MCDONALD, Bernadette

Author Tags: Outdoors, Travel

Bernadette McDonald first won the $2,000 Grand Prize at the 2011 Banff Mountain Book Festival for Freedom Climbers (RMB $32.95), then she became the first Canadian to receive the Boardman Tasker Prize, also in 2011 [see below]. She next received the American Alpine Club Book Award in February of 2012 [see below], becoming the first author to win all three prizes. Then she won the 2011/2012 Himalayan Club's Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. In 2014, the French language edition of Freedom Climbers was awarded the Grand Prize at the 2014 Salon du Livre de Montagne de Passy, the highest honour for a work of mountain literature in France.

In 2012, Rocky Mountain Books released Keeper of the Mountains: The Elizabeth Hawley Story to introduce one of the most influential voices in modern mountaineering, despite the fact she has never climbed a mountain. Publicity materials state: "In 1946, Elizabeth Hawley left both her job at Fortune Magazine and to travel the world. And thus began a lifelong attraction to the Himalayas. In the years that followed, she began reporting on the political and cultural events taking place in Nepal and introduced the world to the strange community of mountaineers, pilgrims and politicians who regularly descended on Kathmandu, whether in search of adventure, enlightenment or prestige. While Hawley has never climbed a mountain or visited Everest base camp, she has become the most important record keeper and inspirational authority figure regarding the expeditions, stories, scandals and disasters in the Himalaya. With production under way on a film examining her life and legacy, Hawley will continue to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of all visitors looking to experience the legend of the world’s most celebrated mountain landscape."

Bernadette McDonald is the founding vice-president of Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre and author of seven books on international mountaineering. McDonald is the winner of numerous awards, including Italy’s ITAS Prize for mountain writing and is a two-time winner of India’s Kekoo Naoroji Award for Mountain Literature. She has also received the Alberta Order of Excellence, the Summit of Excellence Award from the Banff Centre, the King Albert Award for international leadership in the field of mountain culture and environment, and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. Hailing from Vernon, Bernadette now divides her time between Banff, Alberta and Naramata, BC.


Freedom Riders (RMB 2011) 978-1-926855-608
Freedom Climbers (RMB, 2012) $24.95 978-1-927330-12-8
Keeper of the Mountains: The Elizabeth Hawley Story (RMB, 2012) $22.95 978-1-927330-15-9
Okanagan Slow Road (Touchwood 2014) - illustrated by Karolina Born-Tschumperlin $29.95 9781771510363

[BCBW 2012]

Boardman Tasker Prize
Press Release (2011)

(November 21, 2011, Victoria BC)

RMB | Rocky Mountain Books is proud to announce that Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald has won the 2011 Boardman Tasker Prize. The Boardman Tasker prize is given to the author of an original work which has made an outstanding contribution to mountain literature.

McDonald is the first Canadian to win this prestigious international literary award. Referred to as “one of the most important mountaineering books published in the English language for many years", Freedom Climbers also recently won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival.

Established in 1983, the annual £3,000 award commemorates the lives of Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, two young British adventurers who perished while climbing Mt. Everest. The Boardman Tasker prize is given to the author of an original work that has made an outstanding contribution to mountain literature.

In Freedom Climbers, Bernadette McDonald weaves a passionate tale of international adventure, politics, suffering, death and inspiration. At a time when Polish citizens were locked behind the Iron Curtain, these intrepid explorers found a way to travel the world in search of extreme adventure. From Alaska to Afghanistan, South America to Pakistan, they evolved into the toughest group of Himalayan climbers the world has ever known. Like Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, this group of alpinists fundamentally altered the landscape of international mountaineering.

The 2011 Boardman Tasker Prize was awarded on November 20 at the Kendal Mountain Festival in Kendal, England.

Freedom Climbers (Rocky Mountain Books $32)
Review (2012)

from Mark Forsythe
Patriotism, ego and an uncanny capacity for suffering took Polish climbers to the very top of the alpine climbing world in the 1970s and 1980s.

The world’s most celebrated climber, Italian Reinhold Messner, says the Poles’ achievements in the 1980s made them, “Worldwide leaders as igh-altitude climbers, especially in the Himalayas.”

Dozens perished or vanished. In 1989 alone, five Polish climbers died on Everest.

Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald describes how Polish men and women, armed with ice axes, crampons and grit, overcame the most extreme high altitude conditions, making first ascents and forging innovative new routes, often in harsh winter conditions that most would dare not climb in.

The Polish passion for alpine climbing emerged as Poland exchanged the horrors and humiliation of Nazi occupation for Soviet domination, deprivation and martial law.

Poles had climbed in the Himalayas back in the 1930s, but the ravages of the Second World War and life behind the Iron Curtain virtually killed that desire. Climbing was officially frowned upon, “Mountains were a sign of freedom,” McDonald writes, “a concept the Soviets feared above all.”

Eventually political oppression hardened the climbers’ desire to catch up with others on the international scene. Poles formed mountaineering clubs and laboured at menial jobs, such as painting factory smoke stacks, to generate enough money for expeditions into the nearby Tatras and Alps, and eventually the Himalayas.

