The Ice Warriors: Poland’s Golden Alpine Generation

There are few sto­ries in the his­to­ry of moun­taineer­ing that are as under-recount­ed as the sto­ry of a gen­er­a­tion of Pol­ish moun­taineers. Barred from the Himalayas because of polit­i­cal strug­gle after the war, they devel­oped their own unique brand of alpin­ism, by climb­ing 12 Himalayan peaks for the first time – in win­ter. Against unthink­able cold and over­whelm­ing odds, the Pol­ish gen­er­a­tion fought through hur­dles at home and in the moun­tains to earn the name: “The Ice War­riors”.

This is their true sto­ry.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leszek_CichyEver­est – Feb­ru­ary 16, 1980. -43º Fahren­heit
Krzysztof Wielic­ki and Leszek Cichy are in their small tent at the top of the South Col, get­ting what rest they can for a bid at Everest’s sum­mit. At Base Camp, the winds are roar­ing and the atmos­phere is tense, espe­cial­ly for expe­di­tion leader Andrzej Zawa­da. The Pol­ish are attempt­ing Everest’s first win­ter sum­mit. In the small tent, Wielic­ki and Cichy try to find what warmth they can. At this tem­per­a­ture, exposed skin freezes instant­ly. Even in their sleep­ing bags and bulky Himalayan suits, the frost per­me­ates their lay­ers and glazes every­thing.

It’s 6:30 AM on Feb­ru­ary 17; the climbers radio Base Camp and inform Zawa­da they’ve start­ed for the sum­mit. Wielic­ki and Cichy are start­ing much lat­er to allow the sun to rise and give them some sem­blance of heat. To move fast, the two climbers have only one bot­tle of oxy­gen each. As they ascend, the tem­per­a­ture con­tin­ues to plum­met and hur­ri­cane winds bat­ter the upper slopes. At the South Sum­mit, the Poles deplete their oxy­gen, decid­ing to tra­verse the last 300 feet with­out. At Base Camp, Zawa­da sits by his radio hop­ing for news from the climbers, or at least from the sup­port team at Camp 3. Sud­den­ly at 2:40 PM, the white noise crack­les to life, and through the rag­ing wind­storm, Cichy’s voice rings through.

“We are on the sum­mit! Strong wind blows all the time. It is unimag­in­ably cold.”

Climb­ing in the Himalayan win­ter means endur­ing bru­tal cold, short days and winds with the force of a Cat­e­go­ry-1 Hur­ri­cane, all above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet). To climb a Himalayan peak in win­ter was con­sid­ered impos­si­ble. But to the tough skinned Pol­ish, who had mas­tered the Tatras, endured war and the sub­se­quent Iron Cur­tain, impos­si­ble was a chal­lenge they were will­ing to accept.

Imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, the race to con­quer the Himalayan peaks fell to the British, French, Amer­i­cans, Swiss, Aus­tri­an, and Ital­ians. The Pol­ish, who had seen their coun­try torn apart by a decade of con­flict, were locked out of the Himalayas due to the com­plex logis­tics and lack of fund­ing to sup­port an expe­di­tion. In the post-war era, Poland fell deep­er into despair as they found them­selves shut­tered behind the Iron Cur­tain and liv­ing in a state of hard­ship. But it was in these tough peri­ods that the Poles found their strength to endure.


Noshaq, Afghanistan – Win­ter, 1973
In the 1960’s, while still cut off from the Himalayas, the Pol­ish turned their atten­tion to the Hin­du-Kush, par­tic­u­lar­ly Afghanistan and the peak Noshaq. A source of pride for the Pol­ish moun­taineer­ing com­mu­ni­ty, Noshaq saw a num­ber of expe­di­tions, new routes, and a women’s ascent by the leg­endary Wan­da Rutkiewicz. But when Zawa­da and part­ner Tadeusz Piotrows­ki saw the 22,000-foot peak in 1973, they launched an auda­cious goal: To climb above 7,000 meters in the dead of win­ter. On Feb­ru­ary 13, 1973 in tem­per­a­tures of -58º Fahren­heit (-50º C), Zawa­da and Tadeusz reached the sum­mit of Noshaq, open­ing the door­way to win­ter ascents of 7000 and 8000-meter peaks. Spurred by their achieve­ment and with the bar­ri­ers to the Himalayas, Zawa­da saw his next objec­tive: The 8516-meter peak of Lhotse.r


