Wanda Rutkiewicz

The Indomitable Climber

Mirella Tenderini

Wanda Rutkiewicz

The young Wanda Rutkiewicz tries out the sport of climbing (Wanda Rutkiewicz collection)

Here I am sitting at the edge of the world, cut off from everything that is important to others; but I’m happy here where I am.

The last time Wanda Rutkiewicz was seen she was on the northwestern face of Kangchenjunga at 8300 m. She looked tired and cold and had only a bivouac bag: no tent or mattress and not even a camp stove to melt the snow and drink something hot. She was dehydrated and asked Carlos Carsolio for some water. He was the expedition leader and was coming down the mountain after reaching the summit. But he too had neither anything left to drink nor spare clothing to leave for better warmth. He tried to persuade her to go down with him, but Wanda was determined to spend the night there and climb to the summit the next day, so he left her huddled in a shallow snow cave and continued his descent to Camp 4. Nobody ever saw her anymore.

It was 12 May 1992. The news had a shocking effect on the mountaineering world arising a lot of discussion about whether she had reached the summit of Kangchenjunga or not, but strangely enough the echo of the accident faded soon, as if everybody preferred to remove it from memory.

That silence was really very strange. It is true that there had never been much talking about Wanda even when she was alive. She attended all conferences at all festivals and all events she was invited to. She loved to participate, but her name was visible only in the chronicles; it was very rare to see a full article about her in specialized magazines.

Wanda Rutkiewicz spent most of her time in the Himalayan mountains or collecting funds for her expeditions. She climbed eight of the fourteen 8000ers (they would be nine if she had reached the summit of Kangchenjunga); sometimes she organized exclusive woman’s expeditions and sometimes she joined men’s expeditions with her backpack as heavy as that of her male companions. Without means, with no support, she was often alone to the summit, strong only of an almost superhuman determination.

Wanda was not much loved. She was considered an uncomfortable rival by many male climbers and also women climbers were sometime suspicious of her ambitions and jealous of her remarkable charm. Only a few friends remained loyal to her long after her death. It’s not surprising that a silencing curtain fell on her.

Wanda was born Blaszkiewicz on 4 Feb 1943, in Plungé, which is now in Lituania but at that time was part of Polonia. Rutkiewicz was the name of her first husband, whom she married in 1970. She kept that name even after she divorced and also when she married another man. Wanda’s years of youth were hard in a country with great difficulties after the World War II, but thanks to scholarships and her unyielding persistence Wanda was able to study the subjects that most interested her: mathematics and physics, and also law and astronomy. And she always found the time to practise several sports.

Wanda discovered her passion for mountaineering at the age of 18 on the rocks of Skalki, and practised it on the Tatra mountains where she climbed many routes. As soon as it was possible she started to frequent the Alps; in Austria and then Mont Blanc where she climbed the most difficult routes with Halina Krüger-Syrokomska. In 1968 she joined a group of Polish mountaineers with Halina to climb the eastern pillar of the Troll wall in Norway. It was the first woman ascent of that challenging wall.

At that time the Polish government believed that the success of national climbers would bring glory to Poland, and thus the Ministry of Sport financed national expeditions to great mountains of the world. In 1972 Wanda took part in an expedition to Nosaq (7492 m) in Hindukush, Afghanistan. This was the first step in a series of ascents on the highest mountains of the earth - or the most difficult ones like the north face of the Eiger - joining either financed groups or small self-organized spartan expeditions with women friends.

In 1975 Wanda organized her first expedition to Gasherbrum III (7952 m) but what began to give her fame and help her find sponsors for her expeditions was the winter ascent of the north face of Matterhorn the following year.

Her great opportunity came in 1978, in the form of an international expedition organized by Karl Herrligkoffer who Wanda had met on an aborted expedition to Nanga Parbat a couple of years before.

