By 1979, the summit of Mount Everest had been reached by every major ridge, yet a large expedition from Yugoslavia arrived to top their last achievement of making the first ascent of Makalu South Face. The West Ridge of Everest was a long unconventional line to the top. It was first climbed by the Americans in 1963, and is still well celebrated in the United States today. Except the Americans climbed only the upper half. The Yugoslavians came to traverse it all starting at the base, low in the Lho La pass.
Like many national expeditions in those days, it was huge. It included 25 Yugoslavian mountaineers, 19 Sherpas, three cooks, three kitchen boys, two mail runners, 700 porters and 18 tons of gear. The ascent had to overcome a steep and severe gap, which required a winch to overcome so it was possible to haul the gear over the broken portion of the ridge. All efforts and ingenuity combined, the Yugoslavians positioned three Slovenian climbers at Camp V who were close to each other, Nejc Zaplotnik, Andrej Stremfelj, and Andrej’s brother, Marko Stremfelj.
Shortly after starting out from Camp V, however, Marko’s oxygen apparatus malfunctioned. After some jostling with the regulator, Marko was forced to turn around. Andrej was conflicted and frustrated about ascending without his brother; it was so unjust. Andrej went on with Nejc, but they weren’t free of issues, however; both their equipment failed and only Nejc had enough tanked air to get him to the top. Andrej said he’d go on and as high as long as he could.
The summit was far, and the day was getting late. Nejc was determined to reach to top on this push, so he steeled himself mentally for a cold, dark high-altitude bivouac, which likely meant losing toes, fingers or limbs to frostbite and possibly death. Except when they radioed base camp, they realized that it wasn’t as late as they had thought; they still had plenty of daylight ahead. Buoyed, they plodded upward. But upon reaching the Chinese tripod on the summit, elated, the question was daunting: We can’t go down the way we came, so what the heck do we do now?
This was a mere moment of one of the dozen-and-a-half stories Bernadette McDonald retells with prose sometimes bordering on poetry and with the courage to cuss when the tension required it in her latest award winning book, Alpine Warriors (2015).
Writing from the Top
Bernadette McDonald has been in a unique position to uncover some of the hidden stories among European climbing communities. She oversaw mountain culture programs, including the Mountain Film and Book Festival, at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and she has published (or edited) over eight books. Perhaps most notably Tomaz Humar (2008) and Freedom Climbers (2011), both of which won the grand prize in the Banff Mountain Book Competition when they were written.
The best climbing and mountaineering literature doesn’t just list the characters, the route, and the accomplishments, but tells a non-climbing story through the challenge of the climb. McDonald has done this with biographies, and in Freedom Climbers and Alpine Warriors she talks about a national story of a people (the Poles and the Slovenes, respectively.)
Surge of Himalayan Ascents
I spoke briefly with McDonald after she won at Banff in November, but before I started to read it. So I knew premise of the book and that it was similar to Freedom Climbers, in that it was a national history of climbing. But she emphasized that it was about the Slovenian accomplishments in the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t understand why that was so significant until halfway through the book. She sums it best at the start of Chapter 12:
Although Yugoslavian climbers entered the Himalayan arena late, the international climbing community was stunned by their accomplishments on Makalu and Everest and awed by their near successes on the South Faces of Dhuahlagiri and Lhotse. There were many more: Kangbachen, Trisol, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Gaurishankar South Summit, Annapurna, Gangapurna, Yalung Kang, Ama Dablam, Lhotse Shar — the list of ascents went on and on. As their triumphs accumulated, confidence grew. So did national pride.
Alpine Warriors tells a story about Yugoslavia after World War II and the dozen-and-a-half alpinists from Slovenia that changed Himalayan climbing. These climbers were from a war torn country, with religious, political, and ethnic fragmentation reduced to poverty. These conditions, arguably, and combined with the location near the Tatras, produced a hardened group and several leaders that brought these hardened men to the Himalayas, not in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s when the 8,000-meter peaks were being climbed by their major ridges, but later, when the new challenges had to be spotted and seized before anybody else.
To name a few of the great alpinists McDonald writes about, Ales Kunaver was the leading visionary and teacher, Nejc Zaplotnik was their spokesperson and spiritual leader, and Francek Knez is the quiet outsider that climbed big walls with a grace and ferociousness the likeness no one has ever seen. These three alone are worth an English-language biography.
Lots of Competition in 2015
It was a difficult field for any mountaineering book competition, in 2015, whether it was Banff, the Boardman Tasker, or the American Alpine Club Award in Literature. Alpine Warriors was up against Kelly Cordes’ The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre, Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, and John Porter’s One Day as a Tiger, just to name a few. Of course, it helps when you have a good story to tell, which all of them do, but these folks can all write.
I’m not privy to what the judges at Banff discussed (I wasn’t even one of the book category pre-readers), but I know from reading Cordes’ and Blanchard’s books, McDonald might have had her closest competition yet. They all had the ability to make their prose dance like poetry, but McDonald had the touch and a perspective. She didn’t just tell a story about a life. She didn’t just tell about the lives that came to a temple. She told the story of a people through the lens of climbing.
Reading Alpine Warriors I learned more about Yugoslovians and Slovenians than I was taught in 20th Century European Politics and Soviet History in college. I read about 20 or so mini-biographies about Slovenian alpinists in Alpine Warriors. I learned about Nejc Zaplotnik’s Slovenian classic book, Pot, which means “the path” or “the way”, and I read the first passages translated and widely distributed in English, thanks to McDonalds’ painstaking work over the phone with an interpreter. It opened my world to a people and an experience that is unique and was previously hidden from me.