Rutkiewicz, Wanda (1943—)

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Rutkiewicz, Wanda (1943—)

Polish mountaineer. Born in Lithuania on February 4, 1943; acquired a Master of Science in computer science; married in 1970 (divorced 1973); married Helmut Scharfetter, in 1982 (divorced 1984).

Made the first all-women's ascent of the North Face of Matterhorn (1978); was the first European woman and first Pole to climb Mount Everest (1978); made the first all-female ascent of Nanga Parbat, without oxygen or high altitude porters; ascended K-2 (1986).

Wanda Rutkiewicz was born in 1943 in Lithuania, but her family moved to Wrockaw, Poland, when she was four. At school, she was a talented athlete, excelling in high jump, volleyball, shot-put, and javelin, but it was not until her first rock climb at 18 in southwest Poland

that she heard the "explosion" which would set her course. From then on, she climbed every weekend, traveling three hours and walking one hour to get to the rocks, and sleeping in caves in the forest below.

In 1964, Rutkiewicz attended a rescue course in the Austrian Alps. The next few years brought success and failure. Two of her climbs were with Halina Krüger-Syrokomska ; they ascended the East Face of the Grépon and the Trollryggen East Pillar in Norway. Rutkiewicz's first big mountain expedition, however, was in 1970, a combined Polish-Russian ascent of Peak Lenin (23,406 ft.) in the Russian High Pamirs. It was not a happy experience. In contrast, she regarded the next expedition as the best of her life. In 1972, Rutkiewicz, along with Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz (one of Britain's most accomplished climbers), her husband Janusz Onyszkiewicz, and seven others, climbed Noshaq (24,580 ft.), the second-highest summit in the Hindu-Kush. Rutkiewicz and Chadwick became close friends.

With Danuta Wach and Stefania Egiersz-dorff , Rutkiewicz made the second ascent of the North Pillar of the Eiger in the Western Alps in 1973. On her next expedition to the High Pamirs, sponsored by the Soviet Mountaineering Federation, Rutkiewicz fell ill from oedema and had to be helicoptered to Base Camp. At the time, she had no idea how fortunate she was. Fifteen mountaineers would die on that venture.

The year 1975 saw her leading the Polish Women's Karakorum Expedition up Gasherbrum II (26,362 ft.) and Gasherbrum III (26,090 ft.) between the Indian subcontinent and central Asia. On that undertaking, Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz made it to the top of GIII, the highest peak first climbed by a woman. Wanda was close behind.

In 1978, after a life-threatening bout of meningitis the preceding year, Wanda, along with Anna Czerwinska, Krystyna Palmowska , and Irena Kesa , attempted the first women's winter ascent of the North Face of the Matter-horn. Though they reached the summit, bad weather and Kesa's severe frostbite forced a helicopter rescue.

That October, Rutkiewicz became the first Pole and the first European woman to climb Mount Everest. But she was the only woman in the Franco-German expedition and faced not only the bitter cold but open resentment and anger. "Perhaps in Germany," said Wanda, "they do not have many independent women climbers who are leading and deciding for themselves." On leaving Base Camp, she learned that Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Vera Watson had fallen to their deaths while attempting a first ascent of the center summit on Annapurna I.

Rutkiewicz preferred all-women expeditions: "If men and women are members of the same expedition, a man either consciously or subconsciously will take over the leadership in the mountains, or a woman consciously or subconsciously will give the leadership to the better one and will concentrate only on the problem of 'whether she will climb to the top.'" There is nothing wrong with this until a woman subverts her independent abilities. "Therefore it is necessary to test one's abilities and to learn to be independent in the mountains, not only to learn how to climb."

In 1981, while preparing for K-2 (the second-highest mountain in the world at 28,250 ft.), Rutkiewicz fell 650 ft. and broke her leg; four operations followed. Terrible weather, as well as the sudden death of Halina Krüger-Syrokomska, would force a retreat of the first all-women's K-2 expedition in 1982. Though Wanda could not climb, she had been at the Base Camp, leading the expedition. "At 1:30 p.m. Halina reported by radio to Base Camp," said Wanda. "She was in normal spirits and gave a colourful and funny report of the climb…. Anna [Czerwinska] and Halina were lying in their tent after eating and were talking lazily. Suddenly, without warning, in the middle of their conversation Halina became unconscious and died within a few minutes." Halina's body was brought back to Base Camp and buried at the foot of K-2. In the spring of 1984, with a healed leg, Rutkiewicz made another attempt, only to be defeated by bad weather once more.

For Wanda, there was to be one more fateful attempt. In the summer of 1986, as a member of a small French expedition that consisted of Maurice and Liliane Barrard and Michel Parentier, they reached Base Camp on May 22 and were the first expedition on the mountain to attempt Abruzzi Ridge. On June 23, Rutkiewicz reached the summit, a summit she felt was "much more beautiful and more difficult than Mount Everest." But her euphoria was short lived. On the descent, Liliane and Maurice Barrard were lost in a snowstorm. That summer, 11 others would die attempting to ascend K-2, including Britain's Julie Tullis .


Birkett, Bill, and Bill Peascod. Women Climbing: 200 Years of Achievement. London: A. & C. Black, 1989.

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Rutkiewicz, Wanda (1943—)

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