Herrligkoffer invited her to join the expedition of a German group to Everest together with a French group led by Pierre Mazeaud. Unfortunately the presence of a woman, who in addition, Herrligkoffer had named second deputy, was unacceptable to her male companions. They boycotted her in every way, but her name now was on the list of the top mountaineers. On that expedition as all the oxygen was used up during the ascent, she climbed to the summit alone and without oxygen. She was the first woman in Europe and the third in the world to reach the top of the highest mountain on earth.

In 1982 she organized an all-woman expedition to K2. She had to walk on crutches because of an accident during a series of climbs in the Caucasus. During the descent on a glacier, she was swept off by a mountaineer who had fallen from higher up - the consequence was a broken leg. She took this as training for the arduous task of climbing one of the most difficult Himalayan mountains.

Wanda Rutkiewicz on K2 in 1982 (Wanda Rutkiewicz collection)

Wanda Rutkiewicz

During her long mountaineering career, Wanda was often involved in accidents that were bad enough to kill her, but each time she managed not only to survive but also to regain the strength to continue on unrelenting objectives that she had set for herself. This time, she had not even recovered but she reached her companions and climbed with them along the endless Baltoro glacier, and then continued climbing from camp to camp, refusing any help. The expedition was with no high altitude porters or oxygen bottles and there was a nice atmosphere of friendship and collaboration between the climbing ladies. Everything seemed to work, but unexpectedly HalinaKrüger- Syrokomska, who had 25 years of experience in the high mountains and had already climbed Gasherbrum II without oxygen, fell ill, lost consciousness and died – all within a few hours. Deeply depressed, the women lost much of their spirit and then the weather got really bad, with strong swirls of snow that blocked them all. It was impossible to climb and they finally gave up.

Wanda was back to K2 in 1984 with three Polish women in a Swiss expedition, but again they were forced to give up.

The following year Wanda and the Swiss guide Stephane Schaffter climbed the Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes in alpine style. At 6962 m it is the highest mountain in the American continent and is in no way less impervious to climb than the Himalayan mountains. In her diaries, Wanda described it as one of her most difficult climbs.

In the same year - 1985 - taking advantage of the money and equipment left from the failed attempts to K2, Wanda managed to organize a women’s expedition on Nanga Parbat. It was a small group of women climbers with whom she got along well on previous expeditions: Anna Czervinska, Krystyna Palmowska and Dobroslawa Miodowicz-Wolf. Dobroslawa, who decided to gain time bivouacking outdoors before the last assault on the summit, was caught by bad weather and fell ill and began to hallucinate. Wanda managed to rescue her and accompany her down to the fixed ropes and reached her companions on the summit of Nanga Parbat, in the midst of a storm. Against all odds, the three Polish women reached the top of an 8000er without oxygen.

Not satisfied with the success of her small expedition, Wanda joined Stephane Schaffter and another Polish woman, Barbara Kozlowska, to attempt the ascent of Broad Peak (8047 m). Unfortunately Barbara, a good climber but not familiar with the snow, remained a long way back and when crossing an ice-covered torrent she was swept away by the current and died. The weather had worsened and the other two, who had already reached 7800 m of altitude, gave up the ascent. While descending they found the body of their partner.

In spite of failures and tragedies Wanda never thought to stop and what she desired more than anything else was to climb K2, which so far had resisted all her attempts. Back in Poland, she faced problems concerning state contribution towards funding of her expeditions. She decided to give up expeditions. Instead, she decided to participate in collective groups with money earned by making films. She signed a contract with an Austrian television company for her to supply them with movie trails. For this she got an advance which paid for her participation in a small French expedition to K2. Her companions were Liliane and Maurice Barrard, a close-knit pair of climbers who had already climbed Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum II, and Michel Parmentier who also had experience of 8000 m climbing.

1986 was tragic for K2 - the biggest tragedy ever in the history of the Himalaya took place, due to bad weather but also because of the exceptional number of climbers who stormed the mountain from all sides. In June, 14 expeditions were already on the mountain. Three of them - that of the Barrards that included Wanda, together with a South Korean and another Austrian - had chosen to climb the classic route along the Abruzzi Spur. There were three other expeditions heading for the south-south-west spur along a route which was named Magic Line. They were a US expedition, a Polish one and a solo Italian climber, Renato Casarotto. Then there was an Italian expedition who had permits for both ascents. The Austrian Kurt Diemberger had joined it with his climbing partner, the British climber Julie Tullis. There were also a British expedition led by Alan Rouse, aimed at the north-west edge; an international expedition led by Karl Herrligkoffer heading to the south wall, and a second US expedition to the north wall, from the Chinese side. In addition there were other climbers aggregated to the main expeditions: two Spaniards, two Swiss and the Slovenian Tomo Cesen.

An avalanche on the Magic Line that caught two Americans started an incredible chain of accidents. The weather was not favourable and got worse from day to day. At the end 13 mountaineers died. Some of them were never found.

Maurice and Liliane Barrard had planned a light expedition, without fixed camps and without oxygen - exactly what Wanda wanted. She felt very comfortable with them, more than with others, ever before in previous expeditions, except for those on which she was with her friends. She did not feel at ease with Michel Parmentier, so they ignored each other in order not to spoil the atmosphere of the small close-knit group.

Wanda reached the summit earlier than her companions who had stopped to reinforce themselves with some hot coffee. She was excited to be the first woman to reach the summit of K2. She wrote on a business card with her name, the date and the time of her arrival, the name of Liliane Barrard and the words ‘First women’s ascent’. She stuffed it into a small plastic bag and placed it under a rock on the top of the mountain.

When they arrived, the Barrards decided to bivouac on the summit in a single tent to take some rest. Wanda thought it was a bad idea: the weather was excellent, but it could change at any time. However she too was exhausted so the four of them spent the night on the top of the mountain. But there was no rest for her; she could not sleep and felt sick. It was a night of nightmare and the next morning she hurried down, after Michel, while the Barrards dismantled the tent.

Wanda climbed down the glacier alone, following Michel who had not waited for her. She went down staggering; there was nobody to help, no possibility of security. Wanda reached Michel at 7700 m. There was no signal from Liliane and Maurice. They stopped to wait for them, but the next morning they had not yet arrived. Wanda spotted them both higher up on the mountain as she climbed down a gully which gave her a bit of reassurance, so she headed down into the thick fog to reach the lower camp where she waited for them all night. But they did not arrive. She was afraid that something had happened, but all that she could do was just go down. The weather was bad, she heard the sound of avalanches. She was alone and struggled to reach the advance base camp. The last stretch was particularly painful; she had a sore knee; her feet, hands and nose started to get frostbitten. The storm seemed to rip her away at every step, but she managed to reach the advance camp where there was the rescue team. There she learnt that Michel was still alive but there was no news from Liliane and Maurice. Later Wanda could hardly remember how she got down to base camp.

Wanda Rutkiewicz

Wanda Rutkiewicz at K2 base camp (Wanda Rutkiewicz collection)

At the foot of K2 a lifeless body awaited her: it was Liliane Barrard dragged down by an avalanche. Wanda stopped to help bury her. No trace of Maurice. His body was found only two years later.

Despite all the hardships and tragedies Wanda organized an expedition with Krzysztof Pankiewicz for the ascent of another 8000er, Makalu. At the base camp was Reinhold Messner, whom she had met in other circumstances and who had always encouraged her.

Wanda did not get to the top but Reinhold did, and a few months later he also climbed Lhotse - his fourteenth 8000er, reaching the record of first ascent of all 14 highest mountains in the world. She decided to concentrate on becoming the first woman to reach that goal. After the failure on Makalu she lost no time and joined a winter expedition to Annapurna with Jerzy Kukuczka, Krzysxtof Wielicki and Hartur Hajzer. Unfortunately she became ill with bronchitis and while her companions reached the summit she had to give up.

