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Golden Decade: The Birth of 8000m Winter Climbing

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.

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.

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