Adam Bielecki: I’m not an immortal teenager anymore

I used to climb a wall in the Tatra Mountains and having a choice between bivouac without equipment and sleeping bag on a rock shelf, only to make two more lengths of rope in the morning and complete the route or return to a shelter, I spent the night on the wall. Now I would go down and come back another day”, Dariusz Jaroñ talks to Himalayan mountaineer Adam Bielecki.

He is one of the most titled and valued Polish climbers. He took part in the first winter expeditions to the eight-thousander Gaszerbrum I (8068 m) and Broad Peak (8051 m), in the summer he climbed, among others, K2 (8611 m) and Makalu (8481 m).

We meet on Monday evening at a café in Adam Bielecki’s hometown – Tychy. The conversation quickly turns to the subject of the fast approaching Polish expedition to the unclimbed K2 peak, the second highest mountain in the world.

Dariusz Jaron, Interia: How do you approach K2 in winter?

Adam Bielecki: With humility. K2 is a very difficult mountain. It is the second highest peak on Earth, but much more difficult than Everest. It’s not a mountain you can just climb, you have to climb it. I dare say that the top of K2 in winter, excluding some extremes like the inside of a volcano or the bottom of the Mariana Trench, is one of the most unfriendly places on the planet.

What are the conditions there in winter?

– The average temperature is between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius below zero, the perceived temperature is much lower, and the wind can gust up to 400 kilometers per hour. Of course, there’s no climbing in these conditions, we’ll be waiting for the so-called weather windows, if they come at all. It’s a very big challenge, one of the biggest challenges in contemporary Himalayan climbing. A lot will depend on the tactics, the team, and in the end – mainly on the weather.

No man has summited K2 in winter yet. How do you prepare for something that no one has ever done before?

– I’ve been doing it for twenty-something years, because all my climbing so far has been preparation for new expeditions. It’s even hard to distinguish between training and climbing, because climbing is training, although recently it has changed for me. Before, even half a year I could spend in the mountains, climbing all the time, now I spend more time training in the lowlands. My form is taken care of by a team of specialists from “Formy na szczyt”. I train five days a week, such is the everyday life of a professional sportsman.

Is K2 in wintertime the holy grail for climbers?

– Probably yes, but the world does not end with climbing K2 in winter.

But it ends an epoch. It is the last eight-thousander to be climbed in wintertime.

– That’s true, but even if we conquer it we will still have something to do. I live other climbing projects at the same time. My idea fixe is to lead a new route on some eight-thousander. Having failed twice, I intend to keep trying. It fires my imagination. But in the symbolic dimension it would be great if we succeeded. The Poles started the era of conquering the Himalayas and the Karakorum in wintertime, and they started it with a strong chord, because they conquered Mount Everest.

What is the reason that Poles are so good in the highest mountains of the world in winter? Do you have your own theory?

– At the time of the golden era of the conquest of the Himalayas by Poles I was not yet in the world. Researchers of the problem have several answers. One of them says that when Poles were finally allowed to go abroad for political reasons, the era of first ascents in the Himalayas and Karakorum was already over. Between 1950 and 1964 all the eight-thousanders had been climbed. Poles faced a dilemma: what to do to make history?

And here comes the second factor, namely our small, beautiful Tatra Mountains. In summer they’re not a very serious climbing destination, but in winter they take on a high-mountain character. There are only glaciers and crevasses missing, but we have other attractions of alpine type, that is long and technically difficult walls, avalanches, ascents and long approaches. It’s a great school and garden, where whole generations of climbers were brought up. Because of the Tatra Mountains characteristics, climbing a given route in winter was always the most valued in Poland. There was even a saying in the community: who did it in winter? An anecdote says that while talking about Everest such a question was asked by Andrzej Zawada, the later leader of the successful 1980 expedition to the highest peak on Earth.

No one had ever thought of climbing an eight-thousander in winter before?

– Every idea is easy once someone comes up with it. It has always been so that first we had the first ascent of a given peak, then we went through subsequent ridges, more and more difficult walls and roads and finally we had our first winter expedition. Andrzej Zawada said that the same scheme should be repeated in the highest mountains, although Sir Edmund Hillary, the first Everest conqueror in 1953, claimed that a man cannot survive above eight thousand metres in winter. He was wrong. Besides, the equipment has changed a lot since his time.

On February 17, 1980 Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy stood on the summit of Mount Everest – for the first time in winter. How did the climbing world react to something that was supposed to be impossible?

