Rogozinska talks to Krzysztof Wielicki - one of the most outstanding
himalaists of the World, head of the winter expedition to K2 setting
out in December
academy of resourcefulness
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 Wroclaw School of Engineering.
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
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 catastrophe...
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 Wroclaw 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.
Three years later you had your second accident
- in the Dolomite Mountains...
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.
Back then, you went the normal route from
the lowest to the highest mountains: small rocks, the Tatra Mountains,
the Alps, the Caucasus, Pamir...
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 souvenirs.
You were lucky enough to see the mountains
of Afghanistan before the gates were closed for good. How do you
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 Alk Lwow 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
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 success.
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, Jozek 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 Jozek'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 Smieszko, we climbed the western
wall of South Annapurna. We had a "teenager" among us
- 18-year-old Zbyszek Czyzewski, 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 winter.
did you become part of the first victorious winter expedition to
Mount Everest in history?
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
Chichy. One could say that I started my Himalayan career from the
end, from the highest mountain in the most extreme conditions.
did you get from the Polish People's Republic for your winter ascent
on Everest? There are myths circulating on that issue.
ice-axe. 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
Samochodow Malolitrazowych ("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...
did you choose the TV set?
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 "Solidarnosc", 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'etat, 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.
have three children. You planted a tree, you built a house. Where
did you have the money from?
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".
much did you earn?
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
new times have verified you positively. Look how many businessmen
came out of alpinism.
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.
did you come upon the idea for the very risky non-stop ascent of
an 8000er, without sufficient adjustment?
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 fixed ropes 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 oxygen...
... But when something stops you, the stop
is going to be a final one.
have to know your body well.
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?
then, I had reached the summits of five 8000ers. From Poland, also
Wanda Rutkiewicz and Jurek Kukuczka had been invited.
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 had great
fun. We all forgot about these tests in the evening, when suddenly
Wanda stood in the door-way and asked, "Jurek, 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".
think the experiment was also about discovering the physiological
secret of your mountaineering success. What conclusions were drawn
with regard to you?
body had a very good oxygen absorption capacity per kilogram bodyweight.
Rutkiewicz reached the summits of Everest and K2 as the first Polish
alpinist. She caused a lot of emotions in the environment...
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 Kangchedzonga, she was 49.
During our joint winter expedition do Annapurna (8091 m), when Jurek
Kukuczka and 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.
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.
about snow avalanches?
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 glacier cracks.
have crossed many limits in himalaism and you're still alive, although
almost an entire generation of Polish mountaineers died in the mountains.
How did you manage to survive?
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
broke that rule. You have announced a winter expedition to K2 and
you are taking a TV team along. Why?
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.
fought so many times for you life, you saw so many friends die.
Haven't you grown tired of the mountains?
you have to justify for having a passion? You can change your hobbies,
not your passion. With time, it fills all spheres of your life.
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.
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? -
Monika Rogozinska, the correspondent of "Rzeczpospolita"