The Art of Freedom- The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka .
Published by Vertebrate Publishing. Under licence from Rocky Mountain Books, Canada. Price £24.
Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible
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 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