On February 17, 1980, a team of Polish mountaineers led by Andrzej Zawada became the first to climb Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, during the perilous winter season.
Due to political reasons associated with the Soviet occupation, Poland was unable participate in the early pioneering and exploration of the Himalayan mountains in the 1950s and 1960s. This is when the first climbs of the “eight-thousanders” were achieved, which are the only 14 mountains in the world higher than 8,000 meters.
When the opportunity to travel to the Himalayas appeared in Poland, Polish mountaineers wanted to try something groundbreaking to make their own mark on mountaineering history. The mad idea to perform a winter exploration was thus born.
Although many had imagined such a climb, when the idea first cropped up in the 1970s, most believed that winter climbs on mountains higher than 8,000 meters were impossible to be done by man.
Poles were undeterred by the doubters and preparations for a winter expedition began.
Those daring enough to think the climb possible weren’t about to rush into certain death. They painstakingly prepared for years knowing that even the slightest miscalculation or oversight could lead to disaster.
Mount Everest became the first target of Polish himalaists. In 1977, the Polish Mountaineering Association approved the expedition to Everest and K2 under the leadership of Andrzej Zawada.
Zawada travelled to Pakistan and Nepal to obtain permission for the expeditions with the idea that his team would climb both mountains on the same trip. A year later, the Nepalese granted him the permits for Everest.
Twenty-three Polish mountaineers traveled to Asia in December. On Jan. 5, they had managed to set up their first base on the Khumbu glacier at 6,000 meters. By Jan. 15, they had built base III at 7,150 meters.
But the climb was arduous and poor weather conditions meant the Polish mountaineers had to halt their ascent until Feb. 9.
On Feb. 11, the Poles passed 8,000 meters and began to construct base IV. Time was of the essence, as the Nepalese permit ended on Feb. 15. At that point, everything pointed to the Poles not being able to complete the climb.
Faced with the prospect of not reaching the summit, the Polish team managed to receive a two-day extension on their permit and the Krzysztof Wielicki-Leszek Cichy team made one last attempt to conquer the summit.
The attempt was successful. The Polish mountaineers Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy were the first to reach Everest’s summit.
“We proved that it is possible to climb an eight-thousander in winter. Zawada liked the risk and was good at hustling and interesting others with his ideas,” Wielicki said.
On Feb. 17, the Poles conquered Everest in winter and Krzysztof sent the following radio message to the base camp:
– Hello, Base Camp! Do you hear us?
– Yes, where are you? Hello, hello!
– Guess what?!
– Hello! Hello!
– On the summit. We are on the Summit!!!
– If it wasn’t for Everest, we would never have dreamt of climbing here!
The message went down Himalayan mountaineering history and their climb opened a new chapter, not only for the Polish, but also for world mountaineering.
“They did not know what the end of the route looked like, and we did not know if we would manage in winter conditions. Not as Poles, not as Wielicki and Cichy, but as humans. It was Hillary who said that he could not imagine living at over 7,000 meters in winter. But it was faith that pushed us up,” Cichy recalled.
The Poles left a small cross and rosary given by John Paul II on the summit. Not only were they the first to climb Everest in the winter but also the first mountaineers to ever ascend any of world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peaks during the winter period.
The Polish achievement was disputed by Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner who claimed that Everest was conquered after the permit expired. But Zawada receiving an official extension countered any of Messner’s arguments.
Polish mountaineers did not rest on their laurels and in the 1980s, they pioneered seven more winter climbs on mountains higher than 8,000 meters. They also were a part of three out five of the winter climbs that occurred in 2005.
Today, the only remaining unconquered mountain during winter is K2.
Will Poles once again step up to the challenge?