Addiction – how climbers from the Polish People’s Republic conquered the West – Witek Kieńć

>>Translation: Jędrzej Majer<<

Eiger in the summer of 1971. The lack of characteristic snow fields on the northern face means a multitude of falling rocks.

 

I

 

Bernadette McDonald, the author of Freedom Climbers, created the mythology of the Polish mountaineering of the “golden age” as an escape from the gray reality of the pro-Soviet regime. Krzysztof Wielicki, who belonged to the top of the 1980’s alpine climbers, sees the reasons for the splendor of climbing in the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) a bit differently. Asked why the citizens of the Third Polish Republic find it more difficult to achieve mountaineering successes than their oppressed predecessors, he said: People started to make careers in business, not necessarily in the mountains. They cannot spend as much time on expeditions as they used to – half a year or 7-8 months, because they have to work. Capitalism has come and you have to accept the principles of such a system. Before nobody was concerned about work, the mountains were more important.

 

Indeed, when one reads today, for example, Jerzy Kukuczka’s biography, it is hard to resist the impression that today nobody would give a fitter in a bell factory time off to compete with Reinhold Messner in the number of eight-thousanders climbed. This does not mean that climbers of the PRL had it easy.

 

The Tatras are, after all, a green border, and the government was reluctant to allow the movement of the population between the brotherly republics. The symbol of this reluctance was the inglorious incident when overzealous WOP-ists (Polish Border Patrol) opened fire on mountaineers climbing the Żabi Szczyt Niżny peak in 1954. In spite of that, in a regime that tried to actively fight “shirking”, a group of people who were only interested in climbing, who avoided work so that they could spend almost a whole year in the Tatra Mountains, managed to prosper. My father, Zygmunt Kieńć, belonged to this peculiar circle from the second half of the 1960s. As he says himself, he does not remember having a job back then. When he would come from Łódź, where he lived near his sister’s family, to Zakopane, he would often have no money for a return ticket. But he would not plan to go back any time soon, because he would usually spend the whole summer and winter in the Tatras, returning to the city only during periods of bad weather conditions in spring and autumn.

 

The community of permanent residents of the Tatra National Park (TPN) in the 1960s and 1970s consisted of eccentrics and people with unusual manners. Some of them, if we were to take them out of the context of the Tatra peaks for a moment, could appear to be simply vagrants. Besides, it’s probably no coincidence that their biographies resemble those of drunkards. I am not a climber myself. I am not a climber, although I occasionally climb, and have for almost half of my life. Just like someone who occasionally drinks is not always an alcoholic, a person who occasionally climbs does not necessarily become a climber. I have met many climbers in my life, and from different generations. The oldest one of them is probably my father, born in 1935. I also know climbers who are in their twenties and climbers from other countries. According to my observations, what connects them all is the fact that they talk about themselves as addicts. They also often use the nomenclature taken directly from addiction therapies and apparently are convinced that the rough touch of the rock has the effect on them like alcohol or heroin on others. Having observed their lives, I have to say I completely agree with such a diagnosis. I don’t quite understand it, and I think that this may be a puzzle for scientists to solve. Whether it’s due to their brain composition and structure, or maybe due to upbringing, climbers do not usually care about other parts of their lives – they just have to climb.

Kieńć in the Alps in the summer of 1971. Most of the pictures presented below were taken with the penti camera shown here around his neck.

 

If we were to believe the diagnosis by Wielicki, today’s climbers have to struggle more in the lowlands. Their predecessors in the 1960s had several ways to survive without leaving the TPN. One of them was fishing for coins, which tourists threw into the Morskie Oko lake, hoping that in exchange for this small donation, the mountains would bless them them success. The mountains, as you know, are not greedy for money, so they left the change for hungry mountaineers. A less effective way to collect the coins was a spoon stolen from the hostel restaurant, which was punched with a nail and fastened to a stick. The colander constructed in such a way allowed to collect money for dinner within a few hours. A more effective method was to wade in the water knee-deep, preferably in the spot where the Rybi Potok creek flows out of Morskie Oko. The water there is ice-cold, so it required fortitude, but it quickly brought the desired financial resources.

