Someone was bound to write this book and we are blessed that it was by Bernadette McDonald. Winter 8000 is a near-complete retelling of all first attempts and ascents of the world’s fourteen highest peaks, except K2, which was the only summit where the winter ascentionists had not yet reached.
At publication, the chronicle Bernadette McDonald starts in her latest book published in 2020, Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season, was only a little over 90 percent complete. Who could blame her? No One expected the last domino piece, less-than-a-tenth of the saga, to fall so soon.
There are 14 peaks in the world that are over 8,000 meters above sea level and all of them are in the Himalayas and Karakoram across Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet. Climbers made their way to their summits for the first time between 1950 and 1964. After the first ascents, the climbers sought other challenges, such as more difficult routes, or in the case of Andrzrej Zawada, an alpinist from Poland, harsher conditions to make their names. Polish climbers, who were blocked by Soviet travel restrictions and lacked resources, had more access in the late 1970s and wanted to have an impact on climbing history. Zawada lead the way for winter warriors, first from Poland, to climb in the colder and darker months.
From Bernadette McDonald’s other books, particularly Freedom Climbers (2011) and Alpine Warriors (2015), I was familiar with the attraction to winter ascents by the Poles and Slovenian alpinists as well as by other climbers. And even then, Alpinist Magazine filled me in on other stories about climbing the 8,000-meter peaks in winter, including the more recent attempts, mishaps, and successes McDonald’s earlier books didn’t or couldn’t cover.
Winter 8000 is a compendium of the ascents. She pulled the essential facts from that year’s ascents records from the various alpine journals, and then went deeper with interviews with the key actors and even family, like the widow of Tomek Mackiewicz, Anna Mackiewicz. McDonald traveled extensively to bring the stories and a tactile feel to the experience, from the wind on skin from fallen mittens, to the inner turmoil of the little decisions at high-altitude, where the brain and body only growing weaker. The result was a book I eagerly anticipated, but at first was dismayed at it’s format. I was, of course, worried for no reason.
STRAIGHTFORWARD YET DEEP
With the book in hand for the first time, flipping pages to see how it was organized it didn’t look like McDonald’s typical compelling page turner. It looked like a textbook or a guide. There were 14 chapters addressing each of the 8,000-meter peaks, one chapter at a time. And the titles were the subject mountain, without more description or characterization.
However, the writing is true to the style McDonald always employs, presenting mystery and a facet deserving of awestruck. Once you start Winter 8000, McDonald presents a mystery, through the introduction of a noteworthy figure, on the very first page and you are compelled to read on. The prose is asking the obvious, Why climb in winter? In this case, she starts with an exchanged with Zawada when McDonald at a mountain festival in Katowice, Poland. His response was terse, and amusing for an old, veteran alpinist (just read it, and keep reading.)
Despite the simplicity of fourteen chapters for fourteen peaks, the climbers McDonald profiles spill from one peak and chapter to the next, giving her retelling of these ascents the sense of a generational or family saga. At first one Pole set off to be a supporting climber on an attempt, only to grow into a weathered veteran and lead an expedition in winter a few years later. And, in the more recent attempts, the alpinists would cross the stories of ascents, such as when Adam Bielevki, Denis Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jaroslaw Botor left their attempt on K2 to rescue Tomek Mackiewicz and Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat that same winter in 2018. The book is a proper history, which could be a student’s textbook, but it is immensely readable.
EVENTS WE CANNOT CONTROL
Winter 8000 was released four years after thirteen of the world’s fourteen highest peaks were topped out. K2 was elusive. It was all that remained and no one knew which winter season would bring success. From a publishers standpoint, this was the moment, when a general audience could focus on the final step in one of humanity’s grand quests of adventure; write the book that explained the significance better and everyone would want to read it. How would anyone know when K2 would fall so soon afterwards?
A mere seven months later, K2 was summited in winter, in January 2021. It was done in historic fashion. On that climb, ten alpinists, native from Nepal, made the summit together. They waited ten meters below the summit until the group could coalesce and reach the pinnacle together. It was a historic moment for the Nepalese, including Sherpa, to not support a climb, bit lead themselves into history.
Winter 8000 could already be considered required reading for anyone seeking to climb one or all of the fourteen peaks in winter. Yet now, after a brief interval, it has a knowledge gap on K2. In a way, the last chapter of the book is dated and anchored to the years between 2016 through 2020. Of course, McDonald must have accepted that this would be the case. Clearly, The Mountaineers Books, the publisher did too. Readers could go Online to access the news. But considering the immediate timing, could the next edition provide this critical update?
McDonald concludes Chapter 14: K2 by writing the obligatory “as of this writing, K2 in winter is still waiting…” We waited seven months. Perhaps a year since she penned those words. Even if McDonald is satisfied with the outcome and unwilling to do the research and interviews to share the K2 outcome, perhaps another writer, or an alpinist, could contribute an addendum or afterward to the second edition.
Of course, the Winter 8000 is complete. It is accurate as of its printing. An analogy with another book is applicable here: Golfer Bobby Jones, out of popularity and public interest, wrote an autobiography in 1927 after he won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open Championships in the same year, an incredible and unheard of feat at the time. He was just 25 years old. He proved that his book was a set in time when he outdid himself by winning those same tournaments plus the British Amateur and the British Open Championships, the first ever so-called Grand Slam of golf in 1930. He never wrote another autobiography.
I can live with it. But should we be as content?