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.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy receiving my monthly newsletter with more climbing history, news on upcoming books, and climbing art by some talented artists.

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‘Alpine Warriors’ by Bernadette McDonald

 

Alpine_WarriorsBy 1979, the summit of Mount Everest had been reached by every major ridge, yet a large expedition from Yugoslavia arrived to top their last achievement of making the first ascent of Makalu South Face. The West Ridge of Everest was a long unconventional line to the top. It was first climbed by the Americans in 1963, and is still well celebrated in the United States today. Except the Americans climbed only the upper half. The Yugoslavians came to traverse it all starting at the base, low in the Lho La pass.

Like many national expeditions in those days, it was huge. It included 25 Yugoslavian mountaineers, 19 Sherpas, three cooks, three kitchen boys, two mail runners, 700 porters and 18 tons of gear. The ascent had to overcome a steep and severe gap, which required a winch to overcome so it was possible to haul the gear over the broken portion of the ridge. All efforts and ingenuity combined, the Yugoslavians positioned three Slovenian climbers at Camp V who were close to each other, Nejc Zaplotnik, Andrej Stremfelj, and Andrej’s brother, Marko Stremfelj.

Shortly after starting out from Camp V, however, Marko’s oxygen apparatus malfunctioned. After some jostling with the regulator, Marko was forced to turn around. Andrej was conflicted  and frustrated about ascending without his brother; it was so unjust. Andrej went on with Nejc, but they weren’t free of issues, however; both their equipment failed and only Nejc had enough tanked air to get him to the top. Andrej said he’d go on and as high as long as he could.

The summit was far, and the day was getting late. Nejc was determined to reach to top on this push, so he steeled himself mentally for a cold, dark high-altitude bivouac, which likely meant losing toes, fingers or limbs to frostbite and possibly death. Except when they radioed base camp, they realized that it wasn’t as late as they had thought; they still had plenty of daylight ahead. Buoyed, they plodded upward. But upon reaching the Chinese tripod on the summit, elated, the question was daunting: We can’t go down the way we came, so what the heck do we do now?

This was a mere moment of one of the dozen-and-a-half stories Bernadette McDonald retells with prose sometimes bordering on poetry and with the courage to cuss when the tension required it in her latest award winning book, Alpine Warriors (2015).

Writing from the Top

Bernadette McDonald has been in a unique position to uncover some of the hidden stories among European climbing communities. She oversaw mountain culture programs, including the Mountain Film and Book Festival, at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and she has published (or edited) over eight books. Perhaps most notably Tomaz Humar (2008) and Freedom Climbers (2011), both of which won the grand prize in the Banff Mountain Book Competition when they were written.

The best climbing and mountaineering literature doesn’t just list the characters, the route, and the accomplishments, but tells a non-climbing story through the challenge of the climb. McDonald has done this with biographies, and in Freedom Climbers and Alpine Warriors she talks about a national story of a people (the Poles and the Slovenes, respectively.)

Surge of Himalayan Ascents

I spoke briefly with McDonald after she won at Banff in November, but before I started to read it. So I knew premise of the book and that it was similar to Freedom Climbers, in that it was a national history of climbing. But she emphasized that it was about the Slovenian accomplishments in the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t understand why that was so significant until halfway through the book. She sums it best at the start of Chapter 12:

Although Yugoslavian climbers entered the Himalayan arena late, the international climbing community was stunned by their accomplishments on Makalu and Everest and awed by their near successes on the South Faces of Dhuahlagiri and Lhotse. There were many more: Kangbachen, Trisol, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Gaurishankar South Summit, Annapurna, Gangapurna, Yalung Kang, Ama Dablam, Lhotse Shar — the list of ascents went on and on. As their triumphs accumulated, confidence grew. So did national pride.

Alpine Warriors tells a story about Yugoslavia after World War II and the dozen-and-a-half alpinists from Slovenia that changed Himalayan climbing. These climbers were from a war torn country, with religious, political, and ethnic fragmentation reduced to poverty. These conditions, arguably, and combined with the location near the Tatras, produced a hardened group and several leaders that brought these hardened men to the Himalayas, not in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s when the 8,000-meter peaks were being climbed by their major ridges, but later, when the new challenges had to be spotted and seized before anybody else.

To name a few of the great alpinists McDonald writes about, Ales Kunaver was the leading visionary and teacher, Nejc Zaplotnik was their spokesperson and spiritual leader, and Francek Knez is the quiet outsider that climbed big walls with a grace and ferociousness the likeness no one has ever seen. These three alone are worth an English-language biography.

