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The Wind defeated us
Rogozinska talks to Krzysztof Wielicki, the head of
the expedition to Makalu and the conqueror of the
Crown of Himalayas.
Question: The average age of the members of the
Polish Winter Expedition to Makalu (46) shocked
many people. It is often stressed that such
line-up had no chance of success.
WIELICKI: The notion of youth is relative in the
highest mountains. I would like to remind you that I
ascended the second highest summit of the world (K2)
at the age of 46 and a week later climbed Nanga Parbat,
another eight-thousand-meter-high mountain. That
completed the Crown of Himalayas. It seems to me that the
mind is more important than age.
I would prefer the members to be younger but there are
not too many people eager to take such challenge. Who
would want to devote a few months of life in order to
fight the wind? Winter Himalaism requires
patience and experience acquired over the years.
Anyway, the issue of age is not only a problem of this
expedition, it is a problem of Himalaism as a whole.
What is the cause of the generation gap? Seven out of
eight highest mountains in the world were ascended in
winter in eight years. All first climbs were made by
Polish Alpinists but the last one was eleven years
ago. You ascended Lhotse by yourself then?
WIELICKI: The generation gap was caused by the political
and social situation in Poland. At the beginning of
1990's, along with democracy, we all had to continue
working in our professions or take other challenges
which allowed us to settle. All of us, university
graduates, left our jobs for Himalaism. In order to go
to the mountains we had to paint chimneys and perform
well paid jobs at the heights. When freedom came,
Alpinists started to use their abilities not only in
the mountains. Many gave up climbing in order to start
careers. I think that the generation gap was also
caused by tragedies which struck Polish Alpinism at
the end of 1980's.
Five Poles ascended Makalu in autumn. Only two of
them, including you, are still alive...
WIELICKI: There is one more reason why we have no
successors - time became very precious. In the past an
expedition took two or three months. Nowadays people
cannot afford that. They go away for a weekend to
climb some rocks extensively and on Monday morning
they are at work wearing a suit and a tie. The times
of exploration adventure are over. Today people want
to do what they have to do. Winter himalaism requires
patience, self possession, distance.
It is enough to look at special agencies in Nepal.
They service Alpinists in summer. You can see that
climbing in the Himalayas is highly organized and
fitted to one's free time. It is known that next year
there will be camps on Everest and someone will attack
the summit. The departure is also planned, as is the
end of a trip. Sherpas pack camps and balustrades
according to schedule. The mountain is closed.
WIELICKI: After the tenth, twentieth, thirtieth day
the winter says: no. Andrzej Zawada used to say that
there are expeditions completed with success and those
which end happily. Our climb onto Makalu ended
happily. All of us came back safe and sound. It is not
a reason to cry. We should say: we failed, let's try
again some other time. It is natural - we should not
Wait a second. During the last expedition you changed
the route three times. When I phoned home and said
that we were in retreat for the second time, my
fifteen-year-old son immediately said: "Do you
have to waste your strength and resources?" I
suppose such is the general feeling about it. A time
of relatively good weather at the end of December was
wasted. In January Makalu constantly roared with wind.
Changing routes made an impression that the expedition
lacks strategy, that you just moved about nervously.
The head of an expedition is responsible for its
WIELICKI: I admit that I overestimated my strength and
chose my goal too ambitiously. It seemed to me that
such mountain as Makalu had to be conquered in winter,
choosing a beautiful, difficult route - the Western
Leg. If I had evaluated the resources at the start of
the expedition, the events would have been different,
which does not mean that we would have ascended the
peak. The wind was our main opponent, not the
technical difficulties of the routes. Each change did
not alter much in the long run, although I would like
to stress that when we decided to take the easier
route, two camps were set up in two days. We
immediately reached the same height.
You fell into a trap of your individual achievements
in the Himalayas. When I shared my opinions with the
other members of the expedition, they said: "Not
to worry, we will prepare the ground a little and then
Krzysztof will take a backpack, rush into the summit
by himself and the expedition will be over, you'll
was my plan. Regardless of the situation, I wanted to
ascend the peak during my last climb.
But you turned 51
during the course of the expedition.
WIELICKI: That is a fact, but it is good news for me.
I was a little bit afraid of confrontation with the
eight-thousand-meter mountain after four and a half
years that passed from my ascent of Nanga Parbat,
which was a bit crazy. I was not sure of my
physiology. I can say that everything is fine - I
still am the leader of the team. I repeat that in case
of this expedition, the average age was not a decisive
I do not agree. You are an exception. It is hard to
say that, because everybody was very friendly, but
there was a man who was not able to climb above 5300m.
It was not nice to listen to him saying how happy he
was that he lost so many kilograms. This would happen
even to a glutton. Everybody looses weight at those
heights, since our organisms refuse to absorb
WIELICKI: That man needed an adventure. I did not
dream of him climbing higher. He paid a contribution
and was loyal. He was not an element of tactics right
from the start.
Winter in the Himalayas is not very popular, there is
not much competition here.
