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