Friday 25 August 2017

The Survivor's Tale

Life in the military during the 1960’s was full of ups and downs. Depending on how you looked at your lot in life-glass half empty or half full- and of course, what you could get away with. For me and my four climbing and drinking friends (Chalky, Pete, Geordie and Sam), our glass was always half full, for no other reason, that we found time to indulge ourselves in our three passions – climbing, alcohol and climbing and not necessarily in that order. Being a part of NATO Search and Rescue Team stationed at RAF Bruggen in Germany in the early 1960’s, when life was both exciting and frightening.

Exciting because we were young, naive, energetic, full of life, carried a couldn’t care less attitude on our shoulders and yes, we enjoyed the freedom climbing gave us despite wearing uniforms and being subjected to banal orders, given by newly commissioned officers, fresh out of RAF Cranwell training school who thought, no believed, that as they walked up to the summit of Snowdon one summer, they were experienced and competent climbers/mountaineers! 

The five of us became good friends when we found ourselves, independently volunteering for a rescue mission to the Monte Rosa region within three weeks of being posted to the station. We found ourselves in the same search group, which entailed climbing several high cols, across two glaciers and traversing one long pinnacle ridge, and as we climbed as if we had been doing it for ever, we formed a bond which was cemented through our passion for climbing and alcohol.

However, such things never last. Within two years of being together, Chalky was killed whilst soloing on the Dorset cliffs in March 1964 when he went on a rare home-leave; Pete was posted to Aden a year earlier at the start of the troubles (1963), and on his first day off, he went into a local bar where a young lad came in and threw a grenade in his lap, and Geordie was killed on a rescue mission in the Alps when he was assigned to an international rescue group, which was the first (and last) time the five of us were not in the same mountain rescue group.

Only Sam and I remained out of the small merry band of climbers and we climbed together all the time, sometimes using a rope, and other times climbing unroped. It depended on how we felt at the time. Either way, we were both aware of our mortality given what had happened to our friends.

In July 1964, we had 3 weeks leave coming up, so we made plans to go to the Picos De Europa to try a new route on the South Face of El Naranjo, but a few days before setting off, I was sent to Berlin for a week. Sam being Sam, decided to go by himself and play around on the rocks until I joined him later.

South Face of El Naranjo
However, a day before I was to fly back to RAF Bruggen and then on to the Pyrenees, I was told I had to fly to RAF Laarbruch for another two weeks, so any chance of joining Sam was out the window.When he rang me later, he was disappointed to hear that I would not be joining him, so he said he would find a climbing partner from a group of local climbers who were in the area. A week passed and on the Friday night, I had confusing dreams which to some degree, disturbed me when I woke and recollected some of the images I envisioned. One being of a climbing helmet with a hole in the top and the words Gibanna written on the side in yellow paint.

On the Saturday, Sam rang to say he had found a local climbing partner and they had already completed some climbs together, and had made plans to climb a new route on the East Face of El Neveron de Urriellu on the Sunday. Just as the phone call pips went, I heard him say, his climbing partner was called Hośe Gibanna. The word Gibanna hit the pit of my stomach like a sledge hammer. Blood sank to my feet leaving me light headed. I shouted incoherently to Sam not to go climbing but to return so we could have some beer and talk about another expedition to the Alps or even the Himalaya. But Sam was like a kid on Christmas morning who just found out he had a room full of presents. Then the phone went dead.

Two days later, I was told to report to the duty officer in the guardhouse, where I was told that I had to go to Rhinedalen to identify Sam’s body as it had been flown back from Spain. Sam was an orphan and had no other relatives, and unbeknown to me, he had put me down as his next of kin. It appears that he was belaying Hośe on the third pitch when Hośe dislodged a stone, which plummeted down in accordance with Newton’s law and lodged in Sam’s head after penetrating the spare climbing helmet he borrowed from Hośe, as his was well past its use by date.