Anyway, as you know, you either increase profits, or cut costs, and it’s best to do both, so they would often “squat” in the mountain hostel, that is, sleep in unpaid places. The old hostel at Morskie Oko was back then equipped with multi-person bunks, their width equal to that of the entire room they were in. The surplus occupants could easily fit on such bunks. You had to pay for the night at the reception in the new building, which issued a receipt confirming the right to sleep in the old one. You had to then show the receipt to Franciszek, a man not overly talkative, whose voice barely anyone ever heard. Franciszek would give the guests blankets and lead them to their assigned sleeping places. But when he came to count the sleepers in the morning, no matter how many times he tried, he always counted more than he should. But since he could not figure out who to throw out, everyone kept sleeping undisturbed.

One year, when unexpected September snow covered up tents in the Tatra camp, all of its tenants moved to the old hostel building . However, their acquired frugality led them to enter through the window, bypassing the reception and Franciszek. Using such methods, my father spent several seasons climbing in the Tatras. Perhaps today he would have to worry about the lack of health insurance, but back then the authorities happened to cover this for their citizens. As time has shown, my father needed hospitalization only later in Switzerland.

II

For a country where there are few mountains the main problem in the development of mountaineering was foreign trips. To go on one, you had to have a passport, and this was not easy in the PRL. Also “dewizy”, i.e. foreign currency, was controlled goods. And Polish salaries were barely equivalent to a few dozen dollars anyway. However, mountaineers were somehow able to deal with all this. Among the climbers of that period, the academics were an important group next to “loose people” who lived permanently or almost permanently in the Tatra Mountains. Climbing was at that time a sport for the educated. If a member of the working class showed up at a meeting of the High Mountain Club, he or she caused astonishment. Doctors, docents and professors of various specialties (as well as many other white-collar workers of the large PRL state workforce) had plenty of time to climb, and unlike residents of meadows and shacks, they also had some own money and knowledge of the intricacies of bureaucracy. These people were able to organize themselves enough to deal with formalities related to trips to foreign mountains and even earn the favor of the authorities for their crazy plans. They were the main driving force of the High Mountain Club, later renamed the Polish Mountaineering Association. The latter allowed Polish climbers to visit higher and higher foreign mountains, chasing the world champions.Those widened the gap significantly in the 1950s, when hardly anyone in Poland climbed, and even fewer people could even travel to the Alps. But the 60’s and 70’s were for the climbers from Poland a foretaste of the “escape to the top” that happened later.

The full team of the central High Mountain Club camp from the summer of 1971 at the station in Zermatt. From the left: Jagiełło, Milewski, Wilusz, Zdzitowiecki, Piotrowski, Kieńć behind the camera.

Zygmunt Kieńć belonged to those mountaineers who had neither money nor useful contacts. However, he climbed so well that in March of 1969, together with Andrzej Dworak, he made the first winter crossing of straightening the Way of Momatiuk at Kazalnica Mięguszowiecka. It was a crossing of considerable importance, because the wall of Kazalnica, or Zerwa, is probably the biggest cliff in the Polish Tatras. Their team spent four nights on this wall, suspended without sleeping bags in inconvenient positions (and so they spared poor Franciszek some stress, as he had fewer surplus tenants in the old hostel). It is probably this crossing that got my father invited to participate in the Central High Mountain Club’s trip to the Swiss Alps in the summer of 1971. And indeed, the experience of Kazalnica was certainly useful in the Alps. On the northern face of the Matterhorn he would also have to stay suspended in uncomfortable positions. This time only three nights, but wearing crampons all the time, which he had no way to take off. He had no crampons on Kazalnica, because he had left them in the hostel. At that time, crampons did not perform well in rocky walls, so when doing purely rocky winter routes, mountaineers did not take them, although I think they could be useful in descending.

