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Interview: Krzyzstof Wielicki, 2019 Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Rock and Ice caught up with Wielicki---the first to climb several of the 8,000ers in winter, including Everest--- this past weekend at the 2019 Piolets d'Or in tLądek-Zdrój, Poland. We asked him about some of his career-defining climbs and lessons he's learned from a lifetime in the mountains.

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Photo: Krzysztof Wielicki Collection.

In addition to the normal Piolets d’Or, since 2009 the judges have also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Piolet d’Or each year. The past recipients are the names of legend and lore in the mountains, including Walter Bonatti, Reinhold Messner, Doug Scott, John Roskelley, Chris Bonington, Wojciech Kurtyka and Jeff Lowe. This year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Piolet d’Or, the Polish climber Krzysztof Wielicki, now 69, has as storied a career in the high mountains as anyone.

Wielicki was part of the group of Polish climbers in the1980s and 1990s dubbed “Ice Warriors” for their near monopoly at the time of first winter ascents of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. Wielicki and fellow Pole, Leszek Cichy, were the first to ever climb an 8,000er in winter when they summited Everest on February 17, 1980.

[Also Read A Peek Into the Piolets d’Or: Catching Up With the 2019 Winners in Poland]

The winter Everest expedition was the brainchild of Andrzej Zawada, a legendary mountain climber of his day. He was one of the first people to surpass 8,000 meters in winter, on Lhotse, in 1974.

Wielicki is the one with reddish hair in the center of the second row. Photo: Krzysztof Wielicki Collection.

In 1980, Zawada and 19 other Poles toiled away for nearly two months, pushing the route on Everest ever higher. In the end, it was just 29-year old Cichy and the 30-year-old Wielecki who reached the summit.

Everest was Wielecki’s first 8,000 meter peak—the beginning of a long career in the highest, coldest mountains. Over the next decade he made a number of ascents that time and again blew the paradigm away.

In 1984 he made the first solo one-day ascent of an 8,000er when he climbed Broad Peak. In 1986, he nabbed another coveted first winter ascent of an 8,000er, when he and Jerzy Kukuczka solved Kangchenjunga. And then, in 1988, he shocked everyone: he made the first winter ascent of Lhotse — solo. As if that weren’t unthinkable enough, he was still injured from an accident several months before. The bio on the Piolets d’Or website describes it perfectly: “He had attempted, in alpine style, the unclimbed 1,200m west face of Bhagirathi II in the Indian Garhwal. About halfway up the wall the team was struck by rockfall, which killed one of the members and badly injured Wielicki, who had spinal fractures. He was still recovering on Lhotse, and wearing an orthopedic corset when he reached the summit, without supplementary oxygen, in a single push from Camp III at 7,400m.”

Wielicki after soloing the Kinshofer Route on Nanga in 1996. It was his final of the 14 8,000-meter peaks, and when he summited, he became the fifth person ever to have climbed them all. Photo: Krzysztof Wielicki Collection.

But a different climb eight years after Lhotse in winter is the one Wielicki thinks was his boldest: an ascent of Nanga Parbat, solo, via the Kinshofer Route, in 1996. It was his final of the 14 8,000-meter peaks, and when he summited, he became the fifth person ever to have climbed them all.

In the last 20 years, Wielicki has continued to climb, but has also become an elder statesman in the Polish climbing community. In 2002, he delivered a “Winter Manifesto” to spur to action the younger generation of Polish climbers. He proclaimed: “Six unconquered peaks are waiting for us, 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 cadre of young Poles answered the call, nabbing first winter ascents of several of the remaining 8,000ers still unclimbed in the coldest season. Wielicki stayed involved, too. In the winter of 2003, he led an expedition to try to knock off what would doubtless be the toughest winter 8,000er of all: K2. His team did not make it up, and Wielicki returned to K2 with a group of Poles in the winter of 2018. Again, they could not make it up.

To this day, K2 is unclimbed in winter. Several more teams are heading back this year to try to change that. If they don’t, might we see Wielicki leading an expedition there again soon, answering his own siren call for Polish climbers to uphold their reputation as Ice Warriors?

Rock and Ice caught up with Wielicki this past weekend at the 2019 Piolets d’Or in tLądek-Zdrój, Poland, to ask him about some of his career-defining climbs and lessons he’s learned from a lifetime in the mountains.

Q&A with Krzysztof Wielicki

Congratulations on the award! What was your reaction upon learning you would receive it this year?

I think that I am receiving this award on behalf of my whole geneartion. It’s more than. In the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, it was the golden age of the Polishc Climbers. I had the pleasure to be one of them. Some people passed away. So this honor is not not just for me.

But I am happy to join [the others who have won this award before], people like Bonatti, Jeff Lowe, Roskelley. It’s nice to be in this group.

And now I am the second Polish climber [to get the Lifetime Achievement Award]. Wojciech Kurtyka also won. It means that we wrote a part of the story, Polish people.

How did you get your start in climbing?

Sokoliki [a granite climbing area in Poland near the border with the Czech Republic] . I never thought that I would be a climber. It just happened. One day, I went to Sokoliki and I saw people climbing and so I just decided to try it. Without a rope that first trip! I climbed like an 8 to 10 meter rock. When I got the top, I thought, ‘This is good.”

