Art of Freedom answers the most poignant questions on the phenomenon of Polish Himalaism in the '70s and '80s.
Poles reigned the highest mountaintops of the world for more than 20 years. They not only set down new trails, but new rules of sportsmanship. They set themselves apart with an original style of climbing, endurance, conscientiousness about the overall well-being of the team - and solidarity. Jerzy Kukuczka was the first Pole to conquer the crown of the Himalayas - all the 8,000-meter peaks. Soon after, Krzysztof Wielicki did it all over again. Poland's greatest female Himalaist Wanda Rutkiewicz conquered as many as 8 of these peaks, partially on entirely new trails.
How is it possible that in the People's Republic Poland of the '70s and '80s, at the very cusp of socialism, Polish mountain climbers were the best in the world? How could the citizens of a nation in which the average pay was 20 dollars a month afford to organize climbing expeditions in the Himalayas? In what way did privation across every aspect of life influence their condition and their morale? What distinguished climbers from Poland from those from the other side of the "iron curtain"?
The greater the obstacles faced by Poles in their crisis-ridden homeland, the greater their conquests in the Himalayas. All those who have trekked the Himalayas have underscored the immense determination that resulted from the hardships in acquiring a passport, equipment and funds. This level of determination, unmatched by anyone from the other side of the "iron curtain", won them the highest peaks with an unsurpassed fervor that was so characteristic of Polish climbers. Jerzy Kukuczka reminisces: "I could never reconcile myself to the fact of returning with nothing. I always tried one last time. Even in spite of reason, but always according to a confidence from within."
Directed by Marek Kłosowicz and Wojciech Słota, Art of Freedom tells the stories of the most difficult Polish expeditions and the most spectacular ascents. It depicts the essence of Himalaism: overcoming the weaknesses of the human body in the most extreme conditions. It is also a story of endurance, solidarity, trust and concern for the overall well-being of the team. After all, Himalaism is the school of life, a test of survival and the experience of true freedom.
The heroes of Art of Freedom
Polish climbers exhibited a resilience and determination that was unmatched by many of the better-equipped teams from Western Europe. Wojciech Kurtyka, Andrzej Zawada, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Krzysztof Wielicki and Jerzy Kukuczka were among those made the conquest of the Himalayan crown their life's ambition - and many of them paid for the honour with their lives. Struggling to get around the brutal realities of the socialist regime, they scraped together the funds and supplies for each exhibition - and once they made it into the mountains, they would give up until they had achieved success. Many of them were pioneers of the Alpine style, which called for the bare minimum of equipment in order to ease the load for a climber and hasten ascents. For Polish climbers, there was nowhere else to go but up.
World-famous climber and author Reinhold Messner (born 17 September, 1944) was born in mountain town of Brixen (Bressanone) in Italy near the German border in the South Tyrol region. He grew up climbing in the Dolomites and the Alps with his brother Günther . In the 1960s he began climbing in the Himalayas, adopting the Alpine technique. He was the first to make the ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and he conquered all fourteen eight-thousanders. Breaking his records proved the greatest challenge for Polish climbers, some of whom perished while racing Messner for the peaks. Polish climbers sometimes ran into Messner on their climbs and Jerzy Kukuczka even joined him in attempting the ascent of Cho Oyu in 1982. His first major climb was the Rupal face of Nanga Parbat in 1970, which he climbed with his brother - a bitter success as his brother died on the descent and he himself lost six of his toes. He made the summit of Nanga Parbat following the Diamir face in 1978 using entirely new routes and entirely on his own, making it the first solo ascent for a mountain over 8,000 metres. In 1980 he climbed Mount Everest alone , without supplementary oxygen and during the Monsoon. In 2006 Messner opened the first Messner Mountain Museum in his hometown, which today has four locations in Europe.
As the second man in history to capture the Crown of the Himalayas after Reinhold Messner, Kukuczka (born 24 March, 1948) is recognised as one of the most outstanding restaurants in the world. He specialised in winter ascents using the lightweight Alpine style, introducing new routes, conquering all but one (Mount Everest) eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen. He ascended all fourteen major peaks (Mount Everest, K-2, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Nanga Parbat, Annapurna, Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum II, Shisha Pangma) in eight years - faster than anyone who came before or after him. He embarked on his first expedition to the Hindukush in 1976 and had captured the last remaining jewels in the crown in 1986. Kukuczka died attempting to climb the unclimbed South Face of Lhotse in Nepal on 24 October 1989 after his climbing rope snapped and he plummeted to his death.