The then technique of overcoming the difficulties of rock scaling gave birth to the need for mountain boots, which stood well on small ledges. Polish technical minds responded to it, manufacturing Zawrats, high boots with a narrow, slightly asymmetrical tip. It was these boots that made Polish climbers writing reports from Alpine passages to the industry magazine Taternik mention that they could use shoes “in which their feet didn’t freeze”. Because in Zawrats they did freeze a lot. But it was the price for more precision. My father was the only one in the team that attacked Matterhorn in 1971, who was not wearing Zawrats, but boots made by a shoemaker from Smokowiec, a village on the sunny side of the Tatra Mountains.

 

The shoemaker, however, did not keep the agreed deadlines for order completion, which forced my father to cross the border illegally. Tourist passes to Czechoslovakia were only issued two per year, so my father found out about the missed deadlines for the order visiting his neighbors illegally. By the way, mountaineers used to cross the border to Czechoslovakia so often that since the 1950s PRL authorities began recruiting informants from their ranks, to monitor this practice.

 

Fortunately, the shoemaker’s work compensated my father for the risk and all inconveniences. The joy was even greater because the idea of replacing the Zawrats with tailor-made shoes did not come out of nowhere. After the winter trip to Kazalnica in Zawrats, my father’s toenails were still coming off next summer. The new shoes filled him with happiness and pride. In the summer of 1971, Zygmunt Kieńć was for the first time in mountains higher than the Tatras, but he was already wearing good boots.

 

Zdzitowiecki on the glacier.

 

More experienced mountaineers were also on the team. One of them was Krzysztof Zdzitowiecki, nicknamed “Wallcreeper”. At that time, Zdzitowiecki had already done some Alpine routes, but he was known mainly as the co-author of the route through the Pillars of Kazalnica Mięguszowiecka. This route was considered a breakthrough in the history of Tatra mountaineering, because it leads through two horizontal eaves, one of them fifteen meters long. But in 1971 Zdzitowiecki still had his most famous climbing achievements ahead of him. Four years later, as part of an expedition, which is not without irony called “feminine”, together with Wanda Rutkiewicz and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Janusz Onyszkiewicz, he climbed the 15th summit on Earth, the previously unconquered Gasherbrum III, the then highest virgin mountain in the world. The climbing of Gasherbrum III will always remain the highest first peak ascent in which women participated.

 

Another member of the trip, already experienced in the Alps, was Tadeusz Piotrowski. He died 15 years later on the slopes of K2, after he and Jerzy Kukuczka pioneered a new route to the top, which no one has repeated until today.

 

Another participant of the discussed summer alpine camp was Michał Jagiełło, today known mainly as the later head of the Tatra Mountain division of GOPR, writer, and after 1989, the deputy minister of culture and director of the National Library. Jagiełło and Piotrowski were to climb in a three-man team with Jerzy Milewski, the head of the trip, later an activist of Solidarity and an employee of the presidential office of Lech Wałęsa. The second three-man team consisted of the aforementioned Zdzitowiecki, Kieńć and Andrzej Wilusz. Wilusz was the second of six participants of this trip, who was not given a chance to grow old. He died in March 1973 in the Austrian Alps, preparing a camp at the end of the day of climbing, when a stone falling with a powder avalanche hit him on the neck below the helmet.

 

III

The goals of the Central Camp of the High Mountain Club in the summer of 1971 were ambitious: the northern faces of Matterhorn, Eiger, Dent Blanche and Dents d’Herens. Climbing any of these walls was considered a serious sports feat in those days. Additionally, climbers from behind the Iron Curtain who wanted to try their hand at them, had to somehow cope with the prices of staying in Switzerland. Because my father could not find the appropriate funds in the Morskie Oko lake, he borrowed money from his friends. The climbers agreed that they would take strings of sausages from Poland to help with provisions, which they had to buy on their own. Not everyone succeeded, so the food reserves were smaller than planned. Anyway, the transport of such food between countries was illegal at the time, so the climbers were technically smuggling it. Fortunately, sacks with hundreds of kilos of equipment discouraged customs officers from conducting any deeper investigation. It turns out that this reluctance of customs officers from around the world to control climbers’ luggage was quickly noticed by a wider circle, and smuggling became the second most important activity of Polish mountaineers, as Kurtyka writes in his Chinese Maharaja.

