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An Interview with Ryszard Pawłowski

/ Mountain News

A living legend of the Polish and Worldwide Himalayan climbing. The man is known for his endurance and drive. He transformed the thing he loves most into the profession of a mountain guide. He took part and organised over 300 expeditions into the highest mountains. On the Summit exclusive: a in-depth interview with Ryszard Pawłowski.

Bartek Andrzejewski: In a span of 40 years’ of you being active in the mountain, it’s been 20 years since you have been leading people onto the summits on the commercial expeditions. How did it come to be that having completed such a successful and grand climbs have you decided for such a step? What was the turning point?

Ryszard Pawłowski: In the beginning all of it came from a great passion and adventure at the same time, but I was quickly gaining recognition among other climbing. I was becoming better at this and the passion was starting to take the most of my time, so I decided to dedicate myself to this to the full. Although I had a granted job at the mine and sometimes I even got offers of taking well-paid posts and though I had a Master’s degree, it was climbing that fascinated me the most. That was when I decided to risk the unknown at that time. I wanted to spend my time mostly away and eventually make my living out of it. So I gained the licenses of instructor for alpine climbing and many rich companies from the west offered me to take part in various expeditions. I took on that opportunity and hence got my chance on the Everest, Lhotse, Nanga Parbat, Island Peak, McKinley or Aconcagua and still got some money out of it. With time I came to a conclusion I should start to make my own brand. The main drive was that I simply like this that much but also that it turns out one can make a living out of it.


Fot. arch. Ryszard Pawłowski

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: It is known that not every man is able to cope with harsh and often extreme high-mountain conditions. How do you qualify the participants for your expeditions? Can anyone come into the highest mountains with you?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: When I meet someone whom I have never heard of, I always ask them what they have completed in the mountains,what their experience is, what height they have reached. This is how judge the skills of such people. If I reckon such a person is fit for expedition but I still have my doubts than comes an option to scrutinise them during the expedition itself. If in midst of action someone comes far from the others but is very determined to reach the goal then such a person can be teamed with a “guardian angel” in a form of a high-altitude Sherpa. Sometimes I take on such a role and help with the ascent. But I tend to focus on coordinating the actions of the whole team. If someone comes up to me before the expedition whom I have major doubts about, I offer him something easier for the start, somewhere where they can also see how they cope with high altitudes, walk in crampons, tackle difficulties, so that the first try is not that expensive as let’s say Mount Everest. Thanks to my experience I am able to evaluate the potential of the people who approach me against the difficulties they can tackle. In the end, all that matters is their safety.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: Do you appoint each person a certain training schedule so that they are prepared enough for the planned expedition?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: Indeed, many people do tend to ask me how to become fully prepared. It is a sensible thing to ask me about a year or half a year prior to the trip. Then I advise them to start from the basics. If the member is e.g. a smoker, I advise them to cut down on cigarettes. If someone is not an active person, I suggest them running from time to time or some hiking, completing a few routes, even the ones meant for tourists, for them to see what they are capable of. I have learned that if someone turns up last-minute and then takes on an intensive training routine, it always ends in exhaustion and injuries. When there is little time left such practice is even more dangerous than not being very active sports-wise. We plan our schedule in the mountains so that people can get accustomed to the conditions with time. There are places where we stay for two nights solely for that purpose, we also regularly ascend to some altitudes to get used to it. This facilitates the preparation process a lot.


Fot. arch. Ryszard Pawłowski

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: How many time a year do you take your clients on expeditions? Do you have time to realise your own projects or do you focus solely on business?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: My profession requires me to travel a few times a year. Standard expeditions are those aimed at Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Elbrus or Island Peak, as well as trekkings e.g. in Karakoram. As far as my own excursions are concerned, I always go somewhere, but seldom do I make them a public issue. Expeditions that bring me pleasure or can be even considered as ambitious are all related my dreams, of which some I manage to fulfill, while others remain to be realised. In 2014 me and my friends climbed a mountain that is very special to me, where I even have gone with my family. This mountain is McKinley. We wanted to complete an ascent through Casssin’s Line, a sports route which has so far had only one Polish completion. We spent over a month on the glacier but did not manage to complete the climb. Actually some trips, such as ice climbing, drytooling or rock climbing I organise solely to meet my needs and friends whom I like to spend time with. I also realise that nowadays I am no match for the extreme challenges. After all I am a man of a considerable age and the dangerous attempts are long past. But I still have aims and hope to have them achieved. I can say that one of them is coming back to Patagonia where I have been several times before, the Chilean and the Argentinean. I have climbed Fitz Roy, Aguja Poincenot and Torres del Paine (the central and northern pyramid). But now our goal is the Ragni route on the west face of Cerro Torre. Twice have I been close to the summit of that mountain ascending the Maestri route through the compressor so I hope now will be the time I succeed.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: You have climbed the likes of Aconcagua, Ama Dablam several dozens of times each. Don’t you simply get tired of ascending the same mountains over and over again? Don’t you get an impresssion you would climb them blind-folded?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: I do agree that I can pinpoint the location of every chunk of rock on these mountains. But I go there each time to guide people who have never before seen them and that makes my day. Do I tire of it? I find this profession way more satisfying compared to the jobs I took before I started climbing. For 15 years I have worked in a mine and for 10 I have worked below the ground. When someone asks if I get bored when walking the same mountain path for the twentieth time then doing that against any secluded-space office job where you spend hundreds of hours without moving is beyond any comparison. The mountains are not just snow, stones and altitude. They also consist of people, who are different on every expedition. Friendships are formed, new expedition plans are laid out. Besides I can plan my work however I want to.


