Politics and Tragedy in the Mountains

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We've chosen the following memory for this series, not just because it's a dramatic tale of the dangers of the mountains - taking place in the Krkonose Mountains that straddle the Czech-Polish border - but also because of the insight the story gives into the way that politics can permeate all aspects of our lives. Herbert Berger from the mountain rescue service in Pec pod Snezkou tells us about the worst avalanche in Krkonose in living memory.

We've chosen the following memory for this series, not just because it's a dramatic tale of the dangers of the mountains - taking place in the Krkonose Mountains that straddle the Czech-Polish border - but also because of the insight the story gives into the way that politics can permeate all aspects of our lives. Herbert Berger from the mountain rescue service in Pec pod Snezkou tells us about the worst avalanche in Krkonose in living memory. The tragedy occurred in March 1968, coinciding with the period of reforms known as the Prague Spring, when reformers in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubcek, were trying to introduce "socialism with a human face". But as we hear in the following account, the hardline rulers in neighbouring Poland were so suspicious of reformist Czechoslovakia, that even mountain rescue became a political issue. Here Herbert Berger remembers the 1968 mountain tragedy.

"I've lived through a lot of avalanches, but the worst I can remember was in 1968 on the Polish side of Krkonose. A group of hikers left Karpacz and walked up. There was a strong, warm wind and because of the risk of avalanches there was a ban on hiking. It was an international group - Russians, Poles and East Germans - they ignored the ban and took the path up. So far so good, but at the top the paths divide - one goes towards the cable car - but the Poles would have fined them for being there in the first place, so they went the other way, across the snowfield, towards the chalet Akademiczna Strzecha. They got about half way along, when they were suddenly swept down the mountainside by an avalanche. The Polish rescue services didn't call us at the time. Remember, it was 1968 and the Czechs were considered to be the ones who didn't want to live under socialism and wanted to go with Dubcek - so they simply didn't call us. The head of our rescue service said: "Let's wait until 4 o'clock, and then we'll go up there whatever they say." So that's what we did. At first they didn't even want to let us cross the border on the mountain ridge, but then... well... we already knew some of the border guards, and in the end common sense and basic humanity won the day. Eventually some 52 of us turned up, and by around 9 that evening we found about eight bodies. The final death toll was 16 or 17. At two in the morning we gave up. It was clear that we wouldn't find anyone more alive."