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. – 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, 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