The world's premier female climber, Wanda Rutkiewicz was (born 4 February, 1943) was as determined as Poland's male climbers to make historic ascents. She was the first woman to make it to the summit of K2, making the ascent in 1986 without supplemental oxygen. Before that, she was the third woman in the world - the first woman in Europe and the first Polish climber, male or female - to conquer the summit of Mount Everest in 1978. Her goal was to collect all fourteen eight-thousanders of the Himalayan crown, however she died on May 12 or May 13, 1992 as she attempted to ascend Kangchenjunga.
Wanda Rutkiewicz was known for both her beauty and her tough personality. She was an attractive, feminine individual who often used her whiles to secure permits and assistance during difficult moments of the climb, and yet she was severe and determined, often hard on her teammates in her race to achieve her goals. She made several climbs with a broken leg and suffering from altitude sickness, never allowing physical weakness to prove an obstacle. Ultimately, age and exhaustion proved insurmountable and she died pursuing her greatest passion.
As a pioneer of the Alpine style of climbing, Kurtyka (born on 20 September, 1947) honed his skills in Poland's Tatra mountains in winter before making major ascents in the Alps and the Himalayas. Educated as an electrical engineer, he pursued climbing first as a hobby, then a career. He was at the forefront of the strong-willed group of Polish climbers who introduced free climbs and new routes to the all over Europe. He made a name for himself after making the first winter ascent of Troll Wall in Norway in 1973 along with a group of three other climbers. He began scaling the Himalayas in the 1970s, beginning with the wall of Akher Chogh in the Hindu Kush, adopting the Alpine style. He took part in a number of major expeditions to some of the tallest peaks of the Himalayan Crown, together with such greats as Reinhold Messner, Alex MacIntyre, Jerzy Kukuczka, Erhard Loretan and Yasushi Yamanoi. His ascent of the western face of Gasherbrum IV in 1985 with Robert Schauer was noted by Climbing magazine as one of the 10 most impressive climbs of the 20th century. Kurtyka also invented the Polish grading system for free climbs.
Alpine climber Krzysztof Wielicki (born 5 January, 1950) is known as a pioneer of sport climbing in the Himalayas and outstanding climber. He was the fifth man to claim the Himalayan crown and was the first to make it to the summits of Everest, Kangchenjunga and Lhotse as the first man ever to do it in winter. He adopted a light-weight sporting variety of climbing, which sped up his ascents, making it possible to conquer Dhaulagiri in 16 hours. He took on new routes and braving the tough winter conditions that made it impossible to navigate or even see through the thick snows. Low temperatures made it even harder on the body, but Wielicki's resilience put him at the top of his game.
Easily the father of Polish Himalayism, Andrzej Zawada (born 16 July, 1928) in Warsaw) began climbing mountains in the Alps and Tatras. He was the guide for a number of major expeditions in the Himalayas. He also made movies on mountain climbing and wrote a number of books. In 1959 he guided the first winter crossing through the whole ridge of Tatra mountains which took 19 days. In 1971 he led the Polish expedition in making the first ascent to the Khunyang Chhish (7852 m) in the Karakoram. With Tadeusz Piotrowski he made the first winter ascent of Noshaq (7492 m) in the Hindu Kush (1973), the world's first winter climb above 7,000 m. In 1971 Zawada made the first ascent of the North Face of Koh-i Mandaras (6628 m). In 1980 Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy made the first winter ascent of Mount Everest (8848 m), the highest mountain on Earth with Zawada leading the expedition. He died in Warsaw in 2000.
Art of Freedom
Produced by: The Adam Mickiewicz Institute, 2011
Screenplay and direction: Wojciech Słota, Marek Kłosowicz
The film is part of the Guide to the Poles series of documentary films produced within the framework of the International Cultural Programme of the Polish Presidency of the EU Council in 2011
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