Voytek Kurtyka, The Great


The question “why do you climb?” takes us all down a slippery slope; it never yields a satisfying answer for anyone. However, the question of what we seek in climbing may be more effective than asking why we climb at all, according to Kelly Cordes in correspondence in 2012 with Katie Ives of Alpinist.

I have often said that climbing, and to a higher degree alpinism, allows us to pull back the veil of fear and see through to a glimpse of enlightenment. Also, that that quest is a reason to climb or appreciate climbing and committed climbers. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve drawn over the last twenty years of being obsessed with various forms of climbing.

However, the Himalayan veteran Voytek Kurtyka of Poland has insight that’s deeper, fuller, and more complex. He’s a bit of a mystery to me. I’m fascinated by what he thinks and I’ve been examining it for some time.

And darn it! I don’t know why he didn’t make my short-short list of the Greatest Climbers of All Time. I must have missed something.

The Greatest Climber of All Time

In 2013, just before my Schnickelfritz was born, I started a series of posts to identify the greatest climbers of all time. With a lot of thought and input from readers like you, we narrowed the field to just five climbers and ranked them. I now think that the list is wrong.

I was often told that my quest was foolish and that not only that it couldn’t be done that I shouldn’t even try.

Yet, naming the greats wasn’t actually about putting these climbers on some sort of lifetime achievement award at the Piolet d’Or, but rather a journey to consider why we glean what we do from our heroes. It was as much about us as it was about the climbers we considered.

While I can’t dispute that the people we named, from Walter Bonatti to Jerzy Kukuczka were indeed great, but I think I made a mistake in setting the rubric. Did Kurtyka belong in the top five?

Lifetime Achievement Award

The Piolet d’Or award committee tried to hand its lifetime achievement honor to Voytek Kurtyka before. He declined; uninterested in attending and felt it was unnecessary. He’s an intensely private man and usually very forward focused. However, now almost 70 years old, an arrangement must have been struck for him to accept in April 2016, which many feel is long overdue.

In Freedom Climbers, Bernadette McDonald wrote about when Jerzy Kukuczka and Kurtyka completed the first traverse of Broad Peak’s three summits in 1984, that the world of climbers considered Kurtyka to be the top Polish alpinist, and then she added, “possibly the best in the world.”

Kurtyka was a member of various Polish national expeditions to make the first winter ascents of the 8,000-meter peaks. He put up daring new routes on Asia’s mountaineering landmarks, like Nameless Tower, Kohe Bandaka, Cho Oyu, and others. He made several notable attempts that earned their own admiration, included on K2, and Nanga Parbat’s high and long Mazeno Ridge. In concluding Freedom Climbers, McDonald summed up Kurtyka thusly:

The greatest export of the era was unquestionably Voytek: the thinking man’s climber, visionary and philosophical. He is remembered still for his uncompromising choice of lines. On some he succeeded; on others he failed. But his vision was always inspired. He didn’t enter the race for the 8,00p-metre peaks like Jurek and Wanda but instead made his name on the massive frozen faces, big technical walls and high-altitude traverses of the Himalaya. He was motivated by beautiful lines, difficult lines, futuristic lines. He eschewed fixed ropes and big expeditions, preferring the flexibility and independence of two- or three-person teams. And it was on the international stage that he shone brightest. (McDonald 318-319)

There is one ascent’s story that rivals, in my mind anyway, David Roberts’ The Mountain of My Fear, and that of the first ascent of the Shining Wall: In 1985, Kurtyka joined forces with Austrian alpinist Robert Schauer. Together they attempted one of Kurtyka’s obsessions: The West Face of Gasherbrum IV (pictured above), known as the Shining Wall for it’s reflective stone. They took only the clothes they wore, the minimal gear, a bivy sack, a little food, stove and fuel. McDonald characterized many of the anchors as merely “psychological” and having no tangible benefit. But as they went higher on the smooth wall, they were stopped by severe weather and cold nights. Kurtyka and Schauer experienced their bodies at the limit, including sensing a malicious presence of an invisible third man. They survived, completed the wall, but turned back on heading to the summit. This climb is a clear candidate for one of the greatest climbs of all time.

Insight from Voytek Kurtyka

Issue 43 of Alpinist is one of my favorite issues since I started subscribing a few year ago. It contains the crag profile for Squamish, British Colombia, and, perhaps more significantly, an interview of Kurtyka arranged by Bernadette McDonald, “The View from the Wall.” If we were to Canonize an Alpinists Bible, this could be the Book of Voytek.

What does Kurtyka say is the reason we climb? It’s about dignity; to find it, isolate it, and latch on to it longer. He acknowledges that we seek to climb something is mechanical but that there is a battle to do so, and it is inward. Can we respect ourselves? Can we pull ourselves together? Can we still see beauty? In fact, if we can maintain or hang on to our dignity, Kurtyka says we should see greater beauty and understood what is beautiful better. I am oversimplifying it, of course.

Kurtyka believes that climbing can open gateways to a realm that we are capable of connecting with. Call it spiritual or cosmic. He isn’t sure either. But all climbing does is open it for us to see it it. (Or perhaps it exposes ourselves? But that’s a different philosophical thought.)

I’ve read the interview half a dozen times in the last two years and every time I find his talk of whether there is a God unsettling. He says he cannot believe in a being that demands blind obedience. My understanding of such things says it requires a leap of faith. Of course, Kurtyka also said in the interview that he has always struggled with his ego, mainly tempering it. He made it sound like a nasty inward fight. Ego can be a major impediment to a quest for dignity and seeing beauty outside ourselves, including in the people around us. Ego, of course, is a barrier to any leaps of faith; so perhaps it’s not about whether he could believe in God but does he himself want to. I’m curious what his retort would be.

His perspective on God doesn’t have anything to do with the gateway to whatever that cosmic experience he has had in Gasherbrum IV or on so many other climbs. It seems he questions what God is more so than who it is, but it seems something of a higher being does exist for Kurtyka, even if it is not definable. Maybe it doesn’t have to be.

Why Voytek Kurtyka didn’t make my original list of the top five greatest climbers of all time is simple: He might be in a whole different category. Hopefully, I’ll have time to share that in more detail, in a presentable way. For now, cheers to Voytek Kurtyka, The Great, and congratulations at last on the Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award!

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