way to large talus. As each pair of crutches disintegrated from the punishing route, she would haul out a fresh set. Her hands hung with shreds of blistered skin, and her armpits were rubbed raw.

Wanda was still a few hours from base camp when exhaustion overwhelmed her. Unaware of the magnificent granite walls around her, she slumped down on a rock, massaged her throbbing leg, and silently began to weep. This was how her fellow Polish climbers, Jerzy Kukuczka and Voytek Kurtyka, found her as they made their way to K2 base camp. The indestructible, bearish Kukuczka, known by all as "Jurek," couldn't help himself: he scooped her up and began to carry her. Voytek, slender and wiry, took her crutches. Alternating loads, the two carried Wanda the remaining distance.

In truth, Jurek didn't think much of women's expeditions, even though he admired Wanda. He supposed that she viewed climbing as a competitive sport, which was why she insisted on climbing with, and being compared to, other women. He just wanted to go climbing. Most of his male counterparts felt the same. Nevertheless, Wanda was well connected and had managed to get a climbing permit for K2. If he and Voytek could tag along, they weren't too proud to do it.

Since Voytek knew her better, it was he who had negotiated their places on her permit. They wouldn't get in her way, he promised, or climb on her route. He knew it was important to Wanda that her all-women's expeditions at least be perceived as being unsupported by men. As far as the Pakistani authorities knew, he and Jurek were alongas official photographers and reporters, as well as to protect the ladies in a Muslim country. He understood Wanda's wishes, and he respected them.

This was characteristic of Voytek. Unlike some of his more plainspoken fellow climbers, he was thoughtful and careful about what he said. His powers of observation were impressive, not just of facts, but of nuance and attitude and feeling. Known as a "thinking man's" climber, he came from an educated and cultured background and was able to demonstrate his remarkable curiosity in a number of languages.

Now in his early thirties, Voytek came from the small village of Skrzynka in western Poland, in what formerly was German territory. There, he spent his early years surrounded by nature. A move to the war-ravaged city of Wroclaw at age 10 sank Voytek into a childhood depression. Studying electrical engineering in university did little to improve his spirits. Then he encountered rock climbing. His natural aptitude for climbing on rock garnered him the nickname zwierz, or "animal." He immediately grasped that climbing was a kind of addiction for him. Little did he understand how serious a trap that addiction could become.

A year younger than his intense friend, Jurek Kukuczka was built solid and stocky, while the slender Voytek was coiled tight like a spring. Jurek was a man of few words. If anything caught one's attention, it was his eyes. They were warm and friendly, with just a hint of a smile. Born in 1948, Jurek, like so many of Poland's leading climbers, studied electrical engineering at university. This prepared him well for work in the coalmining industry that dominated the Katowice area of southwestern Poland. But his life was climbing. From the first time he touched rock at the age of 17, he felt a surge of power that ultimately propelled him to the world's highest summits. And in the mountains, he was unstoppable.

Jurek, Voytek and Wanda: three climbing legends, all in Pakistan with the same goal – to climb what was widely accepted as the most difficult of the 14 peaks that exceed that magic height, 8000 metres. Their fierce resolve and tireless motivation had made these three among the most highly respected climbers in the world. Yet nothing about their position in the mountaineering world was accidental. Their brilliant careers as alpinists had begun humbly; but like so many, they were shaped by the violent devastation into which they were born – a country plagued by wars, then carved up and dominated by two stern masters: Germany and the Soviet Union. And although Wanda, Jurek and Voytek were among the lucky ones to survive, the terrors of war helped shape their resilience and toughness. For all of these elite climbers, the story was the same: history had hardened both their bodies and their minds. They weren't just climbers. They were Polish climbers.

* * *

Four years before Wanda was born, Poland's fate was sealed. In 1939, just days before the onset of World War II, the Nazis and Soviets signed a non-aggression agreement known as the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact. The agreement stated that the two countries would not attack each other and would handle any "problems" in an amicable manner. Initiated by Germany, the agreement was meant to minimize the threat of having to fight a war on two fronts – a situation they wanted to avoid at any cost, particularly after their experiences in the previous world war.

The "non-aggression" theme is ironic because, at the same time, the two states agreed to a secret protocol that would partition Poland and the Baltic States between Germany and the Soviet Union, providing the Soviets with a buffer zone in case of an attack from the west. This secret deal precipitated years of bloodshed and horror.

