on 8 September 2017
Reading this quick-paced book can only convince you that as a mountaineer, Kukuczka, in spite of his funny-sounding name, was a SUPERMAN.
After his death, it became too easy to trumpet loudly that Kukuczka was a doomed figure. In fact, he most certainly was, due to his aggressive style and his personal addiction to difficulties and his inextinguishable thirst for novelty. Climbing for him was not just enjoying the mountain as a natural wonder, but solving a problem, surmounting an impassable obstacle, blazing a new, untried, unexplored route. This was where the fun, the excitement, the deep satisfaction of climbing was for him — the final triumph of his mind and body over hostile snow, ice, rock, wind, and deep, intense cold.
So, let's not call him a "god" of climbing. While the gods are immortal, a HERO is only one mortal surmounting extraordinary hardships while marching towards his inexorable fate, already pre-ordained by the Fates. Kukuczka, indubitably, was a tragic figure of the caliber of ancient Greek heroes.
Kukuczka came to the Himalayas during the heroic period of conquest of the high peaks above 8,000m, the so-called “8,000ers”. It was the 1970s, when reaching one single summit among those 14 giants was then considered an immense achievement.
In 1970, when the legendary Italian/Austrian Reinhold Messner (b. 1944) burst on the Himalayan stage at the young age of 26, only one living climber, Kurt Diemberger, had ever summited TWO 8,000ers. Messner quickly equalized with the climbs of Nanga Parbat (1970) and Manaslu (1972). And in 1975, aged 31, he climbed Gasherbrum I to become the first Himalayan alpinist to have summited THREE 8,000-er peaks.
Nobody had yet conceived the idea of climbing the whole list of the famous 14 eight-thousanders (“8,000ers”), until it pretty quickly became the personal obsession of Messner. In the 1980s this amazing idea was to gain even more weight after Messner had made it a conscious project of his, and Kukuczka was willingly following in his steps.
Messner’s initial success gave rise to a vague floating notion of a competition among the elite alpinists to achieve a limited but gradually increasing number of successful summitings of those 8,000er giants: 3 peaks, 4 peaks, then 5 peaks, all the way to the ultimate goal, the full collection of all 14 8,000ers — reached, but of course, by Messner in Oct.1986.
This competition was played up most vociferously by the media as a "race", especially in the early 1980s, when Kukuczka appeared in the reports from Kathmandu. Kukuczka (b. 1948) was 4 years younger than Messner. Messner’s much earlier start way back in June 1970 on Nanga Parbat had given him a decisive advantage over Kukuczka, who only scored his first successful climb in 1979 on Lhotse, already aged 31 years, a good 9 years after Messner's first ascent. But the Polish daredevil was proceeding so quickly and so effectively in adding new summits to his collection of trophies and closing so fast the gap with Messner that the “race” boiled down essentially to a contest of speed between the two superstars, Messner and Kukuczka. Each climber was intently aware of the progress of the other one. Messner is mentioned repeatedly throughout Kukuczka's book, as a kind of revered iconic figure. The two climbers occasionally met on the same mountain and exchanged words, and each encounter is reverently noted by Kukuczka, with a perfect recall of the discussion between the two top climbers.
Still, Messner managed to stay so decisively ahead of his few potential “competitors” that all those climbers liked to play down the whole thing, claiming that they were in this game only for the pure sport, with no interest in prestige and fame, and that they didn’t take the concept of a race too seriously.
The public never really believed that, suspecting that it was the old Christian prejudice against pride and boasting that motivated the climbers’ professions of humility and “pure” (i.e. amateurish) sportsmanship.
This modern apparent modesty had been thoroughly alien to the Ancient Greeks who enthusiastically celebrated their triumphant athletes in art, poetry, and conferred on them rich prizes and the signs and attributes of the highest public recognition.
It took Messner 16 years after his 1970 start, to complete the full collection of the 14 summits with the ascent of Lhotse on Oct. 16, 1986, at age 42. And, for all his posed humility or modesty, this superb achievement confirmed his status as a world-famous legend of mountaineering.
