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Book of the Month: Art of Freedom

Monday, 8 October 2018

The East Ridge of K2 expedition, 1976. The broken cornice between the two climbers is where Voytek Kurtyka broke through while fixing the rope the previous day. Voytek Kurtyka collection.

Our Book of the Month is Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald. A luminary of the golden age of Polish climbing, Voytek Kurtyka has turned down countless interviews and event appearances but agreed to work with multi-award-winning author Bernadette McDonald on his bestselling biography. This month with every every copy of the book, we're giving away another classic by Bernadette: Brotherhood of the Rope.

In 1980, Voytek led a team to Dhaulagiri to attempt an alpine-style ascent of the East Face. His partners were Ludwik Wilczyński from Poland, René Ghilini from France, and his tried-and-true partner from England, Alex MacIntyre. Voytek had tried the unclimbed face the year before, but it was out of shape. He could see that in order to climb it, they would need icy conditions. As Voytek described it: ‘The idea of a direct line, almost an insolent line, was incredibly attractive to me. It’s alluring smooth icefield looked promising, almost as if it ran directly to heaven.’ 

When the weather broke, Voytek returned to Tukuche to hire more porters while the rest of the team lay almost catatonic in camp. Eight days later they limped into base camp, exhausted and drenched after plowing through the newly fallen snow. But at least they were there, as was their gear. René brought much of the technical equipment from France: the crampons, the Simond ice axes and the Kastinger boots. Voytek brought all the down clothing and sleeping bags from Poland. René was impressed with the quality of the down, the skilful sewing and the design of the garments.

‘But there were no zippers,’ he laughed. ‘Only buttons. Our jackets, vests, sleeping bags – all done up with buttons.’

Now at their mountain, they needed to acclimatize. Playful Alex had a strategy for acclimatisation that he shared with his teammates. ‘This is a process which … involves the consumption of vast quantities of garlic, making love for hours on end in a series of two knuckle press-ups and hopping up big hills on one toe, to the strains of Wagner from your free, portable lead-weighted Japanese micro-cassette. This conditions the body.’ But all joking aside, they did need to acclimatise, so they hatched a plan that relied on the good graces of some climbers from another expedition.

Near them in base camp was a Swiss team planning to climb the Northeast Ridge. Voytek approached them about using their route to acclimatise. Reluctantly, they agreed. Up and down they went, getting fitter and stronger with each lap on the moderate route: 6500 metres; 7000 metres; 7500 metres. On one of their acclimatisation climbs, Voytek and Ludwik
left a cache high on the ridge at the point where they would likely exit the East Face. ‘We were only two hours or so from the summit,’ Voytek said. ‘It looked so easy. But I didn’t want to spoil the anticipated pleasure of going to the top directly from the face … I wanted to remain faithful to the face. Once the summit was climbed, who knows how we would behave in extreme conditions on the face?’

Years later, Voytek explained that climbing a mountain by any route was not a challenge for him at that time. ‘I had no motivation for those regular routes,’ he said. ‘They were missing the most essential heart of the game with the unknown. Besides, they were mostly technically easy and gentle, so they were missing the aesthetic of the vertical. And it was the beauty of the vertical that made my wings rise. What was the sense of climbing without wings? What remained? Just hard work! No, thank you!’ He laughed at his youthful attitude. ‘It could be I had a wrong perception in those days. Now I don’t need that huge drama. My relationship with the mountain turned into a much more meditative attitude. Just to be close to its beauty! To be a part of it is what matters now.’

Having fully acclimatized, the climbers were ready for the East Face. They began at 2:45 a.m. on May 6. Alex remembered it as ‘a night of rare beauty, awash in moonlight and clear to the ends of the earth.’ The snow was crisp and firm under their crampons. They marched up from the col to the foot of the face in little more than an hour. Alex described the scene:

‘The East Face, dressed for the occasion, beckoned cold and blue.’ The first obstacle was a compact rock band, which took them more than three hours to climb. They used the rope only once on the first, Grade V pitch, which was perfectly frosted with a thin layer of ice. Dispensing with the rope and soloing now, they moved above the rock band, weaving a route
through runnels of ice and snow, searching for weaknesses, hunting for threads of ice leading upward. They tried to avoid the rock, which lay in strange, roof-tile formations. Instead, they gravitated toward whiteness. But it was all disappointingly thin. Glassy, fragile ice; crystal shards of ice; feathery fronds of snow. Little protected them on the loose, downsloping rock.

At noon on the first day, they found a little rocky knoll that provided an ideal spot for a tea break. Sitting there, they noticed a few wispy, skeletal fingers of cloud scudding along in the distance. With no access to weather forecasts, they had to rely on their mountain instincts. This was probably just an afternoon buildup. A little troubling, to be sure, but a daily occurrenceon this mountain.

They carried on.

Soon thunder began to rumble, and a threatening cloud bank engulfed them, low and heavy and dark. As the gentle tea-time breeze stiffened, it began to snow. They continued up, still climbing solo. ‘We didn’t consider roping up,’ Voytek said. ‘It wasn’t terribly steep: 50–55° or sometimes a bit of 60°. A few mixed pitches a bit higher.’ Each climber found his own way, moving at his own speed, finding his own rhythm, spaced out on the face as much as twenty or thirty metres apart. Each climber alone in a shrinking sphere of swirling snow and hissing spindrift.

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