Fritz Wiessner Has a Woods and a Bar but Here’s Why He Deserves More

Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved)

The trees rose from a cushion of pine needles to great heights with silence, except for a gentle rustling of branches through refracted rays of sunlight. Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak, with their ski trails — with once the highest aerial tram in the world — rose from this valley, but none of this could be seen or sensed through the woods. When we left our Subaru in the trailhead parking lot, we were in his territory.

I walked with one trekking pole while little Wunderkind walked with the other. Schnickelfritz was riding in the kid carrier on my back. Their mother and grandparents understood the significance of these woods here in Stowe, Vermont — the reason we came — but I had to tell the story of its namesake with a little more color for Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz. The Stowe Land Trust owns the 79 acres that makes up Wiessner Woods, which is the only permanent memorial to Fritz Wiessner.

While there were many stories to share, the one Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz had to know was from K2 on July 19, 1939. It was late in the day. Wiessner had climbed up above 26,000 feet (roughly 8,000 meters) on second-highest mountain in the world, which was 28,251 feet (8,611 meters) tall, with Pasang Lama without supplemental oxygen. They were alone; they had no radio or way of communicating down the peak to their teammates. They climbed up steep, black rock and were nearly to a point where the rock stopped and it was merely snow all the way to the top, at about 27,500 (8,382 meters). Wiessner was on the cusp to be the first person to climb K2. Except it was getting dark and Pasang was scared; he believed evils spirits dwelt on the summit at night. “No, Sahib,” Pasang said to Wiessner. With his partner unwilling or unable to go, Wiessner turned around with Pasang.

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A mere 79 acres of joy. (Natalie Stern)

Sadly, while Wiessner intended to return, he never would. His high point would stand for 15 years, until Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli became the first people to stand atop K2 in 1954. But Wiessner’s and Pasang’s record for reaching so high on K2 without supplemental oxygen would stand for nearly 40 years, when Louis Reichardt and John Roskelley climbed the mountain without supplemental oxygen in 1978 in only the mountains third ascent to date.

Since then, my kids set up the tent and grabbed their toy hammers as pseudo ice axes to pretend they are climbing K2. Wouldn’t you?

WORTH DRINKING OVER

The forested cushion of pine needles that make the floor of the Wiessner Woods doesn’t actually stop at its edges. The same woods rolls onto an adjacent 26-acre hillside where a rustic post-modern ski lodge called the Stowehof commands views of Mount Mansfield. It has a German-Austrian alpine flair at its core, that is best celebrated with it’s recently renamed bar.

Fritz Bar is cozy and has private corners and tables to make an evening intimate. It is also decorated with photos of Fritz Wiessner, with his hairless head and broad smile, surrounded by mountains and adorned with thick hemp ropes. I dropped in after our visit to the Wiessner Woods to buy Natalie, her parents, and I a round, get the kids a salted pretzel to share, and toast Fritz.

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At the Stowehof, down to the Fritz Bar. (All rights reserved)

Not everyone was always willing to toast Fritz Wiessner, however. Shortly after moving to the United States from Germany in 1929, Wiessner had raised the standard of American climbing at several remarkable North American destinations. In 1938, the American Alpine Club had secured permission to send an expedition to attempt K2 and they’re first choice to lead the team was Wiessner. However, his ski-wax business in Vermont had too many orders to fulfill so he graciously turned them down, and the AAC turned to Charles Houston instead.

Houston thought Wiessner’s decline had dubious intent almost immediately; why would he turn down K2? Both Houston and Wiessner knew that the AAC had a permits to attempt K2 for two years, so if Houston’s team failed to make the top, Wiessner could learn from Houston’s mistakes and get the glory. Although The New York Times celebrated the team’s high mark of 26,000 feet (roughly 8,000 meters), Houston was bitter. Not to get too far along into Houston’s life story, this illustrates how much ownership he claimed to K2’s first ascent: The year after his second attempt, and the year before he was to use his permit for an attempt in 1955, Houston briefly went missing and suffered from global amnesia after hearing the news that the Italians finally climbed K2.

