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1939: The Eye of the Storm

[This Mountain Profile essay first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]

Janusz Klarner arrives on the summit snowfield of Nanda Devi East in 1939. Nanda Kot is visible in the background. [Photo] Jakub Bujak collection

Janusz Klarner arrives on the summit snowfield of Nanda Devi East in 1939. Nanda Kot is visible in the background. [Photo] Jakub Bujak collection

[EXCERPTS FROM JANUSZ KLARNER’S MEMOIR, Nanda Devi, translated from the Polish and annotated by Julia Pulwicki.]

IN MAY 1939, the first Polish Himalayan Expedition–consisting of Warsaw climbers Adam Karpinski, Jakub Bujak, Stefan Bernadzikiewicz and Janusz Klarner, accompanied by British medical officer J.R. Foy and his friend S.B. Blake, along with four Sherpas (Palding, Kipa, Nima and Booktay) and two Bhotias (Dawa Tsering and Injung) and more than seventy low-altitude porters–heads in to the Kumaun mountains, on their way to Nanda Devi East.

Above Camp II at 5910 meters, three icy towers, each up to 100 meters tall, protrude from the spine of a ridge, separated by stretches of crumbling stone. Past a near-vertical rock wall, the ridge narrows. On one side, a tangle of knotted cornices appears suspended above a void. On the other side, the glacial ice becomes so steep it peels away from the face, forming a long, deep chasm.

On June 6, Klarner, Injung, Booktay and Nima start up from Camp II ferrying loads. Tsering has previously climbed high on both Chomolungma and Masherbrum. But it’s Booktay and Nima’s first time on technical terrain. Janusz Klarner writes:

AFTER CLIMBING THE THIRD TOWER, we take a break under the steep wall below Snow Point. The wall is difficult, and I decide to put in a fixed line before we carry the loads. I go up with Injung…. A diagonally rising ledge…leads to steps. From there, I traverse around a bulge and climb onto a turret of rock. Five more meters up the steep face and I’m on the snow slope…. The transition from calm, sunny conditions to complete whiteout and driving snow happens in less than an hour. I down climb quickly, hammering in pins and fixing a hand-line.

I return to find Booktay and Nima shivering and looking worried. Despite this and despite the weather, I want to get the loads up over the rock step. We tie back in to the rope. I pull my hat over my brow to shield my eyes from the driving snow…. Using the fixed rope, I get to the top of the turret in just a few minutes. Visibility is so bad that I can barely make out Nima’s outline just twenty meters away from me. I take up slack in the rope, but Nima soon stops moving…. I call to Nima; he doesn’t answer and doesn’t move. I become angry…. I descend quickly, faster than is safe given the conditions. Nima is stuck to the wall and looks scared out of his mind, gripping the fixed line. I show him the footholds. I shout at him, urging him to move–to no avail. Booktay stands a few meters away, in no better shape. I realize that in these conditions on difficult terrain, they won’t be able to climb any higher today…. We begin to descend. I let Injung go first and I go last, keeping an eye on Nima and Booktay…. After two hours of wrestling with the wind and snow, we find ourselves back at the col.

THE NEXT DAY, the team decides to return to base camp to wait out the worst of the storm and recover from the first eleven days at altitude. They begin down climbing the slopes below Camp II.

THE HIGHEST AND STEEPEST PART of the gully requires a careful descent. Siam [Klarner’s nickname for Stefan Bernadzikiewicz] goes first. Nima follows shortly after, but slips on the ice and takes out Siam–they slide down together a dozen meters. Siam curses, but not convincingly. He tells the Sherpas to be careful. Soon enough, someone else falls, hits Siam again, and the two start sliding down in a cloud of powder. When they finally come to a stop, Siam is the first to get up, covered in snow, and he curses with renewed vigor at the Sherpas’ clumsiness. But from under the snow emerges…Akar! [the nickname for Adam Karpinski.] The whole group erupts in laughter at the misunderstanding, including poor Siam.

We continue to posthole down the slope, but it gets tiring. We try sliding on our boots, yet the snow is so uneven that it doesn’t work well. After a while, Booktay makes a discovery: he slides sitting down, feet first, using the ice axe under his armpit to steer. Akar greatly disapproves of this technique, “unfit for even the most amateur of alpinists like Booktay himself.” Despite the cutting remark, all the Sherpas follow Booktay’s lead…. Compared to our laborious post-holing, sliding looks so enticing that finally Siam and I jump into the Sherpas’ runnel, leaving an indignant Akar far behind.

The ride is fabulous. After a few minutes of gliding down the slick runnel, someone crashes into my back from behind–it’s Akar! Having slid down about five hundred meters of elevation this way, we all come to agree that sit-sliding is the way of the future, but it probably hasn’t been popularized yet because tailors are still making pants too delicate for such endeavors.

THE TEAM HEADS UP the mountain again on June 11. Over the next ten days, they establish two more camps. But the time spent high on the mountain has taken its toll on Karpinski, who has developed stomach problems and has lost his voice, while Bujak, who suffered from dysentery early in the expedition, is the least acclimatized of the team.

