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"A PERSON THAT SAVED AT LEAST ONE LIFE WAS NOT BORN FOR NOTHING"

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EDEK FROM BABIA

We often call someone a man of the mountains when we want to emphasise his or her qualities and abilities in the mountains. Unfortunately, not all people trekking in the mountains nowadays could be called like this. As in all groups of people, there will be ones who are honest, brave, passionate and professional, and ones that are unpredictable, arrogant and unreliable. Today I would like to tell you about a rescue operation led by an incredible man.


It was the passion for the mountains and rescue that once joined us together, but it were also the mountains that finally separated us...

It was a beautiful day in February, to be more precise it was 4th February 1988. The sparkling whiteness of the snow-covered mountains mirrored the bright sun rays. Most of the mountain trails had been cleared by the tourists in the previous days and were now inviting for a trek. A  lot of young people that were spending their winter break in the mountains put on the colourful clothes and enjoyed the weather.

 

And so did a group of teenagers who, as far as I remember, participated in a winter camp organised by a parish in Sidzina. They planned a winter trek to the mountain shelter on Hala Krupowa and then through the summit of Polica, Krowiarki pass, through Górny Płaj to the mountain shelter on Markowe Szczawiny. As I said, it was a beautiful, sunny and frosty day. The crunching of snow was audible with every step, a cloud of mist accompanied every breath. The group reached the Krowiarki pass without any problems. There, they met a group of the local men who were cutting down trees and pulling them down with their horses. There was a huge bonfire out of the cut branches burning on the clearing. The smell of resin and spruce smoke was everywhere around. One could hear saws of the working men and snorting of their horses. The group sat on the logs around the bonfire and forgot about the frost for some time. They consumed their packed lunch. Everyone had a great time, there were plenty of jokes, laughter and chasing one another. Then someone had an idea: Why should we take the boring route through Górny Płaj? Let’s go through the summit of Babia Góra! The views must be beautiful today! Probably even the Tatra mountains are clearly visible! Everyone immediately accepted the idea and the hesitation of the group leader was defeated by older girls who fluttered their eyelashes...

 

*** Babia Góra (1725 m.s.l.) is the only mountain in Beskidy with alpine characteristics. Its rock-covered summit is called Diablak by Poles, Czertów Zamok by Slovakians and Teufelsschloss by the Germans. Its north-western slopes are steep cliffs. In good weather conditions it takes a few hours for an average tourist to traverse the whole summit. The mountain is known for changeable weather, dense fog and tragic consequences of losing one’s way.***

 

It took the group some time but finally the departed taking the trail to the summit. It was probably past 2 p.m. The trail up was not so well cleared so to reach Sokolica took them more time that they had expected. When up to their knees in snow they finally reached the end of the forest, they were hit by the wind... But it was not a light breeze that brings relief to a sweated tourist in the summer. It was  strong, penetrating, icy wind that brought clouds heavy with snow. The weather quickly worsened.

The beautiful sun was gone... It became dark and unpleasant. The wind, getting stronger and stronger each second, carried particles of snow and ice that painfully hit the teenager’s faces, as if with gravel. The cold was penetrating. The gusts of wind in the open spaces made them loose their balance. The fog, carried from the direction of Orawa, swept over the bare summit of Babia Góra, limiting the visibility to just a few metres and causing the tourists to lose the sense of direction. Fortunately, there were heaps of rocks every now and then with orientation poles stuck in them that enabled the tourists to follow the path in the proper direction.

 

However, following the path was more and more difficult. On the mountain ridge there were no snow drifts one had to wade through, that was true, but trekking was by no means easier. The whistling wind made the tourist suffocate by pushing the icy air into their lungs. The tired teenagers were staggering under the force of the wind, sometimes crawling on the icy surface of the snow in order not to fall, just to manage to get to another heap of rocks...

