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K2/Chogori Winter 2003

Monika Rogozinska talks to Krzysztof Wielicki - one of the most outstanding climbers of the world, head of the winter expedition to K2 setting out in December

Krzysztof Wielicki was born on January 5, 1950 in Szklarka Przygodzicka (Wielkopolska) to a teachers' family. He learned to be independent at the Boy Scouts. He finished his studies as electronic engineer at the Wroctaw School of Engineering.

He won the Crown of the Himalayas. He has reached the summits of 8000ers 15 times. He climbed his first one, Mount Everest, in the winter of 1980. The last one, Nanga Parbat, he climbed alone in 1996. He is active on the sports and tourism market. He has a son and two daughters.

Monika: It's odd that after so many accidents you experienced in the mountains you are still able to walk. You began your mountaineering career with a catastrophe...

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: During the first climbing season, when I was at my third year of studies, I "crashed down". Three lumbar vertebras were broken. At the clinic, they stuffed me into a plaster corset up to my neck. The only problem was, it was the end of April, 1970, the beginning of end-of-term examinations. My brother was getting married and my mother simply couldn't know that I was climbing at all. I was afraid of how she might react. For my brother's wedding, I cut the plaster with a knife edge. I escaped from the hospital through the balcony and roof. My friends had brought me clothes. I finished the mountaineering course unofficially. After the accident, nobody would have given me the then necessary Athlete Health Card. I was in the process of graduating from the Wroctaw School of Engineering as an electronic engineer, the very same studies as Wanda Rutkiewisz, Wojtek Kurtyka, Bogdan Jankowski. How we wanted to climb back then! We had no access to decent equipment. I remember walking around in the wintertime in the Karkonosze Mountains with an alpenstock cut out in the woods from a root.

Monika: Three years later you had your second accident - in the Dolomite Mountains...

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: Falling stones cut my crash helmet and injured my head. For a moment I lost consciousness, but we decided to continue climbing. We marked a difficult new route in one day. We bivouacked under the summit. The rocky chimneys were pouring with water. I was dripping with sweat and blood. We were shivering with cold, cringing on the ridge. In the morning, we ran down. The town doctor stitched my head and said, "Do whatever you want, but don't climb!" But we didn't want to waste the time, we still had two weeks ahead of us, so I kept on fighting on slopes with stitches in my head. I don't know whether it was wise, but I felt good.

Monika: Back then, you went the normal route from the lowest to the highest mountains: small rocks, the Tatra Mountains, the Alps, the Caucasus, Pamir...

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: I learned the size of the mountains along with the Soviet school of mountaineering. That was an extremely interesting clash of mountaineering cultures. In Pamir, we climbed very quickly the Pik Komunizma (7495 m) using a long route, with only one bivouac, where there should be three, according to local norms and possibilities. The Russians felt indignant with us destroying the established order. Besides, new climbs were reserved there for locals only. On Pik Komunizm, we found a Stalin statuette. One of the guys took it with him. In the south of the USSR, they still had the leader cult going. Even after changing the name from Pik Stalin to Pik Komunizm, local mountaineers still kept on bringing those statuettes, while foreigners took them with them as souvenirs.

Monika: You were lucky enough to see the mountains of Afghanistan before the gates were closed for good. How do you remember that?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: The expedition to the Afghan Hindukush in the year 1977 meant a great deal to me. It was the time when the then famous sport problems on huge slopes were solved. I also acquired my next experience how to survive without food and water. Together with Alex Lowe and the late Jurek Pietkiewicz, we marked a new route, Alpine style, to Kohe Shkhawr (7084). In the middle of the slope, we lost our rucksack with food. We went back to the base after eight days. This trip to Hindukush was the last opportunity to get to know a magnificent country, where you could live for a dollar a day - very stable one from the weather’s viewpoint - thus the great Polish exploring achievements in the 60s and 70s. Our expedition was their continuation. Everything was interrupted by the Russian invasion in Afghanistan in the year 1979.

Monika: Your name is associated with the daring winter conquest of Mount Everest in February 1980, the first 8000er you ever climbed. You had your first encounter with the Himalayas a year earlier, however, with an expedition almost unknown and tragic, which nevertheless ended with a big sporting success.