Only Klarner and Bernadzikiewicz (Siam) seem fit enough for the three-day summit push from Camp IV. Injung and Tsering go with them up to 6930 meters, and as Klarner and Bernadzikiewicz are setting up camp on a wider section of corniced ridge, Injung and Dawa start their descent to Camp IV.

SIAM AND I BEGIN to dig into the firm, icy snow along a line that will mark the upper end of our tent platform, when suddenly we hear a thunderous, hollow sound. We turn to see Injung has disappeared, along with a huge cornice. A powder cloud rises into the air–as does a cry from Dawa. At the same time, along the line we had cut with our ice axes, a wide crack opens, taking away another giant chunk of cornice. Dawa kneels over the lip. Another crack forms two meters behind him. He desperately tries to find purchase on the snow, struggling against the rope that tethers him to Injung…. I throw myself toward him, hooking my axe into a strap on his back and dragging him away from the edge.

Siam helps Dawa hold the rope, while I drag all our bags away from the edge with my axe. The three of us pull on the rope. It won’t move. We pull again and again…. It doesn’t budge. We throw Injung a second rope and wait for him to tie in. We pull again on both ropes, but still nothing…. The remaining part of the cornice is roughly the size of a barn and could collapse at any moment. If it does, Injung won’t survive.

We pull the ropes in earnest. The responses are alarming wails and desperate, barely discernible shouts. We can’t do anything without seeing Injung, or the run of the rope.

I tie in and Siam belays. I walk out onto the edge of the cornice. I can see Injung hanging fifteen meters below under the overhanging snow. Both ropes have cut deep into the lip of the precipice.

Injung has the first rope tied around his chest, while the second is around his left wrist…. His wrist is bleeding. He looks terrified and in pain. I tell the other two to lower him. Two meters below, he finds a foothold on the very steep face…. I have another length of rope with me. Standing a dozen meters above Injung and as many to the side, I throw the rope. On the third time, he catches it. I tell him to tie it around his waist. When he’s done, I haul him up, hand over hand. Siam and Dawa give slack on their ropes, while I take him up diagonally, pulling as hard as I can. With fading strength, I pull him onto the edge of the cornice. Injung takes a few steps and collapses in the snow. I sit down and for a long time struggle to catch my breath. At sea level, this would have been an exceptionally huge effort–here, at 7000 meters, it is only possible in the most extreme, life-threatening situations.

IN HIS SUMMARY OF THE INCIDENT for the Himalayan Journal, Bujak praises Tsering’s “steadiness in preventing an accident,” and he notes that Tsering had already stopped Klarner from falling after another cornice broke, earlier in the attempt. After this second cornice incident, Klarner and Bernadzikiewicz abandon their summit plans so they can assist Injung and Tsering with the descent to Camp IV. Karpinski suspects Injung may have internal injuries, and he must be escorted to base camp. Klarner and Bernadzikiewicz go down to Camp II with Injung, while Karpinski and Bujak prepare for another summit attempt. After the weather deteriorates just beyond Camp IV, the two climbers descend to Camp II to wait again. Karpinski’s condition worsens, however, and ultimately he must forfeit his summit plans altogether.

Meanwhile, Klarner, Bernadzikiewicz, Nima and Booktay climb back up from Camp II through the blizzard. As the storm passes, Tsering ascends from Base Camp to Camp II, where Bujak awaits (“5,000 feet up, in one day, a fine achievement in the difficult conditions,” Bujak notes in the Himalayan Journal). Once Tsering recovers from snow blindness, the two keep going to Camp IV in a single push to join the rest of the team for a summit bid.

The six men establish Camp V at 7020 meters, but strong gusts keep them tentbound for a day. On July 2, the dawn air is clear, cold and still windy–a plume of snow rises off the summit ridge above. Klarner, Bernadzikiewicz, Bujak and Tsering leave for a final attempt, but by 11 a.m. Bernadzikiewicz is worn out, and Tsering agrees to accompany him down for his safety. Klarner and Bujak continue, exhausted, over two more steep steps. They top out on the summit at 5:30 p.m., admiring the only point higher than them–the main peak of Nanda Devi.

Back in base camp, Klarner reflects on the climb:

THE UPPER PART OF THE RIDGE, separated from us by 2500 meters of relief, seems so far away and unattainable that the route nearly loses its reality…. During the many weeks of battle on Nanda Devi, we treated her as an enemy. Today, as our actions become memories, she becomes an inseparable companion of our struggles. A companion whom we came to know through great hardship.

AFTER THE SUCCESS on Nanda Devi East, the climbers move on to attempt Tirsuli, a group of high peaks on the Milam Glacier. On July 18 Karpinski and Bernadzikiewicz die in an avalanche that sweeps away their high camp. About six and a half weeks later, Nazi forces invade Poland, and the devastations of World War II begin.

[This Mountain Profile essay first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]