Less than two weeks after the secret protocol was signed, Germany unveiled its duplicitous strategy through an ingenious plan. On August 31, 1939, German soldiers attacked a German-language radio station in Gliwice, in the Upper Silesia region of Poland. The attack was a complete sham, for at least one of the instigators was not a German soldier at all, but a convicted German criminal who had been promised reprieve for his actions. Mission accomplished, he was mowed down by real German SS soldiers. The SS troops removed his blood-soaked uniform, replaced it with a Polish uniform, and left the body to be discovered by the police. The next morning the world learned the shocking news: the Poles had apparently launched an unprovoked attack on the Third Reich.

Germany's military pummelling of Poland accelerated after that, exactly as planned: air raids, dive-bombers, street bombs and rifle fire. In less than a week, Poland was unable to defend its frontiers. By the end of the second week, Warsaw was surrounded. The Poles were completely outnumbered: 2,600 German tanks against the Poles' 150; 2,000 German warplanes against 400 Polish. But the Poles didn't panic. They knew they only had to hold the Germans off for a couple of weeks until the Western Allies, who had recently declared war on Germany, would launch a major offensive.

That never happened.

Then, on September 17, 1939, to the complete surprise of the Poles and the rest of the world, but precisely as outlined in the secret protocol, the Soviets crossed Poland's eastern frontier. The Polish government fled Warsaw, leaving the local population to defend it, which they managed to do for another 10 days. But by then it was clear what was going on: the Germans and the Soviets were in collusion, pinching off the city. There was no place to hide. The Polish armies lost more than 60,000 men, with 140,000 wounded. The Allies never appeared. It would have been unthinkable to upset the Soviet alliance for the sake of the Poles.

Germany and the Soviets then had to divide the spoils. While the Soviets carved up the northeast, the Reich picked up the western parts of the country, where they promptly declared martial law. They designated their newly occupied territories as "work areas," offering just two types of punishment for perceived offences: concentration camps or death.

Both sides appeared to hate the Poles almost as much as they hated the Jews. Nazi military commander Heinrich Himmler busied himself crisscrossing the country in his efforts to classify, segregate and subjugate the population. Village by village, he forced each citizen to register with the Nazi authorities. They doled out identity cards and work passes and finally, calorie coupons, depending on each individual's classification. A "first-class" person born of German heritage received 4,000 calories per day. A Polish worker got 900. A Jew, usually nothing at all.

The troops expelled Polish citizens from their homes in order to make room for German officials. Wanda's father, Zbigniew Blaszkiewicz, was living in Radom in central Poland at the time. He was working as an engineer at a weapons factory when he was forced to flee rather than risk imprisonment. The soldiers gave him just a few hours to gather his meagre belongings and leave. Eager to get as far away as possible, he moved to Plungiany in northeastern Poland (later Lithuania). There, he met and married a well-educated local girl, Maria Pietkun, whose passion was translating hieroglyphics.

Almost from the start there was tension between them. Zbigniew, who was obsessed with frugality and worries about the future, confided in his diaries that he didn't completely respect his free-spirited wife. Wanda, their second of four children, was born on February 4, 1943, into a divided household and a divided country.

* * *

It wasn't just the Germans who were terrorizing Poland. In the northeast, where Wanda's family lived, the Soviets were deporting Poles to concentration camps where they were used as slave labour. Throughout 1940 and 1941, scores of freight trains headed east, full of falsely convicted Polish "criminals." They were packed standing up in sealed, windowless cattle cars and transported thousands of kilometres at a time. They starved. They went mad. They froze. They even resorted to cannibalism. Those who died en route were thrown from openings in the car roofs. In all, 1.5 million Poles were deported, and nearly half never made it back. The brutality was another sad reminder of Poland's melancholy history of partition.

Between the Nazis and the Soviets, Poland was being systematically reduced to a slave nation. Completely isolated from outside help, it had no means of defending itself. Then the war changed direction when Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941. Incomprehensibly, the Soviets turned to the Poles for assistance. As outrageous as the idea was, answering the Soviets' call saved Poland from total annihilation – but just barely, for it was on Poland's soil that some of the principal battles were fought.

German rulers had a plan for Poland and its people, despite their preoccupation with Russia. They estimated that about 20 million of the "least suitable" Poles should be resettled in Western Siberia; about four million were suitable for "re-Germanization" because of their Germanic roots; and the rest should simply be eliminated. The German troops confiscated private land, factories and homes – without compensation. Poland provided Germany with the ideal location for a wide array of camps: camps for "criminals," camps for deportees, camps for political and racial enemies, camps for slave labour and, finally, camps for systematic genocide. Lublin, Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec and Auschwitz: names that became forever associated with inhumanity. But this program of death was not limited to the camps. From 1940 to 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto and most of its Jewish occupants were carefully and methodically eliminated.

