Kekoo Naoroji Award

On February 16, 2013, I was honored to be presented the Kekoo Naoroji Award for mountain literature at the Himalayan Club in Mumbai, India. Instead of a traditional introduction, award sponsor Nadir Godrej created a poem for the event. I’ve never had an intro like this and probably never will again! Thank you to the Himalayan Club and the Godrej family for the award, and thank you Nadir for the lovely poem. Enjoy….

Kekoo Naoroji Award 2013

By Nadir Godrej


I think the planning’s somewhat flawed

For on the day of this award

All of us will find it hard

To proceed without Rishad.

Rishad has flown from the nation

On a rather long migration.

Let him indulge in raptor rapture

Since his time slot we couldn’t capture.

Some think it an old fashioned notion

Espousing filial devotion.

One day while going through his stocks

Rishad found a treasure box

Of his dad’s photographs and notes

And as a loving son who dotes

On Dad, what does he do but sets

His opus, “Himalayan Vignettes”,

Replete with tales of mountain sallies

And photographs of peaks and valleys

In Sikkim, when few ventured there.

And I think it only fair

That we should commemorate

His contribution which was so great.

The Himalayas had to be the nub

So Godrej and the Himalayan Club

Instituted a book award

And the scope is rather broad.

The Himalayas must be a part

But they’re relaxed about where to start.

With Karakoram and Hindu Kush

And neighboring Tibet at a push.

And mountaineering’s a major theme.

The environment’s part of the scheme.

Natural history, exploration

And culture in their estimation

Are worthy themes for this award.

All past winners we should applaud

Including of course Bernadette

And I for one would willingly bet

That thanks to her exciting writing

The Himalayan Club will be inviting

Ms. McDonald again and again.

And everything that she does pen

Is worth a read and wins a prize

And she is gracious and she is wise.

And mountaineering’s been her theme

Thought it wasn’t part of any scheme.

For chamber music, she was trained

But today we won’t be entertained

By her melodies but by her prose

And this is how the story goes.

Her studies lead Bernadette to enter

The artistic shrine that is Banff Centre.

This glorious place where art meets mountain

Proved to be a prolific fountain.

The Rocky Mountains were inviting

Rock climbing proved to be exciting.

The first few times, she says she cried

But Bernadette still tried and tried.

And after just a little time

She learned how to trek and climb.

Like Kekoo, Bernadette did veer

From musician to mountaineer

And very soon she had the vision

To start the mountain culture division

She learned the craft, she had the art

And all of this played a part

In carrying Bernadette so far

As a mountain writing star.

And today we’ll take a look

At her, “Freedom Climbers” book.

The title is both crisp and short

With much meaning it is wrought.

Freedom for Poland, freedom from strife.

Climbing mountains, climbing in life.

The cast has many a mountaineer

And support from all their near and dear.

The mountaineers raise the bar

But their nation is the real star.

Now natural borders make a nation

In geographers’ estimation.

Poland happened to be stuck

On a vast plain without much luck.

There were large neighbors West and East

Repeatedly they chose to feast

On this somewhat pesky nation

They considered beneath their station.

Twice Poland totally disappeared

In ‘45, though it reappeared

The Soviet Union kept its grip

And Poland went on a terrible trip.

But the Polish people weren’t subdued.

In fact the people were imbued

With revolutionary fervor

They refused the role of server.

They learned how to pretend to play

The official game and have their way.

Now alpinism fit the bill.

It did require strength and skill

But it could garner some support

And a little aid could be sought.

In the Tatras they could start

But later they could all depart

To higher mountains out of sight

And escape the Polish plight.

They supplemented meager aid

With proceeds from private trade.

Some might want to call it smuggling

But they preferred it to just struggling.

For every Pole life was tough

And while mountaineering’s very rough

The Poles all saw it differently

It was their way to be quite free.

Adversity gave them the drive,

Adversity pushed them to strive.

But Tatras training taught technique

That could be used on a higher peak

And winter climbing was a skill

That gave the Poles a special thrill.

Zawada was the mountaineer

Called winter climbing’s pioneer.

And Wanda went where women rarely did

For all 8000ers she made a bid.

Though eight were in her bag she still tried

And on Kangchenjunga she died.