 

As they concentrated on their struggle to get to the summit they didn’t even realise that it became dark. In the darkness, fog and strong wind they were slowly freezing in their thin coats, light sweaters and completely wet gloves. They felt that the storm was getting on them and holding their lives in its hands, enabling the frost to suck all the warmth out of them...

 

The happy mountain trek turned into a struggle, physical pain of frozen hands and faces as well as into great fear...

 

Suddenly, one of the girls, 15-year-old Urszula, who was dead tired, fell by one of the rock heaps... and was not able to get up. In the meantime the group managed to reach another heap. Luckily, someone realised that the girl was missing. The strongest boys went back and dragged the half conscious girl, on the ice and stones, in the snowstorm, to the next rock heap.

 

They reached the last but one of the summits of Babia Góra, called Diabla Kuchnia and got to the pass next to the main summit – Siodło Bończy, but the attack on the summit was of no importance to them any more. They only fought for their lives and for the life of the unconscious girl. They traversed the summit from the side of Głazowiska Staszica, but then, with no energy left, they gave up. They decided that they couldn’t make it. The desperate group leader understood that if they did not find shelter from the wind in the forest, they would all freeze to death. He also knew that the tired group members were not able to carry their friend any more. He decided to leave the girl behind one of the rocks, with one of the oldest boys. In the meantime, he followed the trail with the rest of the group, in the darkness and snowstorm, in the direction of Brona pass.

 

When the group reached the pass they met two tourists who were coming from the direction of Jałowiecka pass. When they heard about the unconscious girl they gave a pack of Cadiamid to the leader and volunteered to lead the teenagers to the shelter on their own. The group leader turned back to the summit, but somewhere around Złoty Groń the wind hit him so hard that he turned back and got to the shelter on his last legs.

 

In the shelter on Markowe Szczawiny the group leader went straight to the rescue station to report what had happened. The rescuers got ready in a second and an expedition was soon ready to leave. The professional rescuer and mountain guide, Edek Hudziak, went on his own, following the uncleared  path straight to the summit, sometimes walking up to his waist in the snow. He chose the shortest but at the same time the steepest route. The rest of the rescuers, led by a volunteer rescuer Piotr Mięso, if I remember correctly, took the rescue toboggan and followed the trail to Brona pass. In the darkness, snowstorm, in the biting frost and wind, the operation was conducted in extreme conditions.

As Edek was well known for his toughness, fitness, strength and perfect orientation in the region of Babia Góra (he reached its summit around 1000 times...), he got to the summit surprisingly quickly  but saw only wind, snowstorm and thick fog there. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see the teenagers in the place described by the group leader. Finding them in such conditions became an impossibility. But, that’s when his long experience and a bit of rescuer’s luck (sometimes called miracle...) made the difference. Suddenly, he saw footsteps and traces of blood in the snow between the rocks. Following them, he reached the opening in the snow where the teenagers hid from the snowstorm.

 

Unfortunately, they were both unconscious. The boy looked worse, his face seemed to be covered with an icy mask. The rescuer immediately started to resuscitate him and after a few minutes the boy had his breath back and opened his eyes. Then Edek turned to the girl who looked as if she was sleeping. He couldn’t feel neither her pulse nor breath so now he started to resuscitate her. He understood that the only chance to save the teenagers was to bring them down and find shelter from the murderous cold, intensified by the icy wind as soon as possible. The best solution would be to transport them to the warm shelter on a rescue toboggan...

 

Edek contacted the other rescuers through the rescue radiotelephone, called Klimek, but it came out that the group coming from the Brona pass was crawling through the snowstorm, struggling on the ice to hold the heavy rescue toboggan from the wind. Such conditions made it impossible for them to reach Edek in less than an hour.