The sad story that came out of Wiessner’s 1939 expedition was bad news for Wiessner and overshadowed all of Wiessner’s other accomplishments. While Wiessner and Pasang made it to 27,500 feet, Dudley Wolfe, the expedition’s primary financier was languishing and dying at Camp VII. With the exception of Wiessner, the 1939 team was by far a weakest group that climbed high on any Himalayan peak prior to the HImalaya’s Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s. Wolfe was an enthusiastic, though inexperienced,  adventurer. Wiessner knew this, and despite this, he sincerely wanted to help Wolfe to the top. Except, Wolfe’s inexperience, lack of fitness, and the overriding effects of altitude took it’s toll. Critics blamed Wiessner both generally as leader and specifically for allowing Wolfe to climb and stay so high for so long, and finally not for returning for him (though the risks were significant, and his condition was too far gone.) Combine anti-German sentiment that festered during the years during and after World War II, Wiessner’s reputation was tarnished, and in some circles, his wrongdoings were exaggerated into shameless smears.

In the 1930s we were just beginning to understand the devastating effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude on the human body. No one had ever stayed in a high camp so long as Dudley Wolfe had before. Wolfe could climb up well enough with help, but descending the steep grade was a bit more technical. Wiessner, by contrast, raced up and down the mountain and in between camps, in a valiant effort to position his team to reach the top. Both men wanted to reach the summit, and Fritz probably, foolishly yet earnestly, promised it to him.

Despite the tragedy of the 1939 expedition, I sat down to toast Fritz. And I remembered Dudley Wolfe too.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENTS

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No, Sahib / Prost, Fritz (All rights reserved)

Wiessner was born in Dresden, Germany in 1901. After an impressive climbing career in Europe, Wiessner left Germany for the United States in 1929 for the chance to improve his beyond what Dresden and Germany offered. He quickly demonstrated that his climbing skills were beyond what had ever been attempted by Americans, making a similar impact to what Austrian-immigrant Conrad Kain had in Canada.

Between 1931 and 1937, he worked up quite the resume. Here are the most historically significant:

  • Cannon Cliff, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains;
  • Wallface Mountain, in New York’s Adirondacks;
  • Making the first-free ascent of the iconic Devils Tower rising up from Wyoming (predecessor’s used excessive aid); and
  • Climbing the mysterious Mount Waddington, in the Coast Range of British Columbia, Canada.

On K2, what also makes his high point so remarkable was his sharp analysis of the risks on the route past the bottleneck, where an oversized serac haunts the path to the top. Although it has been generally stable (and when it hasn’t been the consequences have been tragic,) Wiessner didn’t know that. Wiessner avoided the bottleneck and the hanging glacier by climbing the steep rock band to the left, which no one had climbed since. Ed Viesturs wrote, in his book on K2 he wrote with David Roberts:

It’s not easy to judge other people’s climbs, but I’d venture to say that nothing of comparable difficulty at such an altitude would be performed by anybody during the next nineteen years, until Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri’s brilliant first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in 1958.

After the 1939 expedition, Wiessner was the subject of an unprecedented investigation and accusations of being a Nazi spy. The AAC investigated the failure and criticisms of the climb, including what lead up to Wolfe’s demise. Though it was not a court of law, the conclusions loaded all judgment on Wiessner. As Ed Viesturs and David Roberts put it: “And Frtiz Wiessner was a German-American, at perhaps the worst time in the twentieth century to be one.” Two members of the investigating committee, Al Lindley and Robert Underhill, stood by Wiessner and disagreed with reports. Underhill wrote, that despite many poor circumstances:

Wiessner, and Wolfe behind him, was the only one who still wanted to climb the mountain… [T]his leads me to appreciate Wiessner the more. He had the guts — and there is no single thing finer in a climber, or in a man.