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrzej_ZawadaLhotse, Nepal – Win­ter, 1974
Win­ter ascents in Nepal were unheard of, since climb­ing peri­ods divide into pre and post-mon­soon sea­sons. Andrzej Zawa­da was able to nego­ti­ate a per­mit with a con­cur­rent French team and estab­lish base camp at the end of Octo­ber. Trag­i­cal­ly, the French team had their tents swept away in an avalanche before Zawa­da arrived and the Pol­ish team was left alone on the moun­tain. While the teams enjoyed a brief pause in the post-mon­soon con­di­tions, with­in weeks, the tem­per­a­tures plum­met­ed to -20º Fahren­heit. Although the team tried numer­ous attempts to estab­lish Camp 3 and Camp 4, they were beat­en back by gale-force winds and retreat­ed to base camp. Weeks lat­er, they ascend­ed again and set their camp, but at the severe cost of sev­er­al team mem­bers con­tract­ing frost­bite. The team faced fur­ther tragedy when expe­di­tion pho­tog­ra­ph­er and cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Stanis­law Latal­lo suc­cumbed to expo­sure. It was a week before Zawa­da could make anoth­er attempt at the top. On Christ­mas, 1974, Zawa­da wished hol­i­day greet­ings to Base Camp and set out for the sum­mit. Climb­ing swift­ly and effi­cient­ly, Zawa­da and part­ner Zyg­munt Hein­rich came with­in 200 meters before an approach­ing storm made the bid impos­si­ble. Heart­break­ing­ly, they turned back, but despite not hav­ing sum­mit­ed, they proved that climb­ing above 8000-meters in win­ter was pos­si­ble.

By the end of the decade, Zawa­da had spurred the Pol­ish moun­taineer­ing com­mu­ni­ty to write their own his­to­ry and con­quer the Himalayas in their own, hard-fight­ing style. In 1981, with the rise of Lech Wale­sa and the estab­lish­ment of Sol­i­dar­i­ty, the façade of com­mu­nism began to crum­ble, and the Pol­ish, who had endured decades of phys­i­cal hard­ship, were now ready to estab­lish their place in Himalayan his­to­ry. Fol­low­ing Wielic­ki and Cichy’s his­toric win­ter ascent of Ever­est in 1980, this group of moun­taineers became nation­al heroes, lav­ish­ly paid and sup­port­ed by the gov­ern­ment. They gar­nered addi­tion­al funds by paint­ing indus­tri­al smoke­stacks and smug­gling Pol­ish goods to Nepal. Of all the great alpin­ists that Poland had pro­duced, one stood out in par­tic­u­lar: a for­mer elec­tri­cal engi­neer and coal min­er by the name of Jerzy Kukucza. Hail­ing from Katow­ice and estab­lish­ing him­self as an expert in the Tatras and the Alps, he could with­stand more time at alti­tude than any oth­er climber. In the Gold­en Gen­er­a­tion of Pol­ish climbers, he would become the sec­ond per­son to sum­mit all 14 8,000-meter peaks, and he would climb all of them either in sum­mer via new routes, in win­ter, or both.

Kukucza had a pen­chant for attempt­ing his objec­tives by any means pos­si­ble, even if it meant fore­go­ing a climb­ing per­mit. On an expe­di­tion to K2 in 1982 with a team led by Rutkiewitz, now Poland’s lead­ing female alpinst, Kukuza and his part­ner, Woj­ciech Kur­ty­ka noticed that the per­mit allowed them to use low­er ele­va­tion peaks for acclima­ti­za­tion with­out spec­i­fy­ing what “low­er ele­va­tion” meant. Thus, they used this loop­hole to ascend the low­er 8,051-meter (26,414-foot) Broad Peak, encoun­ter­ing Rein­hold Mess­ner on the way down and swear­ing him to secre­cy. A year lat­er, Jerzy would again sub­vert the per­mit sys­tem by tra­vers­ing Gasher­brum I and II via a new route. While he quick­ly became one of Poland’s lead­ing moun­taineers, it was in the win­ter where he excelled best.

