Polish mountaineer Voytek Kurtyka may have one of the most impressive résumés of all time - featuring his alpine-style first ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV above all - but his reclusive character meant that we have read and heard little from the man himself over the years. When approached by acclaimed Canadian author, Bernadette McDonald, to write his Boardman Tasker-shortlisted biography, Art of Freedom, Voytek faced an identity crisis: to dress himself up as a beacon of virtue, or to strip himself down to the essential - warts and all - with inspiration from Game of Thrones to sew some blood, sex and tears through his story...
One day I got a proposal from the very famous author Bernadette McDonald to write down my climbing biography. Bernadette is a very talented author endowed with an outstanding gift – she is capable of finding bright and noble features even in the darkest of characters. I immediately sensed a unique opportunity to improve my deteriorating image and to clothe it in impressive robes. To be honest, I badly needed a good kick to save my image. I had recently got involved in certain public arguments and played the bad guy. I confess, my reputation was tarnished and needed cleaning up.
Why not play an angel? Nice prospect, isn't it? I easily succumbed to her offer. I trusted she would never try to research the murky corners of my soul and would never expose my dubious deeds.
Then we started working. I tried hard to prove the best in me. Bernadette, as I expected, was kind and receptive to my brightest assets. I patiently did my best to make her familiar with my lofty ideals and my noble way of thinking. I always tried to manoeuvre her towards positive aspects of my complicated past. I fed her, you know, with all that stuff like friendship, loyalty and painful losses. I could feel how consecutive conversations and discussions built up my impressive statue. I loved my new, beautiful robes. I was proud.
But then something went wrong. Between her first and second trip to Poland, I watched one of the seasons of Game of Thrones. I knew it was the favourite series of millions. I also enjoyed it. I was impressed with the intrigue and black magic. I was shocked by the bloodshed, vengeance and wars. Passionate sex scenes made my imagination race. Finally, after watching it, when I emerged from the pools of blood and the madness of cruelty, I sank into doubts – does our work make sense? Who is going to read this bloodless, deathless story? How to persuade the millions to read it? How to pass on our noble message without that brutal and passionate stuff? I've got an awkward feeling that I'm not worthy of Bernadette's industrious effort. Her literary mission deserved much more bloodshed, death, and cruelty than I could offer. I felt disappointed with my lofty ideals and I started despising my preaching. I almost sank into depression.
What to do? How to emulate Game of Thrones? We needed blood and magic, war and sex in my biography. We needed brutal emotions. I couldn't allow my biography to turn into a yawn.
Though my climbing past was stuffed with drama and incredible dangers, I had the impression that my enterprise with Bernadette was losing in comparison with Games of Thrones.
My brain worked like crazy. Wasn't I a daredevil and a true fighter all my climbing life? Hadn't I brushed with death hundreds of times? Didn't I boldly follow the tricky path straight into hell? Wasn't I a much smarter villain than any of those Game of Thrones characters?
If so, how could I prove it?
How foolishly I was hiding my villainous tricks from Bernadette. Alas my lofty ideals are useless. I must disclose the darkest rooms of my soul. I must reveal my cunning. There must be a way to match Game of Thrones. I started to play with the components of Games of Thrones and intertwine them with my climbing life.
Soon the moments of enlightenment arrived. Yes, I got it!
First of all, I realised that there was a powerful black magic in my life. Much stronger, much more effective than those inept tricks in Game of Thrones. Their magic didn't help their heroes, they were all dying, one after another like meaningless flies, but my magic was a true magic. It saved me and saved my friends. We went through the unimaginable straits and suffering and we survived no lesser dangers than most of the Game of Thrones heroes. For a short while I worried about how to render my magic. But for what reason does one have friends? And I have one; the most acclaimed climbing writer ever. Magic is her element. It's a piece of cake for her. Don't believe it? Well check it out, please. Buy the book, read the book!
For the first time, I was proud. The biography was getting a solid base.
