Interview: Krzysztof Wielicki, the ice warrior

Interview: Krzysztof Wielicki, the ice warrior

The high-altitude climber is the fifth mountaineer to summit all 14 eight-thousanders. He was the first to climb Mt Everest, Khangchendzonga and Lhotse in winter. Next in his line of sight is K2

Janaki Lenin
November 18 , 2014
18 Min Read

OT: Why do you choose to climb in winter?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
I followed the idea of Mr (Andrzej) Zawada (a pioneer of Polish Himalayan ascents). He was the first to climb in winter. You know why? Poland had little freedom, and we couldn’t climb any mountain outside the country. In the 1970s, we discovered that all the 8000-metre peaks have already been climbed. So what do we do? If we wanted to create history in climbing, we had to try something new, like climbing the Himalaya in winter. Mountaineers had already climbed the Alps in winter. It’s always hard to climb in winter. So Zawada decided to climb high mountains in winter. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. The local administrations in Nepal and Pakistan didn’t agree. After four or five years of diplomatic wrangling, they finally allowed us in 1979. So Zawada immediately chose the highest, the Everest. At that time I had no experience climbing the Himalaya in winter. Of course, I had experience in Europe. Zawada had a bit of experience because he climbed Noshaq (second highest independent peak of the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan) in winter. That was the beginning of winter climbing. Since then, the Koreans and Japanese have followed us. But the Poles were the first.

OT: What gave you the advantage in climbing in winter?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Nobody loves it. We are not as experienced as alpine countries like France, but we were hungry for success, to write history.

OT: How big was the Polish climbing community?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
It isn’t big, there are only a few thousand climbers. If you go to your boss and say you want to go away for three months to climb a mountain, he’d say “What?’ It’s not easy, so I quit my job as an electronic engineer. I worked in a big factory that built computers and automatic systems. I had to leave because I was obsessed with mountains. I had to decide: climbing or job. It wasn’t only me. Even my friends quit their jobs. We did high-altitude work and made good money.

OT: How did you do that?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
We painted chimneys and tall buildings. It was a risky job. Normally, they would have to build scaffolding and the job would take as long as three months. We climbed up with ropes and painted as we rappelled down, and completed the job in one week. So it was easy to do and it was good money. It was a contract job so whether we took a week or three months, we got the same amount of money.

OT: What is Poland’s tradition in mountaineering? What were you climbing before the 1970s?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
We climbed our mountains, the Tatras. Up to 1975, our Polish Alpine Club wasn’t in Ministry of Sports, so we had to follow standard rules. For example, like everyone else, we had to wait two or three months for a passport which we might or might not get. It was very difficult to get out of Poland, so my older colleagues climbed Polish and Russian mountains. It was easy to go to Russia. We had a different passport to travel to communist countries. But the passport to travel outside the Communist Bloc was difficult to get. Then for some reason, the government moved mountaineering to the Ministry of sports. Once we got a sports passport, we could travel where we liked.
There was a bit of mountaineering before World War II. Polish mountaineers climbed in the Andes, and they climbed Nanda Devi East in 1939. They didn’t return to Poland because the war broke out, so they went to England. But between 1945 and 1975, we were under the influence of the Russians, so we climbed the Caucasus. But we couldn’t climb the biggest mountains.

OT: In all these years of climbing, which is the ascent you are most proud of?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
The last one, Nanga Parbat. I was completely alone. No one was with me. Some mountains you can climb alone, but this was too risky. I crossed the red risk line. I’ve climbed solo before but there were people at base camp. In 1996, I went alone, completely alone. Nobody was on the mountain. I didn’t know the mountain; I didn’t even know the route to the summit; I had to carry everything. But the weather was so fantastic and that pushed me to try. It was probably one of the shortest expeditions in the world – it lasted just eight days.

OT: When you’re in the mountains, are you thinking about your family or the summit?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
In my generation, it was easy. When I got the sports passport, my wife said, “I can’t go, but you have the opportunity to go, so go.” But now, everybody has a passport. So when you say you want to go climbing for three months, your wife will say, “Bravo, bravo. When you come back, don’t come here.” Younger climbers ask, “How was it possible for you to go away for three months at a time, come home for a week and go off for another three months?” Women have equal opportunities in Europe now and it’s much more difficult for men to go away. It’s my privilege that when I’m climbing, I can be completely separated from family and home. I’m only concentrating on the climb. You cannot climb if you think, “My God! My wife, my kids.” You have to forget them. I focused only on the problem of climbing and surviving.

OT: Was your family into mountain climbing?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
No, I have no tradition. I was born in the plains of Poland. Now my son is climbing a little bit. When I was studying in university, mountaineering clubs were only in the cities. So I came in contact with a club when I was 20, that’s quite late. But I think it’s better for an alpinist to start late. You need to have maturity for mountaineering. Any kid can climb a rock.

OT: Where did you learn climbing? Who taught you?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
I did rock-climbing every week. I didn’t study, I was always climbing. I was so passionate, it was like a virus. The other thing is genetics. Some people are privileged, some not. I was privileged.