During the six years of war, from 1939 to 1945, more than six million Poles lost their lives – over 15 per cent of the population. Only 10 per cent of the dead were a result of direct war actions. The rest were Polish civilians, killed in executions and perished from disease and starvation in the streets and the camps. The numbers defy understanding, as do the conditions in which people struggled to survive during those years.

Those who did survive continued fighting for their country's independence, still with no help from abroad. The Warsaw Uprising, which Polish citizens launched in 1944 in order to gain back their capital, was doomed from the start. It took only 63 days for the Reich to demolish the city's historical treasures, its hospitals, homes and bridges. Mass shootings were commonplace. More than 150,000 Warsaw residents were killed, and the remaining half million were transported to labour camps. After the city emptied out, troops of German engineers came in and burned and destroyed everything that was left, with particular attention paid to historical monuments, churches and archives. The German army had taken Hitler's orders to heart when he said that Warsaw should be "razed without trace."

When the Soviets pulled in a few months later, in early 1945, they didn't take long to push the Germans back and install a new president in the city – a Communist. By the time "peace" was declared on May 9, 1945, all of Poland was under Soviet rule. Liberation from the Germans was complete – but it was liberation in name only, and even then it hardly lived up to the name.

The new Soviet bosses made high-level deals and shuffled borders at will. Plungiany, where Wanda was born, was now in Lithuania and rechristened Plunge. The Polish citizens who survived were numbed by the six years of terror and slaughter. They no longer remembered what it felt like to walk in the streets without fear of being shot. Their social structure was completely altered; there was no more intelligentsia, and there were certainly no more Jews. For the survivors, each day that passed by blurred the memory of the Poland they had once known.

* * *

Near the end of the war, Wanda's family home fell into the hands of the conquering Soviets. By 1946 most of their personal property had been confiscated and it was clear they would have to flee. But to where? Eventually they joined Zbigniew's parents in Lancut, in the south, not far from the Ukraine border. Once again, Zbigniew packed up his family's few pieces of furniture and clothing and set out. They weren't alone. The pockmarked roads were crammed with tanks, motorcycles, trucks laden with gas cans, and human convoys – everyone leaving some anguish behind, looking for fresh hope, a new life.

But in Lancut, Zbigniew struggled to find meaningful work and, after the birth of two more children, the family of six outgrew the ancestral home and began to search for a place of their own. They found it in Wroclaw, hundreds of kilometres to the west, where the ravages of war were still very evident. Street corners were piled with debris, and the walls of many buildings were scarred from shellfire. Dislodged roof tiles clattered down in the wind, and shards of glass in the gaping windows were bandaged over with cardboard. Some houses were completely destroyed, with just a few half-walls standing. The worst appeared as hideous, blackened, burnt-out shapes, etched against the sky. Everywhere was rubble.

The Blaszkiewiczes moved into a partially destroyed, three-level house. The water pipes had burst; the windows were broken; the walls were damp with cold; the roof leaked. But according to the authorities, it was too large for just a family of six, so they threatened to move even more people in. The highly intelligent yet eccentric Zbigniew wanted none of that. He not only refused to repair the damage but inflicted even more on the old house in order to discourage any takers.


Excerpted from Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald. Copyright © 2011 Bernadette McDonald. Excerpted by permission of Rocky Mountain Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter One Crutches to Crampons,
Chapter Two Climbing Politics,
Chapter Three Climbers without Borders,
Chapter Four The Knuckle,
Chapter Five Hat Trick on Everest,
Chapter Six Solidarity to Martial Law,
Photo Section 1,
Chapter Seven Together or Alone,
Chapter Eight The Third Man,
Chapter Nine The Art of Suffering,
Photo Section 2,
Chapter Ten Mountain of Misery,
Chapter Eleven Forged in Steel,
Photo Section 3,
Chapter Twelve Himalayan Rosary,
Chapter Thirteen Fallen Giant,
Chapter Fourteen Caravan of Dreams,
Chapter Fifteen Last Climb,
Photo Section 4,
Chapter Sixteen The Loneliest Crown,
Appendix Chronology of Major Polish Himalayan Climbs,
Select Bibliography and Sources,

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