Two virgin eight-thousanders conquered by the 3rd Polish Himalayan Expedition 1978


THE Third Polish Himalaya Expedition, bearing the official name Polish South Kangchenjunga Expedition 1978, was organized by the Polish Mountaineering Club (Polski Klub Gorski) from Warsaw. The idea of an expedition to conquer the as yet unsealed side peak of an eight-thousander was born shortly after the first club expedition to Kangbachen in 1974 (7902 m) (see (H.J. Vol. XXXIII, p. 58) and the first Polish victory in the Great Himalaya.

In Karakoram, the last decade has brought magnificent results for Polish mountaineers. The Poles were the first to step on the peaks of Malubiting North, 6842m (H.J. Vol. XXIX, p. 161), Kunyang Chhish, 7852m (H.J. Vol. XXXI, p. 283), Shispare, 7619 m (H.J. Vol. XXXIII, p. 209), Broad Peak Middle, 8016 m (H.J. Vol. XXXIV, p. 104), and Gasherbrum III, 7592 m (H.J. Vol. XXXIV, p. 93). However, in the Himalaya our only conquest was Kangbachen.

We received official permission for our attempt to scale Kangchenjunga in the pre-monsoon season 1978, issued for Polish South Kangchenjunga Expedition 1978, however it did not stipulate whether this permission was simply for the main peak or for all of them. It also did not mention the height of the peak. We therefore assumed that this also included Kangchenjunga South peak, after the name of the expedition. Out of the permissible peaks we chose to ascend : Lhotse and Kangchenjunga. Kangchenjunga South, although less well explored and not yet. conquered, as opposed to Lhotse, which has been conquered twice, offered us a superb opportunity to scale an eight thousand metre high virgin peak.

Photo Plates 4-9

The members of the Polish South Kangchenjunga Expedition 1978 were : Wojciech Branski, Eugeniusz Chrobak, Stanislaw Czerwinski, Andrzej Z. Heinrich, Marek Janas, Wieslaw Klaput, Marek Malatynski (secretary), P'iotr Mlotecki (leader), Przemy- slaw Nowacki, Waldemar K. Olech (deputy leader), Jozef Olszewski, Zbigniew Pawlowski, Andrzei Pietraszek (doctor), Marek Rogalski, Jan Serafin (doctor), Grzegorz Siekierski, Andrzej Skalski, Andrzej Sobolewski, Zbigniew Staszyszyn, Jerzy Weso- lowski (deputy leader, chief of the B.C.), Wojciech Wroz, James Andrew Brady, Stanley Carl T'obin (both from the Alaska Alpine Club), Bernard Uchmanski and Szymon Wdowiak (both from Polish TV).

On 1 March 1978 almost all the members of the expedition arrived by air in Bombay, where the ship carrying our luggage was already docked.1 In the meantime, the two Americans and our two Mlotecki and Branski were already in Kathmandu, the last two finalizing the formalities such as employing of Sherpas and liaison officer, and also sorting out their insurance. Talks with representatives of the Nepalese Foreign Ministry revealed certain misunderstandings as to which peak we meant to ascend. The leader of the expedition therefore had to announce our intention of attacking Kangchenjunga Main Peak from the south, going by the route which led through the ridge falling from the South Peak, and so through the South and Central Peaks.


  1. The team participated in the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Club during their stay in Bombay.—Ed.


Most of the expedition members reached Jogbani by rail. In Biratnagar, on the Nepalese side, we met the expedition leader, the two Americans, our liaison officer Bir Bahadur Siris and our Sherpas.