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: No communications, some things happened by accident, but there were also some mistakes on our part. All this contributed to the fact that during the expedition to South Annapurna (7219 m) some tragedies took place. The aim was difficult - a new route, through the maiden western slope. At the beginning of the expedition, Józek Koniak died, a wonderful guy. I never could have thought that something like that might actually happen. He strangled on a rope. We also lost our rucksack with all the food and equipment. We fastened Józek's body to the rock with our last hooks. The descent was difficult. After four days of marching through unknown terrain we reached the base. A voting took place. The majority was in favor of continuing the expedition. Together with Kaziu Śmieszko, we climbed the western wall of South Annapurna. We had a "teenager" among us - 18-year-old Zbyszek Czyżewski, a great climbing talent. He had difficulties, however, to adjust to the height. We were climbing for several days Alpine style, with bivouacs. Then there was a weather breakdown. The night caught us 200m below the summit. We fought for Zbyszek who was getting weaker. He started feeling better the next morning, but wasn't able to go any higher. I, on the other hand, didn't feel my feet in my leather shoes. We secured Zbyszek and went with Kazio alone to the summit. We returned after two hours. We went back the same route that we came. The lower we got, the more Zbyszek was coming back to life - he arrived at the base before us. We made an appointment before the ascent that we would be descending by an easy route to the other side of the mountain and that we would meet our friends there, who were supposed to secure our return. There was no way of letting them know of the changed situation. They had left the base. They vanished without trace. Julian Ryznara and Jurek Pietkiewicz, the head of the expedition, were probably buried under an avalanche. We were looking for them to no avail. After this expedition, I spent a month and a half in hospital. My chilblained, big toes had to be shortened. Some skin grafts were also necessary. The unknitted stitches on my feet didn't help in my conquest of Everest in winter.

Monika: How did you become part of the first victorious winter expedition to Mount Everest in history?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: From a reserve list. For Andrzej Zawada, the head of the expedition, I was but a greenhorn - I was 29 years old. The history of this expedition is fairly well known. I reached the summit with Leszek Cichy. One could say that I started my Himalayan career from the end, from the highest mountain in the most extreme conditions.

Monika: What did you get from the Polish People's Republic for your winter ascent on Everest? There are myths circulating on that issue.

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: An alpenstock. I nearly had to pay for it. It was a gift from Zawada, but without the consent of the Polish Alpinism Association's Board, before we accounted for the equipment bought with state money. Eventually I was allowed to keep it. I also got the Golden Cross of Merit. It is not true that we were given cars. Somebody fixed the participants of the expedition up with coupons for Fiats 126. The coupon didn't mean that you'd get a car. It only authorized you to buy a car with your own money. Everybody knew that I was working at the Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych ("Small-Engine Car Factory") in Tychy, which manufactured Fiats, so despite the fact that I walked, I gave up the gift. I also got a Polish color television set. My manager took me to the Minister of Industry to brag about the fact that his employee climbed up Mount Everest. The minister asked whether I wanted a Lambreta scooter or a television set...

Monika: Why did you choose the TV set?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: This time it was not my egoism that won, but the thought of my family: for them, a TV set would certainly be better. In any case, its story continues. I was a member of "Solidarność", when the first arrests were made during the infamous frosty night (December 13, 1981 - martial law, note by m. r.). First we were driving around the city, checking on our friends, and then we were sitting at work until morning, destroying or hiding documents. Many of us were interned. I awaited my turn patiently. Around Christmas, I finally received a summons to the provincial police headquarters. I readied my toothbrush and went there in a fighting mood, convinced that I would join my friends. The door opened: "Please sit down. We have a telephonogram here from Warsaw. We have to interrogate you. Have you received a color TV set?" I was furious. There was I, a hero, the Polish raison d'état, and they are talking about a TV set... There was an investigation going on, how many TV sets had been given out. That was a terrible insult. But they let me keep it.

