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Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald // Review

Beth Thomas, long standing Womenclimb contributor, tells all about the book Freedom Climbers, by Bernadette McDonald: 

Freedom climbers book reviewThis is hands down the best climbing and mountaineering book I have ever read, fact or fiction.

During the 1970’s and 80’sPoland spawned the best high altitude mountain climbers in the world. Bernadette focuses this historical account of Polish mountaineering on a handful of mountaineering legends; Voytek Kurtyka, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Andrzej Zawada, Jerzy (Jurek) Kukuczka, Krzysztof Wielicki and Artur Hajzer. The chapters focus on these individual mountaineers who also make guest appearances in another person’s chapter, all the while following a steady timeframe and managing to keep me both engaged with each story but not at all lost or confused about when, where and who I am supposed to be learning about.

Bernadette McDonald is a literary wizard, with the ability to weave story lines and hooks into what is predominantly a list of climbing ascents over a period of more than a decade.

The scene is set early on, outlining the historical relevance to the mind set of the Polish population and of the climbers themselves. Born out of oppression and depravity with political and social unrest after the second world war, Bernadette respectfully gives potential explanation and reasoning behind the ability for these climbers to achieve the status of Himalayan giants; the ability to suffer.

Exciting Storyline

The climbers jumped through political and economic loopholes thinking up savvy and innovative ways to raise funds and dodge tight laws and regulations in order to fund trips and travel outside Poland. By creating their own economy, right under the watchful eye of the communist regime, they were able to purchase the basics for an expedition and later on working on painting the Katowice smokestacks with climbing gear quicker than any contactors could with their hefty scaffolding. Due to lacking funds the expeditions were without the aid of Sherpas and mainly without bottled oxygen; these were luxuries that the Polish could not afford. Climbers had to make their own gear and clothing, quite literally plucking the feathers of birds and sewing them into jackets.

Total, 100% Commitment

The book portrays the unrelenting commitment that the Polish climbers had to making their mark on a world scale, completing the first ever winter ascents over 8,000 metres, only matched half a century later by Simone Moro in 2005 and with Wanda Rutkiewicz being the first woman of any nationality to climb K2.

Wanda herself is a star figure in this book, her sheer determination and grit jumping out from the page. She preferred climbing with an all-woman team, not for comradery or preferring female company but because “with women climbers, she could be the boss.” (Page 39). Wanda’s personal story is both tragic and inspiring, having suffered horrendous personal loss and going on to conquer the hardest and highest peaks in the world, many times trudging on alone and experiencing isolation and bullying from male teammates. The book does not however portray her as a victim, for Wanda gave as good as she got and this insight is a true breath of fresh air into reading about women conducting themselves in a male dominated arena.

Death in the Mountains

Death is a predominant feature and at times reading through can feel like sifting through a mound of bodies, left for good on a hostile, stormy mountain. Indeed Bernadette considers if the number of deaths during the golden age of Polish climbers can be any explanation why there are so few high profile Polish mountaineers today; the lack of figures to pass the torch and teach the youngsters their wisdom.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone.

Whether you are into climbing, mountaineering or adventure. Even if you don’t usually take to factual books this is so well researched it reads like the most fantastical fiction written and you sometimes have to remind yourself what you are reading actually happened. I now have such enlightened respect for the Polish climbers of that era I’m almost giddy with excitement to find out more. I’m also pleased to have discovered the author Bernadette McDonald, who clearly has so much passion for her research and an impressive collection of further books for my reading list.

Buy This Book NOW

Thanks to Vertebrate Publishing who sent us the book to review.  We don’t receive any money for the link in the article, but we want to help independent book sellers & publishers to keep producing awesome books about incredible women.  Your purchase here, rather than at Amazon, means that you’re supporting an industry that supports women, rather than a business interested in profit over people.  This will not be the cheapest place to find the book, but, in our experience, if something’s cheap, someone else (or the environment) is paying for it, so get your copy from Vertebrate Publishing. Find out about Womenclimb’s values.

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