 

A camp in a larch forest on the roof of the funicular tunnel. Tents are already fenced by ropes, which is the consequence of the goat’s attack.

 

The company reached Zermatt by train. Anyone who has made any low-budget trips knows the feeling of alienation when reaching an expensive resort with only a few pennies in their pocket. In front of the station building travelers were changing to cabs waiting for them, someone was putting their luggage on an electric trolley sent by the hotel. And the climbers from the PRL? Sure, they could also take a cab, but to where? After a short reconnaissance, they managed to find a place to set up their tents. An illegal one, but no one worried about it. It was the same spot, which was later described by Anna Czerwińska in her book Matterhorn, Twice, as the one where “Poles were always camping in Zermatt”. Czerwińska writes:

 

“(…) the spot is very good, it will be tight, because a gravel pit nearby had gnawed at the meadow a little, but we will fit somehow. (…) We pass the noisy gravel pit and trudge uphill along the steep slope. A small pine grove. There we are. (…) Every several minutes the area where we bustle about vibrates violently – it is the funicular. (…) Another attraction is the helicopter landing pad located nearby. Landing or starting machines fly with a deafening bang literally over our heads. A gust of air tears the tents’ canvas. “

 

My father describes them a bit differently:

 

Not far from the station. We had to get out of the town in the direction we came from and from there on one side of an empty road a creek flowed, and on the other side was our spot, an embankment overgrown with larch forest. That embankment housed the tunnel of the funicular, so actually the train was passing under the tents. There was no gravel pit, only a machine that, making a hellish noise, extracted pebbles from the bottom of the stream. Anyway, how would a gravel pit gnaw at the funicular tunnel? Yes, it was about 200-300 meters from the helicopter landing pad, far enough that the blast of starting machines did not tear the tents. If it wasn’t for this machine in the stream, it would be quite silent and peaceful. The pilots even came there to sit in the evenings by the bonfire, which they started with the help of aviation fuel. Foreign campers did not bother them. Of course, later in Poland everyone found out that we were camping there and it became a popular spot so then the local police started to chase the Poles away, but back then it did not occur to the officers that someone could sleep in that place.

 

The problem was the goats, which grazed in the area and (attracted by the scent of sausage?) were getting into the camp. In the end a goat ripped the flies of one of the tents with its horns, which forced the inhabitants to make a rope fence around the camp.

 

View of the Matterhorn from the roof of the funicular. In the foreground, the helicopter pad.

 

And, of course, there was a lot of sausage in the camp (although still less than planned). The climbers stretched rope strings between tent poles and hanged the smuggled rings of sausage on them, so that the sausage fat dripped on the sleeping bags. This little discomfort allowed to save precious francs. Thanks to the sausage, money was only spent on bread, fruit and chocolate. My father also bought ice goggles that did not survive the Matterhorn trip and a map of Zermatt, which was later borrowed and not returned by the team Anna Czerwińska and Krystyna Palmowska.

 

The first trip was, of course, acclimatization. Wilusz, Zdzitowiecki and Kieńć took the normal route to Monte Rose. This route is an easy, tourist ascent on a peak higher than the Matterhorn. There, over 4000 m above sea level, the climbers lodged in the snow under the peak, covered with a camping sheet. The place they chose was unfortunate, because snow from the top slid down onto the sleepers, systematically covering the sheet. My father, for the first time at such altitude, could not sleep, felt suffocated under the snow quilt. In the end he dug himself out from under the sheet, and for the rest of the night until dawn, he was snoozing and alternatively digging out his soundly-sleeping companions. After the camping, the team went down, considering acclimatization complete.

