On 17 February 1980 there became something which passed into history of the Himalayas mountaineering. Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki were the first in the world to have climbed the highest mountain peak in the world. It was the first mountain of eight thousand meters high reached at the time of the year. On the peak of the Everest Mount Poles left a rosary from John Paul II

We, Poles, love adventures, reaching the places where no human has stood yet. A good example is our contribution to the Himalayas climbing in winter. 40 years ago nobody dared to reach the highest mountains of the world in winter.

A finger in return for climbing the peak

Andrzej Zawada, being in unforgettable memory, was far from this way of thinking. He wanted Poles to write history of the Himalayans climbing. It was him who came up with the idea of climbing the mountain of eight thousand meters high in winter. Negotiations with the Nepal authorities lasted for a few years, and they were really amazed that somebody wanted to climb the Himalayas at this time of the year, as there are other proper periods of the year for that. When in autumn 1979 a permission for it came from Nepal, Zawada decided: ‘We are going to climb the highest mount’. One of members of the team was 30-year-old Krzysztof Wielicki. He was envisaged for the second team which was to climb the Mount Everest in spring. However, there were two vacant places – two colleagues could not go on the expedition because of their personal matters and Wielicki replaced one of them.

We were going on the expedition without a planned route. We did not know what winter was like in the Himalayas. We thought that there would be at least 2 m snow, whereas there was little of it. At once we were hit by cold ‘jet stream’, a strong wind blowing with a narrow stream. We were fighting with it which was destroying our camps – says Krzysztof Wielicki. And he adds: - We were not afraid of any difficulties. Because if it is difficult for a mountaineer, it is fun. There were those among us who were saying: I would devote my finger or even two in return for climbing the Mount Everest in winter. Wielicki went to Nepal with hardly healed frostbites.

This is not a fight with the mountain but with oneself, with one’s weaknesses – the mountaineer explains the sense of the climbing.

Equipped teams – obviously, communist Poland – were far from the western standards. Trousers from wool, jackets from nylon were sewn homemade by our friends. Wielicki was wearing welding glasses. No foreign exchange made it impossible to do shopping in shows in the West.

No equipment but the man decides about the success of the action. One can have the best equipment but when the man does not have any skills or determination, nothing will help him. Only will it give him the feeling of comfort – says Wielicki. The expedition supervised by Andrzej Zawada was of the national rank. Polish mountaineers took a rosary from John Paul II to Nepal, given to them by Fr. Stanisław Kardasz – the subsequent legendary priest of the Solidarity movement, a parish priest of the church of Our Lady Victorious in Toruń, who was a lifeguard in many mountaineering expeditions. Mother of Stanisław Latałła, a film operator, unforgettable actor playing the role of Franciszek Retman in the popular ‘Illumination’ by Krzysztof Zanussi, who died in 1974 in Lhots, gave the team a cross – with a request to leave it on the peak of the nearby Mount Everest by his colleagues in order to commemorate her son.

Holy Mass at the level of 7 thousand meters above the sea

During the expedition Fr. Statnisław Kardiasz joined the colleagues. An unforgettable experience were the Holy Masses, one of which was celebrated by him at the level of 7 thousand meters above the sea. The altar was an icy boulder. – I did not hear that an expedition into the Himalayas had had its chaplain – says Krzysztof Wielicki. The Sherpas (they are Buddhists), who helped Poles in the expedition (among them there was one liaison officer), were surprised to see this ‘magic’ rite. Not to be worse than Poles, they also made a little chapel and were practicing their rites with sprinkling rice. Seeing it, Andrzej Zawada said: ‘With the help of our God and your Buddha we will have climbed the Mount Everest’.

The leader of the expedition was cheering his colleagues with the words: ‘Guys, you cannot miss the chance of climbing is Wanda (Rutkiewicz) climbed the Everest Mount on 16 October 1978’. In our group we were telling one another a joke that Wanda Rutkiewicz arranges a purpose with cardinal Wojtyła: ‘You are going to gain Vatican, while I am going to gain the Mount Everest’. Indeed, as John Paul II said, when he had a meeting with Wanda Rutkiewicz during an audience, ‘Good God wanted us to climb so high one day’.

It motivated us so that the papal rosary would get onto the mount peak – says Wielicki.

It does not matter who will get onto the top

The fact who of our team will complete ‘the last jump’ is decided by the natural selection. At the end of the expedition only 5 – 6 people remained healthy and strong enough out of the team of 20 people. As it turned out later, Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki were chosen for the attack onto the Mount Everest. – Climbing with Leszek, I felt that we were not doing it for ourselves but for Poland. We were real patriots. The base for the success was the fact that we had this attitude: one for everybody, everybody for the one. It was not important who would climb. What counted was only that somebody of us could get onto the top and set down the Polish flag onto the top of the Mount Everest – says Wielicki. There was not time to celebrate the historical success. Wielicki and Cichy made ‘a bear’ for themselves, took a few photos out of which only one looked good. In an aluminium quadrupole, which was installed onto the highest peak of the globe by the Chinese expedition team, beside the papal rosary and the cross commemorating Staszek Latałła, they left also a thermometer for testing minimum and maximum temperatures. And, certainly, they left Polish flag. They took a sheet of paper left by a climber from the USA and a bit of snow to test (to surprise of our team it turned out to be very polluted).