In the summer of 1987 Wanda and Jerzy Kukuczka were part of an expedition of 13 people from six different countries to Shisha Pangma. With that ascent Kukuczca completed his crown of fourteen 8000ers. Wanda reached the top of the main peak of that mountain with Ryszard Warecki. She was the first Polish woman to reach that summit, as she had been on Everest and K2.

In the spring of 1989 Wanda joined a British women’s expedition to Gasherbrum II to reach the base camp of Broad Peak, where Barbara Kozlowska died four years before. Wanda came here because she had always wanted to give a proper burial to Barbara. During that trip a documentary film ‘Le Donne Delle Nevi’ was also shot, which illustrates the daily life of women’s expeditions.

In July it was the turn of Gasherbrum II, her sixth 8000er which she climbed with the English alpinist Rhony Lampard.

The following year - 1990 - Makoto Hara invited Wanda and Ewa Panejko-Pankiewicz to join his expedition to Makalu. One of the Japanese members reached the top, but soon after that, Hara decided to block the expedition. Wanda had to give up her ascent, but she was determined to complete her 8000ers collection and in the summer of the same year she went back to the Himalaya to climb the Hidden Peak - also called Gasherbrum I - and summited it with Ewa.

In 1991 Wanda was in great shape and climbed two other 8000ers: Cho Oyu in September and the south face of Annapurna in November, soloing both of them. Quite a success.

In May 1992 Wanda headed for Kangchenjunga. It would have been her ninth 8000er. That was her last expedition.

Carlos Carsolio and Wanda left Camp 4 (7950 m) at 3:30 am to climb directly to the summit. Carlos reached the summit after 12 hours of walking but she was slower and he left her behind. When Carlos descended he saw her at 300 m below the top and that was the last time she was seen.

Three years after the disappearance of Wanda Rutkiewicz, a group of Italians who were climbing the summit along the opposite side of the mountain came across a woman’s body about 8000 m above sea level.

Silvio Mondinelli, one of the finders, wrote in his diary:

29 April 1995 - 7900/8000 meters. We found the body of a woman and proceeded to give her a proper burial. Fausto De Stefani said that it could be Wanda Rutkiewicz...Fausto De Stefani took photos of recognition...The most difficult thing was to bury her. We did not want to throw the corpse into a vertical crevasse like a sack of potatoes, but to gently slide it ...

Back at base camp the photographs taken by De Stefani were examined and it was established that it was indeed Wanda - not basing on the features of the face which was unrecognizable, but on the height and build of the woman and the colour of the high altitude clothing. Since the body was found on the opposite side of the mountain, it was assumed that Wanda had reached the summit of the mountain and was caught by an avalanche when descending along the opposite side of the mountain, which was the easiest way.

This hypothesis was accepted by Wanda’s friends, but the finding of Bulgarian-made tablets in a pocket indicated that it was more likely that it was the corpse of a Bulgarian climber, Yordanka Dimitrova, who had been caught by an avalanche on the southwest face of Kangchenjunga in October 1994.

However, even if this is the right hypothesis, it does not mean that Wanda could not have reached the top and could not have been hit by an avalanche during her descent. We will never know if Wanda actually reached the summit, but given her character and relentless determination, it is entirely possible that she made it to the top.

Even if her body has not yet been found, her memory has not yet died.

In the last letter she wrote to her friend Marion, she said:

Here I am sitting at the edge of the world, cut off from everything that is important to others; but I’m happy here where I am.

A biographical sketch of Wanda Rutkiewicz, the most famous Polish woman mountaineer.

About the Author

Mirella Tenderini is an Italian mountaineering journalist and author. She has translated several books from English, French and Spanish into Italian, and has written biographies of mountaineers and explorers such as the Duke of the Abruzzi, Gary Hemming and Ernest Shackleton. She writes articles for Italian mountaineering magazines, and occasionally also for the Alpine Journal, the American Alpine Journal and other foreign papers. She lives in the Alps.

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