 

Wilusz (in the foreground) and Zdzitowiecki (behind him).

 

IV

The first destination of the escapade proper was Dent Blanche, and more specifically its north-eastern, rarely traversed face. Both three-man teams went under it. Team Milewski, Jagiełło, Piotrowski set off to the cliff as second and had a small adventure on the way. They decided to drop their backpacks from the glacier’s cliff to facilitate the tedious descent. Only then it turned out that this cliff was almost vertical and made of hard ice. Had they noticed it earlier, they would have surely taken the rope out of the backpacks, or at least the crampons. But now the had to descend using their own, improvised methods that were certainly not pleasant. Eventually, however, everyone reached the wall unscathed. Objective conditions at Dent Blanche forced new routes to be laid out. Although the north-east face of this four-thousander already had its routes, the existing ones ran through an area that this summer seemed to be extremely exposed to stone avalanches, due to record-breaking heat. My father mentioned that he had never experienced such heat as there in the Alps on the glacier. The sun was so strong this year that even the famous snow fields on the northern face of the Eiger melted, as it turned out, preventing mountain activities there. When ice and snow melt in the Alps, stones start to fall down. And so, as soon as the rays of the rising sun touched the faces of Dent Blanche, the stones and boulders started to fall down, discouraging climbing via the existing routes.

 

Kieńć’s finger, Zdzitowiecki and Wilusz (last) on the new route to Dent Blanche.

 

Observation, however, showed that the left side of the wall seemed safe. That’s where my father spotted the not-too-prominent pillar, where his team led a new, medium-difficult route. The other three attempted to cross the virgin line leading closer to the center of the wall, but ultimately followed in the footsteps of their companions.

 

The climbing in the wall itself did not deserve too much space in my father’s stories. It means that it was easy and even the camp was comfortable, i.e. you did not need to hang backpacks on hooks, but you could put them down normally. It was not so convenient later on the Matterhorn.

 

However, the descent from the top of Dent Blanche, along a theoretically not difficult ridge, provided a lot of thrill. The snow which climbers had to walk on, was so thin in some places that by putting crampons on it, you could go right through. It was a daredevil descent, we had our hands full, my father says. Belaying in such terrain is sometimes called social, which means that if you fall your companion usually falls with you. My father adds: You have to look in which direction your partner is falling and find yourself on the other side of the ridge. So the worst situation is when the one going second falls.

 

A comfortable camping place at Dent Blanche. From the left: Zdzitowiecki and Wilusz.

 

After descending from the top, the climbers were rewarded with the hostel Cabana De La Dent Blanche. The host of the sanctuary addressed his guests only in French, which in multilingual Switzerland, especially in the alpine tourism sector, was considered a peculiarity, and perhaps even rudeness. But Polish climbers did not talk to him, there was nothing to talk about. They didn’t have a lot of franks, so they did not order anything, and went lower for the night. My father photographed a piece of a gray, dirty glacier, just near Cabana. This was the historic landing site of Hermann Geiger, an airman who carried out rescue operations in the Alps with a small Piper PA-18 aircraft long before the heavy and clumsy helicopters began to be used for such purposes. And the art of landing a plane on a sloping, snowy glacier is probably even crazier than extreme climbing. Reading the history of glacier airmen, it’s hard to resist the impression that mountains attract crazy people.

 

Coming back from Dent Blanche, Jagiełło, walking ahead, pierced a snow bridge over an invisible ice crevice with his boots. The future head of the Tatra Mountain Rescue Service (GOPR) was going without protection, so he was saved only by a narrowing of the gap in which he wedged and the fact that he was reached by a rope dropped from above. Jammed Jagiełło was unable to get out by his own strength, so Piotrowski and Milewski started energetically pulling the rope to which the unlucky one was tied up, and because neither of them was a weakling, the miraculously saved climber went through the same snow bridge again, this time with his face. It was only the second time that caused him an injury, but he was alive and able to continue climbing.

