Where The Caravan of Dreams Stopped: Kangchenjunga 1992

In 1992, Wanda Rutkiewicz, one of history’s best female alpinists, disappeared on 8,586m Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. Had she survived, she would have turned 81 this month.

Rutkiewicz’s legacy is well-known through several articles and books about her life. However, today we will tell her story with some new details from that 1992 Kangchenjunga climb.

In July 2022, I interviewed one of the members of that expedition, Elsa Avila of Mexico. She shared her memories of that spring in 1992. The interview first appeared on Elsa Avila’s podcast in Spanish, under the title Carawana de Suenos (“Caravan of Dreams”). Here, we share Avila’s observations and, at the same time, put together the chronology of the expedition with the help of official reports published later in The Himalayan Database and the American Alpine Journal.


Kangchenjunga. Photo: DC Assam


Kangchenjunga ascents until the end of 1991

Kangchenjunga was first climbed on May 25-26, 1955 by four members of a UK-New Zealand party led by Charles Evans. They ascended via the southwest face, using supplemental oxygen. Pete Boardman, Doug Scott, and Joe Tasker of the UK made the first no-O2 ascent on May 16, 1979.

From its first ascent until the end of 1991, a total of 113 mountaineers climbed Kangchenjunga, including 51 without bottled oxygen. All the summiters were men, so at the end of 1991, the peak still awaited its first female ascent.

Between 1955 and 1991, 15 climbers died on the peak. Twelve of the victims did not use bottled oxygen.

In the spring of 1992, two separate expeditions headed to Kangchenjunga. Both wanted to climb it from the north.

Doug Scott and Peter Boardman on the summit of Kangchenjunga.

Doug Scott and Pete Boardman on the summit of Kangchenjunga. Photo: Culturademontania


Spring 1992 teams

The Mexican Kangchenjunga Expedition arrived at Base Camp very early in the spring, on March 11. The party consisted of six members: Carlos Carsolio (leader), Elsa Avila, Alfredo Carsolio, and Andres Delgado, all from Mexico, and Wanda Rutkiewicz and Arkadiusz Gasienica-Jozkowy from Poland.

Gasienica-Jozkowy was better known by his nickname, Arek, and we will refer to him that way in the story.

Carlos Carsolio was one of the strongest climbers of his generation. His friend Jerzy Kukuczka called him The Mexican Bull. The four Mexicans knew each other very well, and they had already carried out several expeditions together before 1992.

Rutkiewicz, meanwhile, was doing her Caravan of Dreams project. It consisted of climbing all 14 8,000m peaks. No woman had yet done all of them. Before Kangchenjunga, Rutkiewicz had already climbed eight of the 8,000’ers.

Carlos Carsolio, who being very young made the 14x8,000m peaks. He always preferred alpine style and made also some new routes.

Carlos Carsolio. Photo: Tadeusz Piotrowski


The two Poles join the Mexican expedition

According to Avila, Rutkiewicz had called Carlos Carsolio to ask him to allow her and her climbing partner Arek to join the 1992 team. The Mexicans already knew Rutkiewicz from her 1987 Shisha Pangma climb. They had also met other Polish teams on 8,000m peaks since 1985 and were familiar with their skill.

Carsolio told Rutkiewicz that she and Arek could join the Mexican team, but insisted that the first female mountaineer to summit Kangchenjunga should be Avila, if possible. Avila wanted this accomplishment very much because she planned to become a mother afterward.

Rutkiewicz told Carsolio that that request was not a problem. She did not want to be the first woman to climb Kangchenjunga but just to continue her 14×8,000m project.

Andres Delgado. Delgado, along with his climbing partner Alfonso de la Parra disappeared on Changabang in October, 2006.

Andres Delgado. Delgado and climbing partner Alfonso de la Parra disappeared on Changabang in October 2006. Photo: Cima Extrema Mexico/Facebook


So the two Polish mountaineers joined the Mexican team. The plan was that each small group would make its own ascent in a kind of joint venture.

