Polish climber Voytek Kurtyka, now aged 70, is one of the key pioneers of alpine-style climbing in the Greater Ranges. Alongside making numerous first ascents of difficult rock climbs in his native Poland, Kurtyka’s contribution to modern alpinism is second to none, with dozens of lightweight expeditions to the world’s highest mountains to his credit since the early 1970s. Yet amongst so many groundbreaking ascents, it was his 1985 climb of Gasherbrum IV’s ‘Shining Wall’ in the Pakistan Karakoram with Austrian Robert Schauer that most defined his career. The route was later described by America’s Climbing magazine as “one of the greatest mountaineering achievements of the twentieth century”.
Award winning Canadian writer Bernadette McDonald has now written the long-awaited biography of Voytek Kurtyka. In this exclusive extract from the book, Art of Freedom, she describes Kurtyka and Schauer’s epoch-making ascent on one of the most feared and beautiful peaks in the Greater Ranges.
The colossal west face of Gasherbrum IV (7,925m) towers above the upper Baltoro Glacier in the Pakistan Karakoram. 'The Shining Wall' climbed by Kurtyka and Schauer in 1985 is the huge face to the right of the obvious central pillar (the line of a later route established by three Korean climbers - Bang Jung-ho, Kim Tong-kwan and Yoo Huk-jae - in 1997).
Sleep-deprived, hungry, thirsty, hypoxic and stressed, they drifted into a delirious state. It was at this point, in extremity, that both Robert and Voytek sensed something – an independent spirit on the mountain that, for Robert, grew more ominous and real with each snowflake. So real that they waited expectantly for some signal or action from their invisible “third man”. Robert began to blame their imaginary companion for having slowed them down on the face. As avalanches surged over them, nudging them, almost burying them, Robert became convinced that the third man was trying to push him off the ledge into oblivion.
It’s not unusual for an invisible person to appear in dire circumstances such as these, but in most cases the presence is helpful, giving suggestions and support and companionship. When Stephen Venables was descending Everest after having climbed the Kangshung Face, he was forced to bivouac not far below the summit. He wasn’t alone, however. An imaginary old man kept him company throughout the night and on his exhausting descent the next day. Once Stephen and the old man reached the South Summit, they were met by an imaginary (and long-dead) Eric Shipton, who helped by warming Stephen’s hands. There are countless high-altitude examples of these wonderfully kind, unexplainable creatures, yet Robert’s third man was strangely malevolent.
Voytek, while acutely aware of their new partner, was preoccupied with carrying out odd experiments, such as pinching his thigh and wondering if the pain would disappear when he neared death. He relished the pain, for it confirmed that he was still alive. He was already imagining the distinct possibility of turning into a lifeless block of ice on the narrowing ledge slowly disappearing under drifts of snow.
Occasionally they would burrow out from one end of their bivouac sack to remove enough snow to avoid suffocation. As they shivered on their ledge, they considered their options. Again, thoughts of retreat were discussed then quickly abandoned. Going up was also out of the question in this storm. Waiting – the most agonising option of all – remained the only feasible choice. Cold and hungry and so dreadfully thirsty, they waited. From time to time they reassured each other with little niceties.
“Are you feeling okay, Robert?”
“Oh, yes, I’m feeling fine.”
Robert described it as a “fragile mood of hope”. Voytek recalled that he had never had so much “free time” on a climb. “We had two nights and a day up there. We just sat. We had a stove, but the gas was finished, so we had nothing to do but think.” Time became warped, stretching and contracting at will. One hour was the same as one day. The darkness pushed down on them, coating their heaving lungs. It felt aggressive, as if it would swallow them.
Voytek’s thoughts drifted into dangerous territory. Death was something he had often mused about in the past, and now it seemed inevitable and barely worth worrying about. What was most important to him was to be fully aware of the experience. Being completely conscious of the process of dying, particularly in this remote and savage place, would be interesting.
As he pondered his own demise, Voytek became concerned about Robert. Was he also aware of how close they were to death in this terrible place, this wonderful place? It became incredibly important to him that Robert understand what was happening – that they share this almost sacred experience. But it was a delicate topic, and Voytek struggled with his decision to speak with Robert. Finally, he could no longer hold back. He began, his voice raspy with cold and fatigue, “Robert, I … I … I’d like to … ”
Robert interrupted quietly but firmly in a painful whisper, “I know what you’re thinking. I’m ready. I’m prepared for this. Don’t worry.”
"Voytek became concerned about Robert. Was he aware of how close they were to death in this terrible place? It became incredibly important to him that Robert understand what was happening – that they share this almost sacred experience"
Voytek Kurtyka (aged 28) on the Polish fall-winter expedition to Lhotse in 1974/75. During the 1970s Kurtyka established himself as one of the leading figures in Polish mountaineering, and began to focus on the lightweight alpine-style climbing that would come to define his mountaineering career.
