Shisha Pangma was the last mountain in Jerzy Kukuczka’s 14×8000 collection. In the mid 1978 Jerzy finally managed to organize the expedition. It was very complicated since Shisha Pangma is the eight-thousender located in the territory of China. A political dialogue was required to obtain the permit itself. Moreover, this expedition cost an enormous amount of money, much more than it had been in the case of other expeditions and there arose many organizational problems on top of that. Finally, at the turn of July and August the expedition finally set off. Jerzy intended to bind himself with the rope once again with Artur Hajzer. Wanda Rutkiewicz and Carlos Corsolio and a few other persons participated in the expedition.
The road to the base camp led through the Tibetan plateau, therefore it was easier to get there as they were able to reach the base camp directly with Jeeps. However, in the middle of their journey there arose a problem:
“- Stop! It’s here. It is the Chinese base camp.
We stumbled out of the vehicles, rather disoriented but it didn’t take too long as we looked around to realize that we were still a long way from the mountains which were barely shimmering above the horizon.
As far as I know, the base camp is at the base of a mountains” – I tried to influence this rather surprising decision.
Nooo. We will not drive any further. It gets too high there, hard and dangerous. We have to think about our health as well – the liaison officer was uncompromising. We will set up the base camp here. Period.”
In such situation there was no choice but to leave some of the equipment, the cook and the liaison officer with a few persons to help. The expedition moved further on. After some time we faced another problem. Jerzy wanted to facilitate the logistics and decided to purchase paraffin here, in China. The problem was that the Nepalese stoves were not going to work with the Chinese fuel.
“From now on we were all engaged in the repair of these machines. We, the cook, the drivers, we all had our own theory. Some said there was too much air reaching them, others said not enough, some that the pressure build-up was too low; other started adding petrol to the paraffin. The results of these experiments were varied.
At last one of the “engineers” solved this problem constructing additional insulation in the stoves. And there appeared another problem – altitude sickness. At some point almost all members suffered from it. Janusz Majer suffered the most:
“ Janusz was so sick than not only was he not able to get up but also it was difficult to even talk to him. He was hallucinating. I was afraid it could be cerebral or pulmonary oedema.”
The doctor diagnosed an inflammation of the veins resulting from insufficient acclimatization. Fortunately, after efficient treatment and taking Janusz down, he managed to get him back on his feet again. After a few days they managed to set up a base, bring all vehicles and cure the expedition. The proper part of the expedition finally began. Shisha Pangma is not a difficult mountain, it also not very high as for an eight-thousender, it measures 8013 metres above sea level. Therefore, Jerzy proposed a quite unconventional idea for the expedition:
“Actually, we are here on holiday. Let’s treat this like a climbing camp in the Alps where everyone chooses its own route.”
And so the expedition proceeded that way. Wanda hoped to achieve the first woman’s ascent. Steve and Alan wanted to climb a couloir in the middle of the mountain’s face. Carlos and Elsa planned to reach the summit climbing the classic route. Jerzy and Artur decided to set a new route by the west ridge and also climb the neighbouring, so far virgin 7000-metre summit. They got divided in a few teams which accomplished their own, previously set aims. When Jerzy and Artur reached the planned camp I, where they put up a provisional bivouac, they faced a surprise. The notion “a simple mountain” seemed to change its meaning there.
We both threw ourselves at the small exit of the tent and somehow we fought our way out of the entrapping material. I could see a great cloud moving towards us. We only heard somebody shouting but nothing was important anymore… We started to run through that snow wearing our socks only. We all knew that perhaps we were running for our life. But at this altitude, wading in snow, we couldn’t run fast and far. After a hundred of metres I was blocked entirely. I turned around to see that the white cloud finally came to a halt. It slowed down. So did I. I stopped when this tumbling snow mass nearly moved, slowly came to a halt some fifty metres short of our tent.”
Once again they were very lucky. Next day, Atrur and Jerzy intended to set off from camp I towards their first aim – the 7000-metre summit Yebokangal Ri. The route was difficult but finally theyclimbed it.
“As we stood on its summit, the weather was beautiful, the whole Tibet stretched out before us as if on the palms of our hands. It was one of this wonderful moments, unmarred by exhaustion, or icy wind, or choking snow storm. It was the moment you remember, like a colourful picture taken on a family trip.”
The situation seemed excellent, after nearly a few days the climbers were acclimatized and they ascended the virgin 7000-metre summit. However, once they went down to the base, the situation reversed. The weather broke. Days went by, whereby the expedition had been planned to be very short due to high cost incurred each day. Meanwhile, 10 days passed and all expeditions were about to return. The situation looked bad. Finally the sun appeared again in the sky and so all teams set off up. After some time Jerzy and Artur met the team climbing the classic route. It was late and both teams planned to reach the summit on the same day. Jerzy tried to persuade the colleagues climbing the classic route that it was late, they had no camping equipment and they would be forced to go down in the dark. But they didn’t let themselves get convinced.
“ We are not going to discuss it! We have our torches! We will manage – they answered full of confidence in them. I saw that my warnings were of no avail.
It’s getting late. Perhaps it would be better to descend and tomorrow, you would get up early and reach the summit at an earlier time?
Hardy had I finished all this oratorical speech when I saw that they set off without a word, rushing towards the real summit as fast as their legs and lungs let them.”
Jerzy and Artur were in a better situation, they were climbing in Alpine style so they had their tent with them. Initially, they had planned to camp before the summit and proceed next day towards it. Finally, they decided to go for it on the same day. After a few days they are on the summit. They did it!
“Never in my most daring dreams did I imagine that this is what it would be like. I was standing on the summit of my last eight-thousender, the last bead in my Himalayan rosary. It had happened.”
They made a long film on the summit and then descended. It got dark soon but they had their tent with them. They spent the night there and next day they set off towards the base camp. There was still one more adventure awaiting Jerzy. Since Shisha Pangma is a relatively easy and flat summit, he had decided to take this time the skis with him. He had planned to ski down to the base camp.
“ I started making a very long traverse skirting round the first summit. The snow was deep and soft. I could not see my ski tips, at times I moved so slowly that I hardly felt I was moving at all. Artur was walking down behind me, and the distance between us was not increasing. Not at all. All this changed into a very hard works on the slope. I was unable to ski more than ten metres at a time. After I reached the plateau I was not long before Artur. The total saving I had derived from this “white madness” was that after I had descended 8000 metres on the plateau I was an hour ahead of Artur who was not skiing but was trudging down through snow, meekly, on his own two legs, as God had destined him to.”
Jerzy’s friends waited for him in the base camp to congratulate him. At that time he was the second man in the world to have ascended all 14 eight thousand-metre high summits. In addition, he managed to accomplish it in half the time his rival needed . However his greatest accomplishment is that he ascended the summits in an original way, in grand style, setting new routes , solo or in winter time.
Fourteen times eight…
Has something really come to an end?
No, the vertical world never comes to an end. It is there. Waiting.
I’ll come back.
But wait, I have thought like this once before. When?
Of course! That first time , when I had been defeated by Nanga!
That was a long time ago, very long time ago…
A whole fourteen mountains ago.
What else did I think of after that first encounter?
Oh yes, that they Himalaya are for people after all.
I was right.”
*All quotations were taken from the book “My vertical world” by J. Kukuczka.
tłum. Katarzyna Fałkowska