Freedom Climbers


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As the debacle of demonstrated, many participants had underestimated the elemental danger that high-altitude climbing always presented.

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The crass commercialization of modern-day Everest summits no less threatened to cheapen what was once a singular achievement. How refreshing, then, to read a different — inspiring — story of mountain conquest. Freedom Climbers presents the incredible history of Poles on the top of the world.

Those unfamiliar with the history of high-altitude climbing may be surprised to learn of the distinguished and often stunning achievements of Polish climbers after World War II, climbers who figured among the international elite and set numerous world records in the Alps, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, as well as the Himalayas.

Nor were the Poles seeking an easy way up the mountains: Hard to put down, Freedom Climbers is expertly and engagingly penned by Bernadette McDonald, the author of a number of prize-winning books on mountaineering. This time she has painstakingly pieced together a story of the over two decades of Himalayan exploits of Polish climbers, women as well as men, many of whom she knew personally.

The figures and events of the glory days of Polish mountaineering are brought vividly to life. Both story and book are fully deserving of the years of attention lavished on them.

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Freedom Climbers has already won three prestigious book awards, has been translated into Polish and is being translated into other languages. An event of , recounted in the book, gives a sense of the chasm separating the golden age of Polish dominance in the Himalayas from the current state of international commercialized climbing. He was the fifth person — and second Pole — to do so. The achievement is all the more remarkable for how the Polish climber did it: Wielicki summitted his fourteenth peak, Nanga Parbat, in a solo climb, a mere twenty days after conquering the fearsome K2.

This achievement of essentially marked the end of the heroic phase of high-altitude climbing, one dominated by highly competent and highly competitive international climbers. The Polish climber was but one of many legendary figures in the mountaineering world. That said, his Himalayan baptism, at the age of thirty in , had been stunning.

Part of a two-man Polish team, Krzysztof Wielicki had made the first ever summit of Mt. His burning desire to climb occasionally outweighed even pressing health concerns: Living in an unfree country — communist-ruled Poland — they surmounted difficulty after difficulty to become the dominant climbing dynasty. McDonald is sensitive to the particular circumstances that shaped Polish high-altitude climbing: The best Polish climbers were masters of the art of the seemingly impossible.

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Unafraid of taking risks, they bent rules back home as well as abroad for example, engaging in black market trading on an international scale to finance their trips in order to be able to reach the rarified realm of the mountains, where they felt truly alive. At the same time, this is a story of individuals and their particular trajectories, tragic as well as triumphant. The life stories of three major Polish climbers get especial attention; their biographies are seamlessly woven throughout the narrative.

The most famous Polish climber was the strong, driven, and ambitious Jerzy Jurek Kukuczka, the second man and first Pole ever to complete the Himalayan Crown — only a year after the South Tyrolean Reinhold Messner. It should be noted that winter climbs were a striking innovation — even hallmark — of the latecomer Poles, who due to political reasons had no access to the Himalayas when, between and , climbers from other countries were making the first ever ascents of the giants.

Like many of the Polish climbers, he preferred to climb in small groups, with minimal equipment; he also saw a spiritual side to climbing. Unlike many including Kukuczka, whose obsession with conquering the never before scaled South Face of Lhotse proved fatal , Kurtyka miraculously managed to walk away from the mountains before they exacted from him the ultimate price. Any discussion of Polish Himalayan exploits would be incomplete without mention of the first Pole and first European woman ever to summit Everest, Wanda Rutkiewicz. As a female climber, Rutkiewicz was an anomaly in a heavily male preserve; yet she managed to summit eight of the fourteen ers, and was the first woman and, again, the first Pole to conquer K2.

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The figures and events of the glory days of Polish mountaineering are brought vividly to life. The Will to Climb. In particular, Jerzy Kukuczka rose above all to dominate Himalayan high-altitude climbing for almost a decade; if he had lived as long as Reinhold Messner did, he would undoubtedly rank as the greatest mountaineer of all time. No Shortcuts to the Top. Books by Bernadette McDonald. This book is an absolute must for anyone interested in mountaineering, rock climbing and adventure in general.

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