Wiessner passed away at his home in Stowe, Vermont in July 1988. While his moments on K2 were what everyone reads about, he lead a life where he shared climbing with others, particularly younger climbers, and had the enduring respect of his community. The blemishes from the turmoil of aftermath of the 1939 expedition are hard to forget, but Wiessner remains a constant light and joyful in what the mountains and climbing could bring. Perhaps Wiessner deserves more than a woods and a bar.

VERMONT AND THE ADIRONDACKS

When I stand in the Wiessner Woods, with the scent of pine always in the air, I feel much farther from the bustling ski resort at Mount Mansfield or event the sheik Stowehof. Maybe that’s why he liked it there.

While Wiessner had climbed major alpine peaks, and discovered landmark crags, like the Shawangunks outside New Paltz, New York, his favorite places were in Stowe and in a tiny corner of the Adirondacks that I touch on in this blog periodically: Wallface. Wiessner preferred going to and climbing at Wallface not because it was big, though it’s respectable in scale, not because it is firm because it’s a little chossy, but because it’s a long way from the road. It’s quiet. It’s rarely visited.

Wiessner never let the 1939 K2 expedition detract from his life, or hold him back from what he sought to do next. He lived his life. He had his children and grand children. He ran his business. He shared climbing with others. And he retreated for a respite, now and then, to the woods of Vermont, and sometimes making the long trek to Wallface.

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References: 1) Jennifer Jordan, The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of An American Adventurer on K2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), 188-191. 2) Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain (New York: Broadway Books, 2009), 151-153, 174-177. 3) Don Mellor, American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing (Woodstock, Vermont: Countryman Press, 2001), 68-69.

What I am Reading Now and Exploring Pennsylvania

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Here is what is on my bedstand for March 2018.

I usually complain that there is never enough time to do everything. I said such things when I worked in Washington, DC and I am saying this in Lancaster, PA too. However, it took moving to Pennsylvania to truly realize that with all of my interests and ambitions, time is my most valuable commodity. Which brought me to ask myself, What is worth my time?

Keeping up with work is important (I enjoy it too, which helps immensely,) and spending time with Natalie, Wunderkind and Schnicklefritz is even more valuable to me. Reading and keeping this blog up, both of which bring me great joy. And so is getting outside on trails, or just and taking in nature in some way, even like through a snow day, like yesterday.

In reading, I am doubling down on my interest in reading the climbing classics. There are lists out there, and I am developing my own list too. But I haven’t read everything yet, so I can’t say my list if ready for prime time; this journey is a long way off. And some books I feel the need to re-read. One day I’ll have a solid list of English language climbing classics to share. For March 2018, this is what is in my weathered orange Patagonia half mass bag:

The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman (1956) — I thought starting with a satire for a chuckle now and then was a good idea. Bowman’s classic certainly does the trick. It particularly helps if you have read any official expedition books, like Tillman’s The Ascent of Nanda Devi from the first half or so of the twentieth century; Annapurna, while French, might be the most widely read example. From the characters names to absurdity of the nation of porters required to carry equipment of base camp, it’s like one big inside climbing joke. I took this out through the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library.

The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti (originally published in 1998) — As I said before, Walter Bonatti is one of the greatest climbers of all time. This book I have looked at and read snippets of, but never from beginning to end. So the experience will start next week after I finish rereading Rum Doodle. Robert Marshall translates Bonatti’s words for us, but it is Bonatti himself that recounts his tales of adventure in the Alps, K2, and (what I am particularly interested in) Patagonia.

Alpinist issue 61 — This issue celebrates “Indomitable” Fred Beckey, who passed away last October. Brad Rassler points out that everyone has a story about Beckey, seemingly because we all want to be a part of him. It’s true, even I have one. Also, Eileen Guo takes us mountaineering in Afghanistan, including with a manless climbing school.

50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania 4th Ed. by Tom Thwaites (2001) — Natalie gave this to me for Christmas, among some other gifts, to help us navigate the new landscape around us. We discovered that there is much more to offer in Pennsylvania where we now live in Lancaster County than we even thought when we decided to take a new job and move. In fact, within a 30-minute drive we have a great bouldering destination (and I don’t mean Spooky Nook or RecROC gyms) and a world-class destination for bird watching at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. I think balancing work, my reading ambitions, and family fun with some outdoors time, will pay loads of dividends.