Carsolio tried to make her descend

But obstinacy caused her end.

Jurek’s claim to fame was strength

And he could go to any length.

Though Reinhold Messner won the race

Jurek got there at a slower pace.

All 8000ers were done

Though oxygen was used on one.

Now Voytek chose the beautiful line

Good aesthetics were his sign.

Krzysztof was known for his speed.

For years the Poles were in the lead.

For twenty years they dominated

And Bernadette has collated

Every detail of their lives

And of their husbands and their wives.

We’ve learned adversity is fine

If we rise up and learn to shine.

This book is sure to inspire

All of us to climb much higher.

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January 29, 2013

It has been an amazing year, thanks to a bunch of Polish climbers! I’ve been on the road for most of 2012 promoting my book Freedom Climbers: Canada, the U.S., England, three times to Poland, and in two weeks – India. The trip to India isn’t just book promotion, but also to accept the Himalayan Club’s Kekoo Naoroji Award for mountaineering literature. This will be the fourth award for the book: Banff mountain Book Festival Grand Prize, Boardman Tasker Prize and American Alpine Club literature award. The book has now been published in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Poland and Italy. German, French and Spanish editions will be out later this year. As I said – a big year. A huge thank you to everyone who has made it so special, particularly the Polish climbers whose stories I was honored to tell.

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January 12, 2012

The ride continues with Freedom Climbers. Just a couple of weeks after the Grand Prize was announced in Banff, it won the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, announced at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival in the U.K. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there to pick up the prize in person, due to shoulder surgery three days before.

And since that time, two more publishers have picked up the book: Vertebrate in the U.K. and AS Verlag in Switzerland for a German-language edition of the book. Others are in the works.

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October 25, 2011

It has been an exciting couple of months. My new book, Freedom Climbers, has won the Grand Prize at the 2011 Banff Mountain Book Festival. The award was announced on October 25, 2011 and will be presented on November 3, 2011 at 5 p.m. at The Banff Centre.

 It has also been short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, a UK-based prize that honors the memory of Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker. The winner will be announced on November 18, 2011 in Kendal, England.

 A couple of foreign publishers have also picked it up. It will be published in Polish by Agora, a Warsaw-based publisher. The release date is December 2, 2011. And it will be published in Italian by Versante Sud, to be released in spring of 2012.

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May 26, 2011 Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Two years have almost passed since I began working on my book about the golden age of Polish Himalayan climbing. About a month ago my publisher Rocky Mountain Books and I signed off on the final manuscript, the photos, the cover design and all the other last-minute decisions. We agreed on the title, “Freedom Climbers”, since it encapsulates the context within which this remarkable group of climbers thrived. Here is what my publisher has written on their online catalogue about the book…

 “Between 1980 and 1989, Polish climbers were giant, worldwide leaders as high-altitude climbers, especially in the Himalayas. This volume documents those charismatic leaders and their iconic climbs in a defining chapter of Himalayan climbing history.”

—Reinhold Messner, world-renowned climber, explorer and author of 40 books on mountaineering, including The Naked Mountain, Free Spirit: A Climber’s Life and The Second Death of George Mallory

Renowned author Bernadette McDonald weaves a passionate and literary tale of adventure, politics, suffering, death and—ultimately—inspiration. Freedom Climbers tells the story of a group of extraordinary Polish adventurers who emerged from under the blanket of oppression following the Second World War to become the world’s leading Himalayan climbers. Although they lived in a dreary, war-ravaged landscape, with seemingly no hope of creating a meaningful life, these curious, motivated and skilled mountaineers created their own free-market economy under the very noses of their Communist bosses and climbed their way to liberation. 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—to Alaska, South America and Europe, but mostly to the highest and most inspiring mountains of the world. To this end, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nepal became their second homes as they evolved into the toughest group of Himalayan climbers the world has ever known.

“Freedom Climbers” will be available in September of this year and I will be giving a lecture about the book at the Banff Mountain Book Festival in early November. To see the cover, go to

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Blog Entry November 28, 2010

Blog Entry November 28, 2010            Banff, Alberta

I guess five months is a bit long between blog entries. I promise to do better! The past five months have been busy, and that’s my excuse.

