Golden Decade: The Birth of 8000m Winter Climbing


That year our Olympic team did not have success at Lake Placid, so our success [on Everest] was like a gold medal for Polish sportsmen. A lot of people were very proud. -Krzysztof Wielicki on returning to Poland after Everest in 1980.

Eating well on the 1980 Everest expedition. [Photo] Bogdan Jankowski

Four years after the Everest success, Maciej Berbeka and Ryszard Gajewski camped at 7700 meters on a blistery January night. The temperature inside the tent was minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The next day they summitted Manaslu, the world's eighth highest peak. According to the 1984 American Alpine Journal, "on the descent they had to buck hurricane winds directly in their faces, and sometimes had to crawl downward. Berbeka froze toes and Gajewski a finger." Despite the hardships they reached base camp intact, completing the second winter 8000-meter peak and the first without supplementary oxygen.


With momentum and state funding on their side, the Poles knocked off another five peaks in the next four years: Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu in 1985; Kanchenjunga in 1986; Annapurna in 1987 and Lhotse in 1988.

All the summits saw immeasurable hardships. Of the 1985 ascent of Cho Oyu, Zawada wrote in the 1986 American Alpine Journal, "The weather was difficult. The snowstorms were disturbing and after them, on the face, we were haunted by avalanches." That ascent also saw a bivouac at 7700m on a night when temperatures reached minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit in base camp. Frostbite occurred on many of these climbs, often at no fault of the climber—it was simply too cold to be avoided.

Decades of winter training, hunger to make history and the talents of great mountaineers all played a role in the success. But the style in which they climbed did too. The successful expeditions were often quite large, employing multiple teams that spent weeks or months equipping the routes with fixed lines and camps. The focus was summitting in the name of Poland, while individual achievements were downplayed. This was not always the case however. On New Year's Eve 1988, Wielicki stood alone atop Lhotse. Though it was an incredible achievement, the climb marked the end of the historic run Wielicki helped start eight years prior.

Jerzy Kukuczka spending a night on the wall in the Dolomites. [Photo] Janusz Kurczab

Communism in Poland collapsed in 1989, and state funding decreased as a result. Disaster also struck on Lhotse and Everest the same year. Though the money could be replaced, the loss of several key "Ice Warriors" could not. Jerzy Kukuczka, the legendary climber who was the second man to climb all fourteen 8000-meter peaks—four of which were in winter—died on the south face of Lhotse. "He was such an iconic climber that his death stunned and deflated the entire community," says Bernadette McDonald. Five other Poles died on Everest in the spring of the same year. There were many Polish climbers during the 1980s, but their success relied heavily on the leadership of a few. Kukuczka was certainly one of these leaders, as were all five who perished on Everest. Momentum halted in the wake of these deaths. There were a few climbers who remained active in the Himalaya, but the "golden decade" was over.

I realize that we live in times when each success has to be associated with a name, with individuals who easily lend themselves to the requirements of the media. But why is it a problem to proclaim "Poles have climbed Shisha Pangma or K2 in winter?" -From Krzysztof Wielicki's "Winter Manifesto" in 2002.

Wielicki never lost sight of the dream. He continued to climb in the region throughout the 1990s. In 2002, fourteen years since the last 8000m winter climb, he delivered a "Winter Manifesto" to younger generations of Polish climbers. He called upon the "young, angry and ambitious" to finish the remaining peaks. "Six unconquered peaks are waiting for us," he said, "but volunteers are nowhere to be seen. Let the nickname 'Ice Warrior,' given us by Englishmen, be inscribed in the history of Himalayan climbing forever."

A series of unsuccessful attempts followed on K2, Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak. All of these peaks are in Pakistan and the western Himalayas, where it is colder, windier and more remote than China and Nepal. There is no doubt that winter climbing is more difficult in the Karakoram than the Himalaya Range proper. Even so, the Poles remained hungry to finish what they'd begun.

Artur Hajzer, a leader of the "golden decade" and one of the climbers who has remained active since, started a campaign in 2009 to finish the unclimbed peaks. Building on Wielicki's initiative to lead younger generations, Hajzer outlined a plan to complete the objective between 2010 and 2015. A return to the fundamentals of winter climbing is essential to the plan. Winter training in the Tatras and Alps will prepare the younger climbers for winter in the Himalaya. Expeditions in the summer months will build the national teamwork that enabled the success of the 1980s.

Poland may have history on its side, but winter high altitude climbing is no longer "a peculiarly Polish pursuit," as Mark Jenkins put it in his piece "Ice Warriors" for National Geographic. Simone Moro and Denis Urubko, of Italian and Kazakhstani descent, summited Makalu on February 9, 2009. Moro climbed Gasherbrum II on February 2, 2011 with Urubko and American Cory Richards. That team is already planning a winter attempt on K2 next year. Lately, expeditions of various nationalities have been in the Himalaya nearly every winter. The remaining 8000-meter peaks—K2, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum I—have become coveted prizes, up for anyone's taking.

This winter Gasherbrum I (Hidden Peak) was attempted by Alex Txikon, Gerfried Goeschl and Louis Rousseau. The trio first attempted a new route on the south side of the mountain. The photo above shows the location of their first camp. Temperatures below minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and poor weather convinced the team to abandon their new route and attempt a fast ascent of the standard route before the first day of spring. As of this posting the team appears to have abandoned their winter ascent plans for this year. [Photo] Alex Txikon Collection

As we upload this feature it appears that both the Polish Broad Peak expedition and the Gasherbrum One expedition have turned back. We expect that the 2011-2012 season will see more attempts on these peaks. -Ed

Special thanks to Bernadette McDonald for providing much of the information used in this article. McDonald has an upcoming book titled Freedom Climbers about Polish high-altitude mountaineering. Visit her website here.

Sources: Krzysztof Wielicki, Jerzy Porebski, Janusz Kurczab, Wojciech Slowakiewicz, The American Alpine Journal, Polish Alpine Association,, Himalman's Weblog,,,, Ice Warriors by Mark Jenkins.

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