That’s how it all started. We hoisted ourself up and abseiled down industrial chimney stacks but thought constantly about ascending Lhotse (...). Some worked long hours, some much shorter, but the latter made up for it by doing admin or organisational work for an expedition. For example, someone had to crisscross Poland, not a small country, in order to secure a supply of proper down for our sleeping bags and jackets.
It was 1978. On the wall of his office hung a copy of the national emblem, a puny fern plant stood next to his desk, whilst several dusty volumes of Lenin’s Collected Works inhabited a shelf in a glass cabinet. Through the window the view was dominated by a massive old chimney stack, and it was because of the chimney stack that we were here. Having heard the director’s statement, we rose from the chairs in which we had hardly had time to get seated.
‘Yes we see… Maybe another time.’ We moved towards the door, but the game was not over yet.
‘Oh, hang on. Why don’t we talk this through?’
He knew that a mammoth enterprise such as the Metallurgic Repair and Maintenance Company could do anything in engineering, including the construction of a complete steelmaking furnace. They had action plans for all of their activities, enormous quotations and even worse, lots of extras. But it was jobs like renovation of chimney stacks that the MRMC seemed as a rule to never have time for. Though still quite wary of not tarnishing his authority in the process, the director insisted on our staying in his office.
‘It would be interesting to know how much time you need for this, gentlemen?’
The massive chimney stack, badly weathered and peeling, loomed behind the window. Looking appraisingly at it we shook our heads, our facial expressions bearing a slight disdain,
‘Perhaps two weeks. Maybe we’d manage in one if things went well.’
‘A week?’ The director, obviously amused, shifted his weight in the armchair. ‘One week is not even enough to put up scaffolding!’
‘But we paint without scaffolding.’
In early September the caravan poured into Base Camp at the foot of Everest and Lhotse. Rather exhausted by our trekking through lowlands and highlands, jungles and woodlands, and more than drained by leeches (this pest of Nepal’s undergrowth being in full season now), we finally reached our destination. So this was the place about which I had heard and read so much. This was the spot on the map that I had dreamed of for so long. We chose an area for our camp and started putting up our tents. Whilst the poly drums were unpacked and emptied, we were kept busy with the unending chores of camp life at 5,400 metres. During these first three days even the simplest of activities was exhausting to my body, still unaccustomed to altitude.
It also occurred to me that if we climbed Lhotse by the classical route, our ascent would in no way contribute anything new to climbing achievements there. Together with Janusz Skorek and Andrzej Czok we considered the possibility of going slightly to the right and thus doing the direttissima of the west face. However, no-one else showed any interest in this, and the general opinion was that whilst this route might be more difficult, it was, after all, merely a variant of the classical route. There was no point, they argued, in looking for extra problems when only a hundred metres from an easily-reachable and much less difficult gully. It wasn’t the place to establish new routes using Tatra techniques, no place to take chances. However, further discussions gave rise to quite another idea — why not try to climb Lhoste without oxygen? Initially four of us decided to give it a try: Janusz Skorek, Zyga Heinrich, Andrzej Czok and I. But then Zyga changed his mind saying, ‘To go there without oxygen is asking for it.’ None of us were surprised by his statement. In those days it was a widelyrecognised theory that oxygen deficiency at altitude could lead to irreparable brain damage. Amongst ourselves we used to joke about it saying: “You’ll go and half of your grey matter will go too. You’ll end up a moron”
Another ten steps and another rest. That was my constant rhythm. I counted out ten steps, to which I had set my inner clock, before I allowed myself a rest, then forced myself to count another ten. The worst that might happen would be to give up and sit down because then the clock would stop working. The earlier painfully-gained rhythm would be lost and I would need ages to wind up my body clock again. After seemingly an eternity of fighting our own weakness, we reached the vicinity of the summit ridge.