The Mexicans arrived first at the head of the glacier to set up Base Camp. Then Arek arrived, and a few days later, Rutkiewicz showed up. She seemed to be affected by poor acclimatization and had edema on her face for the first few days.

Avila says that it was very very cold on the mountain. All of them had difficulties even leaving the tents in the morning because of freezing temperatures and harsh wind.

Wanda Rutkiewicz and Elsa Avila on the summit of Shisha Pangma.

Wanda Rutkiewicz and Elsa Avila on the summit of Shishapangma. Photo: Veudelaterra Blogspot


A second Kangchenjunga expedition arrives

On March 18, one week after Carsolio’s party reached Base Camp, a German expedition arrived. The 10-member German team, led by Wolfgang Sinnwell, consisted of seven German mountaineers and three sherpas. This team, on bottled oxygen, interacted only slightly with the Mexican-Polish team. Although both parties would be on the same (north) face of the mountain, both operated independently from each other. Neither realized that both teams would face tragedy on the mountain.

The north face of Kangchenjunga.

The North Face of Kangchenjunga. Photo: Summitpost


The first summit push of the Mexican-Polish party

Elsa Avila.

Elsa Avila, the first Latin American woman to summit Everest. She is the former wife of Carlos Carsolio. Photo: Frame from a YouTube video


Carsolio and partners, including Rutkiewicz and Arek, (on a separate rope but part of the Mexican team) established Camp 2 at 6,890m on March 30. They did not use Camp 1 during the expedition. On April 22, they set up Camp 4 at 7,900m in a very strong wind. The camp platform was too narrow for a tent so they had to dig a cave.

The Mexicans spent a horrible night in the cave, sitting instead of lying in that cramped space and covering the entrance of the improvised refuge with their backpacks. Meanwhile, Rutkiewicz and Arek had to bivouac at 7,800m on the long traverse section that led to Camp 4, because she was very slow.

The Mexicans spent another night in the cave, but on April 24, the whole team, including the Polish climbers, aborted the summit push. Avila and Alfredo Carsolio were already frostbitten.

The team met at Camp 2 during the descent to discover that the tents had disappeared beneath a huge dump of snow. Avila started to dig out the tent but realized that her fingers were already blue. They did not want to spend another night there, so they continued down to Base Camp.

Avila remembers that Rutkiewicz was with them. Avila did not want to take any medicine before descending to Base Camp, as she wanted to have a clear mind on her way down the wall.

Happy and positive

“I remember it was snowing that day and Wanda [Rutkiewicz]’s hair was covered with snow,” Avila recalled. “She was happy and positive, and told me that the falling snow reminded her of the Alps.”

Despite Rutkiewicz’s competitive nature, which sometimes included rivalry with other female climbers, Avila says that at one moment during the descent, Rutkiewicz told Avila, “You are the strongest woman I know.” Avila still cherishes Rutkiewicz’s generous words today.

Wanda Rutkiewicz.

Wanda Rutkiewicz. Photo: Facebook


Alfredo Carsolio had frostbitten his feet, and Avila her fingers. That was the end of the expedition for both of them. They trekked to Ghunsa, from which they finally were taken to the hospital. From there, Avila flew back to Mexico.

Meanwhile, the German team…

At the same time that the Mexican-Polish party was hoping to launch their first summit push from Camp 4 (7,900m), tragedy struck Sinwell’s party. We have to remember that the two teams had no contact on the mountain, so didn’t know what was happening with the other party.

The Germans originally planned a different route (the 1983 Warth line). But on April 5, one of their members fell and broke his ankle. After he was helicoptered off the mountain, they changed to the Messner route on the North Face.

Two members of the German team, Gerhard Reif and Karl Schrag, reached 7,000m on the Messner route on April 22. The next day, sirdar Ang Phurba Sherpa fell unconscious while cooking in a closed tent, but a dose of oxygen revived him.