 

My father, on the other hand, lost his gloves. During one of the numerous stops he put them on a stone and then simply continued on. It was not a big deal, because he had spares. But this small mistake later turned out to be fraught with consequences.

 

V

 

Zdzitowiecki, Kieńć and Wilusz as their next goal chose to repeat the Bonatti Route on the northern face of the Matterhorn. To this day, it is a much less frequented route than the neighboring one, laid out by the first wall conquerors, the Schmid brothers. Bonatti route’s lower popularity is mainly due to the fact that even today the best teams cannot count on making it in one day (even Ueli Steck, the grandmaster of Alpine sprints, needed 25 hours to deal with this classic). At the same time, the northern face of the most recognizable mountain in the world is not famous for comfortable camping sites. At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, Bonatti’s route had a well-deserved reputation for being extreme.

 

Kieńć (bottom, back to camera) on the way to the north face of the Matterhorn.

 

When I showed my father the image of Walter Bonatti hanging on Matterhorn in a camping cloth fastened on several pitons, he was genuinely surprised. “Where did he find so many places for pitons?” he asked.

Perhaps this extraordinary ability to find good cracks in walls showed the mastery of the Italian climber, considered today the best mountaineer of all time. Anyway, the opinion that it is difficult to sleep on the northern wall of the Matterhorn appears in many accounts. First of all, it’s hard to even find a normal, flat ledge, everything is sloping, there are no comfortable shelves or flattenings. Secondly, the brittle rock makes it difficult to embed the pitons and it is not easy to hang anything there. Reinhold Messner, the first conqueror of the Crown of the Himalaya and Karakorum, after an unsuccessful attempt on the Bonatti route, said he had withdrawn from it not because he had met bad conditions, but because he simply could not have done it. Franz Schmid himself, who, along with his brother, first crossed the northern wall, although he had chosen a route leading through an easier terrain than Bonatti, wrote: “We did not find even one small quiet place in this terrible wall”. Gaston Rebuffat called Matterhorn “a beautiful pile of rocks”, and the passage of its northern wall “an unpleasant climb”. He probably meant the same what Yvette Voucher, the first woman who completed the Schmid’s route, said directly: “those stones stick together only because everything is frozen.” Her opinion seems to have been confirmed by a gigantic landslide, in which over 1000 cubic meters of rock fell off the Hornla ridge, revealing pure ice underneath. A large chunk of rock really held onto the Matterhorn just because it was frozen.

 

Kieńć on the first of Bonatti’s pitches.

 

Walter Bonatti set his route on the northern face of the Matterhorn in special circumstances. He was alone (or more accurately, in the company of his favorite toy bear), in winter, and he was ending his career in professional sport. The climb took place in 1965, almost exactly 100 years after the first conquest of the Matterhorn, and caused an unprecedented stir in the climbing world. The first repetition of this route took place in the summer of 1966 and was done by a Polish team composed of Ryszard Szafirski, Adam Zyzak, Ryszard Berbeka and Jan Stryczyński. The second winter climb took place in March 1967 and took the life of the Slovak mountaineer Stano Lednar.

 

VI

The sun that haunted the team earlier during the glacial walks, was of course not there on the day when Zdzitowiecki, Wilusz and Kieńć were to climb the northern wall of the Matterhorn. The previous night the climbers spent restlessly, camping on the edge of an ice crevasse and listening to the avalanches sliding down the mountain. The mountaineers could not shake the fear that one of them could choose a wrong path and push the three of them into the fissure. In the morning, it turned out that the whole area was enveloped in thick fog. Any mountain activity was out of the question. Wilusz and Kieńć, therefore, moved to a safer area and continued to rest, while Zdzitowiecki rushed back to Zermatt for some missing equipment. The next morning the weather turned out to be better, although it was warm enough to make the ice soft, which prevented normal crossing of the edge fissure that guarded access to the wall. So the team traveled along a bridge made by the avalanches sliding down that way and started climbing the Bonatti route.

 

Kieńć on the first of Bonatti’s pitches.

