A stalled motorcycle kick-started one of the most extraordinary careers in mountaineering history. Wanda Rutkiewicz was 18 years old in 1961, a promising athlete who had attracted the attention of Poland’s Olympic volleyball coaches. Then her old Junak ran out of gas. One of the men who stopped to assist was a climber, and Wanda accepted his invitation to climb in the nearby Góry Sokole hills.
“I adored the physical movement, the fresh air, the camaraderie, and the excitement,” she wrote in her diary. Volleyball didn’t stand a chance. Wanda rose quickly through the ranks of Polish alpinism. Though she confessed her early climbs were made with “much emotion but bad style,” by the mid-1960s she was undertaking difficult routes in the Tatras, the Alps and in Norway, where she made the first female ascent of the Trollryggen’s challenging East Face.
In 1970 she joined a high-powered expedition in the Soviet Pamirs led by Andrzej Zawada, a pioneering alpinist who Mountain magazine once described as “the preeminent war lord of Polish mountaineering.” Zawada’s invitation cemented Wanda’s status among Poland’s elite climbers, but the men on the expedition treated her poorly. Though she could climb with the best of them, they coddled and spoke down to her. The headstrong and famously confrontational Wanda was having none of it.
She stuck with the program long enough to top out on Pik Lenin, her first high-altitude success at 23,406 feet, but afterward shunned the climbing establishment in favor of smaller expeditions, often climbing with other women. In 1975 she co-led a mixed team on the first ascent of Gasherbrum III (26,069 feet) in the Karakorum—the world’s highest unclimbed peak at the time—and in 1978 led an electrifying all-female ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn, in winter.
Later that year she scaled Everest despite suffering from anemia, injecting herself with iron during the climb to boost her hemoglobin levels. She summitted on May 16, 1978, becoming the third woman to climb the world’s tallest mountain. More to the point, she was the first Pole, male or female, to reach that milestone.
On the very same day the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected pope. When they met a year later, the pontiff told her, “the Good Lord wanted us both to rise high on that day.” In return, Wanda gave John Paul II a stone she’d taken from the top of the world.
Wanda Rutkiewicz was born in 1943 to Polish parents in Plungé, a small town in what is now Lithuania. Early in the Second World War, the town was occupied first by the Soviets and then the Nazis, who summarily murdered Plungé’s Jewish population—some 2,500 people—in the year before Wanda was born. When she was an infant the Soviets drove the Germans out again, and the family resettled in Wrocław in Western Poland. That city had been reduced to ruins in the last weeks of the war. Years later, when Wanda was five and her brother Jurek was 7, the boy found an unexploded grenade in the rubble. The weapon detonated, and Jurek was killed.
Wanda came of age in a city that was rapidly rebuilding, with drab concrete apartment blocks rising from the wartime desolation. She earned a degree in electrical engineering, and excelled as an athlete, competing in track and field and becoming a formidable volleyball player, despite standing only 5’6”.
When she discovered mountaineering, those other pursuits gradually fell to the wayside. Like many of her compatriots, Wanda found in the mountains a sense of freedom that was otherwise lacking in Poland at the time. The Polish alpinists who came of age in the 1970s were a breed apart. They sewed their own gear, sharpened their skills in the Tatras of southern Poland, then loaded up and drove overland to test themselves in the Pamirs, the Hindu Kush, and finally the Himalaya. Naturally, the leading Polish men had ambitions on Everest, but Wanda beat them to it.
The opportunity came when she was invited to join a team organized by German climber Karl Herrligkoffer. This expedition was every bit as rancorous as the Pamir mission years earlier, but Wanda would not be deterred from the summit. According to Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom Climbers: The Golden Age of Polish Climbing, Wanda declined Herrligkoffer’s request to escort an ailing team member to base camp, and later refused a deputy leader’s order to carry an extra oxygen bottle to the top. Disgusted, her male companions left her standing alone at the South Col.
She caught up to them at the summit. In McDonald’s telling, “She had climbed to the top; nothing else mattered.”
After her Everest triumph, Wanda’s fire for mountaineering dimmed for a time. She began an autobiography and tried her hand at automobile racing, but nothing could hold her like the mountains. In 1981, she began organizing an all-women’s expedition to K2 and resumed her on-again, off-again affair with the Polish climbing establishment.
By this time Solidarity was gaining hold in Poland. Wanda, like many Polish climbers of the day, supported the nascent democracy movement. Still, none of them was above an expense-paid trip to the Caucasus to bag a peak and celebrate socialist ideals with mountaineers from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and East Germany. High on Mt Elbrus, a climber lost his footing and slid headlong into Wanda, shattering her femur. Doctors opened her leg and inserted a metal rod, but the surgery was poorly done. The injury required more surgeries and a long convalescence.
Wanda was unable to walk without crutches for more than a year, but she refused to give up on her women’s K2 expedition. She barnstormed around the Europe, collecting sponsorships and organizing logistics, often in the company of the great Reinhold Messner, who said “Wanda is the living proof that women can put up performances at high altitude that most men can only dream of.” Then, in the summer of 1982, she made the seven-day hike to K2 on crutches. Though unable to climb above base camp, she was determined to be there to lead her team of women.
The historic summit was not to be, though the women’s expedition revealed that chauvinism alone was not to blame for the team strife that so often surrounded Wanda. Her relentless determination was the foundation of her success, but it came hand-in-hand with a confrontational and uncompromising nature. “A difficult woman, an extraordinary woman,” summed up Krzysztof Wielecki, one of Poland’s most celebrated climbers. Wanda had asked nothing of her climbers that she would not ask of herself. But only she had trekked 70 miles to K2 on crutches.
When her leg was whole again she returned. Climbing without supplemental oxygen, in 1986 she became the first woman and first Pole to stand atop K2. This triumph was tinged with loss, as her companions Liliane and Maurice Barrard were separated in a blizzard on the descent and fell to their deaths. In the now-infamous Black Summer of 1986, 13 people lost their lives in pursuit of the most challenging of 8,000-meter summits.
Death always seemed nearby, in the mountains and her personal life. According to one account, Wanda lost 25 friends and expedition partners in the mountains. She’d lost her brother in childhood, and her father was murdered when she was 29. That proximity to death seemed to breed a certain comfort with the prospect.
“I never seek death, but I don’t mind the idea of dying on the mountains,” she once said. “It would be an easy death for me. After all that I’ve experienced, I’m familiar with it. And most of my friends are there in the mountains, waiting for me.
In a long interview with Jonathan Waterman for Climbing magazine, she chided American climbers for their cautious approach. “Each climber loses one finger or toe once in a while,” she said. “This is a small but important reason for Polish climbers’ success. Western climbers haven’t lost [as many] fingers or toes.” Allison Osius recounted the interview in a Climbing story about the first three women who climbed Everest.
Wanda gave that interview in 1989, as part of her media tour. That same year Solidarity triumphed in Poland and the Berlin wall came tumbling down. Wanda, who early in her career had extracted climbing opportunities from the byzantine machinery of the socialist state, was now seeking corporate sponsorship for her most audacious project yet—to claim eight 8,000-meter summits in a single year, trekking from peak to peak. If successful, the project would have made her only the third climber, after Messner and her compatriot Jerzy Kukuczka to climb all 14 of the world’s highest mountains.
“I call my plan the ‘Caravan of Dreams’ because I am trying to make something that seems pure fantasy come true. I’ll be hiking from valley to valley, through the various peaks, just as the caravans once did. I will not be the third, coming after Messner and Kukuczka. I will be the first to try something new,” she said. “The whole point is to attempt to use constant acclimatization. That is something no one has ever done, man or woman.”
She started with successful ascents of Cho Oyu and Annapurna. Next came Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain at 28,169 feet, a climb she attempted with the Mexican mountaineer Carlos Carsolio. According to everesthistory.com, the pair started their summit push at 3:30 a.m. from about 26,100 feet. Carsolio climbed ahead, topping out after a 12-hour slog through heavy snowfall. On the way down he found Wanda preparing to bivouac at about 27,200 feet. She had no food, no tent and no stove to melt water, but she insisted she would try for the summit the next day. Carsolio has said he was too weak to argue, though in fairness to him, few people in any condition had ever dissuaded Wanda Rutkiewicz from a goal she set for herself.
He descended, and she was never seen again.
Top Photo: Wanda Rutkiewicz climing in the Góry Sokole. Photo by Seweryn Bidzinski.