Bogdan Jankowski / Vertebrate Publishing
That night the sky cleared and the temperature plummeted. They shivered uncontrollably, since their wet sleeping bags offered little protection from the cold. But the shivering felt wonderful, like coming back to life. When the morning of 20 July dawned, Voytek and Robert were still alive. They bent their stiff legs, stretched out their hunched shoulders and flexed their frozen fingers and toes. “My voice was gone, my throat painful and absolutely dry,” Robert explained. “I was no longer hungry, and felt nothing in my stomach but the cold.”
Slowly they emerged from their snowy coffin. It took their frozen fingers thirty minutes to attach their crampons. This was their eighth day on the wall, and they had brought food and fuel for five. With leaden legs and empty stomachs, they climbed up an ice runnel swept free of snow by avalanches. Voytek recalled that it was a pleasant surprise because, although he had to stop periodically, he felt almost rested and eager to move after their extended bivouac. After two pitches of climbing, they entered a concave depression containing knee-deep snow, whose upper wall reared above them like a fortress. They kept moving up.
Hours passed. Eventually they realised that their bivouac platform was disappearing far below. When they could no longer see it, they knew they were making progress.
Early in the afternoon they approached the main ridge. The slow, rhythmic punching motion through the deep snow was gratifying. Voytek described the moment. “We had a lot of time left in the day. In fact, we had infinity before us. I understood this with alarming clarity. But each step drained the scarce resources of our life force. We didn’t want infinity! I was never so sure that every step upward was a step into infinity.” They glanced across at what appeared to be an easy traverse to the summit. There was no need to talk. As it had been so often on this climb, and despite tremendous fatigue and mind-boggling stress, their judgement was sound. Instead of moving straight up to the summit col, which seemed so near, they turned left. They would go down, not up. Thirty years later, Voytek remembered the moment clearly. “Surprisingly, we were doing quite well at altitude. But I knew – I was positive – that we would not come back from the summit.”
As soon as they began descending the North-West Ridge, the ominous feeling that had weighed on them for days slipped away, only to be replaced by phantom creatures and brilliant mirages. Still, each downward step took enormous effort. The deep wall of snow resisted their awkward, lurching movements as they lifted their legs at impossibly odd angles, searching for some weakness in the snowpack, some little bit of softness beneath the wind-hardened drifts. Plunge-stepping down the ridge, they felt that every metre forward was a small victory. Robert stopped and bent over his ice axe, gasping for air. When he straightened his back, his eyes refocused from the snow in front of him to the sky above. A raven hovered, effortlessly.
Robert stared spellbound, willing himself to soar, imagining himself as that raven gazing down at this pitiful wreck of a man clinging to the North-West Ridge of Gasherbrum IV. Like a miracle, Robert became the raven. “In a most intense fashion I felt every sense of flying – the wind in my face, the biting cold, the weightlessness.”
Voytek’s brain split into two channels. On Channel One, images and sounds raced out of control. Casual acquaintances popped up, talking gibberish. Rocks and clouds resembled people and faces. Channel Two, while observing and reflecting on the activities on Channel One, was also focused on belaying, the rope, the ice axe, the descent. He knew he was on the verge of hallucination, and this condition interested him. Later, when the shapes and voices disappeared, he missed them.
Voytek was a little ahead of Robert when he sensed the return of the “third man”, his presence even more real than Robert’s. Voytek slumped down in the snow and looked back, calling, “Robert, I would like to tell you something, but it’s very strange.” Robert stopped gazing at the raven and, once again, collapsed over his axe.
“I know what you mean,” he gasped. “He’s here again.”
No longer threatening, the third man filled them with confidence. They would survive this ordeal with the help of their friend. Robert’s thoughts turned to food: succulent sausages and crusty dinner rolls smothered in butter. His stomach now ached with hunger, and his eyelids drooped with fatigue, but he was filled with a sense of well-being. Voytek was racked with thirst, his mouth furry and pinched and foul-tasting. He dreamed only of tea. When they reached 7,600 metres on the North-West Ridge, they stopped and bivouacked.
Voytek Kurtyka's visionary approach to climbing resulted in many renowned ascents, such as the complete Broad Peak traverse, the ‘night-naked’ speed climbs of Cho Oyu and Shishapangma and, above all, the alpine-style first ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV. Dubbed the ‘climb of the century’, his route on Gasherbrum IV with the Austrian Robert Schauer is – as of 2017 – unrepeated. His most frequent climbing partners were alpine legends of their time: Polish Himalayan giant Jerzy Kukuczka, Swiss mountain guide Erhard Loretan, and British alpinist Alex MacIntyre.
After repeated requests to accept the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award (the Oscars of the climbing world), Kurtyka finally accepted the honour in the spring of 2016. A fiercely private individual, he has declined countless invitations for interviews, lectures and festival appearances, but he has agreed to collaborate with internationally renowned and award-winning author Bernadette McDonald on this long-awaited biography.
Art of Freedom is a profound and moving profile of one of the international climbing world’s most respected, complex and reclusive mountaineers.