Wanted: 6 tops in six months. Himalaya then and now, Nick's story

Posted: Apr 06, 2015 03:56 am EDT

(Tina Sjogren) There's this untried question in Himalaya about topping out all 14 8000ers within a year. Can it be done?


Now one climber will give it a shot - or at least half of it in the coming 6 months. Continuing our Himalaya spring season climbing interviews we've caught up with Nick Cienski for a chat. 


Chances are you'll find him building furniture out of recycled wood or tinkering with outdoor gear but it was a different story back in the day. Nick was on Everest in 1989 with a team of Polish climbers including Artur Hajzer.


"Zyga, Falko, and Genek Chrobak, Carlos and Elsa Carsolio were there as well," Nick tells us.  


"We were trying to climb the West Ridge, but did not have enough funds to purchase a permit from the Chinese side so we came to the Nepal base camp. However, to gain the ridge from here we had to climb up and over the high ridge that stretches from Pumori."


Different times


This was a time when climbers would eye a slope and chance on a line. The approach was risky, the ascent an unceasing misery, survival was a priority and summits were rare.  


"It was a hard climb up and took us a while to gain the top before having to rappel down to Lo La," Nick continues his tale.


"From here we had to cross the glacier to our Camp 1 set below the ridge that led up to the north shoulder and then the west ridge. As we gained the top  of the ridge, we decided that we didn’t have enough skilled climbers to follow the ridge proper to the summit."


"Therefore, we traversed across the north face to the Hornbein couloir where we put our last camp at about 8,000m."


Few survivors


The terrible fate of the expedition would soon come to echo across the entire Khumbu valley and beyond. Nick was fighting his own battle.


"This was my high point. On summit night, I was putting my boots on as I stood on the small ledge where our tent was perched and I slipped. I grabbed the rope in front of me, saving my life. In doing so, I kicked by left boot down the face because it was only partially on my foot. Once the sun came up, I found an old tent and cut some of the fly off and wrapped my foot up in it and then proceeded to tie my crampon onto my foot with some rope."


"It took my partner and I most of the day to climb back across the steep west face because my crampon kept falling off."


"I continued down, it took me another 3 days to reach base camp because my foot was cold and numb (I had just lost a toe to frostbite the previous year while climbing in Pakistan)."


"A big avalanche struck my climbing partner and the summit team when trying to climb back over the Pumori ridge. Five of them died that afternoon – only my climbing partner survived (albeit with broken ribs, most teeth knocked out and snow blindness)."


Batura wars


Yet while Everest was a very pivotal climb for him, "I was 22, I had not been on a climb where people died before," Nick says a trip the previous year to Batura Peak in northern Pakistan made an even bigger impression on him.


"It was the summer of 1988" he says.  "The Russians were pulling out of Afghanistan and the region was home to thousands of displaced Afghan’s eager to get home! It was a rather volatile time."  


Pakistan and politics are closely bundled to this day, and the approaching treks remain pretty untamed (first you must survive the Karakoram highway and there'll be few teahouses on the hike). Even more so two decades ago just getting to the slopes was a ragged adventure in itself.


"There were many people carrying guns of all kinds and tempers were running high," Nick recalls.  "We had a couple of Pakistani military with us on our bus…not really sure what they would have done if things got out of hand!"


"Our trip to the base camp was full of excitement, not the least of which was the fact that our porters would go on strike every morning after breakfast – negotiations took us until lunch. After lunch they would walk for a couple of hours before stopping for the night! This happened for 8 days straight."


The troop did end up climbing, eventually.


The climb


"Climbing was great fun because the route was not easy," Nick recalls. "Our goal was to climb Batura via the main headwall."


"A nice route although the headwall was fraught with rock and ice fall throughout the day. Below the headwall was as very exposed face that made for some interesting travel.   Between the hazards falling from above and the hazards of falling down the face, it was slow going.  The team was split between a couple of younger climbers and a contingent of more senior veterans who were not particularly interested in pushing up the wall."


"In the end, they climbed a lower summit of Batura via a large snow face. However on the way down, they got lost and had to be rescued…by us. We abandoned our wall just as we topped out!"


"When we located them, they (3 of them) were severely dehydrated and it took us another day to get them down to the last camp where they stayed in the only tent (we had taken the other tent and brought it up to the top of the wall)."


Rescues the old way and body part collaterals


The ascent ended up the way they often did back then; with plenty of battle-wounds.  Nick underwent amputation.


"The three of them suffered severe frostbite on their hands, feet and faces. We (4 of us) slept on the snow beside the tent in our warmest clothes."


"We didn’t have much food and gave what we had to the 3 older guys, which included some tea and condensed milk. On the second  night, one of them had an ulcer burst in his duodenum and the mess and smell was horrible. After cleaning his wound, we put him on oxygen (we only had one bottle for emergencies) and bundled him up in the tent fly and began lowering him down the mountain."


"The other two climbers were able to walk on their own. It took another three days to get them back to base camp. I got frostbite in my left foot and once I returned to Canada had to get one of my toes amputated because of infection."


"It was the most physically and emotionally demanding expedition, but at the same time it was also the most adventurous."


Fast forward 25 years. Nick returned to Himalaya only last year so how has it changed? And what is his plan for the upcoming quest? Check part 2 for our interview series with Nick about the upcoming climbs, how they relate to child slavery, and about his role as innovation chief at Under Armour.


Watch the first expedition webisode 




Explorersweb interview with Alan Arnette: "I now know I can do most anything I set as a goal in life"


Everest 2015: Interesting Expeditions of the Season


Hello from Kathmandu: Tunc Findik going for Annapurna


Horia and Hamor Rope Up for Manaslu North Side Climb and Ski


10 things to do before going off to climb Everest


Wildcard: Everest Rules and Permits 2015



Himalaya 2015 Spring climbing coverage



Annapurna: Holding back Summit-Bids, Other Climbers Start Acclimatization


R.I.P. Samuli Mansikka


Annapurna Rescue Mission Launched: Not Everything is alright


Annapurna: List of Summiteers


Annapurna: Climbers on Final Summit-bid! (Update: Summits)


Annapurna: First Summit Push of the Season Begins


Spring 2015: Early Birds Have Reached Annapurna


Lifesaving Wrong Turn: Unsuccessful but Happy Expedition on Nanga Parbat









There's this untried question in Himalaya about topping out all fourteen 8000ers within a year. Can it be done?
courtesy Mission14/Elia Saikaly, SOURCE
Polish Memorial plaque of the fateful Everest expedition.
courtesy Himalman, SOURCE
Artur Hajzer with Gary Ball and Rob Hall in Everest south side BC trying to help. All three later passed on different 8000ers.
25 years on, Nick will try to summit six 8000ers in 6 months. The challenge this time includes massive organization, sustained exposure, and unpredictable Himalaya high altitude weather.
courtesy Mission14/Elia Saikaly, SOURCE
The first expedition webcast includes a sample of producer/cameraman Elia Saikaly's trademark night shots in time-lapse of Himalaya camps and climbing slopes.
courtesy Mission14/Elia Saikaly, SOURCE
"The important thing was that we were alive..." -- Henri Charriere, Papillon (Nick's favorite book).