OT: In what sense?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
VO2 max. The volume of oxygen you can take from air in millilitre per kg of body-weight in a minute. Some people have 50, some have 80. If you have 80, then if you are in low oxygen areas such as high altitudes, you feel better. This is most important.
In high mountains like the Himalaya, it’s better if the body doesn’t need to be fed very much. You should be able to climb for two, three days without eating or drinking. I won’t say the others cannot climb. They can, but it’s much more difficult for them, even if they have big muscles.

OT: What are the challenges of climbing mountains now compared to the 1980s?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
There are fewer challenges now. All that’s left is improving the style. Before the Second World War, expeditions were huge. Since then, the expeditions have become smaller and smaller. Now you can do four-five member climbs, solo climbing, winter climbing. Alpine-style climbing (carrying one’s own food, shelter, equipment, and being self-reliant) is the challenge. Polish climbers aren’t the only ones winter climbing – there’re Italians, Russians, Kazakhs competing with us. So the biggest challenge is K2 in winter.

OT: Is that the last remaining challenge for you?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Not just for me but [for] other climbers, too.

OT: So if you succeed in climbing K2 in winter, then what? What would you do next?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
There are other mountains. I’m still climbing mountains, not just in the Himalaya. Every year, I climb the lower peaks, the 6,000-metre virgin peaks in Pakistan. That’s interesting. You go to the glacier where there’s nobody. You don’t know how to get there, how long it will take, so you feel like an explorer. Even the local people don’t know a thing about the mountain. It’s exciting when you know nobody has been there.

OT: What are the costs of climbing in winter, besides frost bite?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
You can lose your life. Climbing Nanga Parbat and K2 is very risky in winter, especially for the summit teams. You have an opportunity to write world history, and you can err in your judgement if you become obsessed with setting records. There isn’t a lot left to achieve in mountaineering, and the competition is high. So the urge to push ahead is very strong.

OT: But isn’t that what drives to climb mountains under such hardship? To create history?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Yes. Passion is a problem. It’s hard to explain why we risk our lives. But it’s my life, I want to do this. Nobody pushed me to do this. It’s my choice.

OT: What is the future of mountaineering? Say in 20 years?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
There is no problem in the future. When I set out to climb a mountain, I know it has been climbed before; I know who climbed it, and when. But for me, it is still new; it’s a virgin peak. This view doesn’t limit your horizon. When someone climbs a mountain, it doesn’t fall down. It’s still there.

OT: How do you train when you are not climbing?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
In the past, I was only climbing. When we didn’t climb, we were painting tall buildings. So it was a kind of training. I don’t like training in the gym; I go skiing and bicycling. Climbing itself is the training. At my age (63), it’s very dangerous to train.

OT: Was the Communist Polish government more supportive of mountaineering?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
They supported only the national expeditions. But the Polish Alpine Club supported other clubs to about 10-15 per cent of their budgets. The rest we worked and earned.

OT: It’s incredible the degree to which you collaborate in a highly competitive field.
Krzysztof Wielicki:
It’s the problem of currency. Our currency was weak, but we had to pay in Nepal, India, and Pakistan in American dollars. So at that time, we did a lot of joint expeditions with the French, Italians, Germans, and Americans. They came with dollars and we brought equipment and food. So that worked very well. We also got to know each other very well. It teaches you tolerance. People of different skin colours, customs, and religions working together in a team. You learn that there is no one truth. There are second and third truths. It’s very important for people to meet. Once, there were three of us – me, a Polish friend and an American – trying to climb the west face of K2. At base camp, my friend and I would help the cook make a meal and we would eat it. But the American guy didn’t come to breakfast. On the fourth day, we asked him nervously, “Carlos, why aren’t you eating breakfast with us?” He replied, “When you eat breakfast, I’m not hungry.” My friend said, “But Carlos, if you go to the kitchen at 10 or 11, the cook has to make breakfast again.” Carlos replied, “Yes, it’s his job.” We have a different custom in Poland; we all sit together for every meal, we wish each other ‘Bon Appetit.’ It’s not that one custom is right and the other is wrong. So you start to be more tolerant.
When I was younger, if you said, “This [pointing to a pink wall] is red", I’d fight with you. Now I’ll say, “Ok.” If it doesn’t hurt anybody, then why not? So these international collaborations build empathy. It helps to see that some people are different. It’s important.

OT: So if I were to ask you – how has mountaineering changed you as a person – is that the answer you’d give me?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Not just mountaineering. You should do what you love and you should taste some success. It could be any activity. When you are faced with a challenging problem, you think, “I’ve climbed Everest. This is nothing.” It makes you feel sure of yourself, you can do everything, you can overcome any problem any time. It’s outdoor therapy.

OT: You go through so much hardship in the mountains. It’s so cold.
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Yes, this is what we like. It’s the philosophy of the art of suffering. Climbing is the art of suffering. Sometimes, suffering gives you pleasure. It gives you physical pain, but it also gives you pleasure. It’s a little bit strange, but if you try, you can understand.

OT: How long did it take you to understand that?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
All my life.