By then, Kukuczka had just come down in July 1986 from his daring ascent of the South Face of K2, having scored “only” eleven summits among the 8-thousanders. But, wasting no time, he immediately climbed Manaslu the same year in Nov. for his 12th peak. He then rushed to complete his full collection the following year, climbing Annapurna in Feb. 1987 as his No.13 in a bold winter demonstration of his outstanding ability; and then Shisha Pangma deep in Tibet, in Oct. 1987 for his No.14 summit. Kukuczka, at the age of 39, had become the second mountaineer to summit the full list of the 14 8,000ers, only one year after Messner. And this, in spite of having started his quest for the 14 peaks a full 9 years after Messner. This fantastic, unexampled, speed of Himalayan conquests stamped Kukuczka's reputation with an awesome aura of being the super-climber par excellence.
Messner, equally in search of ever-harrowing challenges, had launched the elite vogue of climbing without the use of bottled oxygen, which Kukuczka unhesitatingly followed, except on Everest, when alpinists at the time were still worrying about a possibly irremediable damage to the brain when climbing above 8,500m without oxygen.
This concept of a “race” is but very lightly mentioned by Kukuczka, and Messner as well (in his glorious book, "All 14 Eight-thousanders", 1988, revised edition 1999). It was not the engine of their pursuit, they insistently loved to repeat. Messner had won anyway, by one year, in 1986. Those were still the days when each new climb was an authentic adventure into the unknown, duly registered in Kathmandu, extolled and diffused by the press as sensational news. This also was the great period of Polish Himalayan climbing, before commercial expeditions took over and transformed the sport from adventure-seeking to paid trophy collecting.
What is truly exceptional in Kukuczka’s achievement is that, in practically all of the ascents of those famous 14 high peaks, in the 8-year 1979-1987 period, he reached the summit of each new mountain ON HIS VERY FIRST expedition. This was the case of the monumental Everest (May 1980), and of the most redoubtable and rightly feared mountains: Dhaulagiri (January 1985), Kangchenjunga (January 1986), K2 (July 1986), and Annapurna (February 1987).
The only exception to this unstoppable conquest was Nanga Parbat in July 1985, which was his second attempt. This was the mountain where, In the fall of 1977, at age 29, he had had his first try at an 8,000m mountain. His Polish team did reach the high-altitude level of 8,000m, but were stopped by a rock barrier, just short of the summit.
What is also astonishing is that Kukuczka climbed four of those mountains in winter, when conditions are even more treacherous, and two of them in the same winter: Dhaulagiri in Jan 1985 and Cho Oyu in Feb. 1985.
Kukuczka's persistent obsession for untried routes and his perverse predilection for climbing out of the ordinary, even in winter, was certainly a sure way to tempt the Fates. His love was not really for the mountain per se, but for the burning high of the act of climbing as such. Not unlike a kind of drug, he called this irresistible attraction to rock and ice "climbing hunger”. And the high was the more intense when there was a real challenge, a huge problem to solve. He had no interest in climbing that was predictably easy, pre-marked, or just “normal". When descending from the Manaslu summit (Nov. 10, 1986), he reflects:
“THE NORMAL ROUTE IS NOT ONE TO FULFIL ONE’S SPORTING AMBITIONS” (p. 160).
But he is, grudgingly, obliged to take the "normal" route this time to save a Mexican member in his team. Kukuczka had no enthusiasm for any well beaten route. He had to prove something every time.
In Sept. 1979, in the first Polish attempt at Lhotse, he starts wondering: the route to both Lhotse and Everest is the same up to the South Col at 7,300m, then diverges, right to Lhotse, left to Everest. Why should he not try Everest, going to the left, instead? And he effectively tries to insert himself into the International Expedition team ready for Everest, next to the Polish team at base camp. No way. He sounds regretful, when he has not yet summited ANY 8,000er:
“Here was I…who was defeated at 8,000m at Nanga Parbat [back in 1977], who was rumored to be of no use in high mountains, standing there now with his head in the air, turning up his nose at the thought of ‘only’ climbing Lhotse. Impudence? NO. I HAVE SOMETHING INSIDE ME THAT MAKES ME HAVE NO INTEREST IN PLAYING FOR LOW STAKES. FOR ME IT IS THE HIGH BID OR NOTHING. THAT’S WHAT FIRES ME.” [My emphasis] (p. 10).
