A taste of fame

I got home on the 4th December, the day of our Patron Saint, St. Barbara. The following day I had a phone call from Andrzej Zawada in Warsaw.

‘Jurek, my congratulations! Now, I'd like to make you an offer... Would you fancy joining the first ever winter expedition to Everest? We’d be leaving in less than two weeks.’

It was an important time for me, since it meant that I had been able to convince them that I could climb a peak of Himalayan proportions. But arriving home I was faced by a complicated situation. Cecylia was expecting our baby, that should come at the beginning of January, but we had been warned that the delivery might be difficult.

I kept the receiver to my ear without giving Andrzej an answer. I listened to him talking and thought feverishly at the same time.

Everest in winter! I had gazed up at it only a few weeks ago, thinking I had no right to lay my hand on it. Such an opportunity might not come again...

Andrzej didn’t stop talking. He laid out his plans of leading a winter expedition first, but also mentioned an expedition in the following spring that would take advantage of all their equipment having already been carried up to the foot of the world’s highest mountain.

‘Look, I’ll give the winter expedition a miss but count me in for the one in spring. (...) I can’t act otherwise.’ I replaced a hot and sweaty receiver.

We set up camp underneath a rocky barrier that was the crux to the Polish route on Everest.. The barrier loomed above us, high and seemingly vertical. We were now above eight thousand metres and needed to get over this section quickly. Rysiek and I put up a fight and succeeded in overcoming the hardest stretch of the rock barrier. For a long time I maintained that it was the most difficult piece of climbing I had ever done in the Himalaya. If measured according to the six-grade system we used to have in the Tatra mountains to evaluate the difficulty of a climb, that section of the rock barrier would only be classified as “five”, or “very severe”. Yet in order to do it at that altitude required so much strength that at one point, forcing myself to the limit, I simply wet my pants. It was only really a stretch of eight to ten metres, but there were moments when my vision blurred because of the strain. We managed the whole pitch of forty metres, at places easier or more difficult, but on the whole hard climbing. The crux was those eight to ten metres, crucial for overcoming the whole rock barrier. On easier ground higher up they fixed ropes up to 8,300 metres where the last of our camps, Camp V, was to be established.

Not a word had been said yet about the most important issue

— who should go?

Eight, maybe nine people, had a fair chance of climbing to the summit. (...) Andrzej and I were the babies in this group and although we could name Lhotse as our accomplishment we would always hear

“Lhotse? An easy mountain. Anyone can bag it.”

No one addressed us directly, or noticeably patronised us, but the undertone was clear:

“Easy, boys. We have priority!”"

At least that’s how we took it.

From the cacophony of arguing voices, the placid tone of Zyga’s voice emerged and his calm words were heard. His opinion was based not only on his own wisdom as a mountaineer but also on a sober and factual evaluation of our situation. He stressed his appreciation for the work Andrzej and I had done on the mountain, as he knew we had been the most active party so far. The other voices subsided, only suppressed sighs could be heard and some of them carried a note of resignation. Andrzej Zawada however, the expedition’s leader, kept silent all this time, merely listening in. It was time for him to take a stance and everyone’s gaze slowly fixed on him.

‘In my opinion…’ his words fell on utter silence. ‘In my opinion the first to set off should be Kukuczka with Czok, because they’re in best condition. They’d still be in good form. They’d be followed by a second party, Heinrich and Olech, because they deserve it. The four of you will go.’

Zygmunt Andrzej Heinrich

Zygmunt Andrzej Heinrich (1937 – 1989)

Climbing partner of Jerzy Kukuczka. Together they stood on the summit of Lhotse, Cho Oyu, and Nanga Parbat. He died during the expedition to Everest 1989.

Zyga, whom I knew from many expeditions, is a man who is an important part of the history of Polish mountaineering and mountaineering. He has probably had the largest number of expeditions, but he rarely reached the top. He is a typical man of the mountains, he can live in them walking between the second and the third camp, convinced that he reliably does his job, which gives him satisfaction. He always missed, so I judged him, that full of ambition that reached the top of the mountain. And I always thought that he was a little too cautious about his presence in the mountains. He lacks this pinch of slack, which allows in the most important moments to make a decision: "I will risk this nail to enter."

Andrzej Czok<

Andrzej Czok (1948 - 1986)

Climbing partner and friend of Jerzy Kukuczka. Together they conquered Lhotse, Everest and Dhaulagirii. In 1986, during subsequent expeditions to Kanghenjunga, Andrzej Czok died of pneumonia caused by altitude sickness.

I was convinced that since it was Andrzej and I who were to be the first to tackle the last unprotected stretch of the summit line, then I was morally entitled to state my position. After all we two had been up on the mountain long enough to know beyond doubt that we as a team would have to push the final ascent.

Zyga didn’t protest, so it was settled that the four of us would go."

It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon when we stood on the summit.

We called Base Camp. They were worried, because the last time we’d contacted them was from the South Summit when we told them that we’d run out of oxygen. So we had left them with the same question that we had grappled with, whether to continue towards the summit or to descend. If we left it at that and pushed for the top, it was because we concluded that from now on it was entirely up to us. It was our climb: our screaming lungs, our vision swimming with blurred images, our “to be or not to be”. They could put no pressure on us. From the start they were against attempting the highest mountain without oxygen. We would never know what they had been going through after we finished our last radio contact from the South Summit with the usual but ominous “over”. Now we called them again and told them, panting like obese gym enthusiasts and wheezing horribly, that we were on the summit! Their words reaching us from below, carried not only congratulations and joy, but also relief. As if echoing their words, a thought penetrated my mind — that something had really happened — I had the highest mountain in the world below my feet. “Over.”

8848 m.a.s.l
May 19, 1980
At Warsaw Airport, journalists were awaiting. The two of us were awarded Golden Medals for Extraordinary Sporting Achievement. We felt appreciated. For the first time in my life the taste of being famous was on my tongue. My first day at work was quite a peculiar experience. I was greeted in front of the entrance gate to the factory by all the managers and workers of “Emag” toting a banner with the inscription “Welcome — the conqueror of Everest”. Oonly a couple of months ago, shortly before leaving for Nepal, I had had to sneak along the corridors of the very same company, lest I became too conspicuous. With an application for an unpaid leave of absence in hand I had had to find my way into an office of a certain manager in order to beg his signature. I had had to avoid the other one, as he had been likely to throw me out of the door instead. Behind them stood a mass of those who used to protest loudly: “I get two weeks of holidays a year, and that bugger’s only at work for two or three months. Why are they going to all these expeditions?” Nice to have such dear colleagues!


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