Fot. arch. Ryszard Pawłowski

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: You have mentioned working in a mine. Which is interesting since your great mountain adventure started underground. Can you tell something more about it?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: My adventure with the mountains has indeed started from caving. The spelunkers’ to whom I belonged was back then formed a very social and open community. I was perceived as one of them and I dealt with that activity for three years. What I completed back then was practically everything there was to be completed in the Polish caves. Here I would like to boast about an achievement I had, meaning reaching the bottom of the deepest and longest Polish cave, the Wielka Śnieżna. My partner in this was Jurek Kukuczka and that was a long time ago, when Jurek was a member of a boy-scout climbing club.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: You have climbed McKinley many times. The youngest Pole ever to have reached the summit is your son, Marcin who in 1999 as a 15-year old ascended it with you. How did this come to be?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: My son Marcin has visited rock climbing spots since he was only 4 and since then has he been climbing. When he was 8, we have already climbed Zamarła Turnia via routes ranging V in difficulty scale. When he became older, we went away to Tatra mountains on each school winter break. We mainly lived in Betlejemka in Hala Gąsienicowa and completed climbs using winter-climbing tools on such peaks as Kościelec or Świnica. With time Marcin also learned to ski, then snowboard. Generally speaking, he was well-prepared for a mountain expedition. Thanks to this preparation, Marcin was fit for a more serious challenge. I believe it should be a goal for any father to pass his passion onto son, so he can comprehend it. We reached McKinley , the highest peak of Northern American continent, together as the first team of all the members of that expedition, the rest got there long time after us. Some people asked if I was afraid to take him to such places. The answer is simply no, not for a single moment. I have always thought the people that lived in our neighbourhood posed a far greater threat to him. It was not a safe place to live in. I would really like to be in his shoes to be able to say that my father had showed me the mountains and that those were great times for us both.


Fot. arch. Ryszard Pawłowski

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: Is your son still an active climber? Would you want him to follow your route, which you had chosen for yourself about 40 years before?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: Marcin has been living in USA since 8 years. He does not climb as frequently as I would wish him to, but I still hope that the longing for the mountains will one day surface in him, because I would really love him to support me in what I do now. But Marcin is still very young and has time to make such decisions. At the moment we plan to get back at Denali in 2015. We have also decided to climb McKinley together once again, only this time via Cassin’s Pillar or the West Rib route.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: Expeditions onto the summits of the highest mountains that have never before been reached in the winter season, involving Polish climbers, are now organised. Tomek Mackiewicz will make another shot at Nanga Parbat, K2 will be attacked by Adam Bielecki. Can you comment on these endeavours from an expert’s point of view? What percentage of success would you give to each of these attempts? (editor’s note: the interview was made before the permit for K2 expedition was declined by the government of China)