©istockphotoDhaula­giri, Nepal – Win­ter, 1985
In the post-mon­soon sea­son of 1984, a bevy of teams turned their atten­tion to Dhaula­giri, the world’s sev­enth high­est peak at 8,167-meters (26,795 feet). The dra­mat­ic pyra­mi­dal moun­tain ris­es over 7,000 meters and has a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the world’s most treach­er­ous peaks. In Octo­ber, a Czech team sum­mit­ed via the West Face, but lost one of their mem­bers on the descent. In Novem­ber, a 15-per­son Japan­ese team failed to reach the sum­mit in heavy wind. As the Pol­ish watched with inter­est, Adam Bil­czews­ki put togeth­er a team of Poland’s great­est climbers, includ­ing Kukucz­ka and Andrzej Czok, who had pio­neered a new route on Ever­est with Kukucza in the sum­mer of 1980. The expe­di­tion took to an inaus­pi­cious start as a wall of crash­ing ser­acs caused an avalanche that buried sev­er­al tents at base camp. Although there were no injuries among the mem­bers, the team already lost much need­ed equip­ment. The expe­di­tion tried to move their remain­ing equip­ment high­er to an advanced base camp, but that too only last­ed four days before being bat­tered by wind. Jerzy arrived two days after Christ­mas and led the team in estab­lish­ing Camp 2 with tem­per­a­tures below -40º Fahren­heit.

With con­di­tions increas­ing­ly wors­en­ing above them, Bilczewski’s team had to wait out an 11-day bliz­zard before they could think of mov­ing ahead. When the weath­er had some sem­blance of clear­ance, Kukucza and Czok swift­ly estab­lished Camp 3 and Camp 4. At Camp 4, the duo, along with Miroslaw Kuras, were get­ting ready for their first sum­mit attempt when a sub­se­quent avalanche roared down the moun­tain and near­ly buried the tent. While all three sur­vived, Kuras had his hands frozen and start­ed to return to the low­er camps. The avalanche had wiped out the emp­ty Camp 3, so Kuras had to descend even fur­ther to Camp 2 in one push. On the morn­ing of Jan­u­ary 21, Jerzy and Czok, who was suf­fer­ing the ear­ly effects of frost­bite, start­ed for the sum­mit. Trudg­ing through deep snow, flur­ries, and wind, the two climbers reached the sum­mit at 3:30 PM. After 15 min­utes, they began their descent, but in the rapid­ly dark­en­ing win­ter, the descent route was nowhere to be found, and so, with no tent and no sleep­ing bags, the two spent the night at 7800-meters (25,590 feet). The next day Czok was now suf­fer­ing from severe frost­bite to his legs and on the descent to Camp 2, he lost sight of Kukucza, who spent a sec­ond night alone in the open. Czok arrived at Camp 2 at 10:00 PM that night, with Jerzy arriv­ing at 9:00 AM the next morn­ing. The two climbers start­ed their descent to Base Camp, dur­ing which they were caught in anoth­er 17-hour snow­storm. Czok weak­ly arrived in Base Camp, but Jerzy went an oppo­site direc­tion. Kukucza wad­ed through arm-deep snow and met up with two oth­ers, with which he would now climb his sec­ond 8000-meter peak of the win­ter of 1985, Cho Oyu via a new route. Mirac­u­lous­ly, Czok only lost the tips of his toes to frost­bite. In Nepal’s cold­est record­ed win­ter in over two decades, the Pol­ish had climbed two of the Himalaya’s dead­liest peaks.

