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
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
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
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
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
Monika: How did you become part of the first
victorious winter expedition to Mount Everest in
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
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
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
... 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
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
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
she was 49. During our joint winter expedition do
Annapurna (8091 m), when Jurek
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.
You participated in
28 expeditions. Enumerate your accidents, please...
A rock avalanche
shortened my spine at Bahirati II, in the mountains
of Gharwal. It’s a long story.
How about snow
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
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
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
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
translated by "Scrivanek".