– At first it didn’t react very well. I have an impression that it was only in the 21st century that the international climbing community realised that climbing eight-thousanders in wintertime is an interesting concept, so in the 1980s it was not until the early 1980s that they realised that it was impossible. In the last century we could easily collect mountains from the winter crown of Himalayas and Karakorum. Only in the XXI century the competition in the form of such climbers as Simone Moro, Denis Urubko or Alex Txikon suddenly made these last yet unclimbed eight-thousanders very attractive.

Also for you. What motivates you to do that? We’re talking about quite extreme going beyond the comfort and safety zone.

– It would be a crime for me to reduce the meaning of my life to a few factors. It’s impossible to boil it down like that. There is a whole range of reasons and answers. Because this is really a question about why we go to the mountains? What draws us there? There are a couple of neat answers that help to dismiss an intrusive interlocutor.

Here you go.

– We go to the mountains because they are there. You can also say that if someone has a passion, you don’t have to explain it to him, and if he doesn’t, he won’t understand anyway. These are obviously evasive answers. A whole range of factors makes me go to the mountains and I love climbing not only in the Himalayas, but also in Rzędkowice near Zawiercie, from which I returned just before our meeting. For me, mountains have an aesthetic, spiritual, interpersonal, physical, and sporting dimension. All this makes me think that climbing gives me something and that it is worth doing in spite of the fact that it is dangerous. For many people it is probably difficult to understand.

That’s why I ask provocatively about the motivation. Often when there is an accident in the mountains there are comments in one fashion: why did he go there? You have to explain it to many people.

– I don’t feel such a need to explain or explain my passion anymore. I also don’t think that Himalayan climbing is a super activity and everyone should do it. If someone tells me that it is completely pointless, fine, maybe it is. Don’t absolutely do it, but let me do what I feel like doing since I’m not hurting anyone in the process and I’m doing it on private money. It’s just my choice.

Did you have any idols?

– Since I was a kid I wanted to be a climber, so my childhood was full of climbing heroes. I was inspired by books, adventures of climbers. A whole litany of names, it’s impossible to name one person.

And the style? Did anyone particularly impress you?

– For example Walter Bonatti or, among Poles, Wojtek Kurtyka. He always impressed me with the fact that he was a very versatile climber. As for those times, he achieved very good results in sport climbing, but also in climbing on eight-thousanders, and his achievements are defended until today. Artur Hajzer was my authority, I learned from him high-mountain craft and thanks to him I got to the highest mountains.

Without mentioning your age, because we are of the same generation, you are 34. Among top Himalayan climbers this is not much. With your achievements and experience you are a very young man.

– In the Himalayas and the Karakorum it is indeed mostly people older than me who go there, but there are no rules. Himalayan climbing is an endurance sport. While maximum strength decreases with age, endurance increases. Apart from that, apart from sport abilities, a very important role in high mountains is played by head, experience, and that grows with age. On the last expedition on Annapurna I met a climber named Rick. He is 62 years old and he proves that age is only a metric and every time you have to consider it individually because you can be surprised.

Every idea is simple once someone comes up with it

For example, seeing you, a 17 year old boy at the time, as you climb your first 7,000 meter peak. Do you meet such young people so high in the mountains, or were you an exception?

– It was only possible because I have exceptional and wonderful parents. We still grew up in a time when this independence was given to children more than today. Today parents are more protective of their children. People at a young age write to me saying that they would like to take up more serious climbing.

What do you advise them?

– I always write: sign up for a rock climbing course, a mountaineering course, go to a club, meet people, that is, completely different from what I did myself. You told me about my age and now it sounds old because I wanted to say that in my time the beginnings of climbing looked different than now.

What if a 17-year-old wrote to you today with the intention of climbing seven thousand metres?

– I would ask him what his climbing experience is. Where has he been so far? When I went to Chan Tengri in 2000 I had already been climbing for four years, two of them in summer and winter in the mountains. I have climbed three alpine four-thousanders, including the Matterhorn, which is considered to be quite difficult and serious, and I did it alone, being a full member of the team. That already sounds a bit different, doesn’t it? I read all those books as a kid that there’s a set way up in the mountains, which leads through the rocks, Tatra Mountains in summer and winter, Alps, Caucasus or Andes or Tienshan, and only then you’re ready to go to the highest mountains. And I went through all these levels of mountain education. Except for the last one, I climbed them at a very fast pace.

In your book “From beneath the frozen eyelids” you write a lot about the great support and permission for the realization of your passions provided by your parents. How do you, as a dad of two children, look upon your parents’ care for their safety and at the same time allowing them to find their own way?

– I think up to a certain point we can try to raise children, but then our role changes, we can support them, offer advice, but it will be on them to figure out what they want to do in life. Sometimes I feel that what is most difficult about raising children is to refrain from doing things, to allow children to explore, to make wrong decisions as well. I was raised in the spirit of self-reliance, responsibility, bearing the consequences of my not always the wisest choices, I would like to pass the same to my children. Although if you ask me if I would like my son to become a Himalayan mountaineer, I will answer that probably not.