The Spanish Yalung Kang Expedition team led by Joseph Peira Queralt was also in Biratnagar at the same time as us. The routes of the caravans of both expeditions coincide up to the Yalung Valley. This we foresaw could bring about many complications in the( recruitment of porters and with their upkeep during the long march. We therefore organized our caravan as soon as the lorry arrived at Dharan Bazar to set off to overtake the Spanish Expedition. On 14 March, 160 porters with luggage and two expedition members left Dharan Bazar, on the next day 146 porters and the rest of the expedition team left. The caravan route led through Dhankuta, Taplejung and Yamphodin, a route used in previous years by the Japanese Yalung Kang Expedition 1973 and 1974, and Austro-German Expedition of 1975 to Yalung Kang. On 27 March the caravan reached Yamphodin, the last settlement on the route to the mountains. On the next day a strike of the porters demanding a rise in wages from 20 to 25 NRs caused us to disband our caravan and dismiss the more dissatisfied porters and their leaders. We then had to employ porters locally. The Spanish Expedition caught up with us in Yamphodin, and they reemployed all our dismissed porters and their leaders. The next day the caravans of both expeditions set out in the direction of Omje Khola, and to the pass of Lasy Dada (3400 m) as it was called by the porters. The next valley led to the Yalung Valley and to the site of the Base Camp. When we reached Omje Khola the weather changed. Rains relatively rare for spring time started to fall, and in the higher regions snowfalls were observed. A large portion of the porters who were badly clad and barefoot left us there, and we were left with around only 80 of them. We were now threatened with disaster before actually reaching the mountain peaks. Because of this situation all the expedition members and the Sherpas were now forced to take on the roles of porters. We were now forced to do the following stages of our journey several times, with a fast- diminishing number of porters, all of us carrying new loads. It was only now that we realized the advantages of a large expeditionary force. Even when a further strike of the porters took place, we were still able to transport about 35 pieces of luggage in one day. We can easily say that when our number of porters was down to only 40, the number of Sherpas and expedition members saved the entire expedition.

On 7 April the first group of members reached Tseram. Here the leaders of the expedition decided to split the party up, six people plus one Sherpa and some of the more reliable porters were to cross the Yalung Glacier as a reconnaissance party and set up the Base Camp. They were also to reconnoitre the south pillar Of Kangchenjunga South and eventually start an ascent while the rest of the expedition and caravan caught up. The reconnaissance party consisted of the experienced climbers Olech, Chrobak, Heinrich Olszewski, Sobolewski, Wroz and one Sherpa Lhakpa Gyalu. The rest of the team plus the Sherpas and porters were to form a transporting team for the 250 remaining packages. On 10 April the reconnaissance party reached the planned B.C. site under the ridge of Talung Peak, not far from the place where the Yalung Glacier met the base of the wall of Kangchenjunga South.

The caravan was thus spread across the whole of the Yalung Valley. In this way travelling in two groups we found that everyone was acclimatized to a different degree. This situation underwent a change no sooner than after two weeks. The climbers from the transporting party who were the last to join, were able to set off above the Base Camp 20 days later than those from the reconnaissance team.

A few days after Base Camp had been established, the recce party decided against an attack on the south ridge. Under the circumstances they considered it dangerous, trying and time- consuming. They therefore decided to climb by the route of the first conquerors, i.e. to the Great Shelf and then only return to the south ridge. This new change required establishing a new B.C. in a new place. The first tents of the new Base Camp were pitched on 19 April, on the orographically right side of the Yalung Glacier, near the site of the Japanese B.C. of the 1974 expedition (5200 m). The Spaniards set up their base camp not far away from us.

On 29 April, forty-seven days after leaving Dharan Bazar, all our baggage was finally in Base Camp. This was one of the longest caravans ever known in the history of Himalayan expeditions. It was also probably the most expensive; we were forced at the end to pay 45 NRs per day, 2.5 times the normal rate prescribed by the Nepalese authorities. The management of Base Camp was taken over by deputy leader Wesolowski, it was he who later also looked after the radiotelephone communication between the base and the other camps.

As the caravan proceeded, from mid-April on, other participants began gradually to join in the mountain action above the Base. Even before the Base Camp was properly established the recce party had already set up the Advance Base Camp on 11 April. This was at a height of 5500 m on a lateral moraine hill, near Pache's grave. Thus on 16 April at a height of 6200 m after laying out 600 metres of fixed ropes Camp 1 was established. The tents were pitched on the 'Hump'; a snow ridge falling from the face of Yalung Kang and forming the right boundary of the Great Icefall. The further route led a few hundred metres along the Hump ridge, then it dropped in a 150 metre wall down to a huge cwm between the upper and the lower part of the Great Icefall, traversed the cwm and here encountered the powerful snow and ice wall of the upper icefall, leading to the Great Shelf. Its left and steeper part constituted the main course of the icefall, the right being a steepish snowfield, striped in some places by seracs and crevasses. Going to the true left side of the upper buttress of the icefall, two teams, Chrobak-Wroz-Lhakpa Gyalu and Heinrich-Olech-Olszewski, stamped the track up on 24 April, fixing 800 metres of ropes up to the middle of the upper icefall, and established Camp 2 (6600 m). The camp was sited on a snowy ledge beneath a huge serae giving some protection in case of avalanches.

