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Bernadette McDonald’s Winter 8000 balances suffering, sorrow and success

The following was written by Lynn Martel and appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Gripped

The best books are those which, from the moment you open their cover and begin reading, make you feel transported into a whole new world, one drastically different from your own. With their powerful wand of words, the writer casts you under their spell. You become intrigued, engaged and hopelessly captivated as you travel the journey they’ve mapped out from page to page, like following unfamiliar trails up valleys and ridges to a summit, and then back down the far side of the mountain.

The world of climbing Earth’s 14 highest peaks in winter – the coldest, nastiest, least forgiving, and most lethal season – is one that is foreign to most of us, and with good reason. Few can even begin to imagine why anyone would deliberately choose to embark on such a multi-week ordeal, a pursuit that has been appropriately branded “the art of suffering.”

Humans, however, are a diverse and varied species. Tenacious comes to mind too, as does intrepid, brave, competitive, and sometimes, foolish. Those traits and plenty more, are displayed as Bernadette McDonald introduces the reader to a colourful, determined, tough-as-nails, and on some occasions, overly optimistic cast of characters in Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season.

These stories are no smooth ride. Climbers gasp for what little oxygen exists in the thin air. They suffer retching stomachs, endure coughs that badger until their last breath, and frostbitten fingers and toes that ooze smelly puss and must be later amputated. They are sometimes left frozen solid on airy ledges of ice that never melts, and sometimes abandon their partners when they descend to get help, denying the futility of their effort. There is no shortage of drama in any of this book’s chapters, one for each of the 8000-metre-high peaks.

This is terrain McDonald knows well, having previously written two award-winning books that delve into the intriguing personalities and accomplishments of the Polish climbing community whose members dominated winter Himalayan climbing through the 1980s, from the first winter ascent of Everest in 1980 – a chapter aptly titled First Time Lucky – to that of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain in 1988, with Krzysztof Wielicki succeeding on both, summiting solo on the latter.

With a natural chronological pause as 16 years pass between Lhotse and Shishapangma’s first winter ascent in 2005 by Piotr Morawski and an Italian, Simone Moro – the first non-Pole to climb an 8000er in winter – the book engages in a new and welcome gear as each chapter benefits from a few more pages than the earlier ones. The stories become fuller, the details richer, the characters more multi-dimensional, and with several of the key players still alive – compared to a smaller pool for the book’s first half – each ascent develops a more dynamic life. It is here that McDonald’s exceptional writing and astute observations rise to the task, as do her sly sense of humour and breezy elegance with words, all of which help balance the darkness and sorrow of climbers not returning home.

Describing the team assembled to climb Gasherbrum II in February 2011, she writes, “And so, the trio was formed: a taciturn, military-hardened Russian whose smouldering features and searing stare could penetrate stone; a flamboyant and animated Italian with a wide-open smile and an insatiable need to communicate; and a wild-haired American, tall and fair, with the saddest eyes.”

With the fuller stories though, comes more pain, more heartbreak, astonishingly compartmentalized love between family members, and emotional words from survivors – not only rope mates, but also spouses, sons, and daughters. The chapter on Gasherbrum I is unapologetically titled Lost Fathers.

It’s these passages that require writing as masterful as the athletic prowess demanded by climbers dressed in bulky protective layers akin to astronaut suits while executing delicate climbing moves on glistening ice as hard as stone in cold, thin air. And in these passages McDonald is equal to the challenges.

These are the passages that make the book most worth reading. The ingredients for a captivating volume spill from every page – audacity, absurdity, callousness and stubbornness, with equal measures of boldness, teamwork, camaraderie, cooperation, sprinkled with intrigue, betrayal and public humiliation, as if hurricane-force winds and relentless physical and mental suffering through open-air bivouacs on the longest nights of the year weren’t enough.

Despite the frequency that the pursuit of climbing these peaks in winter comes bearing the highest price though, thirteen of these chapters tell stories of success (the last, K2, has yet to reach a conclusion). Through these stories, McDonald pays deserving tribute to those who face these daunting challenges with vigour and confidence, those who sacrifice for the bonds of friendship and teamwork with boundless strength and determination. In this she captures the best of the human spirit.

In these alternately uplifting and heart-wrenching stories, ultimately all the experience, all the highest-tech modern gear and clothing and state-of-the-art satellite weather forecasts cannot reliably compensate for the frailties of the human body, or the errors of the human mind, cannot overcome the tenuousness of human survival above 8000 metres, in winter.
Her writing is delicate and sensitive, but also matter of fact and honest as she sifts through the detritus of expeditions that often end in shambles, not only for those who barely survive them, but the families of those who do not.

In the second-last chapter, titled The Magnificent Obsession, she shares Daniel Nardi’s words, written prior to his death high on Nanga Parbat.

“…If I didn’t return, the message I would leave my son would be this: don’t stop, don’t give up, do your thing, because the world needs better people to make peace a reality and not just and idea… it’s worth it.”

McDonald sums up so much, punctuating Nardi’s message with just four words of her own.
“Not all would agree.”