What does it come from?

– Out of fear. However, if my son makes such a decision, I will not forbid him or throw obstacles under his feet.

Perhaps the hardest thing about parental consent is the loss of control. We worry that something bad might happen to the child.

– We regularly lose that control. A child can always do something stupid, it is impossible to control them 24 hours a day. My job isn’t to teach my kids to be afraid of water, it’s to teach them to swim because if they fall into that water, they can handle it. I think that’s a better action than instilling in kids that water is dangerous.

Have you talked to your parents about their fear for you?

– Yes, I have. But that’s a question for them.

You studied psychology. Does education help up there?

– I don’t know what part of our view of the world is due to what we studied and what is influenced by other factors. Does psychology help? I think not particularly, although you can look for some clues. Climbers often have very strong characters, they are stubborn, self-confident people. In a situation of constant danger, when there is tension, stress, and you have to make difficult decisions, conflicts arise. Maybe because I’m a psychologist it’s easier for me to understand and I react better in difficult moments, I let myself get carried away with emotions less, but it’s rather due to my nature. I studied as a hobby knowing that my daily occupation would be climbing.

I have unique and wonderful parents

Let’s talk about the maturation of a Himalayan climber. Do you feel like a formed climber today?

– I will be learning all my life. I’ve already acquired a certain amount of knowledge, which is enough for me to move safely in the mountains, now I have to keep up with new inventions, what is changing in relation to what I was taught.

Do you mean in terms of technology?

– Yes, rope techniques, equipment innovations. I can’t stay behind. I feel that the period of learning how to climb, collecting whips and lessons in humility, is behind me. I’ve collected quite a bit of that. I see such a difference in myself that today I would describe myself as a safe, careful climber. It used to not be like this.

What is the manifestation of this? Are you able to turn back to the camp more often nowadays?

– The easiest way to illustrate it: in the past I would climb a wall, for example in the Tatra Mountains, and having a choice between a bivouac without any equipment and sleeping bag on a rock shelf, only to make two more lengths of rope in the morning and complete the route or return to a shelter, I would spend the night on the wall. Now I would descend and return another day.

Since having a family are you more careful in the mountains?

– In terms of the level of acceptable risk, caution, I think not, because it follows a process that came before. I got enough warnings in my climbing life that I had to start thinking differently than a 15-16 year old who thinks he’s immortal. The biggest difference is that I get homesick. It is much harder for me to leave than it used to be. A two-three month trip was not a problem for me, today there is homesickness for the kids and my wife.

Those few months in a young child’s development are a lot. You can lose a lot.

– That’s why I haven’t been on such a long expedition since Tymek was born.

How will you cope with missing K2?

You mentioned that you aim at setting up new routes. Are you thinking about a particular mountain?

– I have some ideas for the future. Climbing is a very capacious concept, on the one hand it’s bouldering, which is doing some very difficult climbing moves without a rope up to two meters above the ground, but also walking with poles on Mount Everest. These activities don’t have much in common, not even a rope connects them. Although I’m most associated with Himalayan climbing, in fact I do all other forms of climbing activities as well, in each of them I set myself goals.

I try to realize them, to climb better and better, to be faster and more resistant climber than in the previous season. The key to enjoying it and having fun is to race with yourself, not others. The one who does the hardest routes is not the best, it’s the one who gets the most enjoyment out of it. This is the basic aim of climbing, I try not to forget about it.

To have money for all this, to have sponsors, advertisers and media around you, you have to be constantly present in the highest mountains of the world.

– I want to believe that it’s happening, but you can see with the naked eye that for some reason the eight-thousanders are the most interesting, although Poles do great things on the lower peaks, we also have Marcin Dzieński, the world champion in time climbing. We’re making great big routes all over the world, there are more and more of them and you don’t hear about it. I hope it will change.

Sport climbing on an artificial wall will be at the Olympics.

– Maybe it will influence the interest. For now, Himalayanism sells best, which doesn’t mean easy either.

Do you want to talk about Broad Peak?

How did you deal with the trauma?

– You know what. Did someone close to you die?

Yes, but it was a natural death. I could have prepared myself

– I deflected the question to show you that it happens to everyone, and it’s very difficult to answer a question like that.

You are right, but apart from dealing with the deaths of Maciej Berbek and Tomasz Kowalski you had to deal with a media storm in the country.

– The problem wasn’t that there was a lot of heckling or criticism around me, it was that two of my friends didn’t come back from the mountain. That was what I was primarily concerned about, and the whole media storm, obviously unpleasant and difficult, even more so for my loved ones than for me, was somewhat external to me. And looking from the outside it may have seemed more serious than it actually was.

