GOOD READS – Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season

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Bernadette McDonald is the author of a dozen books on mountaineering and mountain culture. She won the UK’s prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize twice, the Banff Award for Mountain Literature twice, and the Banff Mountain Book Festival’s Grand Prize, among others. She was the founding Vice President of Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre and director of the mountain festivals there for 20 years, where she undoubtedly made many contacts in the international climbing community. The mountaineering community in North Central BC first encountered McDonald decades ago when she was the first to bring the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour to Prince George.

McDonald is best known for her books about Polish climbers. Her latest work, ‘Winter 8000,’ a finalist again for the 2020 Banff Mountain Book Festival, is no exception. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Polish climbers in the Soviet occupation era were largely restricted to their own country, and they missed out on the first ascents of the World’s fourteen highest (8,000-metre) peaks that began with the French climb of Annapurna in 1950. They lacked the freedom to travel and the means to pay for it in foreign currency even if they could; but they did not lack mountaineering skills, toughness and the will to win; nor the ingenuity to find ways to finance it. Having missed the chance to be part of the first wave of 8,000-metre conquests, they came up with a more audacious goal: they would be the first to climb them all in winter. Krzysztof Wielicki, having climbed all fourteen 8,000ers, including the first winter ascents of Everest, Kangchenjunga and Lhotse, would afterwards say: “My generation really got kicked in the butt, which made us harder in body and spirit and we reaped the benefits later.

This book is not exclusively about Polish alpinists, but a quick scan reveals that twelve of the fourteen 8,000-metre first winter ascents were made by, or included Poles, beginning with Everest in 1980 on their first attempt. The only exceptions being Nanga Parbat, which was winter-climbed by an international team in 2016, and K2 which has yet to be climbed in winter:

Book Review Winter 8000
The book begins slowly and climbs to a nail-biting crescendo. The final chapters cover the most recent decade, with a new generation of Polish ‘Ice Warriors’ vying to complete the work of their forebears and culminating with a successful winter ascent of Broad Peak in 2013. Although successful, this was not a happy climb as two of the four summiteers died on the descent.

Three years later, the first winter ascent of the even more dangerous Nanga Parbat was at last achieved in February 2016 after some 34 serious prior attempts. That wasn’t the end of the story for Nanga Parbat. McDonald relates the dramatic 2018 high altitude rescue of French climber Élisabeth Revol on her descent by Polish climbers who were making an attempt on the adjacent K2.

Again in 2019, she relates the unsuccessful rescue attempt of two climbers, one of whom was Tom Ballard, son of British climber Alison Hargreaves who had died descending from the summit of adjacent K2 in 1995 – a double family tragedy. Climbing and camping in the death zone in winter, where winds can exceed 100-150 kilometres per hour and temperatures can drop below minus 40-50 degrees Celsius, inevitably produces its share of disasters, and the burden is shared with the family members who are left behind.

And so the adventure continues, with at least one more chapter still to be

For anyone interested in the history of Himalayan climbing, this is an essential book, well written, with good end sections that include appendices, chapter notes, a bibliography and index. In particular, I made frequent use of the two appendices detailing the key climbers and the chronological list of 8,000 metre first winter ascents and the respective ascensionists.


Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season’ by Bernadette McDonald; Vertebrate Publishing, September 2020; 256 pages with 2x 8-page colour plates; Hardback; Retail price £24.00; ISBN 978-1-912560-38-7.


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