The Art of Free­dom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kur­tyka

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Ber­nadette McDon­ald, Rocky Moun­tain Books

Ber­nadette McDon­ald is well-known for her award-win­ning books on eastern Euro­pean moun­taineers, and this time, she fo­cuses on Voytek Kur­tyka. Kur­tyka has one of the most im­pres­sive climb­ing records in his­tory, rang­ing from hard-rock climbs in his na­tive Poland to nu­mer­ous 8,000- me­tre peaks, sev­eral of which he climbed by new routes.

McDon­ald’s story, how­ever, isn’t pri­mar­ily about hard-climb­ing, but about Kur­tyka as a man of prin­ci­ples. Thus she be­gins with Kur­tyka’s well-pub­li­cized at­tempts to avoid the pub­lic­ity of ac­cept­ing a much-de­served Pi­o­let d’Or prize for alpin­ism, rather than one of his nu­mer­ous dif­fi­cult climbs. In­deed, Kur­tyka turns out to be a com­plex man who lives in de­fi­ance of the pre­vail­ing stan­dards of ac­cept­able dif­fi­culty and risk in climb­ing and the per­va­sive inf lu­ences of the church and the com­mu­nist state.

He also defies the Spar­tan stereo­type of the Pol­ish alpin­ist. A part­ner de­scribes Kur­tyka rest­ing up for the Karako­ram with “…a lean face, dark glasses, a Walk­man and a whole slew of the beau­ti­ful sex who kept him in his own sphere. Visu­ally, acous­ti­cally and phys­i­cally. Whole days with­out a word, stuck to his beach chair, sur­round­ing the bathing area, lis­ten­ing to his favourite jazz musician, Keith Jar­rett and his Köln con­cert record­ing and sun bathing his ob­vi­ously beau­ti­ful body…This is the im­age of Voytek that I had for the next few years.”

Kur­tyka’s com­plex moral path through life and climb­ing con­trasts trag­i­cally with that of his part­ner, the strong, ob­ses­sive Jerzy Kukuczka. The two first met on the win­ter at­tempt on a dark Ta­tras wall where route names like The Sewer said a lot about the climb­ing. On that climb, Kukuczka’s part­ner Piotr Sko­rpa fell to his death in an ap­par­ent rope­work er­ror. This set the tone for Kukuczka’s ca­reer, which was marked by both dra­matic suc­cess and the deaths of sev­eral part­ners be­fore it ended in his own death on Lhotse in 1989.

Through the story of Kukuczka and Kur­tyka’s climb­ing part­ner­ship, which led to such tri­umphs as the new routes on the Gasher­brums and a tra­verse of Broad Peak, McDon­ald ex­plores the mys­ti­cal, re­li­gious and deadly side of the Pol­ish moun­taineer­ing myth. Kur­tyka, al­though fa­mous for his ret­i­cence, opens up to McDon­ald on the sub­ject. “Jurek was ex­cep­tion­ally bold,” says Kur­tyka, “pos­si­bly due to a deep sense of duty to the Pol­ish tra­di­tion of brav­ery.”

McDon­ald doesn’t let Kur­tyka walk away, how­ever, with­out con­sid­er­ing some of his own foibles. He is cocky, oc­ca­sion­ally judg­men­tal of other climbers and sac­ri­fices many things to his climb­ing dreams. When Kur­tyka moves out of the house af­ter the fail­ure of a 13- year mar­riage and gets a place closer to the air­port, McDon­ald com­ments, “at least that would make it eas­ier to re­turn to the moun­tains.”

The tone of much of the book, not least of all the de­tailed de­scrip­tions of the climbs, is in­tense. The climbers are in­cred­i­bly driven. Death is more than a pos­si­bil­ity. Yet Kur­tyka re­mains free of the bur­den of his own rep­u­ta­tion. In his late 40s, we find him hang­ing around sport-climb­ing crags and solo­ing 5.12 to the amaze­ment of the young climbers. We are given the im­pres­sion of a man who imp­ishly en­joys the fact that the young­sters have no frames of ref­er­ence that would make them re­vere him for hav­ing played and won a much more spec­tac­u­lar and deadly game.

Highly rec­om­mended for fans of McDon­ald’s prose, stu­dents of Hi­malayan moun­taineer­ing, any­one in­ter­ested in climb­ing his­tory or those sim­ply want­ing a great read about an un­usual and lik­able man who did amaz­ing things with­out los­ing his sense of him­self and walked away alive.—

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