Art of Freedom is a brilliant portrait of one of the purest alpinists of our time

Pic: Mateusz Skwarczek Agencja Gazeta

There was the rattle of pans and the hiss of a kerosene stove from the kitchen tent. Poking my head out of the sleeping bag, I saw the huge hulk of Makalu silhouetted against the dawn sky. It had snowed all night, the moon and some of the stars were still out. There in the semi-darkness, Voytek Kurtuka was hanging by one hand from a truck-sized boulder.

It was the spring climbing season in 1981, and we were camped out on a moraine by the Barun during the march-in to Base Camp. Kurtyka was planning an alpine style ascent of Makalu’s unclimbed west face with his climbing partner Alex MacIntyre. The weather was bad and the face was impossible. The two returned in autumn, but they were defeated by a 500m rock overhang near the summit. Another Polish climber Jurek Kukucka made it to the top solo a few days later.

Bernadette McDonald, the Canadian author of ten mountaineering books, chronicles the Makalu expeditions and other climbs by one of the greatest alpinists of all time, Poland’s Voytek Kurtyka, in her new book, Art of Freedom. Even though they were mountaineers of the same generation from the same country, Kukucka and Kurtyka’s approaches to climbing could not be more different.

McDonald writes about how Makalu presaged the difference: ‘Jurek was focused on summits, and Voytek was obsessed with style.’

Kurtyka was a driven man, completely consumed by his climbing and an ardent opponent of militaristic expedition-style climbing of Himalayan peaks. Attaining the summit was not so important for the reclusive Kurtyka, what was important was how a climber got there.

A year after Makalu, Reinhold Messner invited Kurtyka to join him on Cho Oyu. But when he got to Base Camp, Kurtyka found out the climb was ‘not going to be alpine style, but siege style’ with high altitude porters, ropes and fixed camps. Kurtyka tells McDonald he likes to climb ‘unleashed’. We read about the climber’s dislike for mountaineers who write in a ‘pretentious or self-aggrandizing style’. He adds: ‘I now see clearly that climbing is an Art. I also see that advertising is a poison, while self-advertising is the oldest disease in the human soul.’

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In the week when the assembly line jumar mass-conquests of Mt Everest is reaching its annual climax, these lines have special relevance. Art of Freedom takes us back to the purity of climbing that Kurtyka believed in like a religion – a style in which humans meet mountains one-on-one.

Kurtyka’s approach to climbing is low-key, humble and almost Buddhist, a complete antithesis to the chest-thumbing, record-breaking race that it has become, especially on Everest. Naturally, Kurtyka is vehement about over-regulation by governments intent on turning climbing into an industrial enterprise. He is proud of his many illegal climbs.

He tells McDonald: ‘Being illegal is part of a creative life. Restrictions are mostly imposed by the brutes of the world and they turn our lives into slavery. They ruin the sense of freedom. I am not a natural born hater, but sometimes I find it is my duty, I hate every kind of rule.’

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After returning to Kathmandu from Makalu in 1981, Voytek and Alex would go bar-hopping in Thamel and come home after curfew. Because they did not want to wake up my parents, the two would climb up the drain pipes to the second floor ‘apline style’ with the dogs howling at the intruders.

Kurtyka would have taken a dim view of the outrageous reaction by Nepal’s tourism ‘authorities’ to Willie Begenas and Matt Moniz skiing from Camp 3 to Camp 2 last week. Or the new ‘rule’ decreed by the governors of mountaineering in Kathmandu to ban double amputees from climbing (since rescinded).

The danger is always there, and Kurtyka is one of the few who lived to tell the tale of alpine style climbing of the big peaks. Kukucka died on Lhotse South Face, and MacIntyre on Annapurna South Face. In the book, Kurtyka tells McDonald why he thinks he survived: a combination of luck, an instinctive alertness to danger signals, or even ‘some idealistic notion of a reciprocal love between the mountain and him’.

Bernadette Mcdonald’s book takes us into the soul of a spiritual climber who sees in mountaineering a manifestation of nature in its purest form, a creative drive he calls ‘Crea’. Art of Freedom is a brilliant portrait of one of the cleanest climbers of our time.

Art of Freedom:
The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka 
by Bernadette McDonald
Rocky Mountain Books, 2017
326 pages Hardcover $32

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