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The 5 Most Interesting Climbing Books from 2017

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Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe.

Maybe this is the only Christmas wish/gift list you’ll need. I have only read one of these books so far, and am in the middle of another at the moment, but background knowledge about the authors alone makes these books genuine curiosities at the very least. At most, these stories might change the way you look at things and might even inspire you.

  • Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe, translatedfrom Japanese by Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved, Rocky Mountain Books (Canada 2017) — The writing is directly from Tabei herself, and carefully translated into English to tell, first hand, about her adventures among mountains. She tells the story that brought her to the top of Everest, despite avalanches, her slight frame, and gender. And the language is sensitive and smooth, and doesn’t feel forced, as translations often do. I am looking forward to sharing my full review in January.
  • Karakoram: Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict by Steve Swenson, Mountaineers Books (USA, 2017) — Former American Alpine Club president and alpinist tied to a couple of Piolet d’Or-nominated climbs, Steve Swenson reflects on the best climbing in the world in one of the most challenging bureaucratic environments, which permitted access to only a few. Based on his efforts to penetrate the region for a period spanning decades, Swenson shares what he experienced on and around Gasherbrum IV and K6.
  • The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits by Tommy Caldwell, Viking Books (USA, 2017) — This is Tommy Caldwell’s memoir about how he arose to the challenge to free the Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan with Kevin Jorgeson in 2015. The Dawn Wall ascent was well documented live, and much light has been shone on Caldwell since, but this is another and possibly more in-depth look into the character-building events and lessons he has taken in through a very challenging life. Most of us like to believe that he meets the challenge. I’m hoping to read it and glean something I can apply to my own struggles.
  • The Magician’s Glass: Character and Fate: Eight Essays on Climbing and the Mountain Life by Ed Douglas, Vertebrate Publishing (UK, 2017) — If you have read Ed’s work in Alpinist as I have, this book has to be on your list. He combines insight about climbing culture, mountaineering current events, and observations of integrity and flaws into an eloquent and enlightening read. With Katie Ives contributing the foreward, I have no doubt that this book is as good if not better than what we’ve read by him to-date.
  • The Art of Freedom: The Life and Times of Voytek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald, Rocky Mountain Books (Canada 2017) — This is the only book on this list that I have finished reading, and it was everything I hoped. Bernadette worked her way into Kurtyka’s circle to produce a work that met his approval, as well as the judges at Banff, Kendall, and Boardman Tasker. For details, check out my review here.

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Alaskan Alpinist Steve Hackett, and Other Notes

Spooky Nook Climbing Gym Boulder

The stand-alone boulder at Spooky Nook, Lancaster County, PA (All rights reserved)

I recently read an article about how expectations can kill relationships — any relationship. For instance, for someone that hasn’t gone backpacking before but wants a romantic stroll into the outdoors to see beauty and feel refreshed might be jolted by the hard work and occasional bad weather. The article recommended that we let observation dictate our vision and judgment rather than our expectations. It’s a little different than just “going with the flow,” because its the essence of adventure; mystery. Don’t try to set expectations, rather let the world tell you the story it has and accept and embrace it for what it is, whatever it is.

This makes me think of Steve Hackett’s great adventure. In 1976, he set off alone to the remote Brooks Range in Alaska’s far north. His objective was Mount Igikpak. It wasn’t grand like Mount Huntington or the Matterhorn; in fact most of the images I’ve seen of it make it look worthy of being overlooked. It had been climbed twice before in no distinctive style; first by a team lead by David Roberts in 1968. Hackett had a bold vision.

Hackett traveled solo by inflatable kayak and on foot to the peak. He went alone, without support, and no bush planes and before helicopters were popular. The summit pyramid presented overhangs on every flank. His limited protection gear forced him to rely on old gear from the previous ascents, which could easily have been deemed stupid or reason to turn around to many other climbers. Despite the danger, he was bold, considered the risk, and went for it, and stood on top.