In the last blog entry I referred briefly to my husband’s back surgery. Thankfully, it went well and he has recovered completely. But the first few weeks were crazy as it was a very busy time down on the ‘farm’ in B.C. It was my first experience being ‘supervised’ by Alan at everything from weeding to watering to ‘monitoring’ the marmot invasion. We survived.

One of the highlights from this past summer was attending the “Charliefest” in Colorado to celebrate the illustrious life of Charlie Houston. Organized by his family, it was a wonderful gathering of his extended family and friends from around the world. I had interviewed many of them while writing Brotherhood of the Rope and enjoyed reconnecting with them at this bittersweet event. I found it amazing to learn just how many people Charlie influenced and inspired throughout his long, productive life. Part of the fun was spending several days wandering in the hills around Estes Park with Charlie and Kathy Hornbein.

September and part of October were taken up with a trip to India. I was an invited lecturer at the Mussoorie Mountain Writers’ Festival, along with friends such as Jim Curran, Kate Harris, Harish Kapadia and George Schaller. The three-day event was organized by Stephen Alter and took place at the famous Woodstock School overlooking the hill station. I did two more lectures, one at the Indian Mountaineering Federation in Delhi and the other in Mumbai for the Himalayan Club.

Prior to the work part of the trip, I joined Harish Kapadia, Kate Harris and Gerald and Louise Wilson for some trekking up in the Spiti region of India. We chose Spiti because of the late monsoon that was devastating much of Northern India. Spiti is a high alpine desert and, as such, seemed to be a logical choice. It didn’t turn out that way. The rains and flooding followed us over the Rohtang Pass from Manali into Spiti and continued to dog us as we tried unsuccessfully to get up various valleys and canyons. Landslides, rockslides, swollen rivers, closed roads, broken bridges. We saw it all. Thankfully, the weather eventually cleared and the views of the snow-blanketed peaks of Spiti were breathtaking.

While we were battling the elements in Spiti, the Italian edition of my biography of Tomaž Humar won its second Italian literary prize from the LeggiMontagna organization. I was too late to go over to Italy to accept it, but my publisher, Versante Sud, did the honours for me. Thank you Italy! And thank you Antonella Cicogna for your wonderful translation.

In November I had the chance to meet a very bright class of students at Hamilton College in New York State. Maurice Isserman, co-author of Fallen Giants, invited me to lecture to his mountain writing class. Their assigned reading for the semester was Brotherhood of the Rope and, by the time I arrived, they had read it, digested it, and were fully prepared to pepper me with good, and sometimes difficult, questions. I also gave a lecture called “Writing a Life: Himalayan Heroes”, which chronicles my experiences of writing the biographies of Elizabeth Hawley, Charlie Houston and Tomaž Humar – a behind the scenes look at what is involved in getting beyond the public faces of these characters.

One last quick trip in November – this one to Washington, where I participated in the annual meeting of the Expeditions Council at National Geographic. I’m on the advisory committee for the Council, so we met to discuss grant applications and meet with the various media heads at National Geographic. With colleagues like Gordon Wiltsie, Virginia Morell, Rick Ridgeway and others, those gatherings are always interesting, fun and stimulating.

Throughout this somewhat hectic year, I’ve been working hard on a writing project. The working title is Freedom Climbers and it’s about the golden age of Polish Himalayan climbing – the years dominated by Jerzy Kukuczka, Voytek Kurtyka, Wanda Rutkiewicz and others. It’s been my most interesting and challenging writing project yet because, as I researched the stories, I realized that the social, economic and political context was terribly important and had to be incorporated in a fundamental way. The manuscript is in, and now it’s just a matter of collecting and sifting through hundreds of wonderful images for the final cut. If all goes well, it should be published in mid-2011.

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 Blog Entry June 25, 2010       Banff, Alberta

A few weeks ago I was made an offer I simply could not refuse – to interview one of my literary heroes on stage. Pico Iyer was in Banff, and the only possible date for the interview was May 19. The offer came to me via email while I was still in Europe. My first reaction was to say no, because of my schedule, and the fact that I was nursing my husband after his recent back surgery. But we figured it out and I was soon emailing back and forth with Pico about possible topics, questions and format. I knew immediately that this was going to be an enjoyable experience.