The mountaineers had to hurry up as 80 per cent of fatal accidents of mountaineers happen during their descending. On their return way they came across a frozen body of the aforementioned American mountaineer, and, nearby – a dead body of the heroic German mountaineer who had tried to rescue him. When he died, she did not manage to get down to her base in time, as it had got dark and shared the fate of her colleague.

Sport which reveals ‘royalty’ of the man

Before descending from the Mount Everest, its lucky mountaineers informed the expedition leader about their successful climbing the peak with a walkie-talkie. Andrzej Zawada informed his friends in Warsaw and in…..Vatican. On the same day Pope replied in his beautiful letter which he sent to the leader of the expedition. He wrote: ‘Dear Andrzej Zawada, I wish you and all participants of the expedition, further successes in this excellent sport, which reveals ‘royalty’ of the man, his cognitive ability and will of ruling the created world. May this sport, demanding so much power of spirit, become an excellent school of life, developing your all human values and opening full horizons of human vocation’.

Why didn’t the comrade Gierek shake hands with the conquerors of the Mount Everest

And there came a scandal. The communist authorities got furious when hearing that our mountaineers had left the papal rosary and the cross on the peak of the Mount Everest and Pope found out about their success before the I secretary of the Polish United Labour Party (KC PZPR) learnt about. For this reason Edward Gierek got insulted and did not congratulate the mountaineers on the Mount Everest.

Whereas Poles in Poland were really delighted. The successes of the team of Andrzej Zawada made them more confident. They were happy that in every condition we are able to achieve something which astonishes the world.

Ice warriors

The ascend of Poles in winter conditions became a world sensation. – Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had not ascended there. What fate of the winter exploration of the Himalayas would be. Maybe it would be stated that none of the eight-thousand-meter mountains could be reached in winter – says Krzysztof Wielicki. Anyway, Poles, breaking a barrier, began a new epoch in the history of mountaineering. And they did not resign after that achievement. In addition, among thirteen eight-thousanders climbed in winter, even ten first ascends were done by Polish mountaineers! Thanks to it, they were called ‘ice warriors’.

A rosary at the Basques

And what about the papal rosary? Mountaineers have a right to take what was left by their predecessors. In relation to it Andrzej Zawada had such a strong headache, as the next team on K2, this time in spring, there were also to be Poles. He understood that among mountaineers it might raise suspicion that Poles leave a rosary there and take it. It was a fortunate when it turned out that more or less at the same time this peak was to be reached by a team from the Basques’ country. Zawada delayed our expedition deliberately so that the Basques were the first before Poles. It happened so. The rosary was taken by one of the members of the Basque team – Martin Zabaleta. He gave it to his deeply religious mum who then gave it to the museum.

When Andrzej Czok and Jerzy Kukuczka from the team of Zawada stood on the Mount Everest on 19 May 1980, they saw a Basque flag of the separatist group ETA.

Unreached K2, that is, an expedition onto the Moon

When ‘NIedziela’ gets to readers with this article, a 13-member team of Polish mountaineers, led by 68-year-old Krzysztof Wielicki, is going to set up a camp in Pakistan at the mountain peak K2. This second highest mountain in the world (861 m above the sea), is the only one of fourteen eight-thousanders unreached in winter. Now the temperature reaches -50°C, and wind blows with the speed of over 200 km/h. ‘Weather windows’ happen rarely when the wind is not blowing. The challenge for Polish mountaineers is really enormous, compared by mountaineers to the expedition onto the Moon. In winter the K2 peak was conquered only four times, including twice by the team to which Krzysztof Wielicki belonged. Every time the decisive attack failed. Maybe now, it will, according to the saying ‘third time lucky’?

If Poles reached the K2 peak in winter, Krzysztof Wielicki will not catch up with the achievement of the prominent Italian mountaineer – Simone Moro, who had reached eight-thousanders in winter four times. The chief of the expedition decided that he would not deprive his colleagues of satisfaction and was not going to climb the top. – I have already achieved what I wanted. Let the younger write history – says the famous mountaineer. The leader of the expedition will decide at a few hundred meters before the peak who will have such an honour for it. The criteria of the choice are going to be one’s condition and health state.

Simone Moro showed his high stylishness, wishing good luck to his Polish colleagues. In an interview for the Polish Radio Station he said: ‘After all it were Poles who began the game called ‘winter mountaineering’ in 1980, when climbing the Mount Everest. It would be great if 38 years from that event the last one of the fourteen eight-thousanders would be reached by the Polish team. Poles began this game and these are Poles who should finish it – this is my dream. It would be the best end of the winter climbing the highest mountains of the world’.

Krzysztof Wielicki has two dreams: he would like one of his colleagues reach the peak and he would like the team to return to Poland.

Translation: Aneta Amrozik

„Niedziela” 2/2018 (14 I 2018)

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: