Dhaulagiri '85
Dhaulagiri '85
8,167 metres worth of snow and fog
Jerzy Kukuczka in the program "100 questions for ...""

I rang the bell on the door I knew so well. In an instant of déjà vu-like recollection I remembered the moment several years ago when I had done the same, only the family situation then was different. Then, with a bottle for my prospective father-in-law, flowers for his wife and chocolates for their daughter, I came to propose to their second daughter. They made me welcome and that never changed in the years to come.

‘How is Cecylia?’ they asked first.

‘In hospital. The doctor says that everything is alright. She could go into labour any day, but she feels good…’

What followed was the sort of normal conversation you might have with any in-laws expecting a new addition to the family. Important as it was, I had come to see them about a more complicated matter.

‘Because of all this, Cecylia and the new baby, I need to ask you a favour. I’ve got a chance to join another expedition and I really want to do it. I’ve already talked with my mother and she says I can rely on her. But without your support, without your understanding, I can’t make a move. I want to ask for your backup when I talk about it with Cecylia.‘

I wouldn’t be able to help my wife in the first and most difficult weeks of maternity and for the first time I would be absent from home during Christmas, which was always greatly celebrated in our big family. Until now I had made an effort to stick to the rule of one expedition per year. But it all depended on them and their reply.

‘If this is really so important for you, Jurek, then go. We’ll talk to Cecylia…’

I had always hated stupid jokes about in-laws and I learned again why.

On the 26th of October our second son was born, Wojtek, beamingly joyous from the very first moments of his life. Thus I was able to throw myself into the whirl of organising my new expedition. The more involved I became, the less acute were the qualms of my guilty conscience, and slowly the feeling of shirking my fatherly duties eased off. I had no other choice, no matter how sorry I felt about it.

Somehow I seemed to have navigated correctly and having crossed the pass at the right place, we descended onto a glacier. Somewhere around here should be our Dhaulagiri camp and my colleagues. The task of finding several tents on a glacier that was at least three, if not four kilometres in width and generously scattered with massive ice blocks of irregular shapes proved somewhat challenging. At the same time I wandered through these wilds in search of any signs of human presence, until I came across… a tin. A tin with a label in Polish! But instead of being jubilant, I suddenly felt anxious, because a tin without a campsite in its vicinity could simply mean that they had already left. roamed the glacier more and more despondently and at a loss. Two human figures suddenly came into view ahead and looked more than familiar — Janusz Skorek and Andrzej Czok were walking towards me. I couldn’t explain why I was instantly overwhelmed by an urge to play a prank on them, despite only seconds previously having been really crestfallen. So I didn’t cheerfully shout or swing my arms, but sat down and waited for them to come nearer. When they were not more than two metres away, I jumped to my feet and yelled at them,

‘Pasová kontrola! Przepustku maté?’

A mock Slovak order that could have been uttered by a stern border guard in the Tatras, reverberating on a Himalayan glacier, made them stop dead. They needed time to recover from the shock.

The camp we reached first was a mere twenty metres away and was their Advance Camp. I could have been searching for it for hours, since it was well hidden underneath a huge overhanging outcrop of some twenty metres.

Pokhara, after the capital, is Nepal's second largest city. I had to spend Christmas here. For my Christmas Eve’s dinner I had some tropical fruit from the market to go with a tin of sardines and some instant beetroot soup I cooked to give the meal a Polish touch, although at home it would have been a savoury cream of dried plums.

I had with me a piece of holy wafer, blessed in the church back home, but there was nobody with whom I could have shared it. I had the Polish Bible on the table. When I lit a candle I felt immensely sad, it was my first Christmas in decades spent away from home. I gulped down some local spirit but it did nothing to dispel my grief. I admit I was close to tears.

The last day of December was my day of rest and in the evening we made a feeble attempt at celebrating the New Year’s Eve. In bitter cold, more than usual for this time of the year in this region, our “party” didn’t last longer than two hours and was spent reminiscing our previous New Year’s parties. I got pretty sentimental at the memory of my wooden house in Istebna, where we would traditionally celebrate each New Year .

