They Referred to as Him Ice Warrior: The Badass Who Rivaled Messner For World’s Greatest Climber

Jerzy Kukuczka was the second climber to scale all 14 of the world’s highest mountains, however that’s not why he’s remembered as one of many biggest alpinists of all time. It’s the way in which he climbed them.

His resume is mind-boggling. In simply eight years he climbed all 14 of the world’s eight,000-meter peaks, together with 4 in winter. He was a pioneer of the Alpine fashion and among the many first to climb often above eight,000 meters with out supplemental oxygen. And he did all of it on a shoestring, in secondhand and home-made gear, with cash he earned by way of exhausting work and black-market hustles in his native Poland.

Kukuczka is commonly in contrast with Reinhold Messner, with whom he raced to complete the so-called Crown of the Himalayas. Messner gained that competitors, although Kukuczka did it quicker and in higher fashion.

Take nothing away from Messner, who put up six new routes on eight,000-meter peaks. Kukuczka blazed 10. “If I had a alternative, I’d all the time take the street not but taken by anybody else,” he mentioned.

Each males may have run the desk quicker in the event that they’d been keen to sacrifice fashion. Every performed down the rivalry, however make no mistake—it was a race. Messner took the weird step of knocking off two summits within the autumn of 1986 to assert the prize, however when Kukuckza completed a 12 months later, Messner was among the many first to specific his admiration, through telegram. “You aren’t second, you’re nice,” he wrote.

“Jurek Kukuczka in my opinion, from 1980 as much as 1989 was the main climber worldwide in excessive altitude for the truth that he was mentally and bodily very robust,” Messner mentioned in years later, including that Kukuczka was by no means one for lengthy discussions and philosophy. “He determined and he went.”

Andrzej Czok and Kukuczka (proper) after establishing a brand new route on Everest, Could 1980. Courtesy

Kukuczka was born in 1948 in Katowice, an industrial metropolis set amid the coalfields of southern Poland. A lot of town had been razed in the course of the Second World Struggle, its historic buildings changed with concrete residence blocks and factories underneath the affect of the Soviets, who drove out the Nazis and didn’t go away. When Kukuczka got here of age within the 1960s and 1970s, engaging in nearly something in Poland required perseverance and creativity.

Climbing was no exception. Kukuczka funded his first journey to Lhotse in 1979 by portray smokestacks within the metal mills of Katowice. Beneath the communist regime, factories couldn’t legally pay people to do the work, so the climbers funneled the cash by way of their climbing golf equipment. It was a handy marriage of capitalism and socialism.

Bernadette McDonald describes the smokestack hustle in Freedom Climbers, her definitive historical past of Polish alpinism’s golden age. Kukuczka knew the state-approved chimney-painting firms had been costly and interminably sluggish, and likewise that factories had been underneath stress to get their chimneys painted shortly. Kukuczka launched an surprising twist into that Kafkaesque discount. In McDonald’s telling, he marched right into a manufacturing unit director’s workplace and introduced that he and his climbing associates may do the job in per week.

The director chuckled at Jurek’s naiveté. “It might take greater than per week simply to place up the scaffolding,” he threw out.

“We don’t use scaffolding,” retorted Jurek.

“How do you do it?”

“With ropes.”

The hook was set, and after that Kukuczka may identify his value: 1 million zlotys—200 instances the common month-to-month wage, and precisely what his expedition wanted to get to the highest of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain. Kukuczka climbed it with out oxygen, by what handed for the conventional route. The mountain had solely been climbed twice earlier than.

The next spring, Kukuczka and Andrzej Czok established a brand new route on Everest’s south pillar, tracing a charming line alongside the right-hand fringe of the mountain’s southwest face. They used bottled oxygen on the ascent, which was hardly a knock on the time. In 1980, just one climber—Messner—had reached the highest of the world with out assistance from canned air. Nonetheless, Kukuczka would by no means climb with oxygen once more.

The subsequent 12 months he solid a brand new line on Makalu, solo and in Alpine fashion. In 1982 it was Broad Peak, then Gasherbrum I and II the next 12 months, then again to Broad Peak in 1984 for a groundbreaking traverse of the mountain’s three summits. All these had been new routes, finished in Alpine fashion. However Kukuczka sought a larger problem.

World’s Greatest Climber

Kukuczka celebrating his 14th summit in 1987. Through Fb.

Polish climbers of his technology honed their craft within the Tatra mountains alongside the border with Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). The vary isn’t a excessive one, however the routes are different and stuffed with technical challenges, notably within the bitter central European winters. It was a becoming testing floor for his or her hand-made gear, to not point out an initiation to the “artwork of struggling,” an aesthetic Polish alpinists embraced with cult-like devotion. Younger climbers shortly discovered that discuss of summer time exploits invited an inevitable retort, “Sure, however what have you ever finished in winter?”

Polish groups introduced that mindset to the Himalayas, spurred on by the truth that by the point they arrived within the 1970s the large first ascents had lengthy since been claimed by others. The winter summits, nevertheless, had been a clean slate.

The Poles began on the prime, with a winter ascent of Everest in 1980. Kukuczka wasn’t on that expedition (he had already dedicated to the brand new line with Czok within the spring of that 12 months), however he quickly grew to become one of many foremost Ice Warriors, as Poland’s pioneering winter climbers styled themselves.

Within the winter of 1985, Kukuczka made the primary winter ascent of Dhaulagiri, and the second of Cho Oyu. Nobody had ever climbed two winter 8000ers in a single season. The subsequent winter he summitted Kanchenjunga, one other first.

Kukuczka drew his masterpiece on the south face of K2 the subsequent summer time, with Tadeusz Piotrowski. Their 1986 line was a sublime and excruciatingly dangerous piece of labor, even by the requirements of K2. Within the 33 years since, nobody has ever tried to repeat the route, which is thought merely because the Polish Line.


Kukuczka within the Himalayas, circa 1985. Fb.

Kukuczka reeled off 4 extra eight,000ers within the subsequent two years, finishing the so-called Crown of the Himalayas within the autumn of 1988. He was the second climber to run the desk of the world’s highest mountains, and likewise the quickest. He’d accomplished the problem in simply eight years in comparison with Messner’s 16. Extra importantly, he’d finished it in nice fashion.

Of his 14 summits, most had been climbed in Alpine fashion, and all however one had been both new routes or winter ascents. The outlier was Lhotse, his first Himalayan summit. Within the fall of 1989 he returned to strive the height by it’s nonetheless unclimbed and extremely prized south face, which climbing blogger Paul Lewis describes as a “huge, intricate jumble of pillars, couloirs and ridges.”

Kukuczka had come a good distance since his chimney-painting days. Again dwelling the communist regime had crumbled and shortly Polish mountaineering would change perpetually. However that fall on Lhotse Kukuczka climbed, as all the time, on a finances. In a bazaar in Kathmandu he purchased a skinny secondhand rope. He and his climbing accomplice deliberate to make use of it just for resting and to haul gear, however when their frozen lead-rope jammed above eight,200 meters they pressed it into service as a lead rope.

Kukuczka’s crampon slipped as he negotiated one of many final icy slabs earlier than the summit. The skinny rope snapped and he fell about 2,000 meters to his loss of life. His physique was by no means discovered.

A memorial plaque within the valley beneath was raised in his reminiscence, although it hardly appears needed. Kukuczka’s legacy is written indelibly on the nice faces of the Himalayas, within the daring and imaginative strains he traced on the mountains he liked.

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