An Oath Given

Centennial  (1909-2009) of  The Tatra Volunteer Rescue Service

by Monika Rogozinska,
“Rzeczpospolita” Polish Daily
November 6th, 2009


TOPR1a.Fot.MR 640x425           Credit: Monika Rogozińska

The catastrophe of the helicopter in the Valley of the Five Lakes was a secret. The communist authorities black out all news about the accident. The crashed helicopter MI-2 was chopped into pieces with an axe to be transported (the picture is published the first ever time)


TOPR2a.Fot.MarcinJozefowicz         Credit: Marcin Józefowicz

Searching for the bodies of the students of the high school from Tychy who had taken by the avalanche from Rysy Mountain under the ice of the Black Lake in January 2003


 TOPR3a.Fot.MR 640x480         Credit: Monika Rogozińska

Józef Uznański and Kazimierz Gąsienica Byrcyn – the senior members of The Tatra Volunteer Rescue Service. Józef Uznański trained the first search and rescue dog in TOPR


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To commemorate 100th Anniversary of the establishment of The Tatra Volunteer Rescue Service the National Bank of Poland issued collector coins 10 zl, 100 zl and 2 zl Nordic Gold coin



"A terrible scene is revealed: ski tracks crossing the slope disappear among jumbled blocks of an enormous avalanche... they don't emerge from the other side!"