The Pol­ish climbers now had a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion. The inter­na­tion­al alpine com­mu­ni­ty had tak­en notice and dubbed them “The Ice War­riors.” In the years fol­low­ing the ascents of Dhaula­giri and Cho Oyu, this same group of climbers would ascend Kachen­jun­ga in 1986, Anna­pur­na in 1987, and top it off with Wielicki’s extra­or­di­nary solo win­ter ascent of Lhoste in 1988. “The Pol­ish Way” was char­ac­ter­ized by the extreme strug­gle that the climbers were accus­tomed to. At the height of the 1980s, Poland was stand­ing on top of the world.

Then it all col­lapsed.

As Poland cel­e­brat­ed their lib­er­a­tion from Com­mu­nism, Jerzy Kukucz­ka set off to climb a new route on the South Face of Lhotse in Octo­ber, 1989. Forced to use a sec­ond hand sta­t­ic line, Jerzy led a pitch at 8200-meters (26,902 feet) near the sum­mit. Sud­den­ly, the rope snapped and one of Poland’s most leg­endary climbers per­ished. The moun­taineer­ing com­mu­ni­ty mourned deeply. As the Iron Cur­tain crum­bled and Poland found democ­ra­cy, the climbers no longer had finan­cial back­ing from the gov­ern­ment. In the 1990s, the Pol­ish moun­taineer­ing fell into a dark age as the Gold­en Gen­er­a­tion end­ed when Wan­da Rutkiewitz van­ished on Ever­est in 1992.

For 17 years, between 1988 and 2005, nobody could achieve a win­ter sum­mit in the Himalayas. As alpin­ist Simone Moro told The Clymb:

“The deaths of Jerzy Kukucz­ka and Wan­da Rutkievitz shocked the Pol­ish sys­tem. Then a gen­er­a­tional turnover hap­pened, and the new gen­er­a­tion, who weren’t accus­tomed to tra­di­tional ways, was weak­er than the old. So, the com­bi­na­tion of mul­ti­ple fac­tors, includ­ing cli­mate change, influ­enced the capac­ity to achieve win­ter climbs at high alti­tude.”

While the Pol­ish lit the fire, the torch passed to a new gen­er­a­tion of alpin­ists. In 2005, Moro and his Kaza­kh climb­ing part­ner, Denis Urubko ush­ered in a new age of win­ter Himalayan ascents with their sum­mit of Shisha­pang­ma in 2005 where they nar­row­ly ascend­ed ahead of a young Pol­ish team, fol­lowed by Makalu in 2009, and Gasher­brum II in 2011.

But Wielic­ki had one more dream: A win­ter ascent of Nan­ga Par­bat.

A win­ter ascent of Nan­ga Par­bat had long been the dream of the Pol­ish alpine com­mu­ni­ty. The Rupal Face, one of the world’s bold­est ascents, ris­es over 15,000-feet above the val­ley. The sum­mer of 1985 saw teams led by Kukucz­ka and Rutkievitz both reach the sum­mit, but for Zawa­da and Wielic­ki, Nan­ga Par­bat was Poland’s peak, and they want­ed it in win­ter.

On Jan­u­ary 12, 2007, Wielic­ki is at base camp on Nan­ga Par­bat, lis­ten­ing on the radio as Zawa­da had done for him 27 years ear­li­er. This time, there won’t be a sum­mit. The two climbers are fac­ing severe winds and have decid­ed to come down. But it doesn’t dimin­ish what Wielic­ki and the Gold­en Gen­er­a­tion of Pol­ish climbers were able to accom­plish.

On Feb­ru­ary 26, 2016, Nan­ga Par­bat was sum­mit­ed in win­ter for the first by Simone Moro (Italy) Alex Txikon (Spain) and Ali Sad­para (Pak­istan), leav­ing K2 the only remain­ing 8,000-meter peak nev­er climbed in win­ter.

Research pro­vid­ed by the Amer­i­can Alpine Club Library and Amer­i­can Alpine Jour­nal