High-altitude mountaineering is one of the most difficult and dangerous things a person could pursue. Bernadette McDonald illustrates this in the opening of her new book, Winter 8000:
"Temperatures at 8,000 meters in winter defy understanding. It is so cold your lungs feel as if they are burning. Eyelashes become coated in rime and cling together. Exposed skin freezes in minutes. Your extremities are horribly vulnerable and if immobile or constricted in any way can freeze as solid as wood. Fingers and toes die, turn black, and must be amputated. Stoves malfunction. Metal snaps. Cold this cold is brutally unforgiving. It wraps itself around you and around your mind and then begins, ever so slowly, to squeeze. It’s terrifying."
That's not the only obstacle winter climbers face, McDonald explains. Altitude, high winds, and isolation all compound the difficulties. Despite these challenges, some climbers seek out and even thrive in these conditions. McDonald dubs these climbers the ice warriors. Winter 8000 is a history of those climbers, the pioneers that pursued the first winter ascents of the 14 8,000 meter peaks (K2 has yet to see a first winter ascent as of press time.)
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The story begins with Polish winter mountaineering pioneer Andrzej Zawada, who completed the first-ever winter ascent of a 7,000-meter peak and then led the expedition for the first winter ascent of Everest. Polish climbers had a monopoly on high altitude winter mountaineering in the early days. The sport was so big in Poland in those days, as McDonald explains, that Polish climbers had bivouac competitions, competing to see who could sleep out in the worst conditions with the least gear. Not only does McDonald introduce all of the key players of that era, but also describes the sociopolitical factors that influenced Polish climbing, such as the Soviet rule of Poland during those years.
That's not to say that Winter 8000 reads like a textbook. It doesn't. McDonald does an excellent job of leaning into the human side of these stories. It takes a unique personality to aspire to achieve these feats, and the book puts you right on the mountain with these climbers as they dig snow caves for unplanned bivies and tag spectacular summits, but also as they watch a partner's breath fade as he succumbs to the altitude while stuck in camp high on the wall and unable to descend.
There is a lot of tragedy in this book, but for both the highs and the lows McDonald's writing tends to be matter of fact. There seems to simply be too much to cover to dwell on any one moment. Likewise McDonald doesn't give much space to the question of motivation—why anyone would want to do any of this in the first place—until the epilogue. The style serves the book well. It chronicles the major events of mountaineering without much editorializing.
To the casual spectator, high-altitude winter mountaineering can seem impenetrable. Besides a select few, many of the mountains aren't household names. The difficulties are hard to quantify with simple grades. The biggest stars tend to be from outside the US and don't often see recognition in the broader sport. While winter mountaineering and, say, sport climbing are both technically "climbing," they exist in separate worlds.
Winter 8000 serves as an excellent primer for those looking to learn about the pursuit's history. For the seasoned armchair mountaineer, it provides an interesting look back at the people and the expeditions that brought us to where we are today, telling the inside stories of those ascents including controversies, successes, and the all-too-common accidents that took place on these peaks.