Tragedy at Camp 2

Two days later, two German members and two sherpas climbed up to Camp 2 at 6,600m, hoping to establish Camps 3 and 4 in the following days. That night, however, tragedy struck. The two sherpas, Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa and Ang Dorje Sherpa, suddenly became silent in their tent. When the two Germans opened the sherpas’ tent to see what was happening, they discovered that the two sherpas had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Despite the previous warnings, the sherpas had continued to cook in closed tents.

They were buried in a crevasse. This tragedy and health problems with some of the Germans prompted them to call off the expedition. They left Base Camp on May 1. Before leaving, however, the German expedition doctor attended to Carlos Carsolio, who had suffered a ligament injury during the descent.

Wanda Rutkiewicz in Kangchenjunga in 1992.

Wanda Rutkiewicz on Kangchenjunga, 1992. Photo: Mountains of Travel Photos


The second summit push

After Avila and Alfredo Carsolio left the expedition, the other four members of the team remained on the mountain: Carlos Carsolio, Andres Delgado, Arek, and Wanda Rutkiewicz. However, Delgado and Arek had health issues and could not launch a second summit push.

Only Carlos Carsolio and Wanda Rutkiewicz were fit to start a second attempt. Both agreed that each one would climb at her/his own pace and style and would make separate summit attacks.

Starting the ascent

Carsolio and Rutkiewicz started from Camp 1 at 5,630m together, to help each other on the glacier, which was full of hidden crevasses. Carsolio reached Camp 2 four hours faster than Rutkiewicz. However, it was her best time on the expedition.

On May 10, they started at their own pace toward Camp 3. At 3:15 pm, they left Camp 3 together in deep snow. After two hours, Rutkiewicz shouted to Carsolio that she was very tired and she would stop and bivouac at 7,450m.

Carsolio continued climbing during the night through deep snow mixed with snow slabs. He wanted to make Camp 4 (7,900m) by midnight but only managed to reach it at 6:30 am the following day, May 11.

The weather was again bad. It was snowing and windy. Carsolio stayed at Camp 4 all day. He had a sleeping bag, a little fuel, and some food. That day, Rutkiewicz joined him at Camp 4 at 7 pm. She was unhappy because her stove had stopped working and she was dehydrated. However, at Camp 4 she drank only a little because she didn’t want to vomit later.

Arek Gaienica Jozkowy.

Arek Gasienica-Jozkowy. Photo: Grzegorz Glazek


The summit push from Camp 4

On May 12 at 3:30 am, Carsolio and Rutkiewicz left Camp 4 toward the summit of Kangchenjunga. Rutkiewicz was slower than Carsolio and immediately fell behind. Carsolio fixed ropes in two couloirs for their descent.

Progress through the deep snow was difficult for both. Carsolio nevertheless summited late that day, at 5 pm. He stayed 50 minutes on top, then began to descend in good weather.

On the way down, he met Rutkiewicz at 8,250m at 8 pm. Rutkiewicz was still on her way to the summit. She carried 20m of 5mm rope, a bivy sack, headlamp, extra gloves and goggles, one small camera, and some water. During the 10 minutes they were together, Carsolio tried to convince her to turn back. But Rutkiewicz was determined to continue.

At the time, she was sitting, preparing her bivouac in a kind of cave that the wind had carved out of snow. The night was not windy but was very cold. Rutkiewicz had no stove, no fuel, and no food. Her mind was clear, according to Carsolio. It was the last time that Carsolio saw Rutkiewicz.

Wanda Rutkiewicz was a determined woman.

Wanda Rutkiewicz. Photo: Mieczyslaw Swiderski


No more news

Before continuing his descent, Carsolio told Rutkiewicz that he would wait for her at Camp 2. Carsolio reached Camp 4 after 10 pm on May 12. He waited for her but when she did not show up, he left supplies for her, and on May 13 at noon, he continued down to Camp 2.

There was no more news from Rutkiewicz. On May 12 and 13, Delgado scoped the mountain from Camp 2 with binoculars to try to see the light from her headlamp. Nothing. Carsolio waited at Camp 2 for her for three more days, but she didn’t arrive.

