Winter 8000: The First Winter Ascent of Everest
The first winter ascent of Everest is a classic mountaineering story, expertly recounted here by Bernadette McDonald.
Excerpted from Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald
Thanks to the late-arriving permit, the last of the Polish team’s baggage arrived in Kathmandu on 20 December 1979 and it wasn’t until 4 January that base camp was fully constructed on the south side of the mountain. Yet within ten productive days, the first three camps were in place and Andrzej [Zawada] began to wonder why no one had tried this before.
The news from Camp 3, however, wasn’t good. Above the tents reared the Lhotse wall, one continuous sheet of hard ice. They had hoped for snow, into which they could easily kick steps, but the winter winds had stripped the face down to its icy core, presenting the Poles with much more difficult climbing. When the frigid temperatures and screaming winds of January bit hard, their spirits fell. The team retreated to base camp, where the anemometer often registered 130 kilometres per hour and the temperatures fell to -40° Celsius at night. They began to understand why they were completely alone on the mountain.
To compensate for the harsh conditions, Andrzej surprised the tired mountaineers with a plastic bathtub from Warsaw. The plastic soon cracked in the cold, but Andrzej replaced it with a giant aluminium basin he had purchased in Kathmandu. A fire burned constantly in the kitchen tent, providing piping hot water for the tub, into which the alpinists lowered their weary bodies, wallowing in its warmth.
Another feature at base camp, though less popular than the tub, were two 20-metre aluminium radio aerials, the handiwork of Bogdan Jankowski, a climber from Wrocław. Bogdan was responsible for not just the aerials but three long-distance transmitters, eight radio telephones, tape recorders used to record communication between camps, a gas-driven high-voltage generator and batteries. Bogdan sent out daily bulletins to Poland so the public could monitor their progress on the mountain. Return messages reminded the mountaineers of home. Hanna Wiktorowska, secretary of the PZA back in Warsaw, was charged with communicating the crucially important newsflashes from the families to the team: “Zosia has got one tooth up, one tooth down … Are you remembering to wear warm socks?”
For weeks, shrieking winds battered the climbers, eroding their strength and their will. From Camp 3 to the saddle of the South Col was a distance of only 850 metres, but in these conditions, those 850 metres took nearly a month to surmount. By this time, many on the team were too exhausted to continue. Others were injured. Krzysztof Żurek was knocked over by the wind and tumbled twenty metres before the nearest piton stopped his fall. He managed to reach Camp 3, but then slipped into a crevasse – twice – on his way to base camp. Both Zyga Heinrich and Alek Lwow were suffering from frostbite in their hands. The climbers’ throats were inflamed from the cold, dry air and their camps were routinely destroyed by hurricane-force winds. The busiest person on the expedition was the doctor at base camp.
By 10 February only a few were still strong enough to function well in the otherworldly conditions: Walenty Fiut, the unstoppable Zyga Heinrich, and the two youngsters on the team, Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy. Andrzej moved them about like chess pieces, looking for the magical combination that would take them to the South Col. “I was convinced it was only a psychological barrier preventing us from reaching it,” he said.
Leszek, Walenty, Krzysztof and Jan Holnicki set out from Camp 3 on 11 February. Each one climbed alone, at his own pace, immersed in his thoughts. They reached the Yellow Band, continued towards the Geneva Spur, and began a long, exposed, slanting traverse. Partway across, Jan turned back, but the others reached the South Col at 4 p.m. A breakthrough. Leszek quickly returned to Camp 3 in the face of the screaming winds battering the col. Walenty and Krzysztof battled with their four-season tent but were unable to erect it in the wind, so they settled for a small, inadequate bivouac tent. They survived the night, but spent the entire time propping up the tent pole. The thermometer inside the tent showed -40° Celsius.
Base camp was worried. They talked on the radio throughout the night with Walenty and Krzysztof, encouraging them, calming them. There was radio chatter from other camps as well, including one rather badly received message from Leszek, who was resting in relative comfort at Camp 3. When he suggested Walenty and Krzysztof should continue since they were so near the top, his comment was greeted with howls of protest from the rest of the team. The next morning, the lead climbers fled, Krzysztof to Camp 2, complaining of frostbite in his feet, and Walenty all the way to base camp.
Andrzej sensed this was a critical moment: there was a perceptible shift in mood. “How powerless is any leader at moments like these?” he asked. “If I wanted to save the expedition, there was only one thing to do, and that was to attempt the climb myself.” Andrzej had not yet been as high as Camp 3, and now he was proposing to climb the mountain. A preposterous idea, but within two days he and Ryszard Szafirski were on the South Col.