Three days later the most active of our teams, consisting of Chrobak, Wroz and Lhakpa, managed to reach the top extremity of the icefall and pitched their tent just below the Great Shelf. This was to be Camp 3, at a height of 7150 m. At this time we had the task of keeping all the camps supplied. Two teams were sent up, the first consisting of Janas, Klaput and Malatynski with the task of equipping Camp 2, the second team of Rogalski, Branski and Serafin, was to go to Camp 3. During 30 April and 1 May, Heinrich, Malatynski, Olech and Olszewski fixed 800 m of rope on the route to Camp 3 and also built it up.

Within a few days, the Spanish expedition followed our route, setting up their camps close to our sites. Because the Polish expedition had first set out on the route, and made it secure using a vast amount of their ropes and technical equipment, the Spanish expedition gave us some of their ropes and snow-pitons. Only a part of our team took part in the further action of keeping the camps supplied. Many members of the team became ill with upper respiratory tract infections. The dry freezing air caused inflammation of the throat and mouth and chronic coughs. Most members of the team suffered from this to some degree during the expedition. Due to the deterioration of his health Sobolewski after the exertions of the primary period of activity had to resign from further action.

In the beginning of May, having completed the task of setting up camps up to Camp 3, we started to attack Kangchenjunga South. The attack had been planned as departure from Base, on consecutive days of several teams with set tasks, carrying oxygen and gear to set up Camp 4 in the couloir falling from the wall of Kangchenjunga South, and possibly Camp 5 on the south ridge of this peak. A quick summit assault by the rope pair Chrobak- Wroz, and maybe the next team, along the south ridge was to crown the action. The short period of acclimatization of the majority of the members and the many illnesses, reduced our chances of doing this. Our leader did however accept this plan, seeing in it at least a chance to set up and equip Camp 4.

On 6 May Chrobak, Wroz and Lhakpa fixed the ropes (600 m) on the route to the site of Camp 4. Two days later Chrobak, Heinrich, Lhakpa, Janas, Olech, Olszewski, Serafinski and Uchman- ski made a site for Camp 4 (7600 m). The first tent of this camp was pitched on an ice-shelf half way up the couloir from where a large snowy gangway led on to the south ridge. Chrobak, Heinrich and Lhakpa spent the night in only one tent in Camp 4 and next day Chrobak and Heinrich marked out the route to the south ridge. Lhakpa was able to carry two oxygen bottles to a height of about 8000m and then return to Camp 3. Wroz and Serafin joined the Camp 4. It seemed that everything was ready for an attempt to reach the summit the following day. The rest was up to the weather.

The planned attack on the summit of Kangchenjunga South did not however take place on 10 May. After a horrific night in one small tent, Chrobak, Heinrich, Serafin and Wroz decided to return to Camp 3 and after that to Base Camp for a rest. This was due to strong winds on the south ridge, exhaustion of the climbers and lack of facilities to the supporting pair. At the same time deterioration experienced by Olszewski in Camp 3— he had been working very hard all the time—made it necessary to bring him down to Camp 2. Janas, Nowacki, Pawlowski and also Brady and Tobin who had been going up to Camp 3 on that very day, took care of him. On 10 May Klaput, Malatynski and four Sherpas also reached Camp 2 with supplies. Breakdown of the summit action and nursing Olszewski down involved the retreat of practically all the climbers to Base. Only Brady and Malatynski remained in Camp 2 and with the aid of four Sherpas transported another lot of loads to Camp 3. Soon afterwards because of Brady's stomach trouble they also descended to the Base.