In Aug. 1985, he joins a new expedition to tackle the South Face of Lhotse that he characterizes as “one of the biggest unclimbed Himalayan challenges, a wall that has defeated the most daring climbers.” In addition, he complains that he is “still dragging an unaccustomed load of exhaustion up to base camp” from his recent ascent of Nanga Parbat just the month before, in July 1985. At 8,100m they hit a rock wall that proves an impassable barrier. He and his younger partner Rafal can barely fix 80 meters of cord in one day. Kukuczka then begins to descend down the wall back to the tent, along with Rafal.
"Next time I look around, Rafal had vanished. He had been about 15 meters behind me. I had heard nothing, no shout. Then, I noticed, some hundred meters lower, a rucksack rolling down towards a precipice...But there was no trace of him...I radioed down in desperation [to base camp], telling them to have a look through their binoculars. Only gradually it sank in that a tragedy had taken place. Rafal must be dead. He was one of the youngest members of our expedition.. It had taken so far, from September to the end of October, and over 5 km of line had been fixed. Soon it would be November...Eventually I asked, 'What now? I don't think we will manage that route.' As I said those words I REALIZED THAT IT WAS THE FIRST TIME I HAD BEEN THE ONE TO SUGGEST RETREAT. (p. 119)...I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THE ONE WHO, EVEN IN THE MOST DESPERATE SITUATIONS, HAS SAID WE MUST GO UP. Here, all of a sudden, I was no longer so sure.” (p. 120).
And so, Kukuczka, setting aside his temperamental eagerness for risk-taking, soundly decides to end the expedition — an announcement so untypical coming from Kukuczka that it comes as a shocking surprise to his team. His partners don't feel as tired as he is, and they are still gung-ho to continue the attempt to overcome the wall. Tentative objections are decisively quashed, as his leader's authority is so respected that his partners can do nothing but grumblingly comply.
The main question was not IF, but WHEN Kukuczka was going to fall. It is striking to note the high number of critical situations — I spotted 8 of them (pps. 25, 40, 73, 77, 101, 115, 161, 168) — where Kukuczka survived thanks to SHEER ABSOLUTE LUCK, the blessings of the gods, — nearly one such instance on each climb. He managed to survive in so many tight spots which would have sent other climbers to a sure death. This kind of luck couldn't go on forever, and he was bound to fall sooner or later.
Since Kukuczka’s unusual decision to turn back down on the South face of Lhotse in Aug. 1985, climbing it had been a haunting and yet unattainable goal of the Polish climbing elite. For Kukuczka this acknowledgment of failure was only "partie remise" — he had to come back to liquidate this unfinished business. But when he did come back later to that same South face of Lhotse in the fall of 1989, it was only to fall and disappear for ever. His luck stopped, or ran out, his rope snapped, and his body hurled down the precipice, never to be found (Oct 24, 1989).
Many mountaineers have been similarly engaged in the quest of the 14 8,000er summits and many have died during their pursuit, usually before they had completed their collection of the 14 summits. Some even died, most tragically, during their last, 14th ascent. In the case of Kukuczka, it is worth observing that he started his quest of the 14 peaks in 1979, at age 31, and in 1989, only TEN years later, it was his turn to fall to his death, at the young age of 41. However, miraculously, this happened only AFTER he had successfully bagged all the 14 summits, in the incredibly short period of just 8 years (1979 - 1987).
This fascinating, engrossing, book reveals but few clues to explain Kukuczka’s superlative talent as a climber, his exceptional ability to perform so well and so fast in high altitude, to survive repeatedly in the "death zone" above 8,000 meters. Although he mentions two episodes of falling ill at lower altitudes in his 20s (on Mount McKinley and in the Hindu Kush), once he had adjusted to the atmosphere at 7,000 meters, and observed the mandatory acclimatization period before each climb, he seemed no longer affected by high-altitude sickness during his relentless "conquest" of the 14 Himalayan 8,000m summits.