Lots of Competition in 2015

It was a difficult field for any mountaineering book competition, in 2015, whether it was Banff, the Boardman Tasker, or the American Alpine ClubBernadette_McDonald Award in Literature. Alpine Warriors was up against Kelly Cordes’ The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre, Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, and John Porter’s One Day as a Tiger, just to name a few. Of course, it helps when you have a good story to tell, which all of them do, but these folks can all write.

I’m not privy to what the judges at Banff discussed (I wasn’t even one of the book category pre-readers), but I know from reading Cordes’ and Blanchard’s books, McDonald might have had her closest competition yet. They all had the ability to make their prose dance like poetry, but McDonald had the touch and a perspective. She didn’t just tell a story about a life. She didn’t just tell about the lives that came to a temple. She told the story of a people through the lens of climbing.

Reading Alpine Warriors I learned more about Yugoslovians and Slovenians than I was taught in 20th Century European Politics and Soviet History in college. I read about 20 or so mini-biographies about Slovenian alpinists in Alpine Warriors. I learned about Nejc Zaplotnik’s Slovenian classic book, Pot, which means “the path” or “the way”, and I read the first passages translated and widely distributed in English, thanks to McDonalds’ painstaking work over the phone with an interpreter. It opened my world to a people and an experience that is unique and was previously hidden from me.

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Autographs from the Climbing Community and Other Notes

Autographs from Mendi (Szalay 2014)

Mine got lost in the mail. Everyone received their copy weeks earlier. I wasn’t even sure what I was waiting for but I was convinced it was special because it was coming from Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn.

Before Bob left Bilbao, Spain and the Mendi Mountain Film Festival for home in The Netherlands, he had asked a few friends for their current address. I gave him mine right away.

Whether it’s in Banff, Canada, Kendall, United Kingdom, Bilbao or someplace else, the mountain film festivals bring the climbing community together, and their reach goes beyond the gatherings at climbing events like the Ouray Ice Festival or Red Rock Rendezvous. Active climbers show up at the climber meets, but active climbers, artists, filmmakers, authors, and armchair mountaineers go to the mountain film festivals.

The postcard I received was an illustration of the broad gathering at Mendi, and also its status.

After some prolonged waiting, I got mine. What we all received was a picture of the Guggenheim Museum, which was near the Mendi festival that was held all over Balbao. On the other side there was no message, only the signatures of four extraordinary members of the climbing community: Award winning author Bernadette McDonald, legendary Polish alpinist Krzysztof Wielicki, Polish climbing star Adam Bielecki, and leading Kazakh mountain climber Denis Urubko. Most of their marks were barely readable.

At the top, in the return address space, signed with only his first name, is Bob himself. He and I joked about how it devalues the postcard’s value with the other four autographs (how it’s gone from several hundreds of dollars to mere cents with his pen stroke).

In reality, in my opinion, Bob has played a valuable role in telling and retelling some of climbing’s greatest tales. He is a historian with a incredible memory for detail and he has a collection of climbing autographs and memorabilia you might not believe. Yet, his name only appears in footnotes in some of the books and periodicals you might read, particularly from National Geographic and Alpinist.

The fact that Bob thought to send me one of his several signed postcards from Mendi has sent me soaring. When I learned the other recipients I blushed; those I knew are people that I admire. It was good company.

Thanks, Bob, for making me feel like a part of your community.

As a total aside, there has been a lot of climbing news worthy singling out or at least a mention. I’ve mentioned them all through my Twitter feed (@SuburbanMtnr) but I can touch on them a bit more here:

The biggest and saddest news from the past couple of weeks has been the loss of Chad Kellogg, the well known speed climber and less well known alpinist. He ascended Fitz Roy’s Northwest Ridge with Jens Holsten and was killed by rock fall on the descent in the Supercanaleta, only three rappels below the summit. Jens descended alone. I didn’t want Chad’s story to be over yet.

The opposite side of the coin of sadness yielded this development: The same week Kellogg was lost, American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold tried some Patagonia alpine rock and were the first to complete a full traverse of the Fitz Roy massif via a unified ridge with an ascent of 4,000 meters. It’s been dubbed the Fitz Traverse.

Several climbers continue to work toward making the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. As March 21 looms, the ascent just gets more exciting. Raheel Adnan has been covering the details on his blog, Altitude Pakistan. I also post much of his material on my Twitter feed.

Lastly, I conducted a few brief interviews with some of the leading climbers in Alaska today and asked them about some of the boldest ascents to remember. Well, it’s not pretty, but the list is longer than I thought it would be and the climbs are more daunting than I originally considered them (when the leaders are impressed, you have to be more scared than they are, right?) So look for the first post on that later this month.