Sam was buried in a Military cemetery in Germany with just a few friends around. For the next few weeks, I felt emotionally empty. All my climbing partners were gone within a two-year period. I was angry at everybody and everything including each of them in turn. Angry for deserting me, leaving me to cope with this void within me, to grieve alone without comfort.The next few weeks were a blur, and I knew that I had hit rock bottom, when one weekend, after taking a weeks’ leave, I drove to Fleurus in Belgium, to drown my grief and sorrows in alcohol, with the thought uppermost in my mind, that I did not care what happened to me. What right had I live!

On the Saturday, my headache was the monster of all headaches but none the less, I reluctantly drove south, with no real idea where I was heading for, but as I couldn’t care less where I was going, or why, I just drove until I saw some limestone cliffs poking out of a wooded area. I drove down a track until I could park below the cliff face.  I left the car unlocked and started to climb on the warm grey rock, and the pleasure it gave me as soon as I touched it, ‘stilled my troubled breast’, and I felt at home, despite not being aware of anything other than empty space and none existent time.

Climbing blindly, I ascended a large crack which ended in a blind scoop. I stood and surveyed the ground some distance below. The ‘stilled breast’ was no longer ‘stilled’ but was raging with anger, guilt and self-pity. Why did they have to die – how could they leave me alone like this – what were they thinking.Here I was, 20 years of age, and my four climbing/drinking friends had already departed this life, leaving me bereft and alone. Clearly, all rational thought had suddenly gone walk-about and I was in no mood to recognise logic. As I stood there for goodness how long, the thought came to me, that if I just let go and stepped forwards, I could join them, and all my pain, guilt and anger would evaporate. I would be at peace.

With eyes misted over with tears as I leaned forward, but was startled by a bird of prey that flew in front of me, so close that I felt the disturbed air current on my face as it flew past. My eyes cleared and I realised this was no answer, so carefully and purposefully, climbed back the way I had come.

Back on the ground, I sat and drank a few beers. When I woke at sunrise, I was covered in a heavy dew and snail slime, but I cared little for my appearance, so drank several bottles of lager for breakfast and set off up a crack not caring where it would lead. I remember nothing of the actual climb and came to some semblance of sobriety, when I found myself unable to move on a small ledge. As I perched there alone, I realised there was a putrid smell from somewhere, and was horrified to find that I had vomited over myself as well as having had a bad case of diarrhoea during the night, but had not noticed it earlier.

I climbed back down, sat and cried for what seemed a very long time. I felt ashamed, and angry with myself with the knowledge that I had debased my humanity. I knew I had to do something about my life style as it was not serving anyone’s purpose, not least those friends who I would never climb with again. As I sat there in my own filth, I became disgusted for letting myself get to such a debased state. The tears came in sobbing waves, like a raging winter’s storm. I had humiliated myself and even though I felt totally bereft at the loss of so many good climbing friends, I knew this was no excuse, none what so ever.

After a while of retching, interspersed with racking sobbing, I stood up, took off my clothes, and ran naked into the nearby river to wash away my disgust in the silent current, hoping it would wash away the shame I was feeling.

Once I felt cleansed, I ran back to the car, oblivious to the pain the stony ground caused my bare feet. Got dressed in my spare clothing and returned to where my soiled clothes lay and burnt them. Later, I went for a walk along the base of the cliffs, allowing my thoughts the freedom to go where they wished. After a while, I came to a part of the cliff which had a large rising crack, until it vanished as the cliff face became concave. I knew I had to climb it, if not for me, then for Chalky, Geordie, Pete and Sam. This would be my testament to our friendship.

The moment my fingers touched the grey rock, I felt the energy surge up my arms and through my body. I was alive and guilt had no part to play in the loss of my friends. I had to live for them, to climb for them, they would expect nothing less. Up I went, cat like movements, singing to the tune of the soft summer breeze, feeling every touch of the rock with my fingers and toes. This was what I wanted to do – climb, nothing more but climb alone. This way, I would never again find myself in such a low emotional state of mind nor feel the sadness at the loss of a climbing friend. A new door had opened and I walked through it with open eyes. My life would never be the same.

Note: From 1964, I climbed solo with a passion that only abated when in my late 50’s, ‘living life’ became important to me. Despite not caring about death whilst pursuing my mad-cap adventures around the world, I remained addicted to soloing's adrenalin rush.