It was a good start, but still terribly distant from the final victory. Our book was missing bloodshed, vengeance, war and sex. Well, unless Bernadette already invented those things herself? But I doubted it. Bloodshed, vengeance, war and sex didn't seem much like her stuff. Bernadette is famous for discovering only the noble features, even in the devil. I had to invent it myself. Of course, I knew it would be a hell of a job to persuade her to talk of bad things. But fortunately I knew she had been dreaming all her life – almost like a teenager – for a royal-blue Porsche. So if she really wants it, she must start talking of bad things and emulate Game of Thrones. Otherwise, sorry Bernadette, no royal-blue Porsche. I just had to use smart tactics; I had to trick her, to bribe her into talking of the bad stuff. Did I succeed? Well, you are welcome to check the book out.
Now I had to invent the war plot. It is a must! Readers love wars. It was surprisingly easy to invent one. I got a bright idea. All my turbulent life, to this day I have participated in the cruellest war a human can ever take part in, the most dangerous one: the war with God! I tell you frankly that I am cross with God. From my childhood I refused to accept God's deal of heaven-hell. I never observed my God's ban on flirting with other Gods, even though the sanction of eternal flame was imposed on sinners like me. I never allowed myself to be fooled with his alleged mercy. And the funny thing, can you imagine? I was winning that cruel war! But how to persuade this Canadian fairy of Irish Christian origin to go for the war with God? Of course, I had to trick her, to bribe her.
Did I succeed? You will not believe it. I honestly recommend you check it. Buy the book, read the book!
Inspired by winning the hardest war of my life I searched diligently for the resources of death, blood and cruelty. Well, there was no death and cruelty in my climbing life. Unfortunately my adroit magic eliminated the death and cruelty. You can't have both skillful magic plus death and cruelty together. Too bad! I didn't even ask Bernadette for help.
How to invent death, blood and cruelty in my story?
I looked around. Ha! What does one have friends for? In my climbing past I had a remarkable friend who was the greatest butcher in the history of climbing. He was my partner, he was my friend. He was a part of my life. My saving hero was Jurek Kukuczka. I was enchanted with my invention. No doubt he surpassed the death tally of all villains in Game of Thrones. Can you imagine, six corpses in his climbing life? Five of them in just three years. He also tried two or three times to kill me, but even the Christian cross on his neck didn't thwart my black sorcery and I always survived. No doubt with the friendly assistance of Jurek Kukuczka in our book, Bernadette will patch that serious deficiency and she will come close to matching or even surpassing Game of Thrones.
Did she? Oh please, please, you are welcome to check.
I had yet to deal with the glaring deficiency of sex in my climbing biography. For God's sake, don't presume this is a deficiency in my regular life; this is just a minor problem only in my climbing biography. But even though it was a deficiency only in the death zone, I humbly confess I should have taken a more creative approach to that matter.
In fact, I had!
In the past, I foresaw that inadequacy in my overall, otherwise impressive records and I harboured secret ambitions to surpass the existing barriers in that delicate sphere. I dreamt of opening a new route on an 8,000er in alpine style with a Sherpani partner. My relations with a certain Sherpani were truly promising. She was powerful and truly sweet. I was sure that together we'd beat all whispered records. But my visionary plan was thwarted by envious and narrow-minded circles. That's why I sincerely dislike the lobby of Himalaya Crown collectors. They played a really spiteful game against my visionary programme.
Still I feel guilty for that inadequacy in my climbing life, but what could I do? My other partners were, in that delicate aspect, a total failure. You can't imagine how Jurek Kukuczka was hopelessly deprived of even a trace of sex appeal. Erhard Loretan, the carpenter, was not much better, though he was such a sweet boy, but to be frank in his presence I sensed rather discrete pangs of fear more than anything else. Divine Reinhold Messner was rather OK, but he was always accompanied by a woman. I had no chance. And Alex MacIntyre? Oh yes he had potential, but he died so prematurely.
I'm sorry Bernadette that I couldn't help in that delicate matter. I worry a bit for your royal-blue Porsche.
After repeated requests to accept the Piolets d'Or Lifetime Achievement Award (the Oscars of the climbing world), Kurtyka finally accepted the honour in the spring of 2016. A fiercely private individual, he has declined countless invitations for interviews, lectures and festival appearances, but he has agreed to collaborate with internationally renowned and award-winning author Bernadette McDonald on this long-awaited biography, shortlisted for the 2017 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.