 

The experienced rescuer understood that in order to survive the storm and the overwhelming hypothermia he had to carry the dying tourists down through the steep, northern slopes of Babia Góra. That was their only chance. Without any necessary equipment, Edek slung the unconscious 16-year-old girl on his back, and tied the half conscious and dead tired boy to his wrist with a long rope. And so he descended, up to his knees in the snow; every time the rope ended he would lay the girl on the snow, come back for the boy and bring him down. Up and down, endlessly. The only breaks were when he had to resuscitate both teenagers. Suddenly, during the steep descent, there was a crack... the leg of the huge rescuer jammed in the empty space between the mountain pine branches and the rocks, the weight of the plump girl swayed him forward... thus such a lever was created that the rescuer’s knee crushed...

 

The situation became extremely dangerous, not to say hopeless. All three of them were dressed in wet clothes and dead frozen, they were in an undefined place, far from the trail, in the darkness and snowstorm, on one of the steep slopes of Babia Góra. The injured rescuer could not stand on his broken leg and he had to somehow transport the dying girl and the half conscious boy down...

 

As Edek was extremely resourceful, he put his hood on, lied on the snow, his head down. He tied the unconscious boy to himself with a rope and put the dying girl on his chest. Edek used his healthy leg to push them all down and so they descended in the thick snow along the long culuoir, like a strange ship constructed out of bodies... Meter after meter. It seemed never ending...

When reaching the line of the forest they had to stop as the slope was not steep enough. They were all completely covered in snow and ice. The only thing that could save them was the help of the others... Edek started the uneven battle with death again, resuscitating the girl and calling the other rescuers at the same time.

 

Finally, he managed to contact the rescue expedition and the rescue station in the shelter. He managed to describe, as precisely as it was possible, where they were. The rescuers led by Piotr Mięso turned from the ridge somewhere around Kościółki and traversed the northern slopes with the rescue toboggan. In the meantime, the then director of the shelter, Jasiu Lizak, organised a third expedition out of the tourists who were in the shelter at that time. They followed the yellow trail up with two more rescue toboggans.

 

It took them some time to find one another in the complete darkness and extreme winter conditions, but when they did, the rescue operation became quick and smooth. Unfortunately, the girl was not breathing. The resuscitation had been started immediately, was repeated many times on the way and in the shelter by a professional ambulance service team that had run up to the shelter from Sucha Beskidzka. With no results. A doctor certified her death.

 

The half conscious and deeply frozen boy was carried down on a rescue toboggan to Zawoja Markowe and then by an ambulance to the hospital in Sucha Beskidzka... He survived.

 

Edek was also carried down in a rescue toboggan by his friends. He had to humbly agree to be packed into plaster for long weeks, which was not something easy for such an active person...

 

***

 

Edek fully recovered and was still a rescuer in the mountains. He climbed many more mountains as a professional guide and as a mountaineer. He reached the summit of Elbrus, climbed in the Tatras and Andes. He later became the head of the mountain shelter in Markowe Szczawiny. He was a great mountain rescuer and lifeguard, one with the sense of mission. He was also a ski instructor, mountain guide and he marked out new mountain trails. He looked as a bear, but was at the same time gentle and brave, as well as extremely hardworking. He had an incredible sense of humour.

 

***

 

What connected us was being passionate about mountains and respecting each other. It was  friendship of men who were rescuers, mountain guides and admirers of Babia Góra, the queen of the Polish Beskidy. It was a relationship that rarely occurs and I can think of only one more example of that kind, with Robert Piórkowski, also an incredible person, professional mountain guide in Markowe Szczawiny, later head of training of search and rescue in Beskidy. Robert died a few years ago of a heart attack while he was training mountain rescuers in Szczyrk...

 

That’s life. Everything ends. Rescuers who are your friends start their ‘eternal duty’ in various circumstances. On 28th January 2011, around 1 p.m. Edek died during an acclimatisation ascent on Ilinizas Norte in Ecuador. He fell into abyss.

 

***

 

Babia Góra hid under the foggy veil of  despair...

 

***

 

Edek Hudziak, and outstanding and incredible man of the mountains was...

... was my friend.

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