This was how Mariusz Zaruski described the search for Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, who in February of 1909 failed to return to Zakopane from a solo ski tour. A few days earlier the 33 year old composer celebrated a triumphant reception of his new symphonic triptych in the Warsaw Philharmonic. Only forty eight hours earlier he helped Zaruski edit an appeal for the creation of  The Tatra Volunteer Rescue Service (in Polish - Tatrzanskie Ochotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe, abbreviated TOPR). Then he headed out to the Hala Gasienicowa to try out a new camera. Zaruski and Stanislaw Gasienica Byrcyn with friends who arrived to help their friend dug out Karlowicz's body and with the found camera took a photo of the body. At the scene of the accident Zaruski stuck a branch of rowan into the snow. In the spring it put out green shoots.
      The death of the well-known composer, climber and skier in an avalanche on the slopes of Maly Koscielec in the Tatra Mountains was a shock. It accelerated the creation of the highlander rescue service. On October 29 1909, the Austro-Hungarian governor of Galicia in Lwow approved the charter of the association: The Tatra Volunteer Rescue Service - the fourth mountain rescue organization in the world after the Austrian, French and Swiss; the first outside the Alps.
      It's helm was taken by the "Tatra Commander-in-Chief" – Mariusz Zaruski, painter, skier, climber, sailor, toughened by years of sailing on the Arctic Ocean while under Tsarist exile. Karlowicz was posthumously added to the founding members. On a boulder at the site of his death was carved this inscription: "Non omnis moriar - I shall not wholly die". This same inscription will be cast on a bell that will be hung in a church in Cherson - a Ukranian city where General Zaruski was tortured by Soviet Secret Service NKVD to death in 1941.
      Already in the first year of activity of the TOPR there occurred a tragedy that became the pretext for discussion about the boundaries of duty and sacrifice. Discipline, courage,  soundness of mind, prudence - these are the cardinal virtues which should characterize an ideal rescuer, as defined by commander Zaruski. Two of those were cast aside by his second, Klemens Bachleda - one of the best climbers of his time, known as the king of the Tatra guides.
      In the summer of 1910 an exhausted climber arrived at the refuge at Morskie Oko. He had left an injured friend on the wall of Maly Jaworowy. They had both fallen. The rescuers left that night in carriages from Zakopane. In the morning they started climbing the wall, down which cascaded streams of icy water and showers of rocks. "Rain poured down mixed with hail and snow, lightning struck. From the cold and exhaustion we could barely make any progress" noted Zaruski in the mission report book. When he decided that it is inconceivable to continue onwards because it is too dangerous for the rescuers he ordered them to turn around. Klimek Bachleda did not listed. He climbed onwards.
- Klimek, come back! - ordered the commander.
- Have to rescue a person - said Klimek and went to his death.
The body of the tourist was found on the third day. "He died due to exposure and spinal injuries" noted Zaruski. Klimek Bachleda was killed by rockfall. They found the remains a week later. "The body was broken, the head almost completely separated" related the commander. Both deceased were carried down and transported to Zakopane. Klimek's grave carries this inscription "He sacrificed himself and died". To this day each new member must find the boundary between sacrifice and responsibility anew.
The Fate of the World on a rope
There was a day when a Tatra rescuer held the fate of the world on a rope. Stanislaw Gasienica Byrcyn was a founding member of TOPR.
- In the summer of 1914 father guided a group of students and a professor to the Valley of the Five Lakes via Stary Zawrat gully. They heard someone calling for help - says Stanislaw's son, Kazmierz Gasienica Byrcyn, a TOPR rescuer for 49 years. - Snow filled the couloir. In a deep crevasse between the rock and the snow were two wretches. Father had a rope and along with the professor he pulled out the tourists, plied them with hot tea and escorted them to the Five Lakes. Soon he was called up to serve in the Austrain army. He was wounded in the war, captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. He returned in 1922. The same professor had once again returned to the Tatras. He did not know what had happened to my father. He still corresponded with one of those rescued on Zawrat... with Vladimir Iliych Lenin.
- To this day Lenin owes me a days worth of guide pay - Stanislaw Gasienica Byrcyn would say later. - If I had known that it was he, Europe's fate could have been very different.
Not that he would have cut or bitten through the rope or anything, but he could have figured something out - adds Kazimierz.
The TOPR phenomenon
“I voluntarily swear on my honor, as long as I am able to answer every call of the commander or his second, regardless of time of year or day, or weather. I will come where called and go into the mountains where ordered by the commander or his second to search for those lost and bring them succor.”
      Among the first that said the words of this oath created by Zaruski and sealed with a handshake were other highlander guides: Jedrzej Marusarz Jarzabek and Jakub Wawryto Krzeptowski; climbers and ski pioneers: Henryk Bednarski - a teacher, and Stanilaw Zdyb; Janusz Zulawski – the director of the Lwow radio station and later the Wilno Polish Radio, Jerzy Zulawski - writer and poet, Rafal Malczewski, Jacek's son - writer and painter. This social formula works to this day. The organization is made up of native highlanders, migrants to Zakopane and other people of various professions in love with the Tatra - doctors, artists, sportsmen, bureaucrats, journalists, pilots, scientists, priests. A book could be written about each of them. Books have been written about many of them already. The Service came into being when Zakopane was one of the main centers of literary and artistic life in a
partitioned Poland. The fate of the Service became part of our culture.
- The TOPR phenomenon is that disparate individuals, ambitious and stubborn, in the service of a common goal willingly subordinate themselves to a colleague who directs the rescue - says Michal Jagiello, a former commander and now director of the National Library in Warsaw. - Mutual trust is an absolute requirement.
      The rescuers shared the fate of the nation. 72 year old Mariusz Zaruski died in a Soviet prison. Jozef Gasienica Tomkowy was exeuted by the Germans. Bronislaw Czech refused to train the German ski jumping team and perished in Auschwitz. Henryk Bednarski wound up there for helping those fleeing over the Tatra to Hungary. Wawrzyniez Zulawski fought in the Warsaw Uprising. Jozef Krzeptowski, a Tatra courier, was exiled to Siberia when the Soviets came.
