The Tatra Mountains climber (‘taternik’), alpinist, and polar explorer. Founder of the Faculty of Biochemistry at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.
– I do not like to walk in someone else’s footsteps…, said Prof. Dr. Ryszard W. Schramm. And indeed, he set his own.
He was born on 8 June 1920 in Poznan. His father, after whom he got his middle name, Wiktor, was then the head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Poznan, an assistant professor and soon after became a professor. His grandfather Julian, a chemist and associate professor at the University of Lvov, was a full professor at the Jagiellonian University.
He considered Poznan’s Sołacz, a ‘professorial’ villa district, as ‘home, his real home’, as well as Olchowa, a small village in the Eastern Carpathians, a few kilometres from Zagórze and Lesko, in a manor where his grandfather lived after marriage and where his father was born. The Schramms spent all their holidays in Olchowa, including those in 1939, from which they did not manage to return to Poznan. Ryszard by then completed high school (I Liceum Ogólnokształcące im. Karola Marcinkowskiego) and his second year of chemistry at the University of Poznan.
The family survived the war in Olchowa. In 1944, Ryszard joined the underground army, 23rd Division of the Polish Home Army ‘South’, as a senior shooter, alias ‘Józwa’.
In November 1944, the communist authorities ordered the owners of the manor to leave their home. They managed to load just one cart. Everything else, including a valuable library and the natural and ethnographic collections of Professor Wiktor Schramm (researcher of this region), were lost. The manor was looted and burned down in 1946. What survived was a brick chapel, from 1926, with paintings by Helena Schramm, Ryszard’s aunt, along with the family epitaphs.
Ryszard W. Schramm returned to Poznan and continued his studies in chemistry. In 1947, he obtained a MA and, in 1949, received his PhD; in 1952, he obtained an additional Master’s in biology. After a few years as assistant professor at the Chemistry Department, he worked (since 1950) at the newly established Medical Academy in Poznan. From 1953 to 1994, he progressed through the successive levels of his university career to the full professorship. In the years 1966-1969, he held the position of acting dean.
During his time at the University of Poznan, he initiated and developed – from the didactic and organizational side – the Biochemistry Department. From just a two-person department, it grew into what is now the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology with several dozen people employed.
Before the outbreak of the war, in the summer of 1939, he qualified from the School of the Polish High-Mountain Club of the Polish Tatra Society (Szkoła Taternicka Klubu Wysokogórskiego Polskiego Towarzystwa Tatrzańskiego), ran by the outstanding Polish climber, Stanisław Motyka. Following the war, he returned to the Tatra Mountains and, starting in 1946, he managed to accomplish a number of the new summer and winter passes. And in 1954 and 1955, he participated in the so-called ‘alpiniada’ (the Alpine mountaineering winter team ‘manoeuvres’ in the Tatras, preparing for expeditions). From 3 to 13 September, 1955, he was part of a five-member team that made the first passage along the entire ridge of the Tatra Mountains. He was a born organiser. On his initiative, the Poznan-Pomerania Chapter of the High-Mountain Club was established, of which he became the first president in 1950. He edited and published the Oscypek magazine between 1952 and 1954. It was to replace the non-appearing – in the Stalinist period – Taternik, the oldest Polish magazine dedicated to alpinism. He was involved in the activities of the Polish Photographers Association and participated in several exhibitions, while continuing to publish.
After the High-Mountain Club was reactivated in December 1956, he became a member of the General Board: 1956-1961, 1965-1967, and its Vice-President (1958-1959), and, in 1956-1974, he became the head of the Editorial Board of Taternik.
– This Committee never came together – recalled the magazine’s longtime editor, Józef Nyka. – Ryszard W. Schramm made up for the entire Committee, supporting me with his vast knowledge and experience which he gained from Oscypek and Taternik.
