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64 The View from the Wall

The Polish alpinist Voytek Kurtyka remains one of the most legendary figures in the history of Himalayan alpine-style climbing. In an interview with Zbyszek Skierski, he shares his thoughts on perfectionism, love, hell and freedom. Read Bernadette McDonald’s introduction below.

[Illustration] Pat Kinsella

JULY 15, 1984: WITH EACH SHIFT in the late afternoon light, the mountains surrounding Voytek Kurtyka revealed deeper, almost prismatic shades of beauty. He and Jerzy Kukuczka were at 7600 meters on the saddle between the north and central summits of Broad Peak (8047m). It was the third day of their ten-kilometer traverse of the mountain. Retreat was no longer possible.

Behind lay a sharp ridgeline, a serac wall and an avalanche path. Ahead stretched more unknowns. Yet Voytek was barely aware of any fear. He struggled to explain the intensity of the moment: “I remember it just like a delirium–it was deeply spiritual. Beauty is some kind of laser connection to higher worlds.”

VOYTEK WAS BORN IN 1947 in Skrzynka, a tiny village surrounded by the verdant, forested hills of southern Poland. His father was a well-known nonfiction author, a keen observer of the human condition. When they moved to the city of Wroclaw, Voytek missed the vibrant colors of the countryside so badly that he sank into depression. While studying electrical engineering at university, he became addicted to rock climbing. Because of his natural ability, he was soon invited to join Polish expeditions to the Tatras and the Alps. He first experienced altitude on a trip to Afghanistan in 1972. Even then, his approach was minimalist–no pre-stocked camps and no fixed lines. The result was unusual for the time: the first alpine-style ascent of the 1800-meter north face of Akher Chioh (7017m), a feature that has a startling resemblance to the concave shape of the Eiger Nordwand.

Since then, Voytek’s climbing career has continued to demonstrate his singular ethos: “Mountaineering is a complex and unique way of life, interweaving elements of sport, art and mysticism.” After establishing bold new routes in Afghanistan on massive walls of friable rock and toppling seracs, he traveled to Changabang (6864m) in India’s Garhwal Himalaya in 1978. During his eight-day first ascent of the glistening, unclimbed Direct South Face, he understood what inspired him most: the creation of elegantly arching lines on steep, geometric blocks of rock and ice, with a small, committed team of friends.

On Nepal’s Dhaulagiri (8167m), he stepped into another dimension of risk: alpine-style climbing on one of the world’s highest peaks. Except for two or three pitches, his four-man team soloed the entire east face in 1980, mostly in snowfall and continual spindrift. Voytek has always been particular about his choices, including his selection of partners. In 1983, as he and Jerzy Kukuczka established new routes on Gasherbrums I and II (8068m; 8035m) in Pakistan, they became so in tune with each other that they hardly needed to talk. The next year, in only five days, they linked the north, central and main summits of Broad Peak, completing the first traverse of the mountain.

Voytek later spent weeks deciphering the traps and weaknesses of the unclimbed, 2500-meter Shining Wall of Gasherbrum IV (7925m). He concluded that the key to the puzzle was a huge couloir, right of center on the face. Although hazardous, this line bypassed some of the marble-like stone that had defeated previous parties. For eight days in 1985, he and Robert Schauer struggled through storms and avalanches, placing “psychological belays” in cruelly smooth rock and stopping just below the summit. Other alpinists still call the achievement “the climb of the century.” Voytek counters: “Did anybody repeat GIV to confirm our illusion of it? Besides, does it make sense to declare a poem the poem of the century?”

Three years afterward, Voytek and Erhard Loretan became the first two-man team to climb a new route on Trango Tower (6239m). Voytek describes the twenty-nine pitches of gold granite as “a real piece of art, like dwelling inside a crystal.” In 1990, in Nepal and Tibet, he ventured even deeper into the mystery he feels is essential to mountaineering. Within the space of six days, he climbed new routes on Cho Oyu (8188m) and Shishapangma (8046m), with Erhard and Jean Troillet. Voytek called their style “night-naked”: a single push with just four candy bars, a water bottle, thirty meters of seven-millimeter rope and four pitons. They even left their harnesses behind. The adventures were a culmination of his quest for freedom in the highest mountains–transcendently light and fast. They were also Voytek’s last major Himalayan ascents, though not the end of his climbing. At forty-six, in 1993, he free soloed a delicate and devious 5.13 sport route in the Polish Jura called the Chinski Maharadza.

Voytek’s thirty-year career is studded not only with outstanding triumphs, but also with hasty and strategic retreats. Many climbers have attributed his survival to an almost mystical decision-making process, declaring that Voytek had his “head in the clouds.” Voytek jokingly describes himself as the ultimate coward. Perhaps. But he made some of the boldest–and some might say the most dangerous–ascents in the history of high-altitude climbing, and neither he nor his partners have ever been injured.

TODAY, VOYTEK IS MILDLY AMUSED that the climbing community remains interested in him. He refers to members of his own generation as “dinosaurs.” Nonetheless, leading alpinists still call him to seek advice or just to talk. For the past twenty years, he insists, he has been more fascinated with studying the plants at his feet, than with searching for climbing lines in the air. He doesn’t even seem to want the attention, and he is famous for saying no. No to the festivals who invite him. No to the lectures. No to the prizes and no to the interviews (which makes this one all the more unique).

“Why brood over the past,” he asks, “when the present offers much more mystery and charm?” He fusses over his two grown children as they find their way in the world. He thinks a lot, and with intensity. Ludwik Wilczyński describes him as the Polish mountaineering community’s “metaphysical think-tank.” Yet as Voytek continues to try to understand that “connection to higher worlds,” his philosophy remains enigmatic. Although he discounts the existence of God, he makes frequent references to spirituality. He writes with agonizing care over every word, often infusing his sentences with a sense of humor as black as it is quirky. He gardens with passion and savors a glass of fine Georgian Mukuzani wine as much as a perfectly prepared potato. And he climbs. Voytek will never give up climbing. Why should he? It has given him so much.–Bernadette McDonald

To read the full article, including Kurtyka’s interview, download Issue 43 in our app.