Lithuanian-born Wanda Rutkiewicz was arguably the finest female high-altitude mountaineer of the twentieth century. During her action-packed life she led or participated in some 22 expeditions to the Himalaya and Pamirs and climbed extensively in the Andes. She reached the summit of eight 8,000m peaks.
Raised in Warsaw and educated as a computer engineer, Rutkiewicz was a talented skier, swimmer, and gymnast who was introduced to climbing in 1961 while she was training for the Tokyo Olympics with the Polish women’s volleyball team. She recalled her first climbs as having been made with “much emotion but bad style.” Rutkiewicz soon improved and began undertaking difficult alpine climbs in Austria and Norway. Her first high-altitude success came in 1970 when she climbed Peak Lenin in the Pamirs and from then on an endless series of expeditions began, during which Rutkiewicz began pioneering the concept of all-female teams. Her winter ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn with Irena Kesa, Anna Czerwinska, and Krystyna Plamowska was especially influential. Rutkiewicz also made strides for women’s climbing in terms of expedition leadership of mixed teams, being the co-leader of the expedition that made the first ascent of Gasherbrum III in 1975.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Rutkiewicz even took up rally driving after becoming the first European woman to climb Everest in 1978. Her steely approach to the challenges of life was further proven in 1981 when a skier crashed into her on Mount Elbrus, fracturing her leg. Despite having to use crutches for two years, she nevertheless led a successful expedition to K2. She was the first woman to climb and descend that merciless mountain, though her success was marred as her companions Liliane and Maurice Barrard were separated in a blizzard and both fell to their deaths. In this now infamous ‘Black Summer’ of 1986, 13 people lost their lives in pursuit of this most challenging of 8,000m summits. Rutkiewicz went on to achieve more big peak success, such as the isolated Shishapangma and the “Turquoise Goddess” Cho Oyu, but her ambitions finally caught up with her. In 1992, at age 49, she disappeared high on Kangchenjunga, hoping to make a solo bid for the summit, in pursuing her declared mission to try to become the first woman to climb all the 8,000m mountains. Her body has never been recovered.
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, see http://www.polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on twitter check out @polarworld.
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