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Atoms & Stars

Atoms & Stars

Alex Jeffers
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In the summer of 1986, legendary Polish mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz became the first woman to stand on the summit of K2 in the Pakistan Karakoram. The world’s second-highest mountain has a reputation as most dangerous of all the 8000 metre peaks: Rutkiewicz made the climb without supplementary oxygen, on a small expedition led by French climbers Liliane and Maurice Barrard, both of whom were killed on the descent. This extract is taken from Bernadette McDonald’s award winning book Freedom Climbers, published in the UK in 2012 by Vertebrate Publishing. 


Wanda Rutkiewicz at K2 basecamp on the Godwin-Austin Glacier in 1986, with the south side of the mountain in the background. 




K2: just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man – or of the cindered planet after the last” 

- Fosco Maraini, Secret Tibet




While her partners moved up the mountain, Wanda stayed in base camp, suffering from a bout of high fever and tonsillitis. After several days of rest she finally felt ready to join them, and just three weeks after arriving in base camp they began their summit attempt. It was June 18. Climbing steadily up the Abruzzi ridge, they spent the first night at Camp I. They skipped Camp II and chose instead to bivouac at 7100 meters on the ridge of the black Pyramid. Here they cached some of their climbing equipment in order to lighten their packs. They continued up, skipped the usual Camp III situated at 7350 meters and moved higher to bivouac at 7700 meters. Wanda described the site: “it was under the big barrier of the overhanging séracs in a conveniently level patch of snow, which was only a little dangerous.” 

It was then that their lightweight strategy caught up with them. When Wanda and the Barrards reached a collapsed snow bridge across a crevasse not far above their bivouac site, they decided it was time to rope up. But Michel had forged on ahead with the rope still stowed in his pack because the snow bridge had been intact when he crossed it. In fact, it was his weight that had broken it just as he leapt to safer ground. The three remaining climbers were forced to take a dangerous and exhausting detour to bypass the slot. The top of their detour ended in a difficult overhang about three meters high. They got up it, but not without an enormous outlay of time and energy. Technical climbing becomes an entirely different experience at just under 8000 meters, and their efforts utterly depleted them.

That day they reached only 7900 meters before they were forced to bivouac again. The time-consuming detour around the snow bridge had forced one more bivouac at extreme altitude – a fatal error, as it would turn out.

By this time, the tension between Wanda and Michel was so toxic that she had resorted to using a small borrowed tent to avoid sleeping next to the Frenchman. She couldn’t stand the sight of him or the smell of his smoker’s breath. “Three tents for four people sounds a bit much,” she admitted, “but the extra weight in my sack was the price of independence.”

They eventually abandoned the rope altogether. This exemplified, perhaps more than anything, the superb condition and skill level of the four climbers. To approach the steep and often icy upper slopes of K2 without a rope required unwavering confidence. Wanda later commented, “it would have been wonderful to find some fixed ropes up there, but who’s going to drag ropes up to that sort of altitude?” She could not have imagined the scene more than 20 years later when, despite a spider’s web of fixed ropes, 11 people died on the upper reaches of K2.

Wanda and her teammates were now in the “death zone,” where the body steadily deteriorates. Their biggest problem was snow, very deep snow. Placing one foot in front of the other on wind-firm, drifted snow is hard enough at altitude, but lifting one’s leg out of each snowy hole only to plunge even deeper into the next, leaning on one’s ice axe and gasping for breath, is agonizing work. The enormous effort shatters the climber out front breaking trail, and the ones behind become progressively colder as the pace inevitably bogs down. They took turns at first, but Michel proved strongest, so he eventually took over the arduous job.


Wanda Rutkiewicz among Polish climbers in the early 1970s. 




He found a small rock platform at 8300 meters where they could bivouac one last time. They now had just one stove, one two-person tent and no sleeping bags. It was their third night above 7500 meters.

Below them stretched the full expanse of the mountain: the overhanging wall of ice under which they had climbed (known as the bottleneck), the Shoulder, the black Pyramid, House’s Chimney and the lower slopes leading to the Godwin Austen Glacier. The technical difficulties were below them, and they were now very close to the summit.

Wanda was pressed up against Michel as they were forced to spoon in the tiny tent. She recoiled at his touch, despite his warmth. Her mind raced, reviewing again and again what might happen the next day – summit day. She felt strong – maybe not as strong as Michel, but she still had some reserve.

