Author interview: Bernadette McDonald, Winter 8000
- Tuesday 28 July 2020
Multi-award-winning author of ten mountaineering books, Bernadette McDonald takes a break from writing prize-winning narratives to lift the lid on her latest literary work, Winter 8000 – the story of the Polish climbers who battled freezing temperatures, ferocious winds and weeks of psychological torment to battle their way up 8000-metre peaks in winter.
Why did Polish mountaineers want to climb the 8000ers in winter, is it the extra challenge and therefore the greater sense of achievement or is there more to it than that?
There is actually more to it than simply needing a greater challenge. While most of the first ascents of 8000ers were being made by climbers from other countries, Poland's climbers were stuck at home, thanks to the strict Communist-era travel restrictions. At the same time, the climbing community in Poland was very active, particularly in winter. They honed their winter skills primarily in the Tatras, on the border between Poland and the former Czechoslovakia. When the Polish government began easing travel restrictions for climbers so that they could travel abroad, one of the leading climbers and a proven expedition leader, Andrzej Zawada, envisioned a way in which Poland could distinguish itself in the global mountaineering arena. That way was winter. They started pushing the winter limits in the Alps, the Hindu Kush, and eventually, the Himalaya. Their very first success was Everest, and the Poles never looked back.
Which other countries were the main players in the bid to summit 8000-metre peaks in winter and why did this challenge become so competitive?
Many countries participated in winter expeditions to the 8000-metre peaks, but the Koreans, Japanese and Russians were probably the most active. At the same time, individual climbers from other countries began showing interest in winter ascents of these very high summits. Whenever a 'first' is possible, there will be competition. It has taken a long time for the 8000ers to be climbed in winter, despite many attempts. Not surprisingly, the competition for K2, the only one yet to be climbed in winter, is fierce.
What are the extra challenges you need to consider when mountaineering in winter, besides extra layers and the greater risk of frostbite?
There are so many. Maybe dealing with the high-altitude winter winds is the greatest. When wind speeds of up to 100 kph are seen as a 'window of opportunity' for a winter expedition in the Himalaya, you get the picture. Entire camps are routinely destroyed by the winds. Equipment is lost, tents are destroyed, climbers are blown off the mountain. Another challenge is the limited daylight hours. Winter days are short, and the long nights in high-altitude camps and bivouacs are desperately long.
Did you get to interview any of the main characters from the book?
Yes, I interviewed most of the characters who feature in this book. Some interviews were done years ago for research for other books, and in some of those cases the climbers have since died in the mountains. Many of the interviews were done very recently, however.
Are there current plans among Polish climbers to make another attempt at K2?
Yes, although they are on hold for the moment due to Covid-19.
You've won a plethora of awards from the Boardman Tasker Prize to the Summit of Excellence Award, what's the secret to writing an award-winning book?
Awards are strange creatures with lives of their own. I just try to give full respect to the subject matter by doing the best job I can.