Pico Iyer has spent his life as a writer, exploring the world. Born in India, raised in California, and educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard, he has lived in many parts of the world and has made a habit of leaving the main paths to meet with the thinkers, the spiritual guides, and artists found in the forgotten corners.

His essays, reviews, and other writings have appeared in Time, Conde Nast Traveler, Harper’s, the New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Author of seven works of nonfiction and two novels, he began his literary journey with Video Night in Kathmandu and other Reports from the Not-So-Far East.

Years before, I had devoured his early works, including Video Night in Kathmandu, and I expected an angry young man, world-weary from his travels and maybe even a bit cynical about the things he had seen and experienced. I was wrong. Perhaps it is all the time he has spent in the company of the Dalai Lama, or maybe he never was the cynical observer I expected, but what I learned about Pico Iyer is that he is thoughtful, tolerant, always curious and kind.

We covered a wide range of topics in the interview – everything from his early travels to his 30-year friendship with the Dalai Lama. He spoke about the joy of traveling:  The reason I love travel is not just because it transports you in every sense, but because it confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home… and forces me to reconsider my assumptions and the things I took for granted. It sends me back a different person.

He clarified his views on loneliness and solitude, his perception of fellow travelers seeking some kind of inner peace, and he described the amazing experience of living for two weeks in the Los Angeles airport! He explained his writing process, from the frenetic note-taking to the endless editing.

He spoke at length about his relationship with the Dalai Lama, and shared with the audience what he had learned, not just by His Holiness’ words, but by watching his reaction to people and situations.

Pico has spent a lot of time living in monasteries, and his interest in monastic life was illustrated again by his fascination with Leonard Cohen, a man he has observed, befriended and written about.

This was an amazing opportunity to interact with one of the most revered and respected travel writers alive today, a man who refers to himself as a global village on two legs.

Blog Entry May 5, 2010           Trento, Italy

I arrived in Trento, Italy in the beautiful Trentino region, after catching a train in Chambery, France. My reason for coming to this festival town was twofold. May is the time of the annual Trento Mountain Film Festival, an event I have attended probably 20 times in my former role as Director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Ten years ago we started an organization called the International Alliance for Mountain Film and, as a founding member, I still get invited to the Alliance meetings. This year was the 10th anniversary of the Alliance, so I decided to come along and see my former colleagues from festivals around the world.

The second reason was a surprise – a pleasant one, it turned out. A couple of weeks before coming to Trento I learned that the Italian edition of my biography of Tomaž Humar, published by Versante Sud, had been chosen as a finalist for the ITAS prize for mountain literature. Just days before the festival, I learned that it had won the ITAS prize and would be presented at the beautiful Buonconsiglio Castle in Trento. All those years of attending the Trento festival, I had attended the ITAS prize ceremonies with interest, following the writing careers of friends and acquaintances. It never occurred to me that I would ever be there as a writer – and accepting a prize.

Last night was the ceremony, and it was just as I remembered it. Very formal. Lots of officials. Long speeches. Stunning location. Lovely champagne and Teraldego wine at the reception and a gorgeous crystal sculpture for the prize (and some euros). It was the first time to meet my publisher, Matteo Maraone, and to see my friend and translator, Antonella Cicogna. We celebrated together and vowed to collaborate again.

 Blog Entry May 1, 2010           Orpierre, France

Despite being delayed by four days due to volcanic ash, I finally secured a flight out of Calgary to Frankfurt and Lyon on the 23rd of April. I met Anne Ryall at the Lyon airport where we packed up our Twingo and headed south, looking for sunshine and perfect limestone.

We found both. Ten days of blue skies had us climbing nonstop, constantly afraid the weather pattern would change for the worse. We found multi-pitch climbs at Buis les baronnies, the Dentelles de montmirail and Orpierre and single-pitch beauties at a few other, much smaller crags nearby. The featured gray limestone and that unmistakable aroma of the Mediterranean brush was a heady combination.

But it wasn’t just a climbing holiday. We wandered through some spectacularly perched villages in this Northern Rhone region and sampled lovely Gigondas and Ventoux wines. Since we had access to a kitchen, we shopped at the local markets and whipped up some very yummy meals.

It’s been several years since I’ve climbed in the Med, and I will not let as much time pass again until I return.

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