In 1957, he participated in the trip of the Mountain Club to the Alps. He led one of two Polish climbing camps in the Chamonix area. And led the rescue operations after the disappearance of Stanisław Groński and two Yugoslav mountaineers, and after the fatal accident of Wawrzyniec Żuławski. Żuławski, President of the High-Mountain Club, died in an avalanche during the rescue operation – the search for Groński in the Mont Blanc massif. The death of the prestigious Polish climbers had a powerful effect on the Taternic community. And this drew attention to Schramm, especially when he forbade to dig out the body of Żuławski from the ice gap.
‘Enough of these deaths!’ – he said.
‘You do not abandon your teammate, even if he is a block of ice’ – Żuławski argued while still alive. Tragic events sparked once again the old debate about the line between sacrifice and responsibility.
On 16 August 1960, Ryszard W. Schramm suffered an accident while climbing Gerlach in the Tatras. After the accident, he was left with an extensive hole in his forehead.
He began his expeditions on the occasion of the Third International Geophysical Year in 1958. During his first polar expedition, he followed a mountaineering program for the Mountain Club: reconnaissance of climbing goals for future expeditions to Spitsbergen. Similar exploratory goals took him to other parts of the world. He conquered virgin summits, such as Kuh-e Nadir Shah (6,848m above sea level) in the Afghan Hindu Kush in 1962, or a mountain called Poznan in Ruwenzori in 1974. Moreover, he set out new tracks, like these, for example, during a winter expedition to the high Atlas in Morocco (1969).
The 1975 expedition to the Badachshan Mountains in northern Afghanistan was a particular feat. This was a region poorly charted and completely unexplored. A report from the expedition, with carefully drawn maps, was published in the The Himalayan Journal and Afghanistan Journal, and drew the attention of the Explorers Club. Ryszard W. Schramm was invited to the Club. In 1979, he became its Member Correspondent. This category released the holder from paying dues – a privilege, which was granted to Schramm, when he admitted with embarrassment, that the annual dues, amounting to 50 USD, was equal to 1,5 months of his university salary.
In the years to follow, he gradually introduced newly distinguished Polish explorers to the Club. This attempt of creating the Polish Chapter of The Explorers Club, however, turned out unsuccessful. The obstacle was the level of annual dues that the citizens of the then Communist Poland could not sustain. This problem began to diminish only in the 1990s, after the fall of Communism.
Political barriers – e.g. ‘communist’ passports issued by the then Poland – doomed Schramm’s exploration projects, such as the first expedition to the Andes after World War II in 1959, or the expedition to Greenland in 1977. The Communist revolt in Afghanistan also ruined plans for the 1979 expedition to the massive Kohe Khushdara.
Spitsbergen was a corner of the Earth, where Ryszard W. Schramm liked mostly to climb, besides the Tatras. After his expedition in 1958, he returned there six times. He was accompanied on many of his expeditions by his son, Tomasz.
– My father’s idea that I participate in the expedition to Spitsbergen in 1973, was a complete surprise. Father’s proposition was the realization of old dreams, an honour, but also a challenge – says Tomasz.
Father and son formed a complementary tandem.
In 1965 and 1977, Ryszard W. Schramm led an expedition into as yet little explored mountains of Land of Wedel Jarlsberg (later known as the Torrell Land) and Atomfjella. This led to numerous first ascents in different mountains around the world. Ryszard W. Schramm’s explorations resulted in 34 first ascents of various world peaks, ensuring his first place among the Poles. In 1973, he made the initial passage along the northwest part of the island.
In 1980 and 1983, he managed (in two stages) his major expedition project, the accomplishment of an old idea of Stanisław Siedlecki, i.e. travel all the way around Spitsbergen on small deckless boats. Siedlecki participated in the first part of the voyage, however unfinished it due to numerous difficulties, battling heavy weather conditions at sea and on land. In all, the cruise lasted four months. Its sea route was more than 2,800 km, in addition, the participants, mostly in small groups, covered several hundred kilometres by land. In 1983, they reached 81 º N – north of the Sjuöyane archipelago.
Navigating around Spitsbergen was quite a feat. This was the first such cruise and probably the only one. It is unlikely to be repeated in the same fashion, however, this was the only way for the Polish explorers at that time. Shabby boats, with engines less than 20 hp, unsuited to saltwater conditions, food in the form of preserved meat, grains and pasta, powdered soups, woollen jerseys, and no radio communication. These varied significantly from world standards at the time.
