Some years ago, before I really understood the incredible contribution Polish climbers had made to world mountaineering, I read Jerzy Kukuczka’s book ‘My Vertical World’. It’s a brilliant book. Jerzy (or Jurek as he seems more widely known) came across as a quiet and determined man who also happened to have an amazing talent on the highest mountains. Between 1979 and 1987 he climbed all the 14 peaks over 8000 metres finishing only a short time behind the first person to achieve the feat, Reinhold Messner. But Jurek, although he would have wanted to be the first, was really setting the challenge at a different level. He climbed all 14 by either new routes or in winter. He also completed this incredible feat in only 8 years which I think is around half the time Reinhold took.
Of course Jurek was exceptional. But there were many exceptional climbers in Poland in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Exceptional performances on the highest mountains that led to, among many others, first winter ascents of Everest, Lhotse, Manaslu and Cho Oyu along with new routes on Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum 1.
Tragically, soon after completing the magic 14 Jurek fell to his death from the final pitches of a new route on the South Face of Lhotse. Lhotse South Face had troubled him and he so wanted to be the first to conquer this vast, intricate jumble of pillars, couloirs and ridges. The first time I gazed at this wall I was awestruck at its size and complexity (the photo at the top shows storm clouds clearing from the face near sunset) and tried to imagine the commitment needed for a small team like Jurek’s to conquer it. Jurek and his partner were on the final slabs when his crampon slipped and he fell, snapping the thin (7mm) lead rope as it wore over a sharp edge. His body was never found and the picture below shows the memorial plaque to Jurek and 2 other Polish climbers that all climbers and trekkers see as they head towards Island Peak (which sits at the head of the same valley).
For Polish climbers the mountains gave a freedom that they couldn’t easily find in their oppressed and unstable country but getting the permission and finances to make it all possible was often just of much of a mountain to be overcome as the climb itself. Everything was done on a shoestring budget and the ingenuity of Polish climbers meant any ways to get finance were fully exploited. International trading, racketeering and goods dealing all helped provide the money they needed. Indeed, they became so proficient at it that many climbers returned from expeditions richer than when they left!
This whole period of climbing history is beautifully chronicled in Bernadette McDonald’s new book ‘Freedom Climbers’. I was really looking forward to reading it and wasn’t disappointed. It’s an expertly scripted work that effortlessly interweaves the everyday struggles of Polish climbers with their audacious climbs. I loved the book and, after reading it once, I must admit I immediately turned right back to the start and read it again!
Bernadette spends quite a bit of time trying to pinpoint reasons the Poles were so dominant and lots of theories have been put forward - but in the end it’s all hypothesising. The Polish climbers were eager for success and willing to suffer to get it – a winning combination. But, although I loved reading about all the key characters in Freedom Climbers, I loved reading about Jurek the most. I wish I could have met him, I wish he had succeeded on the South Face of Lhotse and gone on to have the space to relish his achievements and I wish he had grown old in his little Polish village surrounded by the family he had to leave behind so often (during his 14 year marriage his wife, Celina, estimated they had only been together 7 years!). Jurek was a climber’s climber and rightly deserves his title as the world’s greatest mountaineer.
There are loads of good anecdotes about him but one of my favourites concerned a time he joined an international expedition to climb K2. One of the team, a Swiss mountain guide (that Jurek referred to as looking ‘as thin as a greyhound’), looked at Jurek’s slight paunch and said he didn’t look much like a mountaineer. Jurek turned to the guide and simply suggested they have this discussion again when they both get to 8000 metres! Jurek went on to climb a new route on the mountain (although his partner tragically fell to his death on their descent) and then, after just a few weeks at home, headed straight to Manaslu to start the whole process again! Jerzy Kuckuczka - the Polish legend.