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Freedom Climbers

by Bernadette McDonald

In Freedom Climbers, Bernadette McDonald, the founding vice-president of mountain culture at the Banff Centre and author of seven books on international mountaineering, tells the story of a group of 20th-century Poles who overcame social oppression and political isolation to become the most accomplished Himalayan climbers the world has ever known. This history of their major climbs between 1974 and 1996 meets the high standard that admirers of McDonald’s previous work have come to expect. 

McDonald introduces readers to a cast of characters who rebelled against the oppression and poverty of postwar Poland by dedicating their lives to breaking climbing records, chronicling these climbers as they bag first-route ascents, first winter ascents, and first multiple ascents. Their daring often resulted in death, but McDonald does not condemn them for an ambition that at times seems no more admirable than a death wish. As the death toll rises, readers learn that big egos on big mountains cause big problems, infusing McDonald’s narrative with drama, conflict, and high stakes. 

Freedom Climbers will find its most enthusiastic audience among sport historians, mountain-culture enthusiasts, and climbing fanatics, but McDonald’s engaging prose style ensures her story will also be accessible and compelling to less specialized audiences. Her most engaging subject is Wanda Rutkiewicz, who died pursuing her dream of being the first woman to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks.  McDonald’s rich portrait of this complex woman is worth the cover price on its own.

The book offers an unflinching examination of the psychology of risk, the extent to which one’s personality is shaped by one’s time and place, the connection between nature and spirituality, and the danger of egotism. McDonald asks big questions and does not succumb to easy answers. She shows the lengths to which these climbers went to imbue their lives with meaning, and then asks: was it worth it?