Freedom Climbers captures how the sheer joy and sense of achievement associated with climbing became an escape from a dreary existence that offered few opportunities for personal advancement.

Some of the Poles became very good smugglers, selling equipment (and sometimes alcohol) during their foreign climbing excursions to acquire coveted foreign currency. Climbers joked about defecting, but few of them did. They were Poles first, who’d figured out how to work the system. For many, climbing became a living.

McDonald profiles many icons of Polish climbing who drew strength from hardship, such as Andrzej Zawada, a leading climber in the 1970s, who colluded with partisans during the Russian “liberation.” He kept a machine gun under his desk at school and grenades by his bed at night. Arrested at age 17, he survived prison— unlike friends who were tortured and executed by the Russian secret service.

In 1973, Andrzej served notice to the climbing world that Poles were prepared to suffer and rewrite the record books. He led a team on a winter ascent of a mountain over 7,000 metres where temperatures plummeted to -35 at night, storms screamed through camps and toes froze. He and Tadek Piotrowski reached the peak of Noshaq, Afghanistan’s highest mountain.

“The wind on my cheeks, and the cold when it was winter, the warmth in the summer, the friction of granite against my fingers,” Andrzej said, “They bring me so much joy.”

Andrzej began to dream of a first-ever winter assault on Everest. In 1980 he fronted a team of 20 that put Leszek Citchy and Krzysztof Wielicki on the summit. Andrzej would inspire many others to test their limits, including Voytek Kurtyka and Jerzy Kukuczka, two of the most innovative of the Himalayan climbers

Wanda Rutkiewicz was also making a name for herself at this time. A slight figure and a lone wolf, often at odds with her climbing partners, she had a willfulness that was forged from tragedy. Wanda’s brother was killed as a child by a grenade explosion; her father was murdered and buried in his garden.

Approximately thirty of her climbing partners and friends were lost over the years. McDonald writes, “Perhaps it was an overexposure to premature and sudden loss of life that prompted her, and other climbers, to ignore their own mortality rather than succumb to trauma. As the deaths multiplied, those who survived began to feel immortal.”

Wanda Rutkiewicz became the first European woman to climb Mount Everest on the same day Polish Cardinal Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul. Poles were euphoric, and she later presented him with a stone from the Everest summit.
Another Polish team followed by tracing a challenging new route up its peak, and through these successes fellow Poles saw new hope and possibilities. These individual achievements soon had Polish authorities worried. Trouble was brewing with food prices going through the roof in 1980, and Lech Walesa launching the Solidarity trade union movement in the Lenin Shipyards. The hammer came down with the imposition of martial law.

Money for climbers was drying up, so Wanda Rutkiewicz sought private sponsors for future climbs. Her life was now completely focused on climbing (with personal relationships left in the dust). She continued to set more firsts for women, but then took one too many chances.

In 1992, while attempting to climb her ninth peak over eight thousand metres, she disappeared on Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak (elevation of 8,586 m. or 28,169 ft.), located along the India-Nepal border.

Mcdonald’s research is superb, enhanced by years of interviews, and from being part of the mountaineering community. She goes inside group dynamics, dissects various egos, tells of the mysterious Third Man hallucinations that some climbers experience at altitude, and conveys the awe of reaching the top of the world.

For Poles under the Soviets, mountain climbing offered a modicum of control and freedom. “They channelled their unfulfilled hopes and suppressed energies into a passionate love of mountains and adventure... a way to fulfill themselves and create meaningful lives,” McDonald writes.
Of course the age-old questions of why people climb in such conditions lingers like a potential avalanche in these pages, but given what the Polish people had experienced, perhaps the question might be, “Why not?”

A more poetic rationale has been provided by Polish climber Voytek Kurtyka, “Beauty is some kind of laser connection to higher worlds.”

Mark Forsythe is host of CBC radio’s Almanac.

[BCBW 2012]

American Alpine Award
Press Release (2012)

(February 8, 2012, Victoria, BC)

Rocky Mountain Books is thrilled to announce that Bernadette McDonald has won the 2012 American Alpine Club Literary Award. The award will be presented at the ACC’s Annual Benefit Dinner in Boston on March 3, 2012 and recognizes excellence in alpine literature. Previous winners include Royal Robins, Mark Jenkins, John Krakauer, and several other prominent writers.

In winning this award, McDonald is considered to have scored a ‘literary hat-trick’ in mountain writing having recently won the Britain’s £3,000 Boardman Tasker Prize as well as the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival. McDonald is the first writer to win all three awards and the first Canadian to win the Boardman Tasker.

McDonald’s most recent book, Freedom Climbers, weaves a passionate tale of international adventure, politics, suffering, death and inspiration. At a time when Polish citizens were locked behind the Iron Curtain, these intrepid explorers found a way to travel the world in search of extreme adventure. So far, rights for this highly regarded book have been sold to six countries including the United States, the UK, Poland, Germany and Spain.