They awoke early on the morning of June 23. The day was splendid: sunny, cloudless and still. Wanda, who was last to leave the tent, caught up with the others just as they were stopping for a short soup break. She was surprised at this unusual behavior, this lounging about, cooking so near the summit. Could she be hallucinating? But she wasn’t; the three French climbers had settled in for a hot lunch. Wanda smiled at the Gallic obsession with food, declined the invitation, and continued on alone. The others seemed not to notice.

At age 43 she was as strong and confident as she had ever been on a high mountain, physically at the peak of her powers. by 10:15 a.m. she was on the top, becoming the first Pole and the first woman to climb K2. She laughed. She cried. She knelt and prayed. “At that moment I felt I had a gift of infinite time.... I felt no triumph, but I did feel that God was near me....”

Then she wrote her name, along with Liliane Barrard’s, on a piece of paper that claimed the first women’s ascent. She wrapped it up in a plastic bag and placed it under a stone a short distance below the main summit.

Liliane had still not arrived, so it might have been a little premature, and perhaps overly generous. But she was very clear about noting her own arrival time – 10:15 a.m. – and after Liliane’s name she left a blank.

Wanda sat down on the summit and waited. And waited. The sparkling clear day was extremely cold, so, in order to stay warm, she climbed a short way down the northeast side and collected a few stones as souvenirs. Back to the top and more waiting. She began a mental list of the friends she might give her precious K2 stones to; there were lots of possibilities, but number one on her list was Charlie Houston, the American who had tried so hard in 1938 and 1953. She liked Charlie and felt that he had deserved the first ascent, not the Italians. He had certainly earned a rock from the summit.


Wanda Rutkiewicz meets Pope John Paul II following her successful ascent of Everest in 1978, when she became she became the third woman, the first Pole, and the first European woman to reach the summitThis was John Paul II's first visit to Poland after becoming Pope.




As the cold began creeping into her extremities she realized she would have to start descending. No sooner had she started down the South Face than she saw her partners labouring up in her tracks, so she went back up. They finally joined her on the summit at around 11 a.m. for an emotional round of hugs.

At noon, cold and tired, the four began their descent, the most dangerous part of any climb. Pressing ahead, Wanda reached their bivouac site at 8300 meters and stopped for a brief rest. When the flagging Maurice Barrard arrived, he stated they would have to spend the night. Wanda uncharacteristically agreed, although she knew another night that high on the mountain would mean further deterioration of their bodies. She may have wanted to stay with her team, or maybe it was the gauze of altitude that was clouding her judgement. She later wrote about this critical moment: “I was surprised, but not unhappy. ‘I don’t need to go down today’, I thought. I was tired, but not exhausted.... I was not worried. But I should have been.... I didn’t know in the sunshine that death was following us down.”

Once again they crammed into the two-person tent with no sleeping bags. After a restless, cold and uncomfortable night, they awoke even more fatigued. Wanda had taken two and a half sleeping tablets and was still dizzy the next morning. Michel was impatient to head down. The Barrards were very quiet.

Still climbing without a rope, each of them now had to make their way down two of the most dangerous sections of the mountain. They inched their way across the icy, downward-sloping, 50-degree traverse, knowing the consequences of a fall would be fatal. Wanda concentrated on keeping her balance as she tried to fight off the lingering effects of the pills. Michel was moving faster and was first to reach the top of the bottleneck, a narrow gully of even steeper ice, loose rock and unconsolidated snow.

At that moment, out of the corner of her eye, Wanda saw Michel falling, tumbling faster and faster down the chute, only to emerge unscathed from a snowdrift near the bottom. He didn’t look back, just dusted himself off and kept going. After the shock and adrenaline had subsided, Wanda refocused and went back to the task at hand. She cautioned herself with each placement of her boot: “Careful, Wanda, careful! No one can help you here, no one can get you down ... you are alone.”





Freedom Climbers tells the story of the extraordinary Polish adventurers who emerged from under the blanket of oppression following the Second World War to become the world’s leading Himalayan climbers. Although they lived in a war-ravaged landscape, with seemingly no hope of creating a meaningful life, these curious, motivated and skilled mountaineers built their own free-market economy under the very noses of their Communist bosses and climbed their way to liberation.

At a time when Polish citizens were locked behind the Iron Curtain, these intrepid explorers found a way to travel the world in search of extreme adventure – to Alaska, South America and Europe, but mostly to the highest and most inspiring mountains of the world. To this end, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nepal became their second homes as they evolved into the toughest Himalayan climbers the world has ever known. In her most engaging book to date, renowned and award-winning author Bernadette McDonald weaves a passionate and literary tale of adventure, politics, suffering, death and – ultimately – inspiration.












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