It is at base camp of his Lhotse climb (Sept. 1979) when he is beginning to suffer from high-altitude exertion, and that at only 5,650m, that he makes a vital discovery:
“The initial need to force oneself to work made even the smallest of jobs into a nightmare. My head pounded, I felt nauseous, I would have liked simply to collapse under a boulder and give myself up to this debilitating weakness. It was now that I discovered THE BEST CURE FOR ALTITUDE SICKENESS IS ACTION, continuous physical effort. It forces your body to deeper breathing, quickening your blood, forcing you to adapt to the new conditions quickly” [my emphasis] (p. 9-10).
He also discovers that his physiology is exceptional, which in part explains his fabulous resistance to high altitude:
“I always check my pulse, from which I can judge my acclimatisation pretty accurately. At the beginning of any trip my pulse is fairly normal, about 70 beats/m. But as my acclimatisation improves, MY PULSE RATE DROPS. After 3 or 4 weeks of high-altitude action MY BASE-CAMP RESTING PULSE IS ABOUT 48. I always find this strange — Why should it not increase?” (p. 87)
He gives no details either about his extraordinary, superhuman, astonishing physical strength. A hardened Polish risk-taker, he survived thanks to his unique, tested and reliable, aptitude to keep functioning physically and mentally in the most difficult situations. On the descent from Everest (May 19, 1980), he relates:
“We started down. It was already 5 pm [a most dangerous time, far too late to start the descent from the summit] and I was beginning to feel exceptionally exhausted. I moved as if in a mist, feeling all the time as if I were beside my own body… [They finally manage to reach their tent.] It was after 9 pm and we were terribly thirsty, but as we melted snow and boiled up some water, exhaustion overtook us and we fell asleep… [Now an avalanche buries their tent.] We managed to dig ourselves out of the tent in the snow, without our boots which were still somewhere inside there…When dawn arrived I felt much more tired than I did the previous night, when we had arrived and crawled into our sleeping bags, completely stunned with the exhaustion of reching the summit, AND FEELING THAT IT WAS NOT POSSIBLE FOR A HUMAN BEING TO BE MORE SHATTERED…In Camp 4 [other team members] were waiting for us, holding a thermos of hot tea. I lapped it up greedily. THIS WAS THE FIRST DRINK WE HAD HAD IN OUR MOUTHS FOR 36 HOURS OF SUPERHUMAN EFFORT AND EXHAUTSTION. We guzzled an guzzled while that tea slowly helped us recover from our stupor. We could carry on again [that is continue the descent], to base camp congratulations, hugs and joy. We had done it.” (p. 26).
Can’t be more laconic than that!
He never even mentions how he trained during the off season and cultivated his fitness to stay in top condition and be ready for the next expedition. Running? Bicycling? Gym work? He has no time to share such mundane details. And when his feet or hands are exposed to the terrible biting cold of the high summits (- 40º C), and he has to suffer from deep, incapacitating frostbite, we never get an accurate description of his injuries, and none of the treatment he received afterwards to be put back whole by his doctors for the next expedition.
We also get only sketchy comments and explanations about the many dangerous tight spots which put him or his partners close to the verge of disaster. He quickly throws off a few lines of technical reasons for what happened, an explanation good enough for expert mountaineers, who will automatically grasp the nature of the problem. But for us, readers, we need longer, more elaborate presentations, to help us visualize the harrowing situation or the tragic consequences of each potential or actual move. Experts can at once see where the problem lies, but we need to be made to feel as if we were a party to the ascension, or a close spectator, able to follow step by step the progress of the climbers.
Kukuczka gives us a good succinct report with a few relevant technical brushstrokes, but this kind of account feels more like a terse summary of the expedition, not the breath-taking recital of a step-by-step lived-in adventure. As readers, we would have enjoyed more details, more comments, a more leisurely frame-by-frame ascension account. Kukuczka had enough material for a text twice as long. But he is not inclined to indulge us our taste for this kind of finer psychologizing and more detailed reporting.
