Bernadette McDonald has recently published a fascinating book that describes the climbing of the world's 8000m mountains in winter. "Winter 8000" focuses primarily upon the efforts made by Polish climbers who made 10 of the 14 first ascents. Using a wealth of interviews and correspondence with those living behind the former Iron Curtain, the author captures perfectly the extraordinary conditions they faced and the devastating consequences - both physical and psychological - they endured. Importantly, what elevates this book above other accounts of Himalayan climbing, is the spotlight cast upon those left behind. At times, the strain of being away from home is clearly unbearable. Relationships are stretched to the limit. Deaths (and there are many) cast a long and lasting shadow over the lives of friends and family. This is a challenging and thought provoking book that deserves to be widely read. During lockdown we caught up with Bernadette who very kindly agreed to answer some questions about her book...
Can we begin by talking about what led you to write about climbing 8000m mountains in winter?
I think it goes back to the evening that I met Andrzej Zawada in Katowice, Poland. He is generally acknowledged as the father of high-altitude winter climbing, as it was Andrzej who led the first climbers to 8000 metres in winter. As a well-respected expedition leader in Poland in the 70s and 80s, it was he who envisioned a new chapter in Himalayan climbing history, one that focused on winter. And he planned to write that chapter with Polish climbers. I became interested in the Polish story and wrote a couple of books about their Himalayan adventures, but as the worldwide interest in high-altitude winter climbing grew, I felt that this 'specialty' deserved a book of its own. And what I soon learned was that it's not just a Polish story, although the early years were dominated by Poles.
Despite limited daylight, freezing temperatures and winds that, "have the power of hurricanes", the 8000m peaks of the Himalayas have attracted more than 200 expeditions over the last 40 or so years. The vast majority have failed. The author sums the experience up well when she writes, "winter climbing at altitude is all about suffering..."
It's clear from your book that Polish climbers had considerable success in what you describe as the, "cruel days of winter". Why do you think that was?
There are a number of reasons. First, they were incredibly motivated to make their mark. They were left out of the part of Himalayan climbing history that recorded the first ascents of all the 8000-metre peaks, simply because they weren't allowed to leave Poland. This was obviously a problem for Polish climbers, because they were highly trained, familiar with winter climbing, fit and strong. They wanted to be part of this history. Secondly, the economic situation in Poland at that time meant that few climbers had meaningful work or challenging careers that would keep them at home. It wasn't a problem for them to stay at their winter objective for 60 days, 90 days, whatever was required. And with rare weather windows in winter, this was often the case. They were also not used to 'soft' living conditions back home. This might sound like an over-simplification, but Polish people were used to living in tough conditions. Life at base camp, with simple food, cold temperatures, basic living conditions, was less like suffering to them and more like adventure.
According to Adam Bielecki, one of Poland's leading winter climbers, "Winter domination was the fault of (Josef) Stalin and (Boleslaw) Bierut because they locked us in a cage. When others were doing first ascents of 8000m peaks, we remained trapped behind the Iron Curtain. When it finally lifted we jumped out of the cage. We were very hungry"
The appendix of your book sheds some light on the risks of winter climbing – of the 47 mountaineers you list, 18 died on expeditions to the Himalayas. At one point you describe a series of deaths in the Karakoram and simply conclude, "so much death". Through writing the book have you developed a better understanding of why these men and women took the risks they did?
There were so many reasons, depending on the individuals. Some were motivated by national pride, particularly in the early years. And interestingly, this year. If you consider that the 10 Nepali climbers who made the first winter ascent of K2 this January sang their national anthem as they summitted, you get the picture! There are many of these climbers who were, and are, motivated by personal legacy: making a first winter ascent, first winter alpine-style ascent, first female winter ascent, and on and on. Simply put, they were ambitious. Others were more interested in pushing their own physical and emotional limits, having already established themselves as high-altitude climbers in the gentler seasons. And still others were motivated by the wild beauty that the high mountains offered in the winter season. For the most part, this year an obvious exception, they had their mountains to themselves. No commercial expeditions, no clients, no fuss. Just the wind and the snow and their mates.
K2, the last 8000m mountain to be climbed in winter, was finally summited by a Nepali team on the 16th January 2021
This might sound like it contradicts the previous question, but as someone who's worked as an expedition doctor, I was surprised to find that there wasn't considerably more illness and injury. Whilst our attention naturally focuses upon the adverse events, you also describe the skills, fitness and preparation that went into making these expeditions as safe as possible. How important was this to you?
I think this is a really interesting observation, and absolutely correct. If you look at all Himalayan expeditions and compare them to winter expeditions, there is actually less carnage with the winter trips. Not to minimize the frostbite and accidents and tragedy, but comparatively speaking, it's less than you would expect. I'm convinced it's because, for the most part, climbers who have traditionally ventured into the highest mountains in winter have been very experienced Himalayan climbers, with winter being the 'next step'. Again, there are exceptions, particularly this year on K2. But these inexperienced climbers were there with an army of incredibly experienced Sherpas, who were basically guiding them. In general, I think you could say that the winter climbers were in a class of their own.
On writing about the disappearance of Maciej Berbeka on Broad Peak, McDonald wrote, “Did he fall? Did he die of exposure in a crevasse? Exhaustion? What were his last moments? What were his last thoughts? Where is his final resting place? There are simply no answers”
There's a wonderful sense of humour that runs through your book. You describe how on an early expedition to Manaslu that weather forecasting was limited to dispatching, "occasional messages to try and learn something about what was in store. The result was usually a five day old report of what had already happened. 'As if we had forgotten' Ryszard Gajewski recalled, laughing". Was it important to show this side of climbers?
I think so. I know a lot of these people, and have so enjoyed hearing their stories, many of which have moments of humour and fun, despite all that suffering. Of course, their sense of humour is often 'special', sometimes a bit 'dark', based on their base line of what they consider normal.
An anonymous Polish climber was once quoted as saying about winter climbing, “I finally recovered from this addiction. What I needed was martial law, children and weaker health”
Do you think climbing 8000m mountains in winter has become safer? If so how?
To a certain extent, yes. I think the biggest improvement from the early days of winter expeditions is the advanced weather forecasts. You mentioned the forecasts that told what had happened, rather than what would happen. Modern forecasts are incredibly accurate, not just about storms, but about wind speeds, air pressure changes, exact timings. This really does affect their safety on the mountain and their climbing strategy. They're not perfect, but much better than in the 70s and 80s. Of course the equipment is much improved as well - lighter and warmer and more reliable - making frostbite less likely. But I think the biggest improvement is the forecasting.
Jean Christophe Lafaille - one of the most talented high altitude climbers of his generation - disappeared on Makalu in 2006 at the age of 40. In Winter 8000, the author quotes Maria Coffey, “The world needs risk takers. They inspire, challenge and encourage. They set off sparks, igniting fires that burn long after their passing. They dare the impossible. But not without cost”
One of the most moving aspects of your book is how you highlight the impact winter expeditions have upon the families of climbers. After describing the disappearance of Jean Christophe Lafaille on Makalu you wrote of his wife, "another widow left to mourn, a fatherless son and daughter". How important was it to tell their stories too?
I think it's incredibly important. Climbing stories are filled with larger-than-life characters. Justifiably so. But in most cases, behind or beside those characters is a support system: wives, husbands, sons and daughters, siblings, close friends. They understand the passion that their loved one has for the mountains, and they support that passion (sometimes obsession). There is even some reflected glory when everything goes well. But when it doesn't, they are left to bring up the children, pay the bills, fix the plumbing, grieve in public, and then in private, for the rest of their lives. It's a pretty high price, and I think it deserves to be acknowledged.
Thanks Bernadette for speaking to us.
The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.
Further details can be found here.
If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.