Climbing worked like a drug on her. She never even gave it any consideration. It automatically entered her blood and was totally absorbed by it. She became the first woman to summit K2 and the first Polish person, male or female, to climb Mount Everest. Wanda Rutkiewicz, strong personality among climbing community also managed to climb eight of the fourteen eight-thousanders during her illustrious career. It was while climbing Kangchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world that 49-year-old Rutkiewicz was last seen alive by Mexican climber Carlos Carsolio. He met her on his way back from the summit. He tried to convince her to head back down, but the Polish climber wouldn’t listen. She was getting ready to stay there over night and decided to attempt the summit next morning. At that moment she was physically weakened and not able to make a rational decision that could have saved her life. Carsolio said that he didn’t have the mental strength left to convince her to descend because he got weakened as well. Stubborn and focused, she refused to turn back, despite the approaching storm. No one will ever know if she died that night, or actually kept on climbing up and won Kangchenjunga. Whatever happened, she chose to stay in the mountains.
To survive in the “death zone”?
I was going to write a text about Wanda Rutkiewicz to be published this month as she would have celebrated her 75th birthday on Feb 4th if she were still alive. And next breaking news reached us that Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz is presumed dead as he laid bleeding to death in his tent at 7000 out of 8126 metres above sea level when he was last seen. It was after he was attempting to summit Nanga Parbat being called Pakistan`s “Killer Mountain” on the recent Himalayan expedition. Everyone in my country has been in grief, disbelieving Tomek would never go back home. I am just wondering if there are fair play rules in Himalayan climbing considering some climbers were left behind instead of being helped however nobody knows the truth except Tomek and the others. And no one who has ever been on a Himalayan expedition should say anything about conditions and possibilities on high altitude.
“A difficult woman, an extraordinary woman”
Was Wanda Rutkiewicz left behind on Kangchenjunga? She was a strong personality whom some people loved and the others hated. Some claims she was bullying her partners on expeditions but the others added she was demanding much from herself either. As Krzysztof Wielicki, one of Poland’s most decorated climbers, said: “She was very calculating, tough like a bull”. Or on another occasion: “A difficult woman, an extraordinary woman”. I was honoured to meet Ms Rutkiewicz a few times as my mother who was a film editor did montage editing of a couple of her documentaries. My mother and I remember her as a very kind and polite woman. And very warm. But how was she like high in the mountains, near the sky? And is she really dead? A couple of tourists claimed they had seen someone very similar to her in one of ashrams. Was that possible for her to survive in the “death zone”? Has she made it? Did she descend the other slope of Kangchenjunga? If she did, it would be her ninth eight-thousander. Shall we ever learn the truth about Polish climbers: Wanda Rutkiewicz and Tomasz Mackiewicz?
Was she the first woman to reach the top of the world’s three highest mountains?
It was a mistake to believe that the body of Wanda Rutkiewicz was found by Fausto de Stefani, Marco Galezzi and Silvio Mondinelli on the south-west face of the mountain in 1995, suggesting that she had climbed up the north-west ridge to a point very close to the summit before falling down the south-west side. More meticulous analysis of the findings by the Italian climbers, such as colour of clothing and presence of Bulgarian-made tablets with the body, indicated that most likely it was the body of a Bulgarian climber Yordanka Dimitrova, who was killed by an avalanche on the south-west face of Kangchenjunga in October 1994. It is unknown whether Rutkiewicz summitted Kangchenjunga. If she did so, she would have been the first woman to reach the top of the world’s three highest mountains. Rutkiewicz’s body has still not been found.
The Poles at the top of the highest mountains
During the 1980s and 1990s, Polish mountain climbers flocked en masse to the Himalayan mountains in the hope of scaling some of the tallest and most difficult peaks in the world. Not only were they successful, but they also came to dominate the Himalayan climbing scene for the greater part of these two decades. Many of the finest mountain climbers in history emerged from this ambitious group of Poles:
- Andrzej Zawada, pioneer of winter Himalayism, in 1980 led the first winter ascent of Mount Everest; known for his phrase: “Tell me what you did in the winter in the Tatras, and I’ll tell you what you’re climber”
- Jerzy Kukuczka, the second man after Reinhold Messner to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders in the world, the only person in the world who has climbed two eight-thousanders in one winter, he ascended four eight-thousanders in the winter altogether, including three in winter for the first time, along with Tadeusz Piotrowski, Kukuczka established a new route on K2 in alpine style (the so-called “Polish Line”), which no one has ever repeated
- Krzysztof Wielicki, the fifth man to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders and the first ever to climb Mount Everest, Kangchenjunga, and Lhotse in the winter
- Wojciech Kurtyka, one of the pioneers of the alpine style of climbing the biggest walls in the Greater Ranges; in 1985 he successfully climbed the “Shining Wall” of the Gasherbrum IV peak in the Himalayas, a feat which some called one of the greatest achievements of mountaineering and “Climbing magazine” declared beat the wall to get the greatest achievement of mountaineering in the 20th century; in 2016, he received the Piolet d’Or for lifetime achievement mountain
- and Wanda Rutkiewicz.
The first Polish person, male or female at “The top of the world”
On October 16th 1978, Wanda Rutkiewicz became the third woman, the first Pole, and the first European woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The date is special to most Poles as Karol Wojtyła was chosen the Pope John Paul II on the same day.
In 1986 she became the first woman in the world to successfully climb K2, being dubbed “savage summit” which she did without supplemental oxygen, as part of a small expedition led by Lilliane and Maurice Barrard. Her triumph was marred when both the Barrards died on the descent, becoming two of thirteen climbers to die on K2 that summer.