He is fully aware of his deep-seated reluctance to expatiate and explain too much. In his preface he admits to the fact:
"[After his failure at Nanga Parbat in 1977] I consoled myself with the thought that the Himalaya are, after all, for normal people, that one day I would return. I must return. I did return. Then I wrote this book. There is no answer in this book to the endless question about the point of expeditions to the Himalayan giants. I NEVER FOUND A NEED TO EXPLAIN THIS. I went to the mountains and climbed them. That is all” [my emphasis] (p. x).
But there is an answer, even if not voiced by Kukuczka, to the question of motivation in high-altitude climbing. It is practically the same as in all athletic pursuits of useless sports and death-defying heroic deeds, from marathon running, wrestling, boxing, javelin or discus throwing, bungee jumping, ballooning, etc. The answer is…machismo, guts, male bravado, the zest for extreme adventure, in one word, testosterone.
In Ancient Greek, "ATHLOS", in the masculine form, meant above all "CONTEST", while "ATHLON", in the neutral form, referred to the "PRIZE" won in the contest. Another Greek word impossible to translate exactly into English. Our words "athlete" or "athletics" don't carry all the nuances of the Greek word. Not just physical exertion, but competition remains at the heart of athletics, and of Himalayan climbing as well. The prize is recognition, reward, satisfaction. In reading Kukuczka, you are able to discern the presence of both meanings of the basic words of "athlos" and "athlon" - the “contest”, AND the “prize".
Let's remember what Hemingway, another passionate devotee of high-testosterone performances wrote. There are only three authentic sports: bullfighting, car racing, and high-altitude mountaineering. All the others are just pastimes, entertainment, distractions. In Himalayan climbing the "contest" goes to the extreme limit of human endurance. And the prize also is final, absolute.
After his miraculous climb of Annapurna (that most regard, with K2, as the most dangerous mountain of them all) in the dead of winter, on Feb. 3, 1987, this is Kukuczka’s reflexion:
"We reached the summit at 4pm, late in the day for that time of year, as we had only one hour of daylight left. Whenever I recount stories of my ascents I am always showered with questions such as: 'And then? What did you experience up there?' I let people down. WHAT IS THERE TO SAY? Often one just feels nothing. One just concentrates on breathing. So I say: 'When I am on the summit, just the fact that I have conquered the mountain stops being of any relevance. What is important is to get down fast, and get back to the tent. That is our main aim' " (p. 168).
To realize the extreme risk of finding oneself on the top of Annapurna at 4pm, and in winter time, on top of that, one must keep in mind the wisdom of prudent world-class mountaineers such as Ed Viesturs ("No Shortcuts to the Top", 2006): If you're not at the summit of an 8,000er by 1pm, it is time to stop and go back down. No summit is worth losing a toe, or a finger, or worse. The mountain remains there, and you can always come back.
For it is a matter of universal wisdom among the climbing community that the descent is the most dangerous part of any high-mountaineering expedition. It is late in the day, climbers are extremely tired, some already utterly exhausted, dusk and night are falling quickly, each descending step creates a momentum pulling the whole body downward, and critical spots still surmountable on the way up, soon become unnegotiable death traps on the way down in the dark. And that 1 pm rule is the one for summer time, in Ed Viesturs' mind, not winter!
In fact, in that descent from Annapurna in the dark, Kukuczka and his partner Artur Hajzer reached the limit of total exhaustion, and were unable to find their tent in the snow. And this is when Kukuczka experienced another instance of PURE LUCK:
"This is how it was now. The summit had been ticked off, it belonged to history. What was important was life itself, and getting down to our tent before dark. But by nightfall we only just managed to get out of that couloir full of glassy hard ice. We were now moving by torchlight. The route I had tried to memorize on the way up was useless. By nine it was pitch black and we were still trying to find the tent. It should be somewhere nearby. Maybe it was a bit lower. Our legs were buckling under us from exhaustion, but our search was futile. At ten [that is 6 hours since reaching the summit, and after about 5 hours of descending in the dark] ploughing through the snow, and losing confidence in the point of this search, I suddenly stepped on something soft. OUR TENT! It was completely covered in snow and I had found it by pure luck. We dug it out and got inside, purring joyfully” [my emphasis] (p. 168).
Without this unbelievable, nearly miraculous piece of luck both Polish climbers would have most likely joined the long list of crack alpinists who died on Annapurna.
The endurance of these mountaineers is phenomenal. Kukuczka goes them all one notch higher, and shows his own super-endurance. The climbers work themselves to the last drop of energy, and stop when literally drained of any trace of strength, to a point impossible for us to fancy in normal conditions of our daily lives. He relates the tragedy that marked the descent of Everest by the International Expedition next to the Polish one, on Oct. 4, 1979:
“One day before we reached the summit of Lhotse they had climbed Everest. In the second group was the wife of the expedition leader, Hannelore Schmatz, who was to be the first German woman on the summit of Everest. She went up with two Sherpas and our friend from Alaska, Ray Genet. They reached the summit very late [a very bad omen]; going down, Ray Genet died from exhaustion at their first bivouac; Hannelore continued her descent the following morning with the two Sherpas. Then she just sat down and never got up again. She was dead” (p. 13).
Through the whole book, Kukuczka describes the death of no fewer than 6 climbers, including friends and partners (pps. 13, 22, 51, 110, 130). He jokes that back at his Polish Club he head earned the reputation that it was extremely dangerous to climb with him, as everybody around him seemed to end up dying. One extra death is not reported in Kukuczka's own text, but still figures in the book, in the postcript written by his friend and climbing partner Wielicki — it is his own death on Lhotse, Oct. 24, 1989 (p. 183).
The writing of the text is of high quality (at least in its excellent English translation). It is quick-paced, straight to the point, with no shilly-shally, no useless rhetoric, always in "medias res" — no fat, no skin, only meat and bones. It goes at a breathless pace. No time to waste. Life is short. The book reads as a suspense-loaded page turner. This terse style, dense with punchiness and energy, conveys a sense of urgency and eagerness for the next expedition that we miss in the other books I’ve read. It is short, and GRIPPING, on every page. It's its strength, but also the source of our regret that he didn't have the drive to make it longer, twice as long!
Kukuczka must have been a taciturn man, passionate about moving, about doing, about climbing, but less interested in wasting time to analyze all the whys and wherefores. So we get no insight into all the finest points of his perceptions, feelings, sentiments, and thoughts on the mountain. He clearly confesses to this lack of expansiveness in his turn of mind, his reluctance to rack his brain more than necessary for the need of the task at hand. This gives his book the fast pace of a thriller.
But it loses the leisurely charm of a more intimate account of the physical realities of the climb, and prevents us from spending more time on the mountain, sharing the problems of the climber's psychology (his doubts, his fears, his exhilarations) and physiology (his pains, his injuries, the various perceptions of his body).
The physical descriptions of the mountains are also very sketchy. The pictures have no pretension to art, but they indicate with a dotted line the route adopted by Kukuczka. There is a block of 8 pages of color photos in the middle of the book which perfectly illustrate the unimaginable risks of climbing in Kukuczka's "Vertical World". This is a man with a very clear goal, and a man in a hurry. Who disliked the size of large "international" expeditions, and systematically preferred to venture alpine-style with one or two trusted partners capable of moving fast and well.
Kukuczka was playing in a game of high stakes against the odds, an exciting game practiced and enjoyed only by a tiny group of elite mountaineers. Who survives to tell the tale (and writes the book about conquering all the 14 summits), and who goes down or disappears before he/she's "conquered" all 14 peaks seems to be a matter mostly of chance. Jerzy was blessed in being allowed to succeed, but he was doomed by his passion of seeking impossible challenges, by his refusal of ever being satisfied, remaining continually driven by his hunger for new untried challenges.
Reinhold Messner salutes Jerzy Kukuczka's indomitable spirit and unequalled performance in the epigram at the start of the book: “YOU ARE NOT SECOND. YOU ARE GREAT.”
August 31, 2017