Golden Decade: The Birth of 8000m Winter Climbing

Posted on: March 18, 2011

2011 marks one of the busiest winters ever in the history of Himalaya climbing. Simone Moro, Cory Richards and Denis Urubko summited Gasherbrum II on February 2, grabbing the first winter 8000-meter peak in Pakistan. On neighboring Gasherbrum I Alex Txikon, Gerfried Goschl and Louis Rousseau are attempted a new route up the south face. And a Polish team is currently battling its way up Broad Peak for their second winter attempt.

Members of the 1980 Polish Mt. Everest Expedition. The team's ascent of Everest that year proved to the climbing community that 8000m peaks could be climbed in winter. In the following eight years, Polish teams summited six more of the world's highest peaks in winter. [Photo] Bogdan Jankowski

Strong wind blows all the time. It is unimaginably cold. -Radio message from the summit of Everest, February 17, 1980


Winter in the Himalaya is difficult for many reasons. Temperatures at base camp can plummet to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and much lower farther up. Because of the cold, climbing at night is virtually impossible, and the days are short. The winds are much stronger and more persistent because of the jet stream, which blows almost constantly from December through the end of March. Tents are constantly being destroyed or blown away. The wind also strips away the snow, exposing rock and hard ice, making easier slopes more technical and time-consuming. Lower barometric pressure leads to less oxygen in the air. The combination of these factors makes for an exhausting, and generally miserable experience.

Only three decades ago, winter high altitude climbing was thought impossible. That myth was expunged when Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki stood atop Everest on February 17, 1980. Two years prior, Messner had shown that high altitude climbing was possible without oxygen, and now the Polish had proven that the mountains could be climbed in winter. The floodgates were opened for a dynasty no one could have predicted. Over the next eight years, Poland took six more of the world's highest peaks in winter. It wasn't until 2005, when Simone Moro stood atop Shishapangma, that a non-Pole reached the summit of an 8000-meter peak in winter, and he did it with a Polish partner, Piotr Morawski.

The "Ice Warriors," as they became known, had little Himalayan experience before the 1980s. In postwar, communist Poland, climbers were not allowed to partake in expeditions abroad, so while other countries grabbed all the big firsts in the Fifties and Sixties, the Poles stayed home and watched.

Disappointed but not discouraged, they took to the peaks in their backyard—the Tatras on the Polish-Slovakian border. When their skills outgrew the size of their mountains, the progression was natural: why not try them in winter?

Andrej Zawada became one of the first prolific winter climbers. After completing all the big objectives in the Tatras, including a winter enchainment of the range in 1959, Zawada was at last permitted to venture abroad in the early 1970s. In the winter of 1974, Zawada climbed above 8000m on Lhotse. By the end of the decade he was claiming that Everest could be climbed in the winter.

Photo of the crux of the northeast ridge from the Polish 1976 K2 Expedition. [Photo] Janusz Kurczab

Climbing gave them what nothing else in Poland could; climbing gave them freedom. Freedom to travel. Freedom to express themselves. Freedom to be individuals and to excel. I believe that, more than anything, Polish climbers of that "Golden Era" climbed in order to be free. -Bernadette McDonald, from forthcoming book about the Poles, Freedom Climbers

By the 1980s the Iron Curtain was showing signs of wear. In the shipyards of Gdansk the Solidarity trade union was gaining momentum under the leadership of Lech Walesa. But it would take nine more years of revolution and suffering for communism to collapse in Poland. In the course of these years, tensions between the Solidarity movement and the Soviet-instituted government worsened. The economic situation in Poland became dire. Food costs rose and wages plummeted as low as 10-15 dollars per month. Necessities like bread and toilet paper were unaffordable.

It is a paradox, then, that the decade was marked by such success for the Polish mountaineers. When the rest of the country was terribly poor, the climbers were subsidized by the state. They also earned thousands of dollars smuggling Polish goods to Nepal. With the means and the freedom to climb in the Greater Ranges, the Poles were ready to catch up with the rest of the world. But they didn't want to just climb; they wanted to write history. They were eager to differentiate themselves from the rest of the world, and to redeem all they'd missed out on. It made sense to try the 8000-meter peaks in winter. The ingredients were in place and the Polish, under the guidance of Zawada, were hungry. They started ambitiously, on the world's highest mountain.

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