Bernadette McDonald talks about Freedom Climbers
- Tuesday 29th April 2014
Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald is by far our most decorated book. It has won the Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Prize, the Boardman Tasker Prize, the American Alpine Club Award for Mountain Literature, the Kekoo Naoroji Award for Himalayan Literature, and the Italian Citta de Verbania Prize for Mountain Literature. It is an honest, epic and at times harrowing account of perhaps the greatest ever period of Himalayan climbing – a period characterised by new routes, often climbed in winter, on the highest mountains. New routes climbed predominantly by one generation from one country: Poland.
The book is well on its way to becoming one of the most important historical works on mountain climbing ever written. But why did its Canadian author write it? We caught up with Bernadette and asked her.
Why did I write it? You may know that I was director of the Banff Festival for a long time. Through that work, I grew to know a number of Polish climbers, including Wanda Rutkiewicz, Krzysztof Wielicki, Jerzy Kukuczka and others. Of course I was impressed by them and I was always intrigued by their ‘situation’ – post-war Poland. But the real idea for the book came from a party in Katowice.
I was invited by Voytek Dzik to Katowice in 1993 to help organise a film festival. After the festival there was party in the Katowice Mountaineering Association clubhouse. That night I met a large group of Polish climbers. It was interesting, because as I looked around the room, I realized that probably 15 to 20 of the best Himalayan climbers in the world were there. And they were all Polish. I met Janusz Majer, Artur Hajzer, Alek Lwow, Krzysztof Wielicki, Andrzje Zawada and many others.
There were dozens of others in that room with multiple Himalayan climbs under their belts: new routes, winter climbs, speed ascents, any one of which would have made them national heroes in most other countries. It was a real celebration of alpinism that night and it somehow felt magical – even historical. But there was something else in the air … regret … sadness … nostalgia for a special time that was passing. It was then that I began thinking of how important this story was, how interesting the characters were, how unknown they were outside their own country, and how that story might be told. Obviously it took me quite some time to get around to doing it, finding a publisher, etc. But it was always in the back of my mind.
I was drawn to the story because of the importance of this chapter in the history of Himalayan climbing, which was not so well known outside of Poland, and because of the strength of the characters. They were unique. There can never be another Wanda or Jurek or Voytek.
Bernadette spoke on about the many trips she took before and after publication to Poland, and the great reception the book has had in Poland, as it has across the world. It is a sad book, which questions the whole point of mountaineering and the motives behind Himalayan climbing then and now. But most of all it is a great piece of literature and a very frank and powerful witness to this great period of Himalayan climbing. Nobody before or since have achieved what the Poles achieved in the greater ranges with the resources they had.
Polish mountaineer Jerzy (Jurek) Kukuckza raced Reinhold Messner to become the first man to have climbed all fourteen 8,000-metre peaks in the world. Jurek entered the race late and so Messner won, but the race was probably more a media fabrication than a reality. Kukuczka completed the task in an amazing eight years, more often than not with new routes and winter ascents. It was definitely not just about the numbers.