On 13 May Branski, Pietraszek and Rogalski set off first to Camp 1 and then higher up. On 15 May, preparations began once more for an attack on the South Peak. Teams began to leave Base Camp. The teams and the Sherpas were to build up Camp 4, for it was from here that the two rope-parties Chrobak— Wroz and Heinrich—Olech were to lead the first and eventually the second ascent of the summit.

After studying carefully the topography of the south wall of Kangchenjunga South, and after observing it with the aid of binoculars, the first assault pair decided not to attack the south ridge but to attempt the actual face of the all where a system of snowy gangways (banks), facilitated the assent and where the lay of the land gave protection from terrific; gusts of wind. This route also avoided the complicated system of crags, pinnacles, in the sub-summit regions of the south ridge. Deciding on the tactics to be adopted in the conquest of the south summit and on the make-up of assault teams contribute to the origin of the idea to attack the Central peak at a later time by a team made up of members supporting attempts on the main goal of the expedition, i.e. Kangchenjunga South. At the same time the leadership of the Spanish Yalung Kang Expedition notified us that instead of attacking Yalung Kang they would make a sole attempt to reach Central peak and irrespective of results would retreat from the high camps after 18. On 18 May the Spaniards also launched their attack. After two Spaniards and three Sherpas had established Camp 4S (Spanish) at 7550 m, at the foot of a large couloir falling from the col between the Main and Central summits, the pair Narcis Serrat and Sherpa Phuri began mounting the couloir. Subsequently bearing right in a rocky terrain they had reached one of the culminations in the dome of the peak, about 8390 m according to their estimation.

Chrobak, Wroz, Nowacki, Lhakpa and Mingma, arrived at Camp 3 on 16 May. However, Branski, Rogalski and Sonam took the oxygen and other supplies up to Camp 4. The next day Chrobak-Wroz and Lhakpa-Mingma also ascended to Camp 4 and spent the night in the camp. Nowacki brought the sick Sherpa Sonam down to Camp 1 while Brady, Pawlowsgki and Tobin reached Camp 3. On 18 May Chrobak and Wroz feed about 400 m of ropes above the couloir, while the Sherpas Lhakpa and Mingma took four oxygen bottles up to a height of about 8100 m. That same day Janas, Malatynski and Serafin reaped Camp 3. Brady, Pawlowski, Tobin and Branski, Rogalski carried up to Camp 4 some packages and oxygen bottles for the ascent team.

On 19 May at 5 a.m. the rope pair Chrobak-Wroz set out from Camp 4. Using oxygen they soon reached the end of the fixed lines and, climbing up a steep chimney, attained a snowfieid leading to a rocky wall, the crucial pitch of the route, presenting Grade IV difficulties. Turning to the right, first through a vast snow and ice field then through a snow depression, at 2.15 p.m. they reached the snowy summit of kangchenjunga South (8474 m). When the news of the victory, transmitted on the radio from the top, reached us, we were deeply moved and rejoiced in the success. The Poles have succeeded in conquering their first virgin eight-thousander! Having spent half an hour at the top and taken summit pictures with ice-axe and flags, the sum- miters began their descent. In spite of a snowstorm which caught them near the fixed ropes they safely reaches Camp 4 at 6.00 p.m.

Meanwhile the second assault party Heinrich-Olech after coming to Camp 3 on 19 May, changed their original plans and having negotiated it with the expedition leader, decided to attempt the yet virgin Kangchenjunga Central peak. As the tent left over by the Spaniards in Camp 4S could accommodate three persons, out of the five participants staying in Camp 3, Branski was chosen to be included in the assault team. The remaining four climbers, Janas, Malatynski, Rogalski, Serafin, planning a second assault,, were to support the main party by carrying oxygen and supplies to Camp 4S and to pitch the Spanish tent higher up so as to provide each assault climber with two bottles of oxygen. Next day in the morning it turned out that Serafin had to be excluded from the action because of bronchitis and Rogalski was appointed to nurse him down.

On 21 May the assault trio and the supporting pair Janas- Malatynski ascended to Spanish Camp 4 (7550 m). Severe overloading and late arrival at the camp prevented them from shifting the tent higher up. It was decided to set up an oxygen deposit and Heinrich, Janas, Malatynski carried the oxygen supplies! Out to a height of 7900 m. After parting with the assault team Janas and Malatynski went down to Camp 3 where they found Nowacki and Brady. In the evening Rogalski accompanied by cameraman Uchmanski returned to Camp 3.

On 22 May, at 5 a.m., the team of Branski-Heinrich-Olech commenced climbing the couloir. After reaching its steeper part they traversed to the right by a system of snowy shelves slanting upwards, cut by rocks and ribs below the ridge. In spite of troubles with Branski's oxygen apparatus they mounted a few steep rock-snowy patches and overcoming a rocky Grade III wall they reached a spacious summit covered with a snow cap and crowned by a snow cornice. It was the highest point of Kangchenjunga Central (8496 m). Thanks to radio communication with the peak, everybody in the Base and in the camps once more experienced a tremendous joy. In our most audacious dreams we never imagined that our expedition was going to conquer for Poland two yet unclimbed eight-thousanders. Having taken photos of the panorama from the summit and pictures with Nepalese and Polish flags, the summiters started to descend. On the return Branski, who had run out of oxygen, probably because of hypoxia, began to slip down a precipice. Fortunately he managed to brake with his ice-axe. The whole trio returned to Camp 4S at 6 p.m. On the same day Nowacki assisted by two Sherpas Mingma and Sona Gyau ascended to Camp 4 and brought down all the stocks to Camp 3.

The expedition achieved both its aims. The support team however intended to renew the attack on Kangchenjunga Central. In spite of critical opinion of some of the colleagues who in the third assault saw only a desire to satisfy personal ambition of some participants, and while aggravating the risk of accident on the expedition, the leader, not without some reservations, gave his consent to the three-man team: Janas-Malatynski-Rogalski.

On 23 May the pairs, Janas-Malatynski and Brady-Mingma ascended to Camp 4S, from where the support team, tired out, went back to Camp 3. Because of deterioration in the atmospheric conditions the team Rogalski-Uchmanski failed to reach the Camp 4S. On the following day Janas and Malatynski carried the oxygen for the planned assault, up to a height of about 8000 m. Rogalski and Uchmanski got to Camp 4S late in the evening. Unfortunately long and hard work at high altitudes and throat disorder eliminated Rogalski from participating in further action.

Only Janas and Malatynski were to press the Kangchenjunga Central's second attempt. They set off from Camp 4S at 5.20 a.m. on 25 May. Fresh snowfall hampered working and Janas' oxygen apparatus proved to be unreliable. At the end of the couloir the Base informed us on the radio that we were delayed by two hours compared to the first conquerors and appointed our time of retreat. At 4 p.m. we were told to descend. We had to abandon the summit attack at the height of 8420-8430 m on one of the crags on the dome of the peak. With deep regret we submitted to the decision of the leadership. During the descent we noticed in the upper part of the couloir Uchmanski, all alone, who had been climbing up to meet us and thus crossed the altitude of 8000 m but failing to see us, turned back to Camp 4S.

This was the end of summit assaults. It was already too late to plan another attack on the main summit of Kangchenjunga. The lower camps were short of people and hauling up new sup- lies of food, oxygen and climbing gear would have required a new one-week action.

Our leader decided to begin dismounting the camps.

In Kathmandu, the leader of the expedition presented to the Nepalese authorities a report from our expedition and explained that attack on Kangchenjunga South and Central was a fragment of our planned route to the Main summit via South and Central summits. Nevertheless the authorities held that the Polish South Kangchenjunga Expedition had contravened the regulations concerning mountaineering expeditions, conquering peaks different from those stated in the permission and they banned the expedition's leader from management of Himalayan expeditions during a period of three years.

The conquest of two virgin eight-thousanders in the massif of Kangchenjunga has become one of the major feats in the history of Polish Himalayism, Our expedition is the only one in the history of Himalayism which has climbed simultaneously two virgin eight-thousanders.

Provisional Base Camp on Yalung Glacier. Pache’s grave hill in background (ABC) and slopes of Hump ridge.

Provisional Base Camp on Yalung Glacier. Pache’s grave hill in background (ABC) and slopes of Hump ridge. (Photo: Z. Staszyszyn)


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