If, like me, you’ve never got round to wondering why Google never feature any mountaineers on their daily Google Doodle [*], then you would have been surprised to open your web browser last Wednesday to find a cartoon line-drawing of somebody in a pith helmet tugging on a rope.
The somebody was none other Wanda Rutkiewicz, and apparently I wasn’t the only person excited about it. My tweets on Twitter are usually accompanied by an animated gif of some tumbleweed blowing past (until Edita takes pity and gives me a retweet). But this one about Wanda received 52 likes and 19 retweets from people, including big guns such as outdoor writer Chris Townsend and my Cotswold neighbour Kenton Cool:
Wow – Google Doodle is celebrating Wanda Rutkiewicz this morning. It’s the 41st anniversary of her ascent of Everest pic.twitter.com/GseKW1jvwf
— Mark Horrell (@markhorrell) October 16, 2019
Some of you may be asking, ‘Who’s Wanda Rutkiewicz and what was she doing on a Google Doodle?’
The first of these questions is easy to answer. Unless you’re British and you think it’s Alison Hargreaves then Wanda Rutkiewicz is arguably the most famous female mountaineer who ever lived. During the 1970s and 1980s, she made a name for herself climbing the 8,000m peaks. In a field dominated by men, she was considered their equal. She was the third woman, the first European woman and the first Pole of either sex to climb Everest. She was the first woman to climb K2, and by the time of her death on Kangchenjunga in 1992, she had climbed eight of the fourteen 8,000m peaks.
I actually have a tenuous family connection with Wanda Rutkiewicz. My wife Edita is considered to be the first Lithuanian woman to climb Everest, but when I’m feeling mischievous I remind her that Wanda Rutkiewicz was born in 1943 in a village now known as Plungė in Lithuania. In 1943 it was known as Płungiany. Wanda’s family fled there from Poland during the German occupation. Wanda Rutkiewicz therefore never considered herself to be Lithuanian but Polish.
According to Google Doodle’s own tribute to Wanda, she first started climbing in 1961 when her motorbike broke down and the person who stopped to offer her a lift invited her climbing. It’s a nice story, but in her book Freedom Climbers, about the history of Polish alpinism, the mountaineering historian Bernadette McDonald provides a different account. A schoolfriend Bogdan Jankowski took her rock climbing on a local crag in south-west Poland. He told her to wait at the bottom while he set off up a chimney with a rope. Halfway up, he looked around to find Wanda following him unroped. She continued all the way to the top and never looked back.
After a number of trips to the Alps, she was invited to join a national Polish expedition to Pik Lenin in Kyrgyzstan, then part of the Soviet Union. This brought her into contact with the elite of Polish mountaineering, and although this helped to open doors for her, she was frustrated by being the only woman among men.
She went on to gain a reputation for organising and leading women-only expeditions, sometimes in controversial circumstances. In 1978 she climbed the north face of the Matterhorn in winter with an all-women team, but her expedition to Gasherbrum III in 1975 was criticised because although it was billed as women-only, in reality two teams – one comprising men and the other women – ended up climbing together.
Like many elite alpinists, Wanda wasn’t a natural leader. She was single-minded, ambitious, determined and something of a loner. The Google Doodle celebrated the 41st anniversary of her ascent of Everest in 1978. Although the expedition was successful, she was criticised for not being a team player, and she failed to get along with any of her fellow team members.
But there was no doubting her toughness or ability as a climber. After Everest, she climbed Nanga Parbat, K2, Shishapangma, Gasherbrum II, Gasherbrum I, Cho Oyu and Annapurna. On K2, she was so determined to go ahead with the expedition that she even trekked in to base camp with a broken leg, an event that I think it’s fair to say would convince most people to stay at home and rest. Her leg healed sufficiently for her to go on to become the first woman and first Pole to climb what many people consider to be the hardest and most dangerous of the 8,000ers.
She was on course to become the first women to climb all fourteen 8,000ers, when she went missing on Kangchenjunga, her ninth, in 1992. The circumstances of her death remain shrouded in mystery. She was climbing alone. She was last seen bivouacking below the summit by the Mexican climber Carlos Carsolio, who tried to persuade her to descend with him, but was too tired to do anything more when she refused.
In Freedom Climbers Bernadette McDonald quotes one of Wanda’s contemporaries as categorising Polish alpinism into three levels: ‘1. men’s alpinism, 2. women’s alpinism, 3. Wanda Rutkiewicz, “She has her own category”.’
To give you some indication of just how celebrated she was in Poland, her ascent of Everest coincided with the election of Pope John-Paul II, who happened to be Polish. Given that there are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, you would expect the election of its new leader to be considered more important than someone reaching the top of the world’s highest mountain. But in Poland, they say the two events received equal media attention.
I don’t know whether this story is true, but there are a few choice quotes in this short YouTube tribute to the world’s leading woman mountaineer.
‘She managed to get ahead of all the Polish guys when it comes to important Himalayan achievements,’ says the guy at the start.
‘She was a pioneer of women’s mountaineering,’ says another.
She is certainly someone worth celebrating, so even though they’re evil, well done to Google.
Also one from two weeks ago: https://t.co/6WIgOxunRH
— Woutr (@Woutr_g) October 16, 2019