John Porter, author of the acclaimed Alex MacIntyre biography One Day as a Tiger, examines this new book on the legendary Voytek Kurtyka, the "heart and soul of Polish mountaineering". The Art of Freedom is on the shortlist for this year's Boardman Tasker award, and is long-listed for an award at Banff.
This is Bernadette McDonald's fourth biography, or perhaps you could say her 6th. Two previous award winners - Freedom Climbers and Alpine Warriors - are in many ways biographies of the psyche of the Polish and Slovenian Climbing communities. But in her latest book, we have a very intense and singular biography. Where Freedom Climbers provides an insight of where Voytek Kurtyka sits in the complex galaxy of Polish mountaineering stars, this enthralling and insightful portrait of Kurtyka gives us the view of that same community from the other end of the telescope, and so, so much more. Put simply, this is a book about a man many feel is the most accomplished mountaineer of all time, including Reinhold Messner; "no doubt he is the best. He made many brilliant climbs."
Born into a devout Catholic family, early clashes with his father made him feel unwanted, especially when he openly rebuked his faith, alienating himself to his father, a well known Polish writer with a deeply seated metaphysical bent.
Much later, his father was to recognise that same mystical trait in Voytek's writing, and saw that his climbs were for Voytek a form of devotion which he could understand, but the reunion with his family was never complete. Nor could he ever fully settle into any family routine. He married and divorced twice. After the birth of his daughter Agnes, Voytek accused his second wife Halina of having the baby two weeks early thus interrupting progress on his current extreme rock project in the Tatra. 'Just go finish it' was her response to him a couple of days after the birth, and he did. This is perhaps an all too familiar story in climbing relationships, but in Art of Freedom it is told with compassion and humour.
In what way can climbing be described as an 'art' as suggested in the title, and how does that lead to freedom? There is an old debate that asks whether the composer of the music or the musician who interprets it is the true artist. A parallel to this is to see the mountain as the composition onto which the climber plays the right sequence to make the moves needed to climb the route. The more complex the mountain, the more planning, patience, and psychological and physical stamina is required.
For Kurtyka, this parallel is far too obvious, simplistic and egotistical. "Climbing is an example of human creativity ... proving the climber with the richest form of creativity" he has said. Kurtyka goes further still, seeking something beyond a physical description of an action. He says: "as a true believer, I understood that climbing really isn't about a body rising in space, but rather an attempt to rise above oneself." And in this, we have a description of the way Voytek finds freedom in the mountains, a release both from himself and life's manipulative ego, and the discovery of the communion with the mountain above himself.
In October 1982, Voytek sent me a postcard from Nepal with the image of the starving Buddha seeking nirvana through suffering and abstinence. On the back were a few scribbled lines. One struck home like a knife to the heart; "how could you leave Alex just lying in the snow?" To this day Voytek has never lost a companion while climbing despite his remarkable record of Himalayan first ascents, including three with Alex MacIntyre. Voytek climbs to live with the mountains, and not to let them snatch life away. Toward the end of the book, McDonald explores how he has managed to escape death and even serious injury in the mountains. Was it down to his ability, as some Polish climbers suggest, to sense danger intuitively, something that comes from that communion and belief that he could have a discourse with the mountain? "Even now, I can't fully grasp it;" he admits.
As the book gathers momentum from the early climbs, you begin to realise that Voytek's combination of ever improved techniques and tactics is equally balanced with an increasing ability to conceive of 'the art of suffering' as a life enhancing form of expression. It grows from Bandaka, Changabang and Dhaulagiri, expands in the remarkable traverses on the Gasherbrums and Broad Peak with Jurek Kukuczka and culminates in the phenomenal ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV with Robert Schauer. Or so it seems until Kurtyka finds even more pure expressions of interpreting the composition of the mountains in his 'night naked' ascents, within just three weeks, of new routes on both Cho Oyu and Shishapangma, with Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan.
But eventually the cycle of learning from the big mountains comes to an end; "they could tell me no more". In his 40's Kurtyka returns to his first love, extremely hard rock routes. At 46 he climbed both 'Shock the Monkey' F8a+ and soloed 'Chinese Maharajah' F7c+. The latter remains the hardest free solo achieved in Poland and places Kurtyka in a unique position as both supreme alpinist and master rock climber. His newfound friends among the 20 something rock climbing 'believers' were surprised to discover after his solo ascent of Chinese Maharajah that this rock genius in their midsts was also one of Poland's greatest mountaineers.
The twists and turns of Voytek's voyage of learning and expression in so many mountain environments is beautifully handled both through the writing and what I feel is the biographer's empathy for Kurtyka. McDonald is not there to judge her subject. Yet she carefully opens him up to make observations that are some of the most relevant ever written about the nature of climbing. These include powerful revelations both damning and conciliatory of his one-time friend and climbing companion Jurek Kukuczka:
"Our climbing differences I could ignore. But the clash with Jurek essentially represented my clash with the world's values, which are embroiled in a matric system which is powerfully instilled in our collective mentality. We are slaves of this system. Enslaved, we tend to accept these values as our own. I felt that Jurek eventually became a champion of this matrix when he and Messner competed for the Himalayan Crown, transforming the noble art of climbing into a worthless display. They ignored the most precious potential of the climbing tradition, with all its multi-layered values - its romantic, metaphysical and aesthetic values. They reduced it to just one mediocre dimension: a game for climbing stars. Through their competition, they degraded alpinism into a matrix web that enslaved and contaminated us. Climbing sensitivity values and freedom values were replaced with matrix values."
But at the time, Poland did not understand his attitude. The devout catholic Kukuczka captured the competitive and nationalistic imagination of the Polish nation while Kurtyka remained an enigma both to his peers and to the nation that thought that summits were the only objectives of mountaineers. Art of Freedom now reveals that Kurtyka was the unseen, and until now, the untold heart and soul of Polish mountaineering. And so he is increasingly recognised in his own country.
And what next from Kurtyka at 70? At the end of the book, Bernadette McDonald describes his return to writing and the meticulous and creative process that he brings to this. Let's hope that Kurtyka will recognise that people love to have a living avatar of the mountains walking among them as he discovered when accepting the Piolets d'Or with his friends in 2016. Now we await the further wisdom of his words. In this wonderful biography we have the opening of the first few chapters.
Voytek Kurtyka is one of the greatest alpinists of all time. Born in 1947, he was one of the leading lights of the Polish golden age of mountaineering that redefined Himalayan climbing in the 1970s and 1980s.
His visionary approach to climbing resulted in many renowned ascents, such as the complete Broad Peak traverse, the 'night-naked' speed climbs of Cho Oyu and Shishapangma and, above all, the alpine-style first ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV. Dubbed the 'climb of the century', his route on GIV with the Austrian Robert Schauer is – as of 2017 – unrepeated. His most frequent climbing partners were alpine legends of their time: Polish Himalayan giant Jerzy Kukuczka, Swiss mountain guide Erhard Loretan and British alpinist Alex MacIntyre.
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.
Art of Freedom is a profound and moving profile of one of the international climbing world's most respected, complex and reclusive mountaineers.
Kendal Mountain Festival is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 17 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.
We are delighted to be joined by award-winning writer Bernadette McDonald as she examines the life of one of the greatest alpinists of our time, Voytek Kurtyka, on Saturday 18th November, 15:30-17:00.
- Book tickets on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE