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Remembering Janusz Kurczab

Janusz Kurczab on the East Wall of Mynarczyk in 1964.

[Photo] Janusz Kurczab collection

Janusz Kurczab, one of Poland’s legendary expedition leaders, died at 77 on April 11. Kurczab, born in 1937, was a versatile athlete who fenced at the XVII Olympic Games in Rome in 1960. In addition to fencing and Himalayan climbing, he competed in pentathlons.

Janusz Kurczab

[Photo] Janusz Kurczab collection

Kurczab’s true love and calling was the mountains, despite already being a nationally ranked fencer before he began climbing in 1957. “While I was at the forefront of national fencing in 1958, I was already hooked on climbing, but it was too late. I had to somehow reconcile the two disciplines, but collisions were inevitable,” he reported to the Polish Website Fencing, he said, was much different than climbing, but the training “helped me in the mountains by maintaining high levels of physical fitness and general health.”

Over the next dozen years, Kurczab established more than 40 first ascents in the Tatra Mountains, a rocky range along Poland’s southern border with Slovakia, and the Alps. He repeated numerous classic alpine routes and walls, including the Walker Spur (TD+/ED1 IV 5c/6a A1, 1200m) on the Grandes Jorasses, the Bonatti Pillar on the Petit Dru (destroyed by rockfall in 2005), and the Direttissima, AKA the Hasse-Brandler (A2; 5.12-, 550m) on the Cima Grande di Lavaredo.

The third camp on the first ascent of Shispare (7611m) in 1974.

[Photo] Janusz Kurczab collection

In addition to climbing in Europe, Kurczab led several Polish expeditions to the Himalaya and Karakoram. In 1972 he traveled to the Hindu Kush in central Asia with his team, which included the legendary Wanda Rutkiewicz, and made the first ascent of the southwest face of Noshaq (7492m) in alpine style. In 1974 Kurczab led the Polish-German Academic Expedition to the Batura Muztagh in Pakistan, where his team made the first ascent of Shispare (7611m), one of the highest peaks in the range. The group took thirty-five days to forge a route up the southeast ridge of the peak.

Kurczab’s other Asian expeditions include K2 (8611m) by the northeast ridge (unsuccessful) in 1976 and the northwest ridge in 1982 (also unsuccessful), Makalu (8481m) in 1978 (unsuccessful) and Manaslu (8163m) in 1980 (unsuccessful).

Janusz Kurczab aid climbing on the Hasse-Brandler route in the Dolomites in 1981.

[Photo] Janusz Kurczab collection

In his later years, Kurczab was often referred to as a living encyclopedia of Polish Himalayan mountaineering and climbing. He wrote several books about his climbing adventures, including Shispare: Mountain Dreamed (1974), Pillar Kazalnica (1976), The Last Barrier (1980), The Summits of the Himalayas (1983), The Most Beautiful Peaks of the Tatra (1991), The Himalayas of Nepal (2002) and Polish Himalayas (2008). The latter was a six-book series.

“I don’t know how different my life would be without mountains and climbing,” Kurczab said in a 2010 interview. “It would certainly be far poorer, even assuming that I devoted myself tirelessly to fencing and was more successful. Then I would be a fencing coach and activist. Despite some dissatisfaction with the expeditions to K2, Makalu and Manaslu, I am satisfied that I lived an interesting life. And the fact that I came out unscathed from many dangerous situations only adds color to my memories.”

Janusz Kurczab and his partners on top of Kazalnica Peak after climbing the first ascent of the Kazalnica Pillar in 1962.

[Photo] Janusz Kurczab collection