Writer and former director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival Bernadette McDonald has new book that offers a unique perspective on high altitude climbing in the Himalaya. As the author of several titles on the subject she’s well regarded in the international mountaineering community. And back in 2003 she came up with an idea for this latest project at an adventure film festival in Poland.
“And as most ideas do, this one began at a party,” McDonald said.
It was the after party of this festival and McDonald was in the clubhouse of the Katowice Mountain Club. She knew a number of these climbers from her years working at the festival. But in this particular situation she was sort of swamped with them, she said. There were dozens of climbers in this clubhouse and there was a lot of energy in the room.
“But it wasn’t just about the festival. It was about a community of the hardest core climbers I had ever seen in my life,” McDonald said. “And the stories that I heard that night, the passion and the depth of their history in the mountains absolutely astonished me. But the other thing that struck me was that it felt like it was the end of an era because a lot of the best of those climbers had already died in the mountains. It felt a bit like an Irish wake. That’s the way it struck me and I thought there was a story here. Because the situation in which they grew up, the conditions, the hardships that they endured were so different than anything that I had ever experienced and more different than most people I knew had experienced. And I somehow felt that those two things were linked.”
From the mid1970s through the 1980s Polish climbers dominated the Himalayan mountaineering scene. This generation of adventurers rose up from the horrific occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II only to be subjugated afterward by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For thousands of young people at that time the mountains were their only escape and many of them ventured far away from Poland into the high of places of Central Asia where they distinguished themselves among the best alpinists in the world. In her book Freedom Climbers Bernadette McDonald tells their story.