Monika: You have three children. You planted a tree, you built a house. Where did you have the money from?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: I was building it for 10 years - from a sold tent, from my salary, my parents-in-law helped me a bit, I laid bricks myself. Such were the times, that's why it was taking so long. Only after the five of us wouldn't fit any longer into the small flat, with all the books, equipment, expedition barrels, I pulled myself together. I went to Alaska and earned some decent money. I worked gutting fish. That was my first contact with capitalism. That was a really dreadful experience, since it was the first time I had experienced competition at the workplace. In our factories, there were signs saying, "Work better". There were no signs in Alaska at all. At four o'clock in the morning we were standing there, crowding in a queue in front of the gate of the fish processing plant. The manager would count: "One, two, three, twenty-three. Stop. The others can go home". I stopped dreaming at once. We were carrying fish parcels. A nice, fragile girl was carrying a heavy box. I wanted to help her. She pushed me away. A guy I knew said, "Don't do it. If the manager saw she isn't able to carry the boxes by herself, he'd think she's unfit to work here". On the seventh day, I was lying in bed with my hand swollen all over. I thought to myself, "Damn, capitalism, that's not an interesting job. You have to go back to Poland".

Monika: How much did you earn?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: Within one month and a half - 1300 dollars. Incredible! Then there came a period of working at heights, when there were two doctors and one assistant professor hanging on one chimney. That was the time of joyful activity - extremely well-paid jobs at heights and most of the time spent on expeditions. I painted almost the whole of Silesia. To this day I show my children where their daddy painted: the Katowice steelworks, mines, buildings, conveyor belts, chimneys of heat-generating plants, water towers... from Trzebnia to Zabrze. Time had no value back then. We did what we wanted: we met at the mountaineers' club, we dreamt, we made plans, and then set out to the mountains! As grown-ups, we were at a permanent party, having quit our professions (where one could not realize oneself), not knowing that in a few years' time capitalism would also come to us.

Monika: The new times have verified you positively. Look how many businessmen came out of alpinism.

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: People who climb have always been very resourceful. They weren't afraid of challenges. Mountains taught them not only a lesson in humility, but also how to set themselves goals, how to fight, how to be independent, to learn the risk. Organizing expeditions was a lesson in entrepreneurship in a country, where shops were empty and the monthly salary amounted to 20 dollars.

Monika: When did you come upon the idea for the very risky non-stop ascent of an 8000er, without sufficient adjustment?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: In the summer of 1984, Wojtek Kurtyka put me on. Together with Jurek Kukuczka, we were together on an expedition to Broad Peak (8047 m). We were climbing in order to adjust and Wojtek noticed that I'm walking very fast. I was always there 2-3 hours before the others. He said, since I'm moving so fast, maybe I could reach the summit in one day. So I gave it a try, at first in secret, at night. I reached 7200 m. It was foggy. I didn't see where I was, I got scared. You walk alone, without a rope, without handlines marking the route, around a mountain crack. I withdrew. After a week I did it again. I headed off to the north. I managed to reach the summit in 16.5 hours and to walk back in less than 6 hours, so I made it in a day. This has been mentioned in the world press as a record, there were also some critical voices, however, saying that this is a rape on alpinism. It's hard not to agree with that, nobody has tried to do something like that in the Himalayas before. It was only later that racing came into fashion: Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet climbed on Everest and went down on their buttocks in 43 hours, the Sherpa Babu Chiri reached the summit in 16 hours... I had then discovered that you can cheat your body for a while. If you ascend very fast, even without the proper adjustment, your warmed-up body doesn't have time to "catch on" and react to the lack of oxygen...

... But when something stops you, the stop is going to be a final one.

Monika: You have to know your body well.

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: Professor Oswald Oelz invited in 1987 a group of world's leading himalaists to conduct some tests in Switzerland. What did they look like and what were the conclusions?

Monika: Back then, I had reached the summits of five 8000ers. From Poland, also Wanda Rutkiewicz and Jurek [Jerzy] Kukuczka had been invited.

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: We were being examined at two institutes by teams of neurosurgeons, neurologists, cardiologists. Among other things, they were testing our memory by means of tests containing a lot of information. For instance: "On January 13, at 6.10 am, a ship with a draught of 260 000 tons sank in Hamburg. 16 children and 31 adults drowned, among them 7 women and 15 men, 3 seamen... At 1.10 pm, a rescue team consisting of 47 people set out. 3 rescuers died during the operation". Then you had to repeat that. Me and Jurek [Jerzy] had great fun. We all forgot about these tests in the evening, when suddenly Wanda stood in the door-way and asked, "Jurek [Jerzy], how many of those rescuers drowned?" That's ambition! We had been chosen, because we were exposed to the so-called oxygenless zone for prolonged periods of time. The results were then compared with the ones from other groups, who weren't exposed to the lack of oxygen. The professor wanted to prove we had "holes in our brains".