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: It would be great if Poland had its share in reaching these summits. As far as Nanga Parbat is concerned, does Tomek have a chance to reach the peak? I would not like to make any speculations, but I am sure he is very determined to complete this task in winter. What I do not understand is why doesn’t he ask Polish Alpine Association to take a patronage over his expedition. All in all I reckon Nanga Parbat will be easier than K2, but might not necessarily be reached by the Poles first. As far as I know, other teams will be present there as well. I value highly the capabilities of Daniel Nardi’s team or of the Russians. When it comes to Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki, they make a strong team for K2. Denis is among the world’s best, not only is his stamina impressive, he is also known for good decisions and strong psyche. He seems like a calm, sensible and intelligent person, so he has those qualities to back him up along his reputation.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: You have reached the summit of Nanga Parbat and K2 in 1993-1996. What challenge did those monuments pose for you, a legendary alpinist back then? Have you ever considered approaching them during the winter?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: Before Nanga Parbat was conquered solo by my personal idol, Hermann Buhl, many German climbers and porters had died on its face. That made grounds for me to approach this summit very carefully and it came to me as a great surprise when in 1993 me and Bogdan Stefko reached it only after two weeks since getting to base camp. It is true that these were the best times for me as a climber. Currently each year even several people reach the summit of Nanga Parbat via Diamir. When it comes to K2, I made my first approach in 1996. The goal was tough because we decided to reach the summit via the northern pillar from the China side. The whole expedition lasted 3 months, because we constantly fought against bad weather and big technical difficulties. Piotr Pustelnik and I managed to reach the summit in the last days of it, three days after the ascent made by Krzysztof Wielicki. The route that we completed was not to be repeated for the next 16 years, in spite of many teams’ efforts. This testifies the class of this climb and how it differs from Nanga Parbat. Unfortunately in the last 3 years K2 from the Pakistani side became a goal for commercial expeditions and though it is hard to believe, thanks to the installed rigging and clearing of the way performed by the Sherpas the summit was visited by 22 people on a single day. I am afraid this mountain will with time turn into another Mount Everest. Compared to now, what we did 20 years ago is something completely different. Back then our equipment was carried by ourselves, we did not have Sherpas to help us, there was not as much oxygen available. Back then the summit was meant for 4 people the most, currently even 40 people can put their foot on it on just one day. As far as the winter attempts are concerned, I participated in two expeditions led by Andrzej Zawada aimed at reaching the summit of Nanga Parbat from the Diamir face, but to no avail.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: And what do you think about the concept of climbing K2 in winter from the north, via the eastern ridge? This route was chosen by Denis Urubko though none has ever attempted to reach the summit that way.

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: If I can recall correctly, the Denis choice of route has had its attempt by the Polish expedition led by Janusz Kurczab. I believe the main reason behind Urubko’s decision was that the slope is not as steep there as from the other sides. This face is also exposed less to the winds and has more snow on it. Smaller team will also be very flexible which is also a great plus. But this can also be the team’s downfall should any of the members be out of action. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed for them to achieve a victory. Even if the Poles do not contribute to this success, cheering for anyone making such an attempt as reaching the summit of K2 in winter is worth it.
BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: You have completed climbs along Piotr Pustelnik, Krzysztof Wielicki, Jerzy Kukuczka. You and Kukuczka made a formidable team until the tragic end on the south face of Lhotse of 1989. Can you tell us anything about him as a partner? What kind of person was he for you?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: I do not want this to sound as if I were Jurek’s partner. I watched him in the club, he was older than me, had greater achievements. Then I cheered on his competitions or ascents in the winter. I was not a partner for Jurek, should you define such partnership as forming a steady team each time. There were two expeditions in which I was a true partner with him, i.e. Lhotse expeditions of 1985 and 1989. Jurek was well known for his drive, though his psychical qualities did not vouch for him as well as in the case of Wojciech Kurtyka or Krzysztof Wielicki, he was not trained as well or fit as they were. But in those hard times when others decided to back away, Jurek carried on and ultimately reached his goals. For me he was a hearty and friendly fellow who it was easy to get along with. Never have I seen him quarrelling with anyone. He also tried to forge pacts and neutralise any conflicts in their first phase. He was also a religious man and I think the faith was his source of additional strength and courage.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: There was a time when you had a reputation of a climber whom it was better not to team up with. For sure the media played their part in forming it, especially after the expeditions you participated in when someone had died. How did you cope with this? Did they not put a pressure on you to withhold from next expeditions?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: After the tragic accident on Lhotse in which Jurek had died, someone would make a remark from time to time that if we had used a thicker rope, the tragedy would not have happened. But the truth was, that the decisions we made were the only option if I we were to reach the summit via that route. We were experienced climbers who had made an educated decision on the way of climb, aware of the risk involved. But whenever one wants to achieve something that has never been done before, the risk factor is very high. That is just the way it is. It was always painful to me to learn of someone’s death, especially if that person was a friend of mine, but never had such pain turned me away from the mountains. I have always tried to do what I considered to be right. I had my own dreams that I have and always will strive to realise.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: A physician who took part in expeditions with you, Jan Kalaciński said you were a person simply made to endure in extreme conditions of the high mountains, naming many of your features. And to say the truth, knowing what difficulties you were in (e.g. a night spent on a ledge in the death zone at Mount Everest without a bivouacking equipment) it is hard to disagree. And what is your view on that?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: I have to agree with Jan Kalaciński that I am predestined or even genetically adequate to what I do. I have bivouacked in many harsh places. The bivouac at Everest was really extreme. During the descent the weather broke down and me and my team got lost. I just sat down at the height of 8 500 m, because my headlamp was no longer on and there were no ropes rigged that I could use to hold on to and walk down somehow. I knew it was going to be hard, which was why I motivated myself to stay alive from the first minutes of my wait, especially not to fall asleep. And I managed through the night without a single frostbite. In the morning my Sherpas came to see if I was okay. It turned out that two of my colleagues from another expedition had spent the night right next to me, a Belgium named Pascal Debrouwer and a Portugese Joao Garcia. The first one was beyond help. The Portugese ended up with frostbites which in consequence were the reason for an amputation of his fingers both hands and feet and a loss of nose. And somehow I managed without any injuries. I believe my determination and psychical drive helped me and I regard those features as very important. It was a shock for me when as a result of an examination made in Cardio-surgery Centre in Zabrze it turned out that my heart’s efficiency was 250% higher from an average man of my age. But I must admit that in spite of all this, I was always lucky. And I hope to keep it that way.

