Top Read #14: The Art Of Freedom

20th Dec 2017

The Art Of Freedom

In 2016, the Polish mountaineer Voytek Kurtyka travelled to La Grave to be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Piolets d’Or commitee.  The Piolets d’Or is an annual celebration of mountain endeavour and is considered by many to be the most prestigious accolade a climber can receive from within the mountaineering community.  

The fact that Voytek was receiving the award was quite incredible and that’s certainly not because he didn’t deserve it.  He is considered one of the all time most accomplished mountaineers and was described by Reinhold Messner (first ascent of Everest without supplementary oxygen, first solo ascent of Everest and first person to climb all the world’s mountains over 8000 metres) as the greatest mountaineer in history. 

No, it was amazing that Voytek was attending because he had previously repeatedly turned down the award and saw no relevance for such recognition.  In the end he accepted it primarily because the organisers had told him it was going to be awarded to him whether he was there or not and Voytek became concerned that rejecting it in these circumstances could make him seem arrogant.

Many may not have heard of Voytek, but for those in the know his achievements are staggering.  He was extremely active during what many might say was the golden age of Polish Mountaineering.  Despite the challenges created by living standards, equipment supply issues and currency problems within the country at the time (or maybe spurred on by these challenges?), Polish mountaineers still set the bar for epic achievements in the highest mountains.  They achieved many winter ascents and many summits by new routes - and most often these were completed in small team Alpine style pushes against all the odds. 

Voytek was right at the heart of this but, despite staggeringly bold climbs, he maintained an incredibly strong ethic that focussed not on ticking mountains because of their popularity or to complete sets, his focus was always on choosing aesthetic and challenging lines that inspired him.  He didn’t seek publicity or recognition - he sought life enhancing, transcendental, almost mystical experiences.  

His story is now fully revealed in a new biography by Bernadette McDonald and it is a fascinating read.  I consider Bernadette a superb writer and loved her previous book about Polish climbing history, Freedom Climbers (this was discussed in one of my previous blogs about Jerzy Kukuczka which can be found here).  This new book is, as a biography of a single climber, is a departure for Bernadette.  No matter, it beautifully weaves Voytek’s story into the wider history of Polish mountaineering and rightly led to her winning this year’s Boardman Tasker Mountain Literature Award.

The list of Voytek’s achievements is vast, but for me the style of his ascents is easily equal in impressiveness.  His were dream climbs with small teams or a single partner on huge unclimbed faces at the cutting edge of difficulty and human endurance.  Voytek first perfected a style that already existed but gradually progressed thinking on where Himalayan climbing might lead.  By the time of his self proclaimed ‘Night Naked’ ascents of Shishapangma and Cho Oyu, Kurtyka was forging up new routes on these Himalayan giants with a couple of chocolate bars and no sleeping bag in super fast times.  A style many would now consider the gold standard, albeit with no room for error.

And so, what Bernadette manages to get to is that for Voytek these climbs were a spiritual path to a state of enlightenment, and this fascinated me most about the book.  As climbers (or any hillgoers) would say, we all have those experiences that are, in some way and whether we choose to analyse it or not, a pathway to a different state of being.  Voytek seems to have mastered that.  On the third day of his staggering traverse of Broad Peak (a traverse of three summits along a ridge over 10kms in length), for one example, Voytek and his partner (his partner was the legendary Jerzy Kukuczka mentioned above) reached a col between the north and central peaks of Broad Peak and set up camp.  In this highly committing position (the only escape was to continue along the ridge or return the way they had come) Voytek relays to McDonald one of the most transcendental moments of his career. 

He describes a feeling of complete happiness and contentment as he strides around the col, surrounded on all sides by staggering beauty.  Voytek describes it to Bernadette as being almost like a sense of delirium and it was one of the most poignant sections of the book for me as we surely all seek, at whatever level, those moments - although for most of us it doesn't happen in such a challenging position!

Kurtyka is my kind of climber and McDonald is my kind of writer - I loved every page of this book and I think you will too.  Enjoy.

Posted by Paul

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