Frank Grant © 2017

Friday 18 August 2017

Ed Douglas's The Magician's Glass...Reviewed

Ed Douglas’s collection of eight essays which have previously graced the pages of the US Alpinist and Rock and Ice magazines are brought together in 'The Magician Glass'; after being re-edited-in Ed’s words-’for a British readership’. I’m not sure how British and US mountaineering buffs, sharing a language, differ in their interpretation of a mountain essay to the extent that they require them to be re-worked, but as I have not seen the originals then I’m not in a position to speculate? That being said, for someone who at times has become a tad jaded with so much mountaineering material, I did find The Magician’s Glass something of an exception.... In fact, it's a bit of a cracker! 

The eight essays herein, are never less than absorbing and extremely well crafted. Another alternative title for the book could have been ‘The Black Mirror’-if Charlie Brooker had not got in first!- for each essay addresses the dark reality behind mountaineering at the limits of possibility. Those fatal human emotions- Pride, Egotism,Envy and Wrath fall off the pages like ripe fruit while death is never more than a few page turns away. Yes...The Magicians Glass is dark but isn’t that the point about extreme climbing and mountaineering; that those who ‘succeed’ more often than not, ultimately fail? Both at their craft and/or as grounded human beings?

After saying that, there are not many people better than the author at putting flesh on the bones of a story and Ed is such a good writer. Very much in the Orwell tradition; That is, never use a dozen words when half a dozen will do. No ornate peregrinations in the telling of the tale. Instead, the writing is clean, sharp and to the point. The book's eponymous opening essay tells the epic story of glorious failure on Annapurna III, and essentially revolves around the enigmatic Nick Colton. It was an ascent upon ‘The Adamantine Wall’ that is best summerised by Lindsay Griffin....

In 1981 Steve Bell, Nick Colton and Tim Leach became the first climbers to reach the South East Face of Annapurna III via the Seti Khola.

They first acclimatized on the East Ridge, and then cached equipment on the pillar, before setting off for an alpine-style attempt. They reached the crest via snow runnels on the right flank, continued past a difficult section of V and V+, and reached a high point of 6,500m. Although they had probably climbed the most technical section, the ridge above looked dangerous and time-consuming. Calculating that another five or six days would be needed to reach the top and get down again, they retreated.

Subsequent parties, which have included a number of outstanding alpinists, have barely been able to set foot on the route, adding to the aura surrounding this line and the now legendary status of the 1981 attempt.

The effort essentially left the team broken. With Colton effectively stepping off the gas for several years and Tim Leach giving up altogether to became an architect. An essay which sums up the psychological warfare and physical shredding which so often defines extreme mountaineering projects.

In Stealing Toni Egger the author describes ‘The murder of the Impossible’. The hugely controversial  Cesare Maestri/Tony Egger ascent of Cerro Torre in Patagonia and its explosive aftermath. Not least the mystery surrounding the death of Austrian guide Toni Egger in the retreat off the mountain. Much of the account has inevitably been told before in various books and journals but Ed goes further into the darkest catacombs. Visting friends and family members who throw new light on what we already know. A light from which the clown prince Cesare Maestri cannot escape.

Searching for Tomaz Humar fleshes out an obituary which Ed did for the Guardian in 2009 after the Slovenian super nova died on Langtang Lirung during a solo ascent of the mountain. To say that Humar was ‘driven’ would be an understatement. Here was a supremely talented mountaineer who had an ego the size of a London bus and who had a penchant for new age mysticism. While undertaking an epic solo ascent on Nanga Parbat in 2005, his team included an astrologer who read his aura and who could predict a favourable climbing window. The mystic was presumably sacked as Humar escaped with his life by a hair’s breadth after bad weather closed in and left him at the mercy of the elements. Such was the standard that Humar climbed at that even though he was continually pushing the envelope, his natural ability, it appeared, would always carry him through. However, Humar was indeed human after all and in his later life, he suffered both physically and mentally. Surviving a terrible fall at his home which left him with a shattered leg, and seeing his family life and business suffer. The end of course, became all too predictable.