Andrzej knew he was unlikely to go any higher since he wasn’t sufficiently acclimatised, but he had made a staggering effort in order to salvage team morale. It worked. Almost immediately there was a renewed energy. Oxygen bottles were soon cached at 8,100 metres for the summit team; Krzysztof and Leszek were at Camp 3; and Zyga and Pasang Norbu Sherpa were at Camp 4 on the South Col, feeling strong and ready to try for the summit. As it was 14 February, they now faced a bureaucratic problem that seemed insurmountable. Their permit was about to expire and orders from Kathmandu were clear: no more moving up the mountain after 15 February. After that, the only allowable activity on the mountain would be to clear their camps and descend. Since Andrzej doubted they could climb it by that date, he dispatched a porter to relay a request to the ministry of tourism for an extension. The porter had his own ideas about a permit extension: he was fed up with the expedition and wanted to go home. So, he cunningly requested only two more days. Two more days, and the suffering would finally be over. Two days was all they got.
Climbing without supplemental oxygen, Zyga and Pasang began their summit bid on 15 February. The winds had stopped, but it was snowing steadily. Zyga was known for his careful attitude towards risk, and it soon became clear from radio transmissions with Andrzej that the accumulating snow was making him nervous. They reached 8,350 metres before turning around and descending: a bitter decision, but a new winter altitude record.
There were now only two alpinists high on the mountain: Leszek and Krzysztof. With just two days remaining on their extended permit, the pressure was enormous as they left their tent at Camp 3 on the morning of 16 February, bound for the South Col.
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That night, the temperature plummeted to -42° Celsius and the wind continued to roar. “We were in a trance,” Krzysztof recalled of the following morning, the last day of the permit. “When we left towards the summit … we already had blinders on. Only the summit mattered … when you feel the nearness of the summit, you feel that it’s within your reach. And it’s easy to lose your sensitivity. You stop being able to measure your strength versus your ambition. And when you pass a certain boundary, then only luck is left.” They understood there was no choice: Poland was Poland, and Everest was Everest. They had to climb it.
They lightened their loads as much as possible by taking just one bottle of oxygen each. Krzysztof could no longer feel his feet but he kept plodding on, drawing on his reserves. Moving without a rope, they took turns breaking trail through the snow. The two rarely spoke. There was no need. As they climbed higher, the jet stream hit them, knocking them off balance. Krzysztof recalled that the Hillary Step, the crux on the upper part of the climb, was surprisingly easy, being completely drifted in with snow. He clipped into fixed lines left by previous expeditions and soon after saw Leszek raising his arms: he was on the summit. Krzysztof joined him and recalled vaguely that they hugged.
The rest of the team was waiting. “The tension was unbearable,” Andrzej their anxious concern. “Hope and despair followed one another at each passing moment. As the hours passed and there was still no word over the radio telephone, our anxiety was overwhelming.”
At 2.25 p.m. Leszek’s voice boomed over the radio: “Do you copy? Do you copy? Over.”
“Negative, say again. Say again.”
“Guess where we are!”
“Where are you? Over.”
“At the summit. At the summit.”
As base camp erupted into screams of joy, Andrzej raised his hands to silence the commotion. He needed to be certain they were on the true summit. His voice crackled over the radio: “Hey you, can you see the triangle?” The Tibetan and Chinese climbers who’d summited in 1975 had left a metal tripod to mark the summit. Leszek assured him they were standing beside the tripod, and he promised to leave a maximum-minimum thermometer, a small cross and a rosary to prove they had been there, and to record some data about winter temperatures on the summit of Everest. The following spring’s Polish team planned to retrieve the items, but a Basque team beat them to it. Unfortunately, the Basque climbers didn’t realise what the thermometer had recorded, so they shook it and lost the minimum temperature measurement.
Andrzej radioed Hanna at the PZA, where she had been anxiously waiting for hours. “Today on 17 February at 2.30 p.m. the Polish flag appeared on thehighest point in the world. Thereby the Polish team set a record in winter climbing. Best regards from all the participants. Zawada. Over.” Both Leszek and Krzysztof later admitted if the goal hadn’t been Everest in winter, they would have given up weeks earlier. But the objective, and Andrzej’s leadership, had inspired them to their highest level of performance.
Excerpted with permission from Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season, by Bernadette McDonald (Vertebrate Publishing, 2020).
Published in the U.S. by Mountaineers Books.
Winter 8000 is available now!
Bernadette McDonald is the author of eleven books on mountaineering and mountain culture, including Art of Freedom (2017), Freedom Climbers (2011) and Alpine Warriors (2015) and Winter 8000 (2020). McDonald has won numerous awards, including her second Boardman Tasker Prize and the Banff Award for Mountain Literature for Art of Freedom in 2017. She won her first Boardman Tasker Prize and the Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Prize for Freedom Climbers in 2011. She has also won Italy’s ITAS Prize for mountain writing (2010) and is a three-time winner of India’s Kekoo Naoroji Award for Mountain Literature. In 2012 the American Alpine Club awarded her their highest literary honour for excellence in mountain literature. She was the founding Vice President of Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre and director of the Banff Mountain Festivals for twenty years.