      After the war TOPR changed its name and structure, but the nature of the service remained the same. 1958 was a breakthrough year, when the Dewitz family donated their insurance payout to the Service after their daughter, a climber, perished in a plane crash in Switzerland. That money was used to buy alpine equipment and a Gramminger harness, which facilitated extracting a patient from the wall. Wiktoria and Olgierd Dewitz became honorary members of the organization. That same high honor was also bestowed that year on... the communist prime minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz (pretty much despised by most Poles – translator).
- The alpine get-up had no instructions. We learned to use it on ourselves - tells Jozef Uznanski, the rescue doyen. - Climbers ascended steeper and steeper walls around Morskie Oko. They did not believe that we could rescue them from there. They thought that we would have to call the Austrians or the Swiss. But we trained and practiced. Using the harness is team work based on mutual trust. The manufacturer guaranteed its suitability for rappels up to 300m. We would do rappels to the patient of 500m. And we could have done longer ones, working with such a team!
An lower down the overhanging face of the Kazalnica Mieguszowiecka made the biggest impression on Uznanski. He was suspended on the end of a thin steel cable and it seemed to him that he was hanging right over the middle of the Black Pond. There were sometimes problems with the swivel carabiner. Pirouettes while hanging on rope caused vertigo, always worse for the patient.
- I was being lowered from Kazalnica with Andrzej Sklodowski, a fellow rescuer, whose partner had dislocated his shoulder. While Andrzej was on my back he started vomiting. We were quite the sorry sight when we reached the bottom.
The arrival of the helicopter was the next breakthrough. The first flight to the scene of an accident in the Valley of the Five Lakes was made in 1963 by an SM-1 helicopter piloted by Tadeusz Augustyniak. Fifteen years later that Valley was the scene of the first helicopter accident - for many years a secret.
      A Mi-2 helicopter was descending to pick up an injured skier. Suddenly it disappeared in a cloud of snow, which exploded like smoke. Parts of the rotor flew out of that cloud, giving hints of the drama taking place. The helicopter tumbled down the slope. Improbably there were no injuries other than two broken ribs by one of the rescuers.
      The communist authorities of the People's Republic of Poland blacked out all news of the accident. The machine, manufactured in Poland under Soviet license, was not allowed to have accidents. An investigating commission came to the refuge in another MI-2, which was later unable to take off due to engine failure. A third MI-2 had to be called in to help. They ordered that the crashed helicopter be carted out. To facilitate that task, rescuer Mietek Burdyl chopped it into pieces with an axe.
      There were tragic days for TOPR. On August 11, 1994, a Sokol helicopter crashed in the Olczyska Valley while on a rescue. Two experienced rescuers, Stanislaw Mateja and Janusz Kubica, as well as two pilots: Janusz Rybicki and Boguslaw Arendarczyk, lost their lives.
      A day before New Years Eve in 2001, a during a night operation in the Valley of the
Five Lakes, an avalanche killed two rescuers: Marek Labunowicz, a park warden and accomplished highlander musician, and Bartek Olszanski, a student.
      In 100 years about 58 thousand people were helped by the service. Reciting the oath and shaking the commander's hand has been done by 675 rescuers. Among them were a handful of women. The first one admitted was Zofia Paryska, in 1947. A botanist and geographer, the first Polish woman on the summits of Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Monta Rosa, and the first certified female alpine guide in the world. Along with her husband Witold, the commander of the Service after WWII, they were the first couple in the organization.
- Is the work in TOPR suitable for women? - wonders Krystyna Salyga, a climbing and skiing instructor, guide, and for 13 years a member of TOPR. - Decidedly not! I remember my first evacuation from Kasprowy with an injured skier. Everyone came out to watch, to see how I would perform. Those red sweaters looking down from above... I remember a rescue on the northwest wall of Lower Rysy, retrieving a dead German... a malicious commander gave me half of an alpine carriage to carry. I had my butt kicked, carrying that carriage! I rode in the gramminger as well, but only in training.
And yet she finds her work in the Service to have been the most satisfying in her life. She doesn't take away from the achievements of women rescuers. Usually affiliated with one of the refuges they knew their terrain well, were often first on scene giving aid. For example the funny, beloved highlander Cesia Slodyczka from Dolyna Strazyskiej - the expert on Giewont's north face. Or Janina Pychowa from Kuznice - full of joy and humor, she allowed a select fiew to call her Mom. She arrived in Zakopane after a medic course in Lwow. She lived in such a spot that people often knocked on her door to report accidents on the ski slopes. She would take her sled and hike up. In 1955 she graduated from the rescue course.
- Sometimes warmth, some hot tea and a few kind words mean a lot - says Krystyna Salyga. - I was often on duty in Kuznice. For years people would come and ask: is Mom Pychowa still around? Unfortunately, no longer.
- These days TOPR is a modern organization, equipped to high European standards - says commander Jan Krzysztof. The organization performs big wall, avalanche, cave and ski rescue and has their own helicopter. With professional and volunteer rescuers.
- Mainly we deal with ski accidents - says Adam Marasek, former second-in-command, a rescuer for 37 years.
Their numbers grow along with the number of lifts and accident-causing shaped skis (thanks to those mediocre skiers think they can ski) that require strong legs. Up to 20 people a year perish in the Tatra, usually as a result of slipping on snow and ice, heart attacks, and lightning.
     Fall is the time for suicides. They come here from the entire country. Usually they jump from Nosal or Giewont.
     What would we wish for TOPR? That they continue to grow and have as little to do as possible.

Monika Rogozinska is the last woman accepted into TOPR in 1979. She took
her oath in 1982, and lived and worked in the Valley of the Five Lakes.


Translated: Marcin Krzysztof Porwit, the member of the mountain rescue service in USA