On May 14, the wind rose, and it started to snow. On May 16, Carsolio left Rutkiewicz some food, fuel, water in a thermos, a walkie-talkie, some medicine, and emergency oxygen in the tent at Camp 2. Then he started to descend, arriving at Base Camp on May 17.

Carsolio points out in his report for The Himalayan Database that Rutkiewicz was very slow from Camp 1. However, she was a strong and determined climber who survived on K2 in 1986 for four nights in great difficulties around 8,000m. Carsolio also pointed out that Rutkiewicz wasn’t comfortable with her crampons during the second summit push. At the bivy of May 12, she told Carsolio that her down suit was not warm enough so she wore her bivy bag around her shoulders.

Avila says that at the bivy place at 8,250m, Rutkiewicz asked Carsolio if he thought that she was technically able to reach the summit. Carsolio answered yes and that he had left rope for her in the summit section.

A sad loss

The team finally left Base Camp on May 21, in very bad weather. ”It’s a very sad loss for all of us and the mountaineering world,” wrote Carsolio in his HDB report.

All members of the team, including Arek, were in their 20s, while Rutkiewicz was 49. Although she was 20 years older than her partners, she was determined to complete her so-called Caravan of Dreams. Rutkiewicz always said that she wouldn’t die lying in bed at home.

Wanda Rutkiewicz in the Pyrenees.

Wanda Rutkiewicz in the Pyrenees. Photo: Museum of Sport and Tourism


Avila received a fax in Mexico in May 1992. The first sentence was that Carlos Carsolio summited. The news made her very happy, but the fax continued printing. Although the letters were distorted, she eventually realized that the text said that Rutkiewicz was missing.


Three years later, in 1995, Avila received a call from Elizabeth Hawley. She asked Avila what color Rutkiewicz’s down suit had been on Kangchenjunga. Hawley did not say more at the time.

But that spring, three years after Rutkiewicz had gone missing, a six-person Italian-Czech team attempted Kangchenjunga by the southwest face.

On April 29, 1995, Fausto de Stefani, Marco Galezzi, and Silvio Mondinelli found a woman’s body at 7,700m to the left of the classical southwest route, under a serac. Mondinelli recalled that it seemed that the woman had fallen from some height. The body was not complete. The down suit was yellow, matching Rutkiewicz’s.  They thought that it could be her body if indeed she had fallen from the summit down the southwest face.

However, there were other two possibilities too. The body might have belonged to Iordanka Dimitrova, a 41-year-old Bulgarian climber who disappeared in the autumn of 1994, or that of a Russian woman, Ekaterina Ivanova, who disappeared in an avalanche that same season. The Italian mountaineers found a pill in the suit’s chest pocket with Bulgarian lettering, so the body likely belonged to Dmitrova. The Italians put her body in a crevasse.

“Wanda lives”

It remains unclear if Rutkiewicz summited Kangchenjunga or not. One theory suggests that after summiting, she may have descended via the southwest face. Avila says that this made no sense, however, because Rutkiewicz knew that Carsolio was waiting for her at the high camp and at Camp 2. That surely would have prompted her to go down their North Face ascent route.

Years later, some mountaineers allegedly saw a woman from behind in a Buddhist monastery who looked like Wanda Rutkiewicz. This rumor proved nothing, of course, although even 20 years after her disappearance, Rutkiewicz’s mother believed that her daughter was alive somewhere. She always said, Wanda lives.

Wanda Rutkiewicz on an expedition to Annapurna in 1987.

Wanda Rutkiewicz on an expedition to Annapurna in 1987. Photo: Museum of Jerzy Kukuczka

Kris Annapurna

KrisAnnapurna is a writer with ExplorersWeb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, and news updates in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., for the past year with ExplorersWeb. Prior to that, Kris worked as a real estate agent, interpreter, and translator in criminal law. Now based in Madrid, Spain, she was born and raised in Hungary.