BARTEK ANDRZEJEWSKI: I would like to ask you about such summits as Kanjenjunga, Makalu, Manaslu and Dhaulagiri. These monsters are lacking should you wish to record an ascent to all the eight-thousanders. Are you planning on climbing them someday?

RYSZARD PAWŁOWSKI: I have never been at the face of Kanjenjunga and would love to get there someday. As far the other summits I think I still may have a chance. For example in 1991 Krzysztof Wielicki and I participated in the winter Makalu expedition, but did not succeed. But what I would like to say is that I have abandoned the concept of collecting the crown of the Earth, or the Himalayas and Karakoram a long time ago, mainly because it is hardly a measurable achievement. Let’s say someone reaches the summit in alpine style and that is to be compared to an ascent made in an oxygen mask, using fixed ropes, supported by the Sherpas. This race is beyond comparisons and though it makes no sense to me, there are even people who cheat. I would also not make a decision to conquer all the summits consecutively using my own money. In 1994 we had a plan to collect the crown of Earth in a single year, but did not manage to gather enough funding for it. Currently, apart from my personal projects, it is clear to me that I go there to support myself and my family. I appreciate the opportunity to work with interesting people in surroundings that are interesting just as well and I intend to carry on with that. I also have a chance to explore my love for photography and filming and these are the things I will be able to do for many years to come.

You can find much more information on the issues raised in this interview in the book by Piort Dróżdż: “Ryszard Pawłowski – a 40 years’ time in the mountain. Extended interview”. It is a book well worth spending your time with.

Born in Bogatynia, 1950. Zodiacal Cancer, but according to the Chinese horoscope, a Tiger. Engineer’s degree in the field of electricity, alpine climbing instructor, mountain guide.

He took part in over 300 mountain expeditions worldwide as a participant or organiser. He climbed 10 out of 14 8-thousanders, including K2 (8611 m) via the northern pillar, from the side of China. He is the only Pole in history to have reached the summit of Mt. Everest (8848 m) five times. He completed many ascents via difficult climbing routes in different regions of the Earth. A partner of Jerzy Kukuczka, Adam Zyzak, Piotr Pustelnik, Janusz Majer, Krzysztof Wielicki and many other famous alpinists.

A member of the prestigious Explorers Club of New York City, an association of about 3 000 explorers and scientists recruiting from all over the world. Winner of many prizes in the field of photography and documentaries. The films made by Pawłowski were presented on many mountain festivals and were broadcasted in the television networks. He was honoured three times in the category of outstanding sports achievements by the Polish Minister for Sports and Tourism. He also tutors rising alpinism talents, organises expeditions and makes speeches on mountain-themed topics. In spite of over 40-years of extensive activity, he is still an active climber. An organiser of expeditions dedicated for the disabled sportsmen to Alaska, Africa and Patagonia in the Crown of Hope programme. A father of 31 year old son, Marcin and 13 year old daughter, Marta.

As an organiser of expeditions to all of the continents, he guided his clients to such summits as:

Ama Dablam (6856m) in the Himalayas of Nepal – 28 times   
Aconcagua (6962m), the highest peak of the Southern American continent – 32 times     
Mt. McKinley (6194m), the highest peak of the Northern American continent– 9 times   
Island Peak (6169m) in the Himalayas of Nepal – 24 times   
Mt. Everest (8848m) from the Nepalese and Tibetan side – 5 times
Pumori (7145m) in the Himalayas of Nepal – 2 times
Gasherbrum II (8035m) in the Karakoram range of Pakistan – 3 times
Cho-Oyu (8201m) in Tibet – 2 times
Nanga Parbat (8125m) in the Himalayas of Nepal
Elbrus (5642m) in Caucasian Mountains– 27 times
Cotopaxi (5970m) in Ecuador – 2 times

webpage: www.patagonia.com.pl    
e-mail: wyprawy@patagonia,com.pl
mobile phone: +48 500 274 716

All the images utilised herein come from the private collection of Ryszard Pawłowski. Should you wish to share any of them, please make sure to contact their author for permission.

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