 

Nice weather did not last long. In the afternoon the weather window closed and snow began to fall. Fresh snow makes it difficult to climb in an extremely nasty way, because it does not offer any attachment points when it is not connected to the ground. In order to place a belay or find a place to rest the crampon, one has to brush it off until one finds a relatively hard layer, for example solid rock, or old, well compressed snow. Rummaging in powdery snow is tedious, frustrating, and the snow itself, well, at around zero degrees Celsius is wet. During a break in the weather, around the evening, the team reached the key pitches of the route, going through the Traverse of the Angels.

 

My father was leading. He was wearing spare gloves made from repurposed woolen socks, which got simply worn-out and he was freezing, burying in the snow with his bare fingers. He stopped, feeling that he was losing feeling in his hands. When he moved again after a while, he lost his balance and accidentally grabbed the security hook in such a way that he snatched it from the horizontal crack. And so they fell together, my father and the hook. They only fell a few meters, but it was enough to hit a protruding block of rock with his right foot and break his ankle. It was evening, so the team decided to wait until the morning. As Zdzitowiecki later wrote in Taternik, it was “the first in a series of uncomfortable camps”.

 

Kieńć leading on the Bonatti, a photo taken before the weather broke.

 

In order to understand even a little what the inconvenience was, it is worth to start from the fact that, of course, the company didn’t have sleeping bags – neither on the Matterhorn nor earlier on Dent Blanche. Even the so-called elephant legs – short sleeping bags, reaching to the waist, used in a set with a jacket worn during the day, although fashionable back then, were considered too heavy by the climbers. They had a camping tarp which protected them from the wind and covered them from the snow and two ropes that could be used to isolate them a bit from the cold rock. Similarly, you could use your own backpack. You could also put your legs in the backpack theoretically, for additional protection against the cold of the night, but in this area it was impossible to detach the crampons. So they were sticking them into rocks or ice.

 

They stayed like that, half-hanging, half-sitting on a vertical wall, waiting for dawn. It was snowing and avalanches went down near them all the time. Their sleep was probably light also because they had a lot to think about. The problem was that for now they were in a place protected from the top by an overhang, but if they were to try descending in the morning, they would spend the next day in an area endangered by avalanches. Both snow and stones were falling on the wall, where their potential retreat led. There were many indications that a safer route was to go up. But going up they would have to go with an injured partner. They were also not sure exactly what happened to Kieńć’s ankle. It turned out only a few days later in Zermatt, with Dr. Gantinetta, that it was broken and required surgery and months of convalescence. My father has good memories of the doctor to this day. Right now they were on the wall and probably hoped that he would feel better until the morning. And he actually did. The ankle swelled so much that the high boot stiffened the leg almost like a plaster. I do not know how much of it was calculation, how much optimism and how much faith in miracles, but at sunrise my father told the others that he could continue up. The weather did not meet Kieńć’s optimism. On the second day, there was a regular snow storm with thunderbolts. They climbed slowly, Kieńć leaned against the rock with the teeth of his left crampon and his right knee. Small avalanches tormented the climbers to such an extent that they had to scoop compressed snow lodged between the backpacks and jackets with ice axes. The second camp spot was slightly better than the first, but also allowing them to sit down at most. On the third day of climbing, already in slightly better conditions, they mistakenly descended into an area that did not allow them to later go up. A smooth wall, closing their path, grinned with a pair of anchors. Someone had to painstakingly bite into a solid rock with those anchors, in a difficult terrain. It was most likely where the winter Czechoslovak expedition withdrew from, after the death of Stano Lednar. Zdzitowiecki, Wilusz and Kieńć found the right route several dozen meters to the side. Later it got easier and they set up the third camp just below the top ridge.