Wanda Rutkiewicz also summitted Shisha Pangma, Everest, Gasherbrum I and II, Cho Oyu, and Nanga Parbat.
Reinhold Messner: “Wanda is the living proof that women can put up performances at high altitude that most men can only dream of”.
As Wanda became more popular and her achievements started to accumulate, she became increasingly isolated from the mountain climbing community. She had proved she was among the best in the world and her scaling of Mount Everest became, arguably, her crowning achievement.
She also had led several all-female expeditions and became a trailblazer for women’s climbing throughout the world. She was one of, if not the most, recognisable mountain climbers in the world. As Reinhold Messner, arguably the greatest mountaineer in history, once said: Wanda is the living proof that women can put up performances at high altitude that most men can only dream of.
Sought media attention
Wanda Rutkiewicz actively sought media attention by publishing books and articles and giving interviews. She also produced mountaineering film documentaries. A couple of them was edited by my mother who also worked on the last one.
Bożena Szostkowska, a montage editor: What was Wanda Rutkiewicz like at work? A very warm, kind, friendly, caring woman. She was always kind to me. She often complained her colleagues disliked her which I could never understand why. How come did anyone dislike her? Yes, she was tough and always accomplished what she wanted but is this a bad trait?
I worked on her film soon to be the last one while Wanda was off to climbing expedition to summit Kangchenjunga. The news she went missing stroke me heavily. It was unbelievable. I got shocked. How was it possible? She had come to montage editing room just before the expedition. I couldn`t believe I would never see her again. It was really painful. If I remember that correct I ended montage editing of the last film with Wanda`s close friend Ewa.
I owe Wanda Rutkiewicz the knowledge of the Himalayan mountaineering which she told me a lot about and also my interest in any news about climbers. I follow reports of Tomasz Mackiewicz both on TV and on online media.
In her journal, Wanda Rutkiewicz wrote:
“I adored the physical movement, the fresh air, the camaraderie, and the excitement”.
Wanda Rutkiewicz was born into a Polish family in Plungė, Lithuania. After WWII, they moved to Wrocław, southwestern Poland’s Recovered Territories, where she graduated from Wroclaw University of Technology as an electrical engineer.
Wanda Rutkiewicz rode Junak, the heaviest Polish motorcycle, which indirectly contributed to her interest in climbing. Once in summer 1961, it ran out of fuel. She started waving to people passing her vehicle. The man riding the motorcycle who stopped to help was travelling with a colleague Bogdan Jankowski, who had been climbing for two years. This meeting resulted in their climbing of the Falcon Mountains (Góry Sokole).
It was apparent from the first climb that she had a gift. She climbed efficiently and effortlessly. Her body was seemingly built for it. In her journal, she wrote: “I adored the physical movement, the fresh air, the camaraderie, and the excitement”.
Soon after discovering her knack for mountain climbing, her career began to flourish. Before long, she became one of the most well-known and talented climbers in all of Poland. At one point she was even approached by the Polish secret service, who recognised her natural talent and believed she could be of great use to the communist state. However, her strong-willed personality and fiercely individualistic worldview meant that surrendering herself to the will of the regime was out of the question.
Following her swift rise to prominence, Wanda, in addition to attracting attention from Polish intelligence, began to impress many within the Polish mountain climbing community. Poland’s most skilled climbers immediately recognised her undeniable talent and potential. Andrzej Zawada, one of the leaders of this talented generation, decided to invite her on an expedition to the Soviet Pamirs, which would be her first major expedition.
The expedition was, however, an unpleasant experience for Wanda. She loathed the abasing treatment she received from male climbers and felt as though she wasn’t treated as an equal. Moreover, her confrontational personality and her inability to form and maintain relationships, problems that plagued her throughout her career, became apparent during this expedition.
After the Pamirs, she became convinced that her sponsors had essentially forced her to forfeit her independence. As had been shown by her encounter with the communist intelligence officials, such a forfeiture was anathema to her. She no longer wanted to participate in expeditions that caused her to lose her independence. She had to do things her way, even if that meant leading her own expeditions
Purely female teams
Wanda Rutkiewicz got actively involved in organizing expeditions, particularly for female rope teams. She promoted the separate evaluation of ascents by purely female teams. After becoming the first European woman to scale Mount Everest, she continued to extend her transnational contacts in Europe, Asia and the U.S. This increased her ability to organize mountaineering expeditions, although she always maintained a strong connection to the Polish climbing community and institutions.
Purposely tread the ever-so-thin line between life and death
Wanda Rutkiewicz once said: “I never seek death, but I don’t mind the idea of dying in the mountains. It would be an easy death for me. After all that I’ve experienced, I’m familiar with it. And most of my friends are there in the mountains, waiting for me”.
Wanda had developed a rather fatalistic climbing philosophy during her career. She seemed to know that death in the mountains was inevitable. Despite this belief, her addiction to climbing never faded. If anything, it grew. In 1990, she formulated her most ambitious plan yet, a plan she called the Caravan of Dreams. She would attempt to climb eight eight-thousanders in little more than one year and, if she succeeded, she would be the first woman to accomplish this monumental feat.
The Caravan of Dreams seemed like a perfect challenge for her. It was an ambitious plan, but it was one that Wanda was completely capable of accomplishing.
But after climbing two peaks on her list successfully, Cho Oyu and Annapurna, tragedy struck on Kangchenjunga.
The story ends here, on the second highest mountain of the Himalayas and the ninth eight-thousander. Nobody knows whether Wanda Rutkiewicz survived or not but if you visit one of ashrams by any chance and see someone similar to Wanda, let us know. We would love to write another chapter of the story.
By Agata Szostkowska
Photo cover: www.newsweek.pl
Photo below: www.kobieta.interia.pl