After returning to the base, he waited for friends to travel together. They never came. He got his inflatable kayak back out and paddled 365 miles in under eight days down the Noatik River.

Where would Hackett have been had he not adapted to the challenges and only allowed expectations to get in his way?

TSM Moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania

I worked in Washington, DC for 15 years and owned a condominium across the Potomac River for 10 of them. For a while I thought I lived in suburbia; in terms of my commute it felt like it, except that area of Northern Virginia, like all of Northern Virginia, is urban. I have been a sham of a suburbanite. Natalie and I once considered renaming this blog The Urban Mountaineer. Well, all that started to change in July when I accepted an unexpected job offer with a Habitat for Humanity in Central Pennsylvania

I am now entrenched in a suburban neighborhood. I bought a house, a second car, a lawn mower, changed the home’s flooring, and painted the bedrooms.

I had never considered living in Lancaster County until the job came along. It’s more than an Amish, rural, or a tourist destination. It is a beautiful diverse community with hard-working farms, hills, and wonderful neighbors. But it’s also one of Pennsylvania’s most urban counties outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And Lancaster County currently hosts two climbing gyms — Lititz recROC and the gym at the Spooky Nook Sports complex.

I feel closer to the earth here, the way I do when I visit Vermont. The small farms in Vermont give visitors intimate access to their work, but also reinforced Aldo Leopold’s notion of community where it’s more than just institutions and people, but land and wildlife too.

My boxes of climbing books, magazines, and maps are all back together. The contents are all on a shelf, though a little disorganized at the moment. I’ve realized that I need those books, not just the Internet, to write this blog. As much as I want to believe reading is reading wherever you find it, my attention to a nuanced story about a climb or a personal struggle can’t be interrupted by text messages or news alerts. My new piece of advice for any reader, if you’re going to read, set aside some time devoted to reading and reading alone. Personally, I like to read after the kids go to sleep and reading in the same room as Natalie in our new home.

I think with things settling down and coming together, the monthly newsletter will finally get off the ground and into your inboxes. Thanks to everyone who have subscribed — and wow, there are a lot of you — you won’t be disappointed.

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Goodbye, Hayden Kennedy

Mountain singe (All rights reserved)

On October 10th, while getting up to speed on a brand-new job, in a new area, and remodeling an old house after 15 years of living and working in Washington, DC, I got a text message from my friend Jason in Alberta who needed to reach out to someone. He wrote “…such devastating news.” After a hasty Internet search, I was nauseous over the news of separate deaths of Inge Perkins and Hayden Kennedy.

I had just read his essay The Day We Sent Progression on Andrew Bisharat’s Evening Sends. I set aside time to read it, when the kids weren’t running around, I wasn’t lost in work or chores getting our lives in our new home in order. It involved Kyle Dempster and Justin Griffin. Two more climbers that died too young. Hayden even acknowledged such in the essay, and now Chris Kalous is all that is left of that group.

Hayden’s father, Micheal, is one of America’s greatest climbers and he’s a talented writer. He also lead Alpinist Magazine for a period while it got itself back on good financial standing. In 2012, after Hayden and his climbing partner Jason Kruk knocked the ladder off of Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route, Michael wrote a public letter to Hayden. There, in the pages of Alpinist, an old man admired his son and shared his angst over being the father of a climber like Hayden. While Hayden wrote many great essays and articles, I think that letter from Michael is what is required reading in reflecting on Hayden’s wonderful, yet all-too-short life.

Hayden left his mark on the climbing world. I’m sorry he had to go and I send warm thoughts and prayers to Michael and his mother and the Perkins family.

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Award-Winning Author Bernadette McDonald Writes Her Most Significant Book Yet with Art of Freedom

The cover of Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald with Voytek Kurtyka on Lhotse 1974.

The newest great climbing book to be released is Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voyek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald and published by Rock Mountain Books (CA and USA) and Vertebrate Publishing (UK). I read it and I think it’s going to have more longevity in readership than even her previous award winning books.

