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Book of the month: Freedom Climbers

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

We're gearing up to attend the Kendal Mountain Festival again this year, where we will be keeping our fingers tightly crossed for Sandy Allan and John Porter, whose books, In Some Lost Place and One Day as a Tiger are nominated for the Boardman Tasker Prize. So this month we're taking another look at the Grand Prize Winner of 2011, Freedom Climbers, which was commended as, 'One of the most important mountaineering books to be written for many years'.  

Freedom Climbers tells the story of Polish mountaineers who broadened their boundaries in search of the adventurous life. The strict social and economic constraints imposed by the Polish Communist Government, post-World War II, meant that major Himalayan exploration did not occur until the 1970s and 80s, when finally the potential of Poland's highly skilled climbers was realised. In this extract, the book's author Bernadette McDonald, sheds light on the political situation in Poland after the war.

And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

To be a Polish climber has never been easy, and yet the country boasts a long and colourful mountaineering heritage. As early as 1924, Polish climbers were making plans for Everest and K2. This, so soon after the country was licking its wounds from the war with Bolshevik Russia. Patriotic feelings ran high, and by the 1930s climbers had established their own Mountaineering Club. Even after World War II, the club managed to remain active, but when the Stalinist system took over in 1949 everything changed. The Soviet authorities didn’t outlaw climbing completely; they just shifted it from an individual experience, which they categorized as a "relic of bourgeois alpinism" to a collective endeavour that could be manipulated by the propaganda machine. The most immediate impact was the severely restricted access to the Tatras. Climbers were forced to dodge border patrols and submit to searches and interrogations. But the strategy failed. A naturally rebellious lot, they jumped at the opportunity to climb in forbidden territory. 

Under Khrushchev and Gomułka, a political thaw encouraged the Mountaineering Club to reform, but there were still plenty of rules. As soon as the Iron Curtain lifted slightly in the mid-1950s, climbers headed west – to the Alps. Desperate to catch up to their European counterparts, and dreadfully underfunded, they nevertheless stormed around the Alps and managed to put up an impressive number of difficult climbs. By the early 1960s they had discovered the Hindu Kush, the most practical combination of high mountains, easy access and cheap living. With all hope of real democratisation in Poland fading, climbers gave up on realising their potential at home. They began to look beyond its borders for ways to escape from the boredom and drabness of their everyday lives. 

Ironically, the system that stifled them at home provided their ticket to freedom. The centralised government was happy to grant them permits to climb abroad, for their international successes brought glory to Poland. 

The style of climbing that developed during this time was built on the classic, well-rounded model that valued not just climbing but also knowledge of mountain history, literature, art and tradition. The spiritual hub of this developing culture was not in the club office in Warsaw, but in a little mountain hut in the Morskie Oko valley in the Tatras. There, during the candlelit evenings that followed long days in the mountains, the oral tradition flourished. It was a place for storytelling, heated debates, singing and dreaming. It was a place where Polish climbers could feel free. 

For those who went abroad, the exhilaration of escape was marred only by the pressure to succeed. That, combined with the climbers’ solid training, dogged determination and stoicism in extreme conditions, as well as a strong streak of romantic heroism, produced outstanding results. 

Climbing evolved into a pastime that people from all levels of society could enjoy. Before long, climbers were identifying themselves as a subculture within Polish society. The climbing writer J.A. Szczepański, known as the cerebral leader of Polish climbers in the first half of the 20th century, wrote, 'Climbing is not a symbol or poetic metaphor of life – it is life itself'.

Word spread. The climbing life was a good life. Trips abroad, adventure and the underground economy that developed around climbing began to attract more and more climbers to the clubs. When the clubs merged into the Polish Alpine Association in 1974, additional red tape arose. Each climber was given an official card stating where and when he was qualified to climb. It was almost like a licence. By 1979 there were 2,400 active climbers in Poland. Clubs multiplied and soon the universities jumped on board, creating their own organisations that took advantage of centralised funding for their “sporting” activities. 

One of the greatest breakthroughs was the creation of the Fund for the Social Action Youth (FASM) in the 1970s. The fund made it possible for young people to earn extra money at a low tax rate in order to buy much-needed things like furniture. In order to retain some level of control, the extra earnings had to be funnelled through an officially sanctioned club. The Polish Alpine Association (as the Mountaineering Club was now named) was recognised as a legitimate club, as long as it declared itself a “Socialist” organisation, which it did. Climbers directed their meagre earnings through their clubs – not for furniture but for expeditions! 

The clubs became micro-communities within the country. People worked in the clubs and for the clubs. They spent their free time in the company of club members who had similar interests and opinions. They kept aloof from their dysfunctional surroundings and abandoned any career aspirations. They channelled their unfulfilled hopes and suppressed energies into a passionate love of mountains and adventure. Their mountain asylums became much more than an escape from their reality; they were a way to fulfil themselves and create meaningful lives. Up in the hills, the Orwellian principles didn’t apply. There, they could rely on principles that predated the totalitarian state – values that were common to all the climbers. The more successful the climbers were, the more they turned inward, developing their own ideology and forms of literary expression. 

Within a very few years Poland was a Himalayan superpower and the government authorities loved it. The government’s propaganda machine exploited the climbers’ successes while the climbers exploited the machine. The very best were given awards and medals. Hundreds of others took advantage of the freedom to roam the world’s great mountain ranges. 

Gasherbrums II and III © R. Jucha

Approach march to K2 © Krzysztof Wielicki

Climbing the Messner line above Camp 1 on the South Face of Lhotse, 1987 © Artur Hajzer

Click HERE to buy a copy of Freedom Climbers. Enter code FREECLIMB at checkout to get 25% off this book, plus free UK mainland postage. Offer ends 1 December 2015.

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