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Author interview: Bernadette McDonald

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Voytek Kurtyka, holder of the 2016 Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award, is known for his various ascents during his mountaineering career, including the Broad Peak Traverse and the West Face of Gasherbrum IV. Unfortunately little else was known about Voytek beyond his amazing feats, until now. Art of Freedom, the biography of this phenomenal Polish mountaineer, enables you to take your knowledge and understanding of Voytek to all new heights.

Bernadette McDonald is the woman behind this revealing biography and she willingly took some time to answer a few questions for us, in which she explains how her relationship with Voytek went from the ominous base of rejection to the summit of openness. Bernadette describes how working with Voytek on the mountainous task of writing his biography, uncovering personal and professional tales, has left her with an even greater sense of admiration for this remarkable individual.

 

1. Voytek is one of the key characters in your multi-award-winning book Freedom Climbers; did you have the opportunity to interview him while you were writing it and, if so, was this the first time the two of you met?

I first met Voytek in Calgary, Alberta, possibly in 1988, but it was a very short meeting. I spoke with him over the phone in the years that followed, inviting him often to the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which I directed from 1988 to 2006. He declined. I asked for an interview for Freedom Climbers and he agreed to a couple of hours. Surprisingly, probably for both of us, the couple of hours grew to quite a few, resulting in a very engaging and informative interview. I was taken aback at how forthright he was and how well he communicated in English. He was able to articulate a lot about his philosophy of life that helped inform my representation of him in Freedom Climbers

2. Voytek has declined countless interviews and festival appearances, not to mention repeated requests to accept the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award. Did you feel privileged when he agreed to work with you to write his biography?

I actually first presented the idea of a biography to Voytek as a kind of joke. It started with the French publisher of F.C., who wanted to use a photo of Voytek on the cover. I thought it might be nice to ask his permission before agreeing to the cover, and Voytek agreed to it. A little later, as a joke, I took the PDF of that cover and fiddled with it, changing the title to 'Voytek’s Book of Lies', authored by me. I emailed him the cover and we both had a good laugh about it. Then I began thinking that it could be quite interesting to actually write a serious biography of him, but I doubted that he would ever agree to it. When I emailed the idea to him, with the caveat that he just 'think about it,' 'no decisions needed right away' and 'absolutely no problem if the answer was no,' it was only a short time later that he responded that he would be happy to cooperate with me on a biography. He had no intention of writing his own memoir, so he thought this might be a way of getting the stories down on paper. I was definitely surprised and continue to feel very privileged that I had this great opportunity.

3. As an exceedingly private individual, what was Voytek like to work with and do you feel as though you now know him well?

Although it’s true that he is extremely private, he was incredibly open to all kinds of questions: his climbing, business, personal life, religion, philosophy, partners, successes and failures. We cross-referenced multiple sources for his climbing history, including the most interesting of all: his journals. He tried hard to help me understand some of the more difficult and complex ideas and values that inform his life and his decisions, and it was this process that makes me feel that I now do know him quite well.

4. From a mountain life that began in the thick of the Cold War to outstanding triumphs in the Himalaya, which part of Voytek’s illustrious climbing career do you find most fascinating?

Voytek’s career spanned a lot of diverse geography as well as time. His climbing likewise spanned a wide range of styles: rock walls, ice faces, extended high-altitude traverses, towers, technical rock, solo climbing, night-naked climbing. The vision, and the attitude, that was most fascinating to me, was the one he brought to Broad Peak in 1984. The complete Broad Peak traverse, with its three summits, its airy ridges, its unknown ground, day after day of high-altitude wandering, was the perfect example of Voytek’s desire to spend time on a mountain, get to know it, not rush around, and feel a sense of unity with its ethereal beauty. Later, Voytek became a light and fast specialist, with his 'night naked' style, but the Broad Peak Traverse, done earlier in his career, represented almost a spiritual approach to the high mountains. 

5. You must have found out many stories that aren’t known to the general public. Without giving too much away, which was the most memorable? 

Although this story took place on his most famous climb, the West Face of Gasherbrum IV, I don’t think it’s terribly well known. It was on the descent. He and his partner, Robert Schauer, had already spent three days without liquid, without food, and were on their tenth consecutive day on the great Shining Wall. They were descending a couloir, loaded with snow. Voytek was first and Robert was belaying him. At some point Voytek felt that the avalanche hazard had reached an unacceptable level so he stopped, explained his nervousness to Robert, and climbed up out of the couloir, post-holing for forty metres back up to a point where he could traverse over to safer ground. It doesn’t sound like much, but the self-discipline he must have summoned from somewhere deep inside to ascend those forty metres could only be described as heroic, considering his fatigue, his thirst and his hunger. That story sticks with me. 

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