By now, I hope that you are somewhat familiar with Voytek Kurtyka. It’s okay if you’re not. I didn’t know who he was though I associated his name with Robert Schauer’s whenever anyone mentioned the legendary first and only ascent of the West Face, or Shining Wall, of Gasherbrum IV, but I knew so little about him he didn’t yet stand out. McDonald’s award winning book Freedom Climbers (2011) told us more about Kurtyka than any other English language source to-date, to the best of my knowledge. While Freedom Climbers was about many, but certainly not all, of the great Polish climbers of the 1970s and 1980s, including Wanda Rutkiewicz, Krzysztof Weilicki, and Jurek Kukuczka, was clearly evident that Kurtyka was a gifted star of his generation, and possibly of all time.

However, Kurtyka diligently sought to keep his ego at bay. He was repulsed by his own fame, which made him quite mysterious, and not just to an American like me but even young Polish climbers in the 1990s weren’t aware of his remarkable alpine climbs in the Himalayas; they thought Kurtyka, who was then in his 40s, was merely a talented rock climber (Art of Freedom 257). What was to glean about Kurtyka, if one knew to inquire, came from stories from older climbers, which I’m sure sounded partly like tall tales of mountain adventure. Documenting his exploits were easy; they were in alpine journals, and Kurtyka even wrote short pieces periodically. Piecing together his approach, accomplishments, the source of his vision and joy, however was left like a loose mosaic that had fallen to the floor. Kurtyka didn’t mind, because he knew who he was. McDonald, over years pieced the mosaic back together, and it’s the Art of Freedom.

McDonald may have been among the actors gently nudging, without coordination, Kurtyka to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Piolet d’Or. Kurtyka respectfully, but emphatically, declined at each attempt not only because of his avoidance of the spotlight, but his values. McDonald, starting with Freedom Climbers, and then with the interview in Alpinist, earned Kurtyka’s trust. She interviewed Kurtyka in Alpinist 43, which provided readers with a more personally revealing look at how Kurtyka approached his climbs and life. It didn’t completely answer my questions about him though; rather, it gave me insight I didn’t have and yet more questions. Art of Freedom answers my inquiries, and yet I am still mesmerized by Voytek Kurtyka.

Tribute to Voytek Kurtyka. (All rights reserved)

Art of Freedom Answers Four Key Questions

As McDonald makes clearly evident, Voytek Kurtyka was extremely self-disciplined and still wildly passionate. He was also intensely self-aware of both traits, and he understood that if his ego was fanned, whether it was his climbing accomplishments or his knowledge of plants, he could harm his psyche and his beautiful qualities. So in opening up to McDonald was perhaps her greatest accomplishment. The next was how she took his stories, and the historical input from documents and first-hand stories of friends and colleagues to show, not just tell, who Kurtyka was.

Before the I started the reviewing the book, I had four personal questions that I wanted answered:

  1. How did he become such a remarkable and humble alpinist?
  2. How did he develop his spiritual sense?
  3. What did he do to make a living?
  4. Was he truly as beautiful as a person on the inside as I imagined and wanted him to be?

Let me share a little of what I learned without spoiling the reading experience:

How Did He Become Such a Remarkable and Humble Alpinist?

Kurtyka came to climbing relatively late, in his early 20s and found a satisfaction in connecting with nature, which he was deprived of in his urban home. He was unconventional and rebellious, perhaps by nature. He rarely did things the way everyone else suggested; in climbing he was an original. In Poland, climbing was something that was heavily regulated through the climbing clubs. It had in place a strict regime of course work and advancement toward harder and longer climbs, as well as places authorized and unauthorized to climb. Kurtyka skirted all of them. He learned to climb from friends, climbed wherever he wanted (including being stopped by the police), and climbed solo often.

This approach to climbing in Poland’s Tatras carried with him and was refined when he was invited to climbs in Afghanistan and the Himalaya. He learned that climbing siege style, even with Reinhold Messner himself, was in conflict with who he was as a person and a climber. After some trial and error (i.e. life experience,) Kurtyka found that what mattered wasn’t even the summit to him, but the shape of the line he was attempting.

As for humility, he forced that upon himself. McDonald presents enough information and stories that we could perhaps argue another perspective. Shoot me an email after you read it if you have one; I’d like to hear your take.

How Did He Develop His Spiritual Sense?

This answer starts with his father. Kurtyka’s father was writer Henryk Worcell. Moving to Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth largest city was stimulating for Worcell to be around other artists, but stifling for Kurtyka who longed for nature. This was all the more true as Worcell was both a religious man and a drinker; the drinking often disrupted the whole house, including his two brothers and mother Antonina Moszkowska. Bernadette explains that during those early years, Voytek rejected “the basic tenants” of Christianity, that his father subscribed to, yet he still experienced spiritual moments when he did visit churches, in nature, and when he climbed in the mountains. Bernadette said that Kurtyka made connections with places that “reached far beyond his intellect” (21)

While not everyone he climbed with experienced the same feelings Kurtyka did on his climbs, but everyone he climbed with would probably agree that he was in tune with something intangible and part of it might have been that he was simply open to it? Take for example what McDonald describes the “most ethereal experiences of his entire career as an alpinist” during his traverse of Broad Peak. Kurtyka felt “confidence, trust and a sense of unity with space and light.” Kurtyka likened it to a delirium. But Kurtyka didn’t want to let go of it, so he relished in it and paced on a col, not wanting to go into the tent (158).

While Kurtyka may have been open to such experiences, he also found them routinely in climbing. His climbing clearly fueled his sense of peace. I’m not sure, but I got the feeling that he believed his ego could squash these memories of these feelings; perhaps as long as he respected that the feelings of confidence and such were not his, that he did not deserve them, he could hold on to them.

What Did He Do to Make a Living?

I understood from Freedom Climbers that many of the Polish climbers smuggled in foreign goods from their travels during their expeditions, but I wasn’t sure what that meant in practical terms. Kurtyka was living under communist rule; so what did he allege he did to authorities? What was involved in the smuggling? What did he trade? How well, financially, did this put Kurtyka?

McDonald gives a much more detailed understanding of Kurtyka’s business operations and all of their tedium, adventure, and misadventure. First, Kurtyka would smuggle alcohol into Pakistan where it was only sold on a black market. He’d meticulously pack barrels of expedition gear and strategically place his commodity. He’d pray that even if they were opened the alcohol would go unnoticed. He also played with the guards in unexpected ways but boldly opening the containers and showing the inspectors the contents and swapping a barrel with the alcohol with one that did not. Once in, he would sell or trade his goods for items that were demand in Poland. Later, he expanded to selling goods, such as fashionable sheepskin coats, in France, and chewing gum in Russia. On at least one occasion, he floated barrels down a river back into Poland to enter undetected, holding on to them for the entire journey.

The business was good and he only had to do business twice a year to support himself and his climbing. Kurtyka’s friends vouched for him as an employee at a job he never did. Today, he is still an importer and exporter, though probably under more legal conditions.

Was He Truly as Beautiful as a Person on the Inside as I Imagined and Wanted Him to be?

For me, Kurtyka has been almost a mythical figure, both for his climbing accomplishments and his connection to nature and spirit. He may not be as mysterious after reading the book, but I think he is no less intriguing, which is why I plan to read Art of Freedom again shortly when I vacation in Vermont. There is a lot to take in, from his ascent up the Cyclotron, re-reading about Shining Wall, and his rock climbing soloing in the 1990s.

I highly recommend this book. Buy it now and read it. Put it on your Christmas list for your friends. Perhaps give it to your budding climber or your student graduating high school or college next spring. McDonald crafted a significant biography of Voytek Kurtyka that has enough lessons of success, failure, and maintaining joy through it all that goes beyond climbing and can apply to how we can all live our lives. Kurtyka would likely discourage any of us from emulating him, but I think he would encourage us to be confident in our self identities and to seek beauty in others and around our world and guard it.

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