Passion you can’t buy. My father’s family was from low, flat terrain and so he never had experience in the mountains, and I didn’t either. But on this day in Sokoliki I decided climbing was for me: for sure this would be my passion.

I think everyone is searching for something to hold onto in their life— something you find something and it’s right. For me it was climbing.

Immediately I went to the Wrocław section of the Polish Mountaineering Club. I was studying in Wrocław. I learned a lot from them. There was no commercial or other way to learn back then— it was all mentoring, you learned from older people.

And that was very important for me: I learned more empathy, and about human relationships, partnerships. There was no money involved—this is very important—everyone was there for passion.

From there I followed a basic path: more rock areas, then the Tatras Mountains, then the Alps, bigger mountains, so on and son. Bit by bit.

Today, sometimes you see people who try to go directly to the bigger mountains, but I think it’s very important to go step by step.

Who was your biggest climbing inspiration?

That’s a problem—I didn’t really have one. There was inspiration, for sure, but I was too far away from the first Himalayan explorers of before the Second World War to really look up to them.

In other sports, the young guy, he’d put in his room full of posters of Ronaldo or another athlete. They wanted to follow them. In the climbing asscoation, though? No one ever did that. Everyone was thinking about  making their own path, their own way. They didn’t want to follow Bonnati or mMessner or anyone else. Of course we all respect those people who came before, but we wanted to make their own path.

You did a lot of climbing in the Tatras mountains in Poland. What about that range makes it such good training for the Greater Ranges?

The Tatras were very important for us because in wintertime they are very diffcult to climb—not a lot of ice, just small sections in the cracks. So you have to climb without gloves.

So the school of the Tatra winter climbing was very important. Our leader, Zawada—a very charismatic guy—he’d say, “Let me know what you did in Tatras in winter, and I will tell you if you are strong or not.”

Why winter climbing? What is it that appealed to you?

It happened because the Polish people lost the race for the biggest mountain explorations. All the 8,000-meter peaks were climbed without Polish people. So when the siutation imporved a bit sportswise in our country in the 1970s,  we tried to figure out a way to write our part of the story.

I think that we were hungry to write the story, since we lost earlier.

So Zawada said, “Ok, we’ll climb the highest. We’ll climb Everest.” But when I went to Everest I didn’t think I’d climb it. There were older people, more experienced, on the expedition. I’d never climbed an 8,000er. Only three or four 7,000-meter peaks. So I was sure there were more experienced people who would get to the summit, and that I would just help them.

But I discovered I was quite a fast climber. I was always in the lead.

Is Everest in winter the climb of which you are most proud?

No, I think Nanga parbat is my proudest achievement. We were a group on Everest, it wasn’t just me. But on Nanga Parbat I was completely alone, solo. No one was on the mountain, just me. All the other expeditions had left.

For me it was the biggest ahievement—and I probably shouldn’t have done it! Everything was against me: I’d never been there, didn’t know where the routes were.

When I came to Chilas, I found my Polish friends had left—I had just come from K2—because there had been bad weather. But when I came it was good weather. It was very difficult to decide to climb alone, with no good knowlege. Part of me was praying that mabye the weather will change— that I’d have an excuse to go back and not climb it by myself! But it was nice weather every day, so I decided to try it.

Can you talk some more about your solo climbing? Why did you like to go alone?

I never meant to go solo usually. I always went with a group, partners, friends. But sometimes during the expeditions, you know, I was very fast, so I wanted to climb something else or something harder.

For eaxmple, one year I climbed Dhaulagiri by the normal route, and had to wait because I was too quick. So I moved to the east face as well. On Lhotse, my friends didn’t feel very well, so that’s why I went alone.

But I never left home thinking, I’ll go by myself. 

I always wanted to challenge myself, though. To test what was possible.

What has solo climbing taught you?

Sometimes you have to just take things into your own hands. Usually you are dependent. But sometimes not.

When you do such climbs, you believe that you can do a lot more. You build yourself up. It’s only you. After you discover that you can do even more without help—you learn what your limits are.

It is funny though, because for me alpinism is all about partnerhips. It’s about having a rope and a partner. But sometimes I couldn’t find a partner, or sometimes I didn’t want to take responsibility  for the partner. If you’re alone, it can be easier.

Will you go back to K2 ?

We’ll give a chance to Denis Urubko and others this year. But if they’re not able to do it we’ll go next year. 2021.

The problem now is finding Ice Warriors. They all died. A lot of the younger men will not risk as much.

We think we may organize a few expeditions this winter to Pakistan to test and find some younger climbers and see if they can climb in tough conditions. And then maybe choose 4 or 5 to take with us. We need to find young guys who can climb in bad weather.

40 years ago we had no money but 30 or 40 Ice Warriors. Now we have money, sponsorship, but no Ice Warriors.

But! If we don’t find Ice Warriors, my idea is to send letters to the best all over the world, and to make a super team, to make it a common effort. Guys like Simone Moro, Denis Urubko. Maybe they’ll refuse! But for PR I think it will be ok. If we can’t find polish team, maybe we do like this.

Do you think Denis Urubko will succeed this year?

I think fifty-fity. Denis the only Ice Warrior.