Wanda Risen

“I don’t seek death, but I don’t mind if it happens in the mountains. It would be an easy death for me. Many of my friends are waiting for me in the mountains.”

–Wanda Rutkiewicz

Many alpine historians consider a slight Polish climber to be the greatest woman mountaineer ever born. Standing just 5 feet, 6 inches tall, Wanda Rutkiewicz spent a lifetime obliterating stereotypes on the world’s tallest and toughest peaks.

She was born in 1943 in the town of Plungė, Lithuania, where her father had fled after the Nazis invaded Poland. After World War II, her family ended up back in Poland, this time leaving the Soviets. Though her immediate relatives escaped direct loss during the planet’s worst conflict, World War II claimed her brother in 1948, after he and friends discovered an undetonated bomb in their hometown of Wroclaw.

She grew up with the mountains of Poland in the background, but her youth was dedicated to other sporting pursuits. A star track-and-field athlete, Rutkiewicz earned a gold medal in the shot put at the Polish University Club Championships. At university, she played volleyball, excelling to the point that interest from the national team loomed. Had she continued the trajectory, she might have ended up in the 1964 Olympics. Instead, a chance encounter shifted her interests from the court to the crags.
Wanda Rutkiewicz climbing in the Sudetes of Poland - photo by Seweryn Bidziński

While a student at the Wroclaw University of Technology, she ran out of gas during a trip. Stranded on the side of the road, a group stopped to help. Among the party was a man named Bogdan Jankowski, who just happened to be a climber. His tales must have sparked the imagination of young Wanda, as she joined his group for a climb in the nearby Falcon Mountains. 

From that point onward, Wanda Rutkiewicz and the mountains were never far apart. 

She graduated with a degree in computer engineering and worked at the Institute of Power Systems Automation and, later, the Institute of Mathematical Machines. But her mind and soul lingered in the higher altitudes. 

In 1970, she climbed in the Pamir Mountains of Pakistan, where she bagged her first 7,000-meter mountain (nearly 23,000 feet). After this point, her career rocketed to heights few humans could match.

Wanda Rutkiewicz on Annapurna in 1987 - photo from the Museum of Jerzy Kukuckza

After successful expeditions to the Alps, including difficult climbs on the Eiger and the first all-woman ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn, she set her attention toward the Himalayas.

Rutkiewicz experienced problems with the men on her first trip, feeling they did not treat her as an equal or respect her. As a result, she began to push for more inclusion of women in the sport. In 1975, she organized an expedition to Gasherbrum III, a 26,000-foot crag, which featured many women. When the group stop atop the apex, they were the first in the world to do so.

On 16 October 1978, Rutkiewicz became the third woman, the first European woman, and the first Pole to stand on the ceiling of the planet. During the trek up Everest, she suffered from anemia. To remain conscious during the climb, she carried vials of hemoglobin and a syringe. She wasn’t the only Polish person in the news that day, as Karol Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II. The new pope did not view the timing as accidental, noting the accomplishment: “The good Lord wanted this–that we rise so high on the same day.”

Rutkiewicz made it a goal to ascend all the 8,000-meter peaks, something no woman had achieved. In 1985, she climbed Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world. A year later, she was the first woman in history to summit K2, the second-highest mountain and one of the most savage. She did so without supplemental oxygen. In addition to the triumph, she once again showed her toughness, as 1986 famously claimed 13 lives on K2, including four from her party.

Rutkiewicz in front of K2

She added Shishapangma, Gasherbrum II, Gasherbrum I, Cho Oyu, and Annapurna through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1992, she attempted her ninth 8,000-meter peak, Kanchenjunga. As Carlos Carsolio descended from the acme, he passed Rutkiewicz, who was still ascending. It was the last time anyone saw her alive. To date, her body has not been found. No one knows if she reached the peak or perished on the way up. If she had managed to stand on the third-highest mountain on Earth, she would have been the first woman to summit the three tallest crags.

Despite failing to complete the 8,000-meter goal, her accomplishments and priorities continued to inspire climbers. She had encouraged dozens of women to climb some of the highest and hardest peaks in the world. Though we’re still not on an even climbing field, the efforts of Rutkiewicz blazed a trail for many women climbers.

In 2019, she earned a spot atop Google’s search engine, as the subject of the daily doodle, 41 years after her Everest ascent. In Poland, the Parliament ordained 2022 the “Year of Wanda Rutkiewicz” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of her death.

Mural in Wrocław
Google Doodle for 16 October 2019

Hopefully, her Himalayan death was easy and she’s now gazing from a snowy summit somewhere with all her friends. Her lofty triumphs easily earn her a spot in the Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame.

Wanda Rutkiewicz climbing Annapurna in 1987 - photo from Museum of Jerzy Kukuczka
Rutkiewicz with fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II
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