As any regular reader of this blog will have noticed, I’m always on the lookout for the Cold War in odd places: corporate offices, cruise ships, even the bottom of a ramen bowl. So it was a pleasure to discover that Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom Climbers adds the mountaintops of the Hindu Kush to that list. McDonald’s book tells the story of a group of Polish climbers who racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in the 1970s and 80s, including the first winter ascent of a mountain over 7000 metres (Noshaq), the first winter ascent of Everest, and a string of first Alpine-style ascents
McDonald emphasizes the climbers’ status as individuals bucking the system. Though climbing was a legitimate, state-authorized sport, it was not favoured by the government. Without funding, climbers made ends meet by repainting the smokestacks of factories in Katowice, smuggling whiskey and other cheap goods from Poland to Asia and bringing back sheepskin coats and hard currency in return. Many of the top climbers supported Solidarity, and McDonald reports the story of one Soviet Alpine training camp where Wanda Rutkiewicz convinced Soviet and Eastern European climbers to shout “Brezhnev be gone!” in exchange for Solidarity lapel pins.
McDonald also acknowledges the extent that, although they were hardly supported compared to prestigious international sports, climbers were privileged within the Communist system. Mountain climbers had the privilege of regular travel beyond the Soviet Bloc, contact with climbers from Western countries, better food for expeditions, and better access to that food at home; some climbers sold parts of their meat ration before leaving for Asia. Despite the scrimping and saving necessary to put an expedition together, a Polish climber could return to the country richer than he or she started. In one particularly telling story, McDonald mentions how Rutkiewicz was able to get two weeks at “a government military resort on the Baltic Sea” to try and write her memoir. It was an ambiguous and ambivalent relationship, in which the climbers had to use the system in order to break free of it and do what they loved.
Freedom Climbers should be complemented by another book on the complexities of climbing in the Cold War soon – according to the publishing trade magazine Quill and Quire, McDonald’s next book will “focus on a group of Balkan climbers during the Cold War. [Rocky Mountain Books] will publish the text in fall 2015.”