Big Guts revolves around the legendary German climber, Kurt Albert and continues the ‘doomed romantic’ theme. Albert was a larger than life figure who gave the climbing world the concept-and name- ‘Redpoint'. Albert was the passionate explorer of new horizons. Both physically and mentally. Never a mere climbing machine, the man the author describes in Big Guts, is at all times, warm and generous towards his peers, irreverent and self-deprecating yet totally focused on his passion. Albert’s big hearted approach towards his fellow climbers and his pioneering zeal gained him world wide respect. Not least from our own Jerry Moffat who provides a swathe of anecdotal material which brings his late friend to life.

Crazy Wisdom
Brings the author’s deep interest in the Sherpa culture into focus. A community which has come under the international spotlight in recent years. Particularly after the unsavoury incidents on Everest in 2013, when angry Sherpas and western climbers-including Ulli Steck-were involved in a simmering dispute which spilt over into violence. What perhaps is not commonly known to the everyday climber back at home, and which the author brings out in this essay, is the fact that although in the West we use the word ‘Sherpa’ as a generic term to describe someone from the region who is usually employed to ferry supplies and to fix ropes etc, for usually western expeditions. In fact, these roles are carried out by several different ethnic cultures.

The true Sherpa is someone of Nepalese extraction from the northern region of high Himalayas and who is Tibetan speaking. This group could be said to be basically at the top of the tree with regard to status and earning potential. In reality, other ethnic groups including The Gurungs, the Tamangs and in particular the Rai who overwhelming these days, take on the hard donkey work. And donkey work it is for the poor Rai in particular who often find themselves carrying incredible loads to boost their meagre earnings. The historic exploitation of these indigenous people and the fight to improve their lot by both the 'Sherpas’ themselves and enlightened, sympathetic westerners, is at the heart of Crazy wisdom.

What’s Eating Ueli Steck, written well before the ‘Swiss Machine’s’ untimely death, visits the scene of someone quite rightly hailed as one of our greatest ever mountaineers, greatest ever controversies. The Piolet d’Or nominated ascent of the Annapurna's South Face. There and back in an incredible 28 hours. Problem is that Steck has no concrete proof to support his claim. He told reporters that he had been caught in an avalanche and lost one of his gloves and his camera in slough which meant that he could not provide any summit photos to back up his claims. He also claimed that his altimeter wasn’t working so a GPS tracking on his ascent became impossible.Despite these problems, Steck took the award despite many mountaineers throwing doubt on the ascent. For Steck, that was their problem.It's fair to say that the aftermath of the affair still reverberates around the mountaineering community.

Lone Wolf describes that fallen giant of French rock climbing, Patrick Edlinger. A household name amongst rock athletes, not only in his native France but around the world. During the 80‘s and 90‘s, Edlinger’s rock star image became almost iconic. Gracing the front covers of the climbing glossies and defining an era in all its wild haired, day-glo, ripped lycra glory! However, the showman the author describes, whilst being an outstanding talent and rock pioneer, was prone to self-doubt and ultimately, deep depression. His end when it came, falling down a flight of bathroom stairs at home, was cruel in its mundanity and almost darkly ironic given the extreme places Edlinger had visited during his all too short life.

Lines of Beauty: The art of Climbing uses the climbing artist Andy Parkin as the hook to hang an essay of the visual aesthetics of climbing. Although Parkin takes centre stage, figures from Jim Curren and Julian Heaton Cooper share the pages with Brown Whillans and Dawes.  That shared space between climbing and painting-the line of flight-which has always informed the activity and which can be observed both on canvas or through the sinewy lines drawn by the climber on stone. An essay which in its appreciation of nature and beauty is rather an exception to the air of tragedy which pervades the majority of essays herein.

So...there you have it. A journey through the glass darkly, which deserves to be widely read. Not just by mountaineering anoraks who will will appreciate the depth of insight and detail surrounding these iconic figures, but also those who just enjoy a good yarn. For the latter constituency, there are gripping moments aplenty to sate their appetite. As for the book’s title. It comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

There’s something ever egotistical in mountain tops and towers, and all the other grand and lofty things...which like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back to his own mysterious self

Captain Ahab

Available from Vertebrate Publishing

John Appleby:2017 

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

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