Back in 2011, Bernadette McDonald’s ` Freedom Climbers’ was an unusual book for the way in which it juxtaposed the top notch ascents Polish mountaineers essayed in the Himalaya, against the backdrop of political and economic changes that happened in their country.
The author’s latest offering in the same genre is `Alpine Warriors,’ a study of Slovenian mountaineers, who though arriving late on the scene (like the Poles), left an indelible impression on Himalayan climbing with some terribly difficult routes accomplished. In paradigm and narration, the book is similar to Freedom Climbers. The angle explored in the earlier book was the effect of life in Poland post World War II, on that country’s brand of mountaineering. Being a good climber and getting selected for expeditions overseas was a way to escape the Iron Curtain. Climbing in the Himalaya, they took incredible risks and credited to their names a repertoire of tough routes and winter ascents. The reputation this initial batch of Polish climbers – they included names like Jerzy Kukuczka, Wojciech Kurtyka and Krzysztof Wielicki – garnered in Himalayan climbing is unparalleled. On the other hand, as Poland shifted from being a regulated economy within the Iron Curtain to an open country with a free market, the subsequent brand of alpinism it manufactured appeared to lack some of the drive that had characterized its earlier lot of climbers.
Slovenia’s predicament played out tad differently. For much of the twentieth century, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia. Living in the mountainous part of erstwhile Yugoslavia, Slovenians have long considered it almost a national duty to ascend Triglav, the highest peak in the region and the highest peak in the Julian Alps. In April 1941, Yugoslavia was overrun by the Axis powers. Post World War II, the Yugoslav monarchy was abolished and a Communist government headed by Josip Broz Tito took over. Although socialist, Yugoslavia under Tito stayed largely independent. It was adjacent to but separate from the Iron Curtain Soviet Russia cast across East Europe. With love for mountains strong at home and socialist economy to cope with, Slovenian mountaineering’s situation during its years as part of Yugoslavia likely resembled Poland’s under the Iron Curtain. There was scarcity of resources and they were arriving late on the world’s mountaineering stage. In their early expeditions to the Himalaya, Yugoslav teams sought challenging routes to define themselves. They climbed faces and untamed ridges, achieving these goals with strong team work. During this time appeared the poetic writings of Nejc Zaplotnik, among Slovenia’s best climbers and a member of some of these expeditions. His book `Pot’ (translated and quoted in Alpine Warriors), inspired fellow countrymen to take up mountaineering.
As region denoting the cultural overlap of Europe and Asia, memories ran deep in the Balkans. Old victories still counted, old defeats still rankled. Revenge lurked below the surface. Following Tito’s demise, Yugoslavia descended into internal conflict. In some parts, it was a madness lasting a decade. Slovenia acquired stability early but in places like Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia – the killings continued. Getting away to the Himalaya became an escape from ideas of nationhood played out to the extreme. Bernadette McDonald’s latest book commences with the early Yugoslav expeditions to the Himalaya noted for their team effort. It then takes you through the intervening years of Yugoslavia’s break-up, war in the Balkans and eventually the rise of names like Tomo Cesen, Tomaz Humar and Marko Prezelj who stunned the world with their climbs; the first two – Cesen and Humar – famous for their solo ascents. In the process it tells the stories of several top Slovenian mountaineers from the country’s years as part of Yugoslavia; its pioneering expedition leaders, the tenacity these climbers brought to expeditions, shows us the working of big expeditions, alpine style climbs and solo climbs and provides an idea of how Slovenia’s new generation of climbers perceive mountaineering.
As in Freedom Climbers, Alpine Warriors explores its chosen theme and leaves you with pointers to continue inquiring. A good book is like a mountain you wish to climb. There may be answer or summit but what endures is the journey.
If you liked Freedom Climbers, Alpine Warriors won’t disappoint you.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)