It might not always happen that Polish people reach the top of the world in their professions or endeavours. However, when it comes to mountain-climbing, Poland can claim to have reached the summit of achievement (pun intended).
There are 14 mountains in the world which are over 8,000 metres in height – all of them to be found in the Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges in Asia, straddling borders between India, Nepal, China and Tibet. The 14 mountains are:
Annapurna – 8091 metres high
Broad Peak – 8051 metres high
Cho Oyu – 8201 metres high
Dhaulagiri – 8167 metres high
Mount Everest – 8848 metres high
Gasherbrum I – 8080 metres high
Gasherbrum II – 8035 metres high
K2 – 8611 metres high
Kangchenjunga – 8586 metres high
Lhotse – 8516 metres high
Makalu – 8481 metres high
Manaslu – 8156 metres high
Nanga Parbat – 8126 metres high
Shishapangma – 8013 metres high
Only 21 people have been confirmed to have climbed all of these 14 peaks (with one further climber under review), and amazingly 3 of those have been Polish men. Along with 3 Italians and 3 South Koreans, they are the nations most represented in this elite group of climbers. Having visited northern India and seen Mount Kangchenjunga from a distance of a few kilometres, it took my breath away. I can only imagine the elation at having climbed 14 such peaks. The three Poles who have achieved this are Jerzy Kukuczka, Piotr Pustelnik and Krzysztof Wielicki. Below is a brief overview of their achievements, including having scaled the 14 highest mountains in the world.
Kukuczka was an avid climber, and also one of the fore-runners in the race to become the first person to climb all 14 mountains over 8,000 metres. He eventually completed the set of 14 in 1987, just a few months after Reinhold Messner. He focussed on trying to climb ‘alpine-style’ which means that the climber carries all required equipment rather than setting up multiple camps to fall back on. This a more extreme but respected method, which aims to have less impact on the environment of the mountain. Kukuczka also focussed on aiming to climb without the aid of oxygen and climbed 13 of the 14 peaks (all except Mount Everest) without oxygen assistance. Kukuczka died climbing Lhotse in October 1989 due to a snapped rope, bringing a shining climbing career to a sudden end.
Pustelnik is actually one of the most recent joiners of the 8,000 metre club, having only completed the 14th climb in April 2010. With him almost in his 50’s at the time, it showed that it it not necessarily youth and energy but rather experience and guile which can bring success. He also works as a chemical engineer, with climbing being a hobby of his, showing that he can match brains with brawn. Krzysztof Wielicki
Wielicki followed closely in the steps of Jerzy Kukuczka with him being the 5th man to climb all 14 peaks over 8,000 metres. After Kukuczka, it meant 2 Polish men being within the first 5 ever to do so. He has currently retired from climbing having turned 61 years old a few weeks ago. However, he remains a member of the Explorers Club. Along with Jerzy Kukuczka, they pioneered winter climbs of some of the highest mountains in the world, breaking tradition where the summer time had always been targetted. Wielicka was in fact the first person to climb Mount Everest, Lhotse and Kangchenjunga in winter time, a record that will live to show his climbing ability.The achievements of these three men seem even more fantastic to me when compared to some of the other climbers involved. Italian climbers tended to have much experience in the Alps, while Koreans, Nepalese, and other Asians have the Himalayas in their backyard, Poles do not have the same caliber of peaks to contend with, yet they have provided some of the elite in high-altitude climbing. Thus while Poles may not always be world leaders in other areas, they stand tall above most others when it comes to mountain climbing.