– It was one of the most romantic, imaginative, truly great expeditions, in a style reminiscent of the heroic era of nineteenth-century polar exploration – says Maciej Kuczyński, polar explorer, speleologist, long-time President of the Polish Branch of The Explorers Club.
– During the last voyage of Ryszard W. Schramm to Spitsbergen, at the age of 72, he travelled across the island with his son Tomasz, covering some 250 km. After reaching Longyearbyen in August 1992, the Professor was quite discontent with a heading in the local Norwegian newspaper: ‘The old man from Poland crosses the glaciers’– recalls Jan Marcin Węsławski.
In 1994, he also visited Bear Island.
Spitsbergen’s experience made Ryszard W. Schramm one of the leading figures of the emerging and developing Polish polar milieu, which in 1974 was organized into the Polar Club at the Polish Geographical Society. From the beginning, he was involved in its activities, and from 1982 to 1986, he was the second president, after Professor Alfred Jahnie.
Jan Marcin Węsławski called him the ‘last polar gentleman’.
– The polar gentleman was someone who treated expeditions as a masculine, fair undertaking, and a way of overcoming his own weaknesses. It was good to support scientific research, and necessary to have knowledge in many fields of natural sciences in order to be a partner for the professionals taking part in the expedition. The gentleman who was a box-carrying, rolling barrels, fighting in a storm to rescue a drowning cargo, who never spared himself in the harshest of conditions. This is how I remember Professor’s polar expeditions: in a thick, self-made sweater, in knee-high trousers, in carefully preserved leather shoes. Polite, concrete, always with a ready-made action plan. No gore-tex, plastics or improvisation.
– As a leader, Ryszard was open and friendly – says Mirosław Kuraś. – Even though he led the excursions with an iron fist, and he always had the last word, he would carefully listen to each one of us before making the final decision, and would often ask directly for our opinion.
Ryszard W. Schramm published over 100 scientific works. Almost three times longer is the list of publications relating to his numerous passions. Part of them consists of reports and small press notes, but also texts that he contributed to Oscypek: comprehensive and thoroughly researched papers relating to his expeditions, the history of mountaineering and polar exploration. His greatest achievement in this field is the two-volume Dwa długie dni (Two long days), Poznań 1996, describing voyage around Spitsbergen, the preparations for the trip, including digressions about the nature of the polar regions and the history of their exploration. He intended to write some books on his mountains activity, but managed to prepare only one: Życiorys tatrzański (My Tatra life-story) (Poronin, 1995), containing a part of his previous Tatra stories. Being dedicated to his friendship, he edited and privately published Pamiątkową księgę przyjaźni (Commemorative book of friendship) on the 80th anniversary of Stanisław Siedlecki (1992).
In the final years of his life, Ryszard W. Schramm began to return to his ‘little homeland’ in Lesko. The distance he maintained for decades stemmed from a painful sense of loss in 1944. The tale Na wschód od Osławy (Towards East of Osława), which he wrote back in the 1950s, submitted in 1977 – to the Ziemia rodzinna Grzegorza z Sanoka w literaturze (The homeland of Grzegorz of Sanok in literature) competition – won first prize. This text was paired with the prose of Władysław Odojewski, Stanisław Vincenz and Jerzy Stempowski. His interest in family history led to detailed research, which found its expression in the book Prywatna podróż pamięci (The private journey of memory), Olszanica 2003. He also wrote poetry.
Professor Ryszard W. Schramm died in Poznan on December 8, 2007.
Okupnik M., dir. Nie lubię chodzić po cudzych śladach… O życiu i dziełach Ryszarda W. Schramma [“I do not like to walk in the footsteps of others...” The life and works of Ryszard W. Schramm], Poznań 2009
Schramm R.W., Życiorys tatrzański [My Tatra life-story], Poronin1995
Schramm R.W., Dwa długie dni [Two long days], Poznań 1996
Schramm R.W., Prywatna podróż pamięci [The private journey of memory], Olszanica 2003.