By AdityaMountaineering Oct 30, 2017
It was late in the day, the warm afternoon, the sun was covered in the clouds, it was a surprisingly cold day for the month of July. Voytek Kurtyka and Jerzy Kukuczka were at a height of 7600mtrs below the central and north summits of Broad Peak (8047m). They were trying to make the first traverse of the mountain, as the name indicates it is one of the largest mountains in terms of its breadth near the top, enthusiasts have referred to it as “Breithorn” (in reference to a triple headed peak in the Alps).
Imagine reaching the summit of a mountain and finding that three summits rise above it. Broad Peak the Twelfth Highest mountain in the world is comprised of three distinct summits; the North (7550m ), the Central (8011m) and the Main (8051m). The settings couldn’t be remoter for Voytek and Kukuczka, the two men team from Poland who had come with the dream of completing the first traverse of the mountain, surrounded by mountains like K2 and the Gasherbrum Group, the two followed each other’s steps and below them stretched the world’s largest glacier, the Baltoro. They had been on the mountain for almost 72 hours at an altitude where body constantly consumes itself for energy.
They crossed a sharp ridgeline, traversed across a serac wall and were standing below an avalanche-prone area, when they looked ahead only more questions arose in their minds. The terrain was completely unknown to them, their gear weighed only half then what was the norm, it wasn’t top quality and was patched in places. The two partners had not uttered a single word since the start of their climb, they seemed to be connected to each other by some force outside the confines of language and expression. Kukuczka drove his ice-axe on the ground and looked back to his partner Voytek, without the two uttering a word he knew he had to lead the pitch in-front of them.
For readers, the situation may seem desperate but is just one of the many tales of the Polish legends who climbed in the Himalayas from 1959 to 1990’s.
It all started when a Geophysicist from Poland named Andrzej Zawada who climbed over 100 peaks in Winter, in the Tatra mountains and the time he took to complete this ordeal was a mere 19 days. Zawada today is recognised as the visionary leader of Polish Winter Mountaineering. Next, in the winter of 1973 a Polish Team climbed Noshaq (7492m) in Afganistan. This was the first time any Himalayan Peak was being climbed in winters let alone a 7000m peak. Next was Lhotse 8516mtrs where the expedition failed to reach the summit but reached above the 8000mtrs mark, thus setting a new world record of climbing in winter.
During the twentieth century. Mountain climbing was portrayed as a national conquest, national pride was almost always associated with the act climbing a mountain. Poland entered late in the race and already all the 8000m peaks had been climbed by other nations, so the polish decided to climb them in winters and cold wasn’t the only problem.
Poland has a history of invasion, in the twentieth century it was occupied by the Soviet Union and Nazi German’s. Millions of Polish citizens were killed during the Nazi invasion during 1939 and 1945. From 1945 to 1952 Poland became a communist state and was fraught with corruption and poverty, a dollar for a day’s work was considered good income. Commodities were scarce and expensive somehow all these circumstances proved to be ideal for the Polish Alpinists who just wanted the freedom to express themselves.
An expedition to the Himalaya was only a dream to the young Polish mountaineers since it was not materially possible given the economic state of their country, but still, dream‘s and ambitions are hard to forget especially for the Polish who desperately wanted to live them. And so Polish expeditions became famous for their ingenuity, during and after the expedition they smuggled Whiskey and Cameras cheap commodities in Poland but expensive in the east. They painted huge industrial roofs and cleaned massive chimneys, the work was hazardous but paid well and all money went towards the expedition reserves.
After Lhotse, came K2. In Zawada’s team was a young lean mountaineer Voytek Kurtyka. Voytek was philosophical about climbing and to him, heavy backpacks and a large team only meant one thing, the loss of his freedom which made him climb in the first place. To him an ascent to the top meant overcoming one’s own limitation of fear and exhaustion. After coming back home to Poland Voytek started advocating a lighter approach for the mountains and soon he went to Changabang (6864m) in the Garwhal Himalayas they put a new route rated A2 the hardest aid grade of the time. Then came Dhaulagiri in 1980 where they established a new route up the North eastern ridge.
Back in Poland many other mountaineers were carving a niche for themselves, a young female climber Wanda Rutkiewicz was organising an exclusive all female expedition to Gasherbrum III and with them went Jerzy Kukuczka who was another legendary climber but first a bit more about Wanda.
She was successful in climbing Gasherbrum, her leadership was commendable and cemented forever. She then climbed Everest, became the first female to climb K2. She then launched her project to climb all eight thou-sanders and was successful in climbing 8 of them. She died on Kanchenjunga during her summit attempt where she bivouacked near the summit. Wanda was another exceptional climber, she single handily led her expeditions and performed under extreme circumstances.
Jerzy Kukuczka was a former electrical engineer and coal miner, hailing from Katowice. He was the second man to climb all the 8,000 peaks and he might be one of the few mountaineers of his generation who was actually curious about the mountains. He often climbed unexplored faces of huge mountains like Everest, Nanga Parbat and Kanchenjunga. His route up K2 was even harder than the Magic Line and was remarked as being suicidal by many.
Kukuczka though was probably the strongest of all the 20th-century mountaineers and with Voytek he had the visionary partner, both of them pushed each other their very limits. Broad Peak ascent serves as a clear example. This feat also opened the horizons for both of them and influenced other climbers of their generation and was one of the most influential moments in modern alpinism.
Polish climbers pushed the boundaries of Alpine Climbing and what’s more interesting is that their objectives were both physiological and physical. Polish climbers just didn’t want to climb, they wanted to write history with their ambitions. There style of climbing differentiated them from the world.
Winter climbing in the Himalayas is difficult for a number of reasons temperatures in the Base Camp alone can plummet to minus 20 degree Celsius and keep decreasing as one goes higher up, the days are short and the winds blow with a herculean force stripping all the snow from rocks making climbing more technical and time-consuming. Lower barometric pressure leads to less oxygen in the air.
For a few more years the polish continued their dominance, there exploits earned them the name” Ice-Warrior”. But deaths of giants like Kukutzka slowly ended this long line of “Freedom Climbers”, for the next seventeen years nobody could achieve a winter summit. Finally in Simone Moro and Denis Urbuko climbed Shishapangma in 2005, followed by Makalu in 2009 and Gasherbrum II in 2011. On February 26, 2016 they submitted Nanga Parbat leaving K2 the only remaining 8,000 mtr peak in winter.