Friday, 11 August 2017

Bernadette McDonald's 'The Art of Freedom....Reviewed



The Art of Freedom- The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka .
Bernadette McDonald.


Published by Vertebrate Publishing. Under licence from Rocky Mountain Books, Canada. Price £24.



Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible
Dostoevsky

Voytek Kurtyka is one of the most outstanding climbers in the history of the sport, equally significant as a rock climber and mountaineer. One of the leaders of a Polish led revolution that redefined Himalayan climbing in the 1970’s and 1980’s. His visionary approach marked him out even from many of his own countries mountaineers, with an emphasis on alpine style ascents on the highest mountains of the world. Born in 1947, it was when his family moved to Wroclaw that he started to climb at a local outcrop, persuaded to try this by a female fellow student whilst studying electronics at the local university in 1968. He was immediately smitten, and began to visit the rocks as often as he could, much to the chagrin of his father, a writer who later became well known in Polish literary circles. 


I was fortunate to visit Poland and the Tatras in 1967, the year before Voytek started to climb, and from later experience in the following decade, climbing in Czech, Slovakia and Bulgaria (the Rila mountains), all communist countries in that era, I was to find climbing was ‘organised’ along lines that fitted into the prevailing political system, with tests and examinations, and you were only supposed to climb unsupervised when you had passed these. The Wroclaw Climbing Club was teeming with good climbers, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Bogdan Jankowski and Kryzysztof Wielicki all future stars of Himalayan exploration and Voytek soon provided an intriguing addition to that grouping, but he was from the first, a non-conformist.


He never bothered with instruction and the tests set nationally by the Polish Mountaineering Association (PZA), but by the time he finished his degree he was one of the best rock climbers in Poland, known by a soubriquet as the ‘Animal’. Why this nick name I am not sure, but in looks he was compared with the brilliant Russian dancer, Rudolf Nureyev. Having met (once) this latter person, and looking at photographs of Voytek in his early twenties, the comparison is apt for he too was lithe, of medium height and moved sinuously. I did meet him at that time but I guess he will not remember.
The Tatra Mountains are a proven training ground for Polish and Slovak mountaineers, and in some ways, they are for me reminiscent of the Cuillin Mountains in Skye, but their higher altitude and eastern continental position mean severe winter conditions. And it was in these mountains that Voytek over the next few years honed his mountaineering skills, pioneering rock routes harder than the then existing grades and winter ascents such as the Sciek(The Sewer) and the Pajaki (Spiders) on the huge Kazalnica wall. Working at a succession of jobs, climbing began to dominate his life, but he was operating historically in a tumultuous period politically and of religiosity in Poland.

The Roman Catholic religion held sway despite the Communist masters, but for the climbers, it was freedom that they sought, and for Voytek he was neither caught by religion or politics he was keenest on developing his climbing and travelling experience, despite the travails caused by money and equipment shortage. He also had literary ambitions and was moved by art and music. A most telling quote about his winter climbs in the Tatras was his attitude to bivouacs, ‘you had to learn how to live on the mountain, making comfortable and safe bivouacs. This is the knowledge we later took to the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya’.

A surprise to me is there is no coverage in the book of Voytek’s Alpine climbs. Because of his outstanding routes in the Tatras, he with some other Polish climbers, were able via PZA arrangements with the Ecole National (ENSA), to visit Chamonix. Voytek made repeats of some of the areas classics, and in 1973 a new route on the North Face of the Petit Dru with Jerzy Kukuczka and Marek Lukaszewski, and in 1975 with the same partners a new Polish Route on the Grandes Jorasses North Face.

However, prior to these Alpine routes in 1972, he had been on one of the multi member Polish expeditions to the Hindu Kush, in which ten climbers from Krakow took part. They were a feature of that countries mountaineering in that decade, by ducking and diving, with limited funds, somehow they transported themselves and their equipment by truck or by train to reach Afghanistan. On this trip Voytek made three first ascents including one of the first Alpine style climbs over 7000 metres, the North Face of Akher Chioch 7,017m with Piotr Jasinski, Marek Kowalczyk, and Jacek Rusieki; an experience that was to influence his approach to high mountains in the future. This first expedition was a happy one and all the participants returned to Poland as friends. But it’s a good job none of us know what lies ahead in our lives, for three of these close friends of Voytek’s from this trip were all to die subsequently in road traffic accidents! 

In 1974 Kurtyka took part in a repeat of the French Direct on the Troll Wall in Norway, in winter. This really was a test of endurance taking 13 days to complete. But somehow it was not what Kurtyka came to be about, neither was his participation in a large Polish winter expedition to Lhotse 8.516m in 1975. This was led by Andrzej Zawada who had the idea that Polish climbers with their winter climbing experience in the Tatras, were uniquely suited to such ascents. This was the first ever winter attempt on an 8000m peak, Voytek reached 7.800m and Zawada with Heinrich 8.250m.The following year Kurtyka was a member of another Polish expedition, this time to the North East Ridge of K2, reaching 7.900m.

