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Review – Art of Freedom: The Life and Times of Voytek Kurtyka

REVIEW – ART OF FREEDOM:
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
VOYTEK KURTYKA

Reviewed by Sean McIntyre

“The man coming back from a hard mountain trip is a wiser being, calmer and radiating inside. I’d say, momentarily liberated.”

– Voytek Kurtyka, Polish mountaineer and winner of the
2016 Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award


Voytek enjoying a bit of bouldering at Gasherbrum IV base camp. Voytek Kurtyka collection.

Extreme alpinism. Fast and light. Stealth missions.

Words to describe the trend towards a bare-essentials approach to mountaineering abound in the push to take alpine adventures lighter, higher and faster.

This super alpinism is loosely defined as a minimalist approach to climbing high peaks and big walls. Climbers pack only the basic necessities for a rapid ascent and descent of a chosen goal. The style contrasts sharply with traditional siege-style expeditions in which large teams undertake projects with extensive supplies, multiple camps, and the use of fixed lines.

Epic climbs such as the 2015 Fitz Roy Traverse in Patagonia by rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, Kilian Jornet’s 26-hour ascent of Everest in May are two highly publicized recent examples. But just how new is the phenomenon?

In her newly released Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka, award-winning mountain writer Bernadette McDonald reveals the trend isn’t really all that new.

When Polish climber Voytek Kurtyka completed his legendary climbs of Cho Oyu (8,188 metres) and Shishapangma (8,008 metres) in 1990 with Swiss mountaineers Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet, the trio considered a minimalist approach to be crucial. The team climbed without tents and sleeping bags and packed very little food. By moving at night, when the temperature plunged, the team eliminated the need for additional cold-weather gear. It was a strategy Kurtyka called “night naked.”

John Porter and Voytek Kurtyka enjoying breakfast on the morning of their sixth and last day on the wall of Bandaka. Alex MacIntyre.

“Voytek admitted the concept required the complete deconstruction of accepted climbing behaviour and mentality,” McDonald writes. “In fact, the concept was almost absurd. But he was convinced that reaching a new state of any art form often requires toying with the absurd. Only then could climbing break free from the established order and enter another level of creativity.”

The approach may have seemed absurd, but it worked. And it was this same brand of creativity that fuelled Kurtyka’s impressive career of alpine achievements in Eastern Europe and the Himalayas. Through interviews with Kurtyka and extensive research through trip reports, photographs and climbing literature, McDonald reconstructs many of these great climbs –ascents such as Norway’s Trollveggen (Troll Wall), Pakistan’s Trango Tower and the 2,500-metre West Face of Gasherbrum IV. Each of these accounts has the power to stand alone, but it’s by reading through Kurtyka’s evolution that one gains a true appreciation and respect for his irreverence, humour, and courage.

Mountaineering literature can be loosely divided into two categories. Some books list pitch-by-pitch minutiae of each climb. Others explore the motivation that drives climbers to new heights. The genre’s most notable titles weave a storyline from both literary styles, simultaneously transporting armchair mountaineers onto wind-scoured, oxygen-deprived summits and into the fascinating minds of history’s great mountaineers.

Voytek the writer. Voytek Kurtyka collection.

McDonald treats readers to stories of Kurtyka’s early climbs in the Tatra Mountains of Poland and present-day Slovakia while exploring his imaginative youth. We meet the high-calibre, international cast of athletes who climbed with Kurtyka while we learn of the peculiarities faced by climbers in communist-era Poland. Readers are alongside Kurtyka on high-mountain bivouacs and beside him while he skillfully negotiates permit applications with Indian bureaucrats. We watch his obsession with new mountain projects while we glimpse the aspiring businessman’s occasionally tense forays into the lucrative import-export business that funded his climbing passion.

McDonald saves the most insightful revelations about the climber for the end. Kurtyka, who turns 70 in 2017, is defined by a lifetime of climbs. His personal philosophy, relationships and inspiration result from the cumulative weight of his trips into the mountains. The result isn’t always pretty. Kurtyka’s mountain life took an emotional toll on his personal relationships, and he developed a strong disdain for the ubiquitous mountaineering ethics that placed peak-bagging and personal egos above climbing to appreciate the personal growth offered through the sport. His principles inevitably drove him away from the adulation that transforms mountaineering greats into stars, but Kurtyka has never been about padding his resume. In the mountains, he tells McDonald, he seeks a blessed state of mind.

“Climbing on those soaring walls was irresistible because it was a dance with beauty,” McDonald writes. “Every line was a unique creation. Every moment of overcoming suffering was creative. As he moved higher into the unknown, sometimes a wonderful transformation occurred.”

Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka was released by Rocky Mountain Books in September.

A book launch event featuring the Bernadette McDonald and Voytek Kurtyka is scheduled for the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival on Nov. 2, 2017.


Sean McIntyre is a freelance writer based on Salt Spring Island, B.C. In between trips to the Rockies, he enjoys seeking liberation and wonderful transformation among the high peaks of Vancouver Island.

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