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: Monika: I think the experiment was also about discovering the physiological secret of your mountaineering success. What conclusions were drawn with regard to you?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: My body had a very good oxygen absorption capacity per kilogram bodyweight. That's all.

Monika: Wanda Rutkiewicz reached the summits of Everest and K2 as the first Polish alpinist. She caused a lot of emotions in the environment...

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: She was a wonderful woman. Her tragedy was the loneliness experienced by big stars. Everybody recognized her when she was walking down the street in Warsaw. But there was nobody there waiting for her at home. She was too strong a personality to have a life partner. She left her profession, rejected maternity, lost her family. There was only one way left for her. There is no better psychotherapy than many fields of activity. After coming back from an expedition, I didn't want to see any mountains at least for a while. I concentrated solely on my children, my home, my work, my friends... Wanda, on the other hand, was making phone calls about the next expedition already on the plane. When she died at Kangchenjunga, she was 49. During our joint winter expedition do Annapurna (8091 m), when Jurek [Jerzy] Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer reached the summit, I watched how much effort it cost her to climb. Knowing that a few months earlier she was standing on K2, I realized that she must have went through a real ordeal climbing up that mountain and descending again. We told her a thousand times: “Messner went up with the Sherpas. Is he great? He is. Take the Sherpas, they are going to help you.” So what did Wanda do? She wanted to do it alone, to be the first... a difficult woman. An extraordinary woman.

Monika: You participated in 28 expeditions. Enumerate your accidents, please...

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: A rock avalanche shortened my spine at Bahirati II, in the mountains of Gharwal. It’s a long story.

Monika: How about snow avalanches?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: The usual story. I was rushing down on three avalanches, once with Leszek Cichy on the slopes of K2. A shame. We were walking like donkeys, tied with a rope, after a big snowfall. We shouldn't have. One pulled the other, then the avalanche came down. Luckily, it spat us out in gentle terrain. Another time, I was flying alone at night on Gasherbrum II. That was a punishment, I wanted to run up silently, but the permit we had was only for the adjoining summit. I also fell into glacier cracks.

Monika: You have crossed many limits in climbing and you're still alive, although almost an entire generation of Polish mountaineers died in the mountains. How did you manage to survive?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: From the viewpoint of security, my ideas had one advantage: I was never forced to execute them, because it was me who publicized them in the first place. A bad advisor in difficult situations are obligations towards the media. My ideas usually grew during expeditions where I wasn't subject to any kind of pressure, neither from the environment, nor financial or commercial. As a rule, I didn't make my programs known.

Monika: You broke that rule. You have announced a winter expedition to K2 and you are taking a TV team along. Why?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: With age, I look at the mountains less and less from a personal viewpoint. The machine that has been set in motion to reach K2 won't be working to enable me to reach the summit. The goal is to defeat the mountain. We are connected by a common goal, namely the program of exploring the highest mountains that will last several years, and not enlarging my private collection. I will be climbing, helping, but it's going to be nature who decides if somebody reaches the top.

Monika: You've fought so many times for you life, you saw so many friends die. Haven't you grown tired of the mountains?

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: Do you have to justify for having a passion? You can change your hobbies, not your passion. With time, it fills all spheres of your life.

Monika: Winter in the Himalayas is still a great challenge. At this time of year, the mountains are a mystery, and the unknown attracts. You are also preparing a surprise.

KRZYSZTOF WIELICKI: I was surprised by the amount and the content of emails I received from young mountaineers after announcing this expedition. Supposedly, the youth of today prefers easy tasks. It turned out that K2 in winter is a dream for many people. My generation thought that in order to climb that mountain in winter, you have to have many years of climbing experience behind you. Today, young people break these stereotypes. And they are right. I am taking the risk, I am taking several young people along, because I got captivated by their approach to the mountains, their enthusiasm. I wish them to succeed, I don't want them to get discouraged. 8000ers in winter are such a difficult challenge that they enforce a way of behavior hard to come by in present himalaism. Here, you can be successful only if you are working in a team, if you concentrate on the common goal, give up your personal ambitions in favor of the common good. Is it really so hard to understand why we are going to K2 in winter? - 

Written by Monika Rogozinska, "Rzeczpospolita"; translated by "Scrivanek".