Voytek Kurtyka on the Lhotse expedition:Bogdan Jankowski.
1977 was to be the year that Kurtyka began to climb with mountaineers from the West, and I had a little to do with this. Whilst I was at the BMC we had started holding invitation International meets, and one of these had been with Polish climbers. John Porter had been a volunteer helper on this gathering, and got along with this group led by Zawada famously. The PZA subsequently invited a group of British climbers to the Tatra, and then subsequently in 1977 to join one of their trips to the Hindu Kush. John Porter was up for both of these, and persuaded Alex MacIntyre to join him. The rest is history, and Kurtyka, Alex and John, climbing Alpine style made the impressive first ascent of the North-East face of Kohe Bandaka, 6.843m.

The following year Voytek, John, Alex and Krzysztof Zurek ascended the south buttress of Changabang. These two ascents, although at the time not so lauded as some others, were in retrospect game changing for they confirmed to such as Kurtyka, Kukuczka, Alex MacIntyre, Doug Scott, Rene Ghilini and others, that to tackle Himalayan peaks you do not need large parties and fixed ropes. Alex was by this date working with me at the BMC, and we had many discussions about how this climbing style might develop over ensuing years.

From that date on for two decades, Kurtyka was active at the forefront of Himalayan climbing. Dhaulagiri, Makalu, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum ll Gasherbrum l, Trango Tower, K2, Cho Oyo, Shishapangma, with some successes, and some failures. Outstanding with Kukuczkza was the first ascents of Gasherbrum ll, 8.034m by its South East ridge and Gasherbrum l, 8.080m by the South West Face, and the Broad Peak 8.051m traverse.  For me, Kurtyka’s two greatest climbs were the West Face of Gasherbrum 1V, 7.932m (The Shining Wall) with Robert Schauer in 1985, and a new route on the Trango Tower, 6.239m by its East Face in 1988 with Erhard Loretan.

I spent a week sharing a hotel room with Robert Schauer in 1986, when we were both on the jury of the Trento film festival. After which I also went rock climbing with him at Arco, and to hear first hand from him about The Shining Wall ascent was truly dramatic. This ten day epic was as close to the edge as one can get, for they ran out of food and gas, had nothing to eat or drink for two days and only just survived. It is still one of the most impressive ascents recorded in the Himalaya, and is now referred to by the pundits as ‘the climb of the century’.

There is much soul searching in this book, for Kurtyka is troubled by the many accidents that happened to his former climbing partners. Alex MacIntyre had made a big impression on him and his death on Annapurna in 1982 really hurt, as did the death of Erhard Loretan in the Swiss Alps. He became disenchanted with his most famous climbing partner Kukuczka for seeking out recognition in a ‘race’ with Messner to become the first to ascend the 14 highest peaks in the world. The more so because in this he felt that safety considerations were being ignored, resulting in the death of several of his companions. However, Kukuczka is not alive to defend himself for he too perished, on the South Face of Lhotse in 1989. The death toll amongst the leading Polish alpinists became frightening around this date, four died on the west ridge of Everest that same year.

Rather like the British earlier when Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker, Alex MacIntyre, Nick Estcourt, Roger Baxter Jones, Dougal Haston, Al Rouse, Julie Tullis, Paul Nunn all perished in the mountains. However no one ever died sharing a rope with Kurtyka, several times he turned round when he felt conditions were not safe. Like Reinhold Messner observed ‘the best climber is the oldest one’.
Kurtyka continued pioneering into 
advanced age, in 2003 he was still making new routes in summer and winter in the Tatras, and his last major Himalayan climb was the Biacherahi Central Tower, 5.700 metres in the Karakoram, a new route on its south face with Japanese climbers Taeko and Yasushi Yamanoi in 2001. He confesses that he is impressed by Japanese culture and thinking, and it seems that he does have something of a Zen like approach to life.


The book starts with Kurtyka agonising over and refusing to take part on several occasions when he is invited to receive recognition over a Piolets d'Or award, becoming ever more impatient with the organisers for inviting him. I empathised and although I have never been invited myself for any such award, and never will be I am not sure that mountaineering needs any such form of recognition. I am not against competition, in fact, I founded one of the best known athletic events in Yorkshire in 1979, the Chevin Chase, won for the last six years by one or other Olympic Triathletes, the Brownlee’s, Alistair and Johnny. But what a climber experiences in the mountains is not like kicking a ball, or running along a track, it has elements of Chan, which is actually where Zen thought comes from.


A fusion of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is beyond description and too precious to confuse with awards, however well intentioned. However ‘Art of Freedom’ ends in 2016 with Kurtyka accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, at a Piolets d'Or ceremony in La Grave, leaving the reader to ponder which road rock climbing and mountaineering will now travel down, with Olympic recognition looming and climbing imagery becoming a mainstay of consumerist advertising.


Tadek Piotrowski and Voytek Kurtyka in Camp II (7,300 metres) on the Lhotse Wall, waiting for the weather to improve. Polish autumn–winter 1975/1975 expedition. Bogdan Jankowski

The author of this biography, the award winning writer Bernadette McDonald has crafted an outstanding book about a mountaineering legend. It is a warts and all portrait of Kurtyka’s complicated personality and relationships, with partners, family, the law, risk, and an uncompromising lifestyle whilst meeting his climbing goals. She has produced a thought provoking master work. The publishers are also to be congratulated for such a well presented volume, copiously illustrated with many personal and historic photographs. 