The second of January saw the three of us, Andrzej, Janusz and I, under way to Camp II. Considering that they had been in the mountains for three weeks now and I had crossed the pass at a mere 5,360 metres, I was at first a bit worried that my acclimatisation would be insufficient. But I felt good and didn’t lag behind them. Camp II, totally covered by snow and hard to find, was attained around midnight.

Jerzy Kukuczka talks about weather conditions during the expedition to Dhaulagiri.

Finally, we set up Camp III, go down and since then the action is seriously developing. I was in the forefront the whole time. Whilst setting Camp IV at about seven thousand metres we knew it was probably a bit too low for a summit bid but were feeling optimistic.

It was our turn now. Andrzej, Mirek and I left Camp II, pushed up to III but failed to find it, as it was completely buried by snow. Up to Camp IV then. On the following day we got ready for the hard task of taking the tent and gear up to a new bivvy spot. I was just about to crawl out of the tent when something pushed me forcibly to one side, away from the wall. An invisible weight begins to overwhelm us.

By the end of the day we were at 7,700 metres and bivvied on a small ridge. Inside our battered tent we were preparing for the following day of climbing, when Andrzej admitted that something was wrong with his legs. In the aftermath of the avalanche the zippers of his overboots had broken and he had to tie them around his calves, which left his feet less protected. Without a word of complaint he just turned away from me and started massaging his swollen feet in order to restore the blood circulation in them. A few long moments later a content grunt announced that he had regained feeling.

8167 m.a.s.l
January 21, 1985
Finally we stood on undeniably the highest point of the ridge, at about three in the afternoon. We found a piece of a bamboo stick, which probably once doubled as a flag mast. We are on the summit.  

In winter, sunsets come too early, ending too short a day. Before I had even noticed it was dark and we were precariously perched on a snowfield with no idea in which direction to head. I faced Andrzej and said firmly,

‘Look, we can’t do this, we’re lost. Going on can only end in disaster. We have to bivvy here.’ We were trying to dig a snow hole but the snow was fresh powder and slithered off every time we carved out a shallow niche. In bitter cold, we fought for an hour. Seated on our rucksacks and huddled together, we braced ourselves to survive the night in temperatures in the region of minus forty centigrade. We just shivered. Of course we had nothing to eat and nothing to drink. We lasted until dawn and with first light started down. We could see where we were and within half an hour we reached the tent. It was time to call Base and let them know that we’d survived the night. Later on Adam confessed that it was during this night that his nervous agitation made him reach for a cigarette after seventeen years of not smoking.

It's cool but only until I asked Andrzej about his legs. He replied matter-of-factly, as if talking about somebody else,

‘Not good. I’ve lost all feeling in them.’

Our doctor examined Andrzej’s feet and diagnosed third-degree frostbite in nearly all his toes. They could be saved only if he were taken to hospital immediately.

Recording from a hotel in Pokhara after returning from a trip
Recording from a hotel in Pokhara after returning from a trip

I must have sat a bit longer at one place, since I could no longer see Andrzej moving ahead of me. The whiteout didn’t allow visibility greater than ten or maybe fifteen metres. Trying to console myself with the thought that he must already have made the traverse and be sitting comfortably in the tent, I started traversing the slope. It was getting dark. I shouted again but there was no trace of Andrzej. Darkness fell and I groped my way onwards ever more slowly, knowing full well that I was in for another bivouac. I am afraid that such a second night can be very dramatic. In the process I dropped and lost my torch, condemning myself to a night of total darkness, sitting on my rucksack, fighting for survival. I must have been fairly delirious and alternating with a state of plain stupor but at least at times clear enough in my head to keep repositioning my unsteady seat in the powder snow. The night was slowly passing by. With first light I discovered that the slope I spent the night on was so gentle that I could have blindly run downhill. In the morning one is always cleverer.

After a short descent I got to Camp II even before they were fully awake in their tents. I called and Janusz and Mirek poured out to greet me, relieved that we were all back.

That evening we ate our last communal meal and in the morning the expedition was on its way down. Now my direction was up, taking a shortcut across the mountains.

After our first winter ascent of Dhaulagiri my colleagues were done with the mountain and could relax but I was half way through my expedition. I was leaving behind me 8,167 metres of Dhaulagiri snow and fog and looking forward to my new challenge. No relaxation for me yet awhile. So I shouldered my sack and continued onwards into the mountains. The second round began.


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