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Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald

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Alpine start. (All rights reserved)

My mother was born in America but her first language was Polish. She still speaks with a hint of an accent if you know to listen for it. I took for granted any appreciation for my Polish heritage for most of my life. When I was young, I was teased for being a “Polack,” which, I was crudely informed through jokes, were stupid people. So I conveniently hid that part of me for a while and emphasized my Hungarian, English and German heritage from my father’s side whenever national background mattered.

Now that I am older and thankfully more mature, I’m fond of my collective heritage. I’ve always enjoyed my Polish traditions at Christmas Eve and at Easter — two of the holiest days of the year for Catholic Poles. Still, I never thought that I would have any real reason to have pride in being Polish. Poland, to the best of my knowledge at one time, was merely another country ransacked by the Soviets and the only amazing people from there were Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa. Later I learned of alpinists Wanda Rutkiewicz and Jerzy Kukuczka, though I only thought of them as alpinists, not as Polish alpinists… until recently.

My perception of Poland changed in the context of mountaineering. I read Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald (2011) at long last. Between responsibilities with family, work, and helping my wife launch her start up (which opened on Monday), my reading habits have relied on taking small sips rather than large gulps, as author Stephen King would put it. Albeit for me, very small sips.

McDonald’s book has won several awards, including the 2011 Banff Mountain Book Festival Competition and the 2012 American Alpine Club Literary Award, among others. At the outset of reading it, I didn’t think there was anything that special in the first few chapters. I already knew much about Wanda Rutkiewicz, Jerzy Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer as well as a little about Krzystof Wielicki. They were all great Polish alpinists, and Hajzer is still attempting winter ascents of the 8,000 meter peaks that haven’t been summitted those days. But by the middle, and certainly by the final two chapters, I realized that McDonald didn’t tell me why I needed to learn about them all together as a group, she showed me. I had to go on her journey — chapter by chapter — to get fully get it.

Freedom Climbers is the story of some — but not all — of the significant alpinists that made Poland the Himalayan powerhouse of the 1980s and 90s. She demonstrates through examples, told through short biographies, and explaining the historical context of the economic and social forces shaping their environment, to show why what they accomplished was so important in the climbing realm and even of greater significance in the idea of human freedom.

I’m tempted to repeat McDonald’s punchline and restate some of her conclusions about why they were so prolific in the Himalayas, but they lose their force of truth without the examples and stories that precede them. Instead, here is a sampling of what made them so impressive: They were poorer than any other nationality of climbers, ca$e in greater numbers and yet spent the most time in the Himalayas. Their gear was inferior and often homemade and yet they created new routes in the most awful conditions, including winter. Despite lack of government permissions and other support, they were innovative in gaining mobility and visited the mountains other than their beloved High Tatras.

The book also brought to light a climber that previously escaped my attention, or at least qualities that I didn’t know he had: Voytek Kurtyka. For me the story begins with a mountain seriously ambitious alpinists consider beautiful: Gasherbrum IV. It’s a 7,000-meter peak, but may have qualities that are tougher than any of the 8,000ers, including K2. Kurtyka was part of the two-man team that first ascended the high, vertical Shining Wall.

While I could recount his other notable climbing accomplishments, like his ascent of Nameless Tower in the Karakorum, what fascinates me most about him is the combination of his accomplishments and his philosophy toward the mountains and climbing. In many ways, he’s helped me — through the writing of Bernadette McDonald, of course — understand climbing at the level David Roberts has delved into the questions of why do we choose to suffer so to climb, through cold, avalanche risk, damaged or ruined relationships for the experience of a climb.

Kurtyka developed a philosophy that borrowed from and closely resembles the Buddhist Middle Path and the Samarai Path of the Sword. He wrote about it and called it the Path of the Mountain. He drew his energy from nature, but only the mountains would satisfy his desire for connection; only in the mountain environment would he face fear, anxiety, exhaustion, hunger and thirst and peer into another level of his soul and finding a special peaceful place.

This approach brought Kurtyka to face high challenges that were private. Climbing the 8,000ers in a day when his former climbing partner Kukuczka was racing Reinhold Messner to top out on all 14 was the antithesis of Kurtyka’s climbing style and spiritual goals. He climbed for 30 years and constantly pushed the limits, not unlike Steve House today. What may have kept him alive and successful, McDonald argues, was that unlike Kukuczka, he never allowed his ability to detect and weigh risk be pushed aside; she cites numerous “strategic and hasty” retreats that seemed irrational at the time but proved to be “mystical” and insightful.

I’m grateful McDonald told this story. It’s a wonderful narrative, full of mini-biographies and gives a better understanding of the struggles under the Soviets and what greatness actually entails.

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