What do you mean by that?

– I haven’t had a single unpleasant face-to-face situation since I came back from Broad Peak, and I didn’t hide at home. I gave lectures, went to the Tatra Mountains, climbed, went to mountain festivals. In the real world, as a counterpoint to the Internet hegemony, I received a lot of empathy and words of support. This helped me gain distance from the negative feedback.

But I had no illusions. After all, there are certain media mechanisms, we also like to heckle, and this was the perfect story, the right media plot: first they fight, they reach the summit, there is a great success with the Polish flag in the background, and then someone dies, there is a tragedy, and in the end we still have the guilty party. Samogram. Somewhere in all this we were victims of the media interest that we had created in order to raise funds for the expedition. And it turned against us.

Do you have a grudge against the media?

– We can grumble at these mechanisms, we can complain about how sad it is that the media sell best dramas and tragedies, but this is the truth.

There was also a report by the Polish Mountaineering Association.

Very critical of you.

– The report was indeed the most unpleasant for me, but I have the impression that it’s already history, including the fact that, I think, those who wrote it regret today that it has such a shape, that they let themselves be manipulated. What was important for me was what people said who had been in those conditions, they know what being at that altitude in the Karakorum in winter entails. There are a few of them in the world. And I got support from them. I don’t take anything away from the committee members, but only two of the five people had ever been to eight thousand meters, but none of them in winter. For them it was a purely theoretical situation, they were not competent to judge it.

And so from the perspective of time, would you do something differently today?

– A lot of things. Such accidents sometimes happen because of a single mistake, but most often they are the sum of small mistakes that, when they exceed a critical mass, turn into a tragedy. Such was the case with us. We left late, even though it was justified, we could have turned back. There were many things we could have done differently, but today it is just speculation.

It will not change anything.

– But you have to draw conclusions for the future. A very strong lesson for me was that anyone can make a mistake. I had great trust in Krzysiek Wielicki and Maciek Berbeka, and it seems to me that my judgment of the situation, my fear, the fact that I wanted to withdraw twice from the summit attack was better than theirs. I lacked self-confidence to push through it.

How does that work up there? Does one of you saying “we’re going back” change anything? But are decisions made individually?

– Every decision has an impact on the team. On Kanchendzonga, for example, I said “guys, I think we should all descend. If you determine that you are going further, go without me.” This is a specific message, my partners have to digest it and make a decision.

And what did they do?

– Just then they all turned back. Every situation like this is different. There is no standard procedure.

But it is easy to judge these choices.

– Especially at sea level. We forget that up there we have 30 percent oxygen. If you were to teleport someone without acclimatization to eight thousand meters, he would have 10 minutes to live. At the height of the K2 summit, our capacity is about 20 percent of the power from the sea level. This also applies to our mind. I have no doubt that we are in a different state of consciousness there. Peak euphoria and other phenomena make our judgment distorted. There is a lack of working memory. When a person is dehydrated, tired, malnourished, hypoxic, they make decisions differently than when they are down.

Have you experienced a cutoff of consciousness? You write in the book about a girl’s voice warning you that you were going to freeze.

– I heard a whistling sound that forced me to make a better decision. That was an important lesson from Makalu, that at a certain altitude you can’t trust your judgment, you have to refer to external factors. Most often it is time.

Psychiatrist and mountaineer Zdzisław Ryn writes about it very nicely. According to him, in a situation of extreme exhaustion of the body, the mechanism of the last chance for rescue in the form of an illness or hallucination appears. There are cases of experiencing the presence of another person, who helps the climber, or the Himalayan climber boils tea in the camp and pours it into two cups, realizing that there is no one there. There are very many similar accounts.

Or is it not hallucination, but some more serious metaphysics? Are you a romantic in the mountains, or is there no place for it in such expeditions?

– Now it would be easy for me to trivialize this romanticism, to make it shallow if I tried to fit into such categories.

Yes, but there are Himalayan climbers who approach climbing in an extremely sporty way, while others seek deeper spiritual experiences in it.

– Both the sport aspect is important for me and the spiritual one. I would even put the sign of equality – together they make up the full experience which climbing is.

Within this spirituality do you come back from the mountains different?

– Yes. I see clear changes in my personality under the influence of the mountains, I see that I become a better person after coming back. I have more patience. I am much more focused on receiving and not transmitting. In the mountains I calm down, I also have time to think. It is a constructive time for me, my loved ones, I think, also perceive this transformation as something positive. I feel that when I come back from the mountains I glow, then this glow dims, then I get frustrated, until finally I start to be unbearable even to myself

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