OT:  It’s hard to practise, isn’t it?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
From the beginning, I hated to lie in the sun on the beach. You have to be a warrior. You have to fight for something, only that can give you joy.

OT: When you climb a mountain, how do you see it? Is it a living being or is it a challenge to overcome?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
In the beginning, it’s exciting to view the mountain. It’s beautiful. After that, it’s only a challenge. If you ask me, “Did you see that wonderful view?” I’d reply, “No, I was thinking.” “What are you thinking about?” “To come down as fast as possible.” You can see the nice view in a postcard.

OT: So how do you see the mountain after you climb it?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
I think, “It’s my mountain.”

OT: Does it feel like an old friend or an old adversary?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Yeah, a little bit. For us, a mountain is like a human being, not a material item. So we have a special relationship with the mountain. We are not fighting with the mountain; we are fighting with ourselves. The mountain only provides us the opportunity to do it. So even after we climb it, we respect the mountain. We don’t say we conquered the mountain. We say, “Thank you God for giving me the opportunity to be there.”

OT: What was you most difficult climb?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Dhaulagiri east face (in 1990, Krzysztof established a new route and reached the summit after 16 hours of climbing) was the most difficult one for me. I was solo and it was very hard climbing. Physically, it was the most difficult.

OT: Is climbing a spiritual goal as well?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
For me, no; for some others, yes. Sometimes, when I’m on the mountain and I can see the sky, I feel like I’m only a very small piece of the cosmos.

OT: How would you like to be remembered?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
I was lucky. I lost a lot of friends, they were very good climbers. I’d like them to say, “He climbed 50 years and died a natural death.” Also I’d like to be called a winter warrior, an ice warrior.

OT: You must have sustained a lot of injuries in your life.
Krzysztof Wielicki:
A little, yeah.

OT: A little?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Spine fracture twice, and frost bite twice. The frost bite was cosmetic; it wasn’t a problem. But the spine injuries were more serious.

OT: So when you climb solo, isn’t it a worry that if you get injured, you’d be in a tough spot?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
When you climb solo, if you get injured, you cannot survive. In my experience, accidents happen in easy places, when you lose concentration. You are thinking about food in base camp and forget to take a rope.

OT: Are injuries a result of lack of concentration? Not things like weather?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Lack of concentration is the worst. You forget the rules you have to follow in the mountain. When you are experienced, it is easy to make a mistake. When you do something 40 times, you forget to do something correctly the 41st time. As I said before, you need luck. It’s not because of the mountain that (Jerzy) Kukuczka (the second man to summit all 14 eight-thousanders, considered to be one of the finest mountaineers in history) fell to his death; it’s not the mountain that kills people. It’s people who make mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I also had a lot of luck.

OT: How did Kukuczka fall?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
It was a mistake. If you have a 6mm rope, and you fall, the rope will break. But in the terrain he was in, usually you don’t fall. I don’t know, maybe he missed a step. So why didn’t he carry a 10mm rope which would have been safer? Because it’s heavy. At 8,000 metres, nobody wants to carry thick ropes. Everyone carries 6mm ropes just for psychological support, not for belaying. I do the same thing.

OT: When you climb as a team and you lose a member, do you wonder if you had done things differently, he’d still be alive?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
People climbed in the past and people will climb in the future. It’s difficult to stop somebody from climbing just because of a tragedy. I know only two people – a girl and a boy – in Poland who stopped climbing after the trauma of their friends’ dying. For us, it’s the passion. We are not thinking about lives lost. In my career, I’ve led 20 expeditions and I faced this situation two or three times. Usually, we hold a secret ballot to take decisions like should we break the expedition. We follow what the majority decide. Usually, the decision is to continue climbing.

OT: Have there been disappointments?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Once I climbed K2 and decided to turn back within 60 metres of the summit. I didn’t know I was so close. It was late afternoon, and I thought the summit was far away. If we reached the summit, it would be dark when we come down. So I said loudly to the others, “Hey guys, the summit is far, maybe we should go down.” They said, “Okay.” After we reached the base camp, I flew home. Two members of the team climbed again, and they sent me a postcard saying we had stopped 60 metres from the summit. If I had known, of course we would not have turned back. It was the first time I was climbing that route, so I didn’t know. My American friend was really upset. I had to say, “Dear Carlos, take it easy. Take it easy. The mountain has not fallen down. We’ll climb K2 together in two years.”

OT: When do you plan to climb K2 again?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Maybe next winter. But we have a problem building a team. There aren’t enough people. Maybe it will be an international team. There is the problem of money, too, because climbing in winter is very expensive.

OT: So you think it will be 2015?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
Yes. But there’s another problem – the Russians. They are competing with us and they have a strong team. We don’t want to compete at the same time. That would be stupid.

Related Articles

Here to there

Explore Directions(Routes) and more...
to Go

Other Editions

Outlook’ is India’s most vibrant weekly news magazine with critically and globally acclaimed print and digital editions. Now in its 23rd year...

Explore All
  • Check out our Magazine of the month
  • Offbeat destinations
  • In-depth storytelling
  • Stunning pictures
  • Subscribe