WIELICKI: I consider the direction pointed by Andrzej
Zawada a good one, regardless of the criticism. There
is not much more to be done in the great exploration
of the Himalayas. Winter causes great difficulties:
short days, little sun, wind and frost make you stay
in your tent all the time. Of course, the opponents of
the winter Alpinism would say: what is the point of
such effort, if you can go when it is so warm that you
can take off your shirt and the chances of reaching
the summit are 90%. There are simply two philosophies
of climbing in the Himalayas. I don't mind the easier
way but does it change anything? I think that
difficult goals are a good idea and a big chance for
the Polish Himalaism. We should keep strengthening our
position until the point when it is known that Polish
Alpinists are and will be the best in the Himalayas.
Is eleven years with no winter success not enough for
you to admit that this goal is not real?
WIELICKI: No, because there was no void, only thanks
to the changes in Poland people could realize their
individual goals. I myself was more a supporter of the
idea of reaching the Crown of Himalayas, not the
winter climbing. I think that a time has come to
continue the winter option and implement the program
of Polish Himalaism, especially because the standards
in the highest mountains are lower. Sport became less
important, dreams of regular people were realized.
They reach the peaks aided by Sherpas and guides.
The peak, the success is all that matters.
WIELICKI: But this is very personal: the success of
Mr. Smith from America or France, who does not care if
he contributes something to American, French or world
Alpinism. There is great personalization of actions in
What conclusions did you draw from this expedition?
WIELICKI: We should have left earlier which costs more
money. It is proper to acclimatize in autumn at a
high, seven-thousand-meter mountain in order to
shorten the time of winter activity. More than forty
days of winter expedition takes away your chances:
people are struck with diseases, they are not strong
enough physically. A mountain should be conquered in
maximum of thirty days. I thought about it before. I
wanted to outsmart the season, the bureaucracy, the
regulations and the mountain. The Czechs, who ascended
Cho Oyu, actually did that. They acclimatized in
autumn, bought permission for winter and were at the
peak at the beginning of December.
But that was rather "administrative", not
astronomical winter. You failed at Makalu and now you
plan to undertake one of the greatest challenges of
Himalaism in less than a year - to lead the winter
expedition to K2, the second summit of the world. This
is a terrifying mountain. One in four Alpinists does
not come back from its peak in summer season.
WIELICKI: Makalu is a very windy mountain. The wind
outsmarted us. We were lucky there were moments of
silence when we climbed in winter with Jerzy Kukuczka
and Leszek Cichy. We did not have such opportunity at
Makalu. Anyway, the mountain is still there and
waiting for us. Although K2 is higher, I consider it
as difficult to climb in winter. I know the routes at
both mountains. K2 is very famous and the Poles, who
first tried to conquer it in winter 13 years ago,
deserve another chance.
How can you get people who would guarantee the
conquest of such a difficult mountain?
WIELICKI: This is a problem. It is useless to take
people who do not believe in success right at the
start. I may take some foreigners, possibly Russians,
Ukrainians, people from Kazakhstan, Georgians,
citizens of the former USSR.
WIELICKI: They have dominated Himalaism, such as we
did in 1980's. I cooperated with them. They can always
be trusted. The center of Himalaism is currently
located in Jekaterynburg. I guess you might expect a
lot from a man who used to go to school in winter as a
child and the temperature outside reached minus 40
degrees Celsius. Of course, this is against my
philosophy of Polish exploration. Perhaps, to satisfy
everybody and avoid competition of nations, the teams
should consist of one Pole and one Russian or
Ukrainian. You should not fight people who better than
you, it is better to join them.
How much money do you need to organize a Polish-East
European expedition to K2?
WIELICKI: Not less than 100 000 dollars, I think.
Andrzej Zawada organized it for a million dollars 13
years ago. He went with Canadians and the British.
WIELICKI: Yes but that was an expedition from the
Pakistani side, which is difficult to access in
winter. The Chinese side is cheaper and the mountain
is as difficult. After detailed analysis of the
current situation it seems to me that only
strengthening of the line-up with very strong
colleagues from the East will give us the chances of
completion of winter exploration of the highest peaks
in the Himalayas. We "invented" winter in
high mountains, took the challenge many years ago, but
we will not complete the work of our predecessors
without cooperation of the best and there are less and
less of such people in our country. The coming of the
year 2002 is a great time for an international
expedition. That year was announced the Year of the
Mountains by UN. I trust that there are people who
will believe that we are able to repeat the greatest
achievements of Polish Himalaism even if this means
sharing it with our friends and giving up the role of
a watchdog. Experience supported with determination
may bring success to both parties.
We can all get along ! We can work together ! Things
can happen when people talk and work together !
EverestNews.com, would like to thank Rzeczpospolita, Monika
Andrzej Michalik, Marek Kopyt, Piotr Trybalski
and all the others who made it possible for the many
people around the world to share this expedition and
get to know, just a little, one of the greatest
climbers who ever lived. Freedom reigns ! In American
and Poland !