Dennis Gray: 2017

Available Direct from Vertebrate Publishing

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Art of freedom: The life and climbs of Voytek Kurtyka..extract


Porters on the way to the Gasherbrums in the Baltoro,1983.Image-Voytek Kurtyka.
It’s hard to assess the value of finding the right partner for any particular climb. For the Shining Wall of Gasherbrum IV, Voytek chose Austrian alpinist, Robert Schauer. Although it was their only climb together, after eight days on the unclimbed West Face, high on the mountain in the midst of a crippling storm, they attained a level of communication that astounds.

On 18 July Robert and Voytek reached 7,800 metres. They had arrived at the final slabs and snowfields leading to the summit, but by afternoon it began to snow in earnest. The snow continued throughout the night,building up around their bivouac sack and threatening to push them off their airy perch. They no longer had food, and they were out of gas.


That meant they couldn’t make more water. They could barely poke their heads out of the bivouac sack because of the blowing snow. They waited all the next day for the storm to break, but it persisted. The snow piled up around them at an alarming rate. Voytek wrote: ‘Snowstorm. Jail at 7,800 metres. No food and no liquid.’ Retreat was out of the question, since they only had ten remaining pitons, not nearly enough to rappel down the face they had climbed. Their only option was to outlast the storm.


Voytek Kurtyka approaching the rock barrier on Gasherbrum I on the first day of the climb. Jerzy Kukuczka, Voytek Kurtyka collection.

Sleep-deprived, hungry, thirsty, hypoxic and stressed, they drifted into a delirious state. It was at this point, in extremity, that both Robert and Voytek sensed something – an independent spirit on the mountain that, for Robert, grew more ominous and real with each snowflake. So real that they waited expectantly for some signal or action from their invisible ‘third man.’ Robert began to blame their imaginary companion for having slowed them down on the face. As avalanches surged over them, nudging them, almost burying them, Robert became convinced that the third man was trying to push him off the ledge into oblivion.

It’s not unusual for an invisible person to appear in dire circumstances such as these, but in most cases the presence is helpful, giving suggestions and support and companionship. When Stephen Venables was descending Everest after having climbed the Kangshung Face, he was forced to bivouac not far below the summit. He wasn’t alone, however. An imaginary old man kept him company throughout the night and on his exhausting descent the next day. Once Stephen and the old man reached the South Summit, they were met by an imaginary (and long-dead) Eric Shipton, who helped by warming Stephen’s hands. There are countless high-altitude examples of these wonderfully kind, unexplainable creatures, yet Robert’s third man was strangely malevolent.


Voytek Kurtyka on the summit of Gasherbrum II East, 1983. Jerry Kukuczka.

Voytek, while acutely aware of their new partner, was preoccupied with carrying out odd experiments, such as pinching his thigh and wondering if the pain would disappear when he neared death. He relished the pain, for it confirmed that he was still alive. He was already imagining the distinct possibility of turning into a lifeless block of ice on the narrowing ledge slowly disappearing under drifts of snow.

Occasionally they would burrow out from one end of their bivouac sack to remove enough snow to avoid suffocation. As they shivered on their ledge, they considered their options. Again, thoughts of retreat were discussed then quickly abandoned. Going up was also out of the question in this storm. Waiting – the most agonising option of all – remained the only feasible choice. Cold and hungry and so dreadfully thirsty, they waited. From time to time they reassured each other with little niceties. ‘Are you feeling okay, Robert?’ ‘Oh, yes, I’m feeling fine.’ Robert described it as a ‘fragile mood of hope.’ Voytek recalled that he had never had so much ‘free time’ on a climb. ‘We had two nights and a day up there. We just sat. We had a stove, but the gas was finished, so we had nothing to do but think.’


Time became warped, stretching and contracting at will. One hour was the same as one day. The darkness pushed down on them, coating their heaving lungs. It felt aggressive, as if it would swallow them. Voytek’s thoughts drifted into dangerous territory. Death was something he had often mused about in the past, and now it seemed inevitable and barely worth worrying about. What was most important to him was to be fully aware of the experience. Being completely conscious of the process of dying, particularly in this remote and savage place, would be interesting.
Voytek Kurtyka and Jerzy Kukuczka arrive in base camp after having completed a new route on Gasherbrum I in 1983. Voytek Kurtyka collection.
As he pondered his own demise, Voytek became concerned about Robert. Was he also aware of how close they were to death in this terrible place, this wonderful place? It became incredibly important to him that Robert understand what was happening – that they share this almost sacred experience. But it was a delicate topic, and Voytek struggled with his decision to speak with Robert. Finally, he could no longer hold back. He began, his voice raspy with cold and fatigue, ‘Robert, I…I…I’d like to…’ Robert interrupted quietly but firmly in a painful whisper, ‘I know what you’re thinking. I’m ready. I’m prepared for this. Don’t worry.’

Bernadette McDonald

The Art of Freedom is available from Vertebrate Publishing