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Glimpses of Higher Worlds: Bernadette McDonald's 'Art of Freedom'

Posted on: February 23, 2018


Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald. Rocky Mountain Books, 2017. 326 pages. Hardcover, $32. [Image] Courtesy Rocky Mountain BooksArt of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald. Rocky Mountain Books, 2017. 326 pages. Hardcover, $32. [Image] Courtesy Rocky Mountain Books

The three airy spires rose in a spectacular crescendo, from the North Summit of Broad Peak to the Main at 8051 meters. That afternoon, Voytek Kurtyka and Jurzy Kukuczka had climbed the first summit on the Traverse of Broad Peak in the Karakoram and descended to the col below Central Peak. The waning light, interrupted by small bursts of clouds, skittered across the landscape. A sharp fin of rock stretched on toward the apex, and the play of sun and shadow seemed to create deeper fissures on the wall, revealing paths to other realms. It was 1984, and Kurtyka had an epiphany about the spiritual potential of alpinism: "Beauty is some kind of laser connection to higher worlds," he reflected.

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Freedom and beauty are major themes throughout Bernadette McDonald's heavily anticipated book, Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka. An accomplished and reclusive mountaineer, Kurtyka is known for advancing alpine-style climbing in Greater Ranges in the '70s and '80s. (Kurtyka prefers the term "unleashed" to "alpine-style," McDonald explains, as fixed ropes and stocked camps seemed to him like "a tangle or web on the mountain.")

Born in Poland in 1947, Kurtyka first caught a glimpse of his vocation as a climber in the Tatras, on a hiking trip organized by his high school. By the time he graduated from university, climbing had "captivated his every thought and emotion," McDonald recounts. Between odd jobs as a TV repairman, a school assistant and, eventually, a smuggler, Kurtyka explored new climbs in alpine style in the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalaya, always in pursuit of some kind of freedom—whether the freedom from vanity and competitive desires, or the freedom to surrender himself to the unknown mysteries of the mountains. McDonald explained: "Submitting to ambition and ego usually led to [emotional and intellectual] suffering. Climbing helped free him from his self-acknowledged strong ego."

Kurtyka climbs on the West Face of Gasherbrum IV, also known as the Shining Wall, with Robert Schauer in 1985. Voytek Kurtyka collection/Courtesy of Rock Mountain BooksKurtyka climbs on the West Face of Gasherbrum IV, also known as the "Shining Wall," with Robert Schauer in 1985. [Photo] Voytek Kurtyka collection/Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books

Seeing Kurtyka's philosophical approach to climbing develop throughout his life is one of the true pleasures of this book. McDonald artfully narrates how each climb led to Kurtyka's growing concept of alpinism as a liberating, creative practice, even in failure. In one such instance, we find Kurtyka arguing with his partners Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan over the avalanche danger on Cho Oyu. Kurtyka decided to turn around, while Troillet and Loretan continued on. Stumbling back into base camp alone, Kurtyka acknowledged: "OK, I am defeated. It is my great pleasure to be defeated. I am free of ambition. Of all these obsessions. This is good."

McDonald's skillful portrait of Kurtyka reveals the alpinist as a complex, contradictory character. The book opens and closes with the story of Kurtyka's shifting reactions to the repeated attempts of Christian Trommsdorff, chairman of the Piolets D'Or awards committee, to offer him their Lifetime Achievement Award. Initially, Kurtyka refused. He explained his reasoning in an email: "I always ran to the mountains with the great expectation that I could elevate myself above my human weakness, and now you try to put on me the most dangerous one: the illusion that I am a person of distinction. My entire life is a struggle with that illusion." But as the book concludes, in the spring of 2016, Kurtyka decided to accept the long-offered award, as a testament of respect to his peers. And when he went on stage at the ceremony in La Grave, several of Kurtyka's climbing partners went with him, as Kurtyka had requested, as if to affirm that the award also belonged to those who had shared a rope with him in the mountains. McDonald writes, "It was a touching gesture for his partners, and for the hundreds of climbers watching, all swept up in the happiness and generosity of the moment. He had taken the experience and responded to it in a way that transformed it."

Robert Schauer and Voytek Kurtyka reunite at the 2016 Piolets D'Or in La Grave, France. [Photo] Anna Piunova/Courtesy of Rocky Mountain BooksRobert Schauer and Voytek Kurtyka reunite at the 2016 Piolets D'Or in La Grave, France. [Photo] Anna Piunova/Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books

Already a recipient of the Banff Book Festival Mountain Literature Award and the Boardman-Tasker, Art of Freedom is a brilliant work of insight, not only into the life of the great alpinist, but also at the questions that compel us to the mountains in the first place; a work of art that will provoke and inform discussions on the potential transformative power of climbing for decades to come.

Alpinist Podcast Episode 9, featuring Bernadette McDonald's interview with Alpinist Associate Editor Paula Wright, can be found here: www.alpinist.com/p/podcast.

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