 

I have always been wondering about people who talk about the beauty of the mountains. For me, mountains are first and foremost terrible and then inhuman. When I was in the Prokletije, whose name Cursed Mountains seems to me quite adequate, stepping on brittle, white, rumbling slabs, I had the impression that these mountains are burial mounds. The landscape of rugged ridges, completely devoid of vegetation and animals, gave me one fundamental thought – if hell existed, it could look like this. It is hard to imagine something more inhuman than a bare rock, than a labyrinth of bare rock and dirty snow. An environment in which even primitive lichens are rare. Where there is not enough water, and if there is, you have to melt it from the snow, which is usually not so easy. If there is no snow, then the rock does not offer man anything he needs to survive.

 

Piotrowski reaches Slovayhutte belayed by Jagiełło. Photo taken from inside the shelter, through the window.

 

Reaching to the top of a mountain like the Matterhorn is, to some extent, a return to civilization. Already back then, at the beginning of the 1970s, the ascent via the Hornli ridge by way of the first conquerors was a popular trip for medium-advanced tourists, so when reaching the summit, the team found themselves among people again. Bad weather, however, continued, and neither going down nor organizing a rescue operation was easy. After a few hours, my father was able to reach Solvayhutte, a maintenance-free shelter on the ridge, which was squatted on a rock platform so small that it was not possible for two people walking around the hut to pass each other. His companions continued their descent to notify the rescuers in Zermatt about the need to transport the wounded with a helicopter. The weather, however, did not permit flying. It was clear that Kieńć would spend several days in the shelter. Piotrowski and Jagiełło approached Solvay with the intention of accompanying my father waiting for the helicopter. They also brought food from the supplies gathered in the camp, but it soon turned out that there was more food in the maintenance-free Swiss shelter than the climbers from the PRL had for the rest of their trip. The break of the weather, which cost my father a fall and a broken ankle, came just at the time when most of the tours attacking the summit through the Hornli ridge were in Solvay. These climbers had left their supplies in the shelter and went down, which turned out to be a blessing for Kieńć, as well as for Piotrowski and Jagiełło who were waiting with him. On the third day, the weather improved and the wounded Kieńć was transported by helicopter to the clinic in Zermatt. When my father lay in the Swiss hospital Jagiełło, Piotrowski and Milewski set a new, difficult route on the northern face of the Dents d’Herens. Ascending Eiger was considered impossible due to heat and poor conditions on the wall.

 

Good weather and an incoming helicopter. Picture taken through a window from Solvayhutte.

 

For my father, the alpine adventure ended with screwing together his broken ankle. The bolt prevented him from climbing in the following months, and because life in the city requires some occupation (even if there are lakes, there are no coins in them), Kieńć took up the job of the driver in the PKS freight.

 

He says that if he did not have that bolt, he would go to higher mountains next summer. One of his rope partners at the time was Wanda Rutkiewicz – exactly at the beginning of her Himalayan career. However, Kieńć climbed little the time, and the bolt caused him pain whenever he accidentally hit something with his ankle. When my father took two weeks of vacation at the PKS in 1973, his constitution did not allow him to climb the tourist route from Morskie Oko to Rysy. Despite this, he did not give up climbing. In the same year, in Betlejemka, then still a private hostel with a low standard, a climbing school was opened. This gave the homeless Tatra climbers a new base, because the instructors, when they were training, slept in Betlejemka for free. From 1974 until martial law my father lived permanently at Hala Gąsienicowa, partly as a climbing instructor in Betlejemka, partly as an employee in the Murowaniec hostel, partly as a lifeguard of the Tatra Mountain Group GOPR, and when he had no other choice, he tried to live in abandoned shepherd huts. He did not stay in them permanently, although there was someone in the Tatra community who managed to do so: Jano, also a climbing instructor, later also a moonshine maker and finally an amphetamine producer, was an icon of the Hala for years due to his unusual living quarters. My father never went to the Alps again, or climbed routes as difficult as Bonatti. Today, he says about climbing: I finally recovered from this addiction. What I needed was: martial law, children and weaker health.

 

 

Witold Kieńć, born in 1984, formerly a sociologist, he climbed a bit. Most recently, chief accountant and brewer in the cooperative Sabotage Brewery.
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