ExWeb interview with Artur Hajzer, part 2: "He fell and now an invisible line seems to keep me away from the summits"

Posted: Mar 20, 2007 02:00 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net/K2Climb.net) "If you ask non-climbers whom they consider the greatest Himalayan climber, the answer is usually Reinhold Messner. If you ask a climber the same question, they'll likely say Jerzy Kukuczka." This is another excerpt from Jorgen Vikstrom's stellar story about Polish climbers in the 2007 Peak Perfomance catalogue.

They were everywhere, and not only in winter. It's just that they did big walls, and Himayalan speed ascents in their "off-season" - spring and summer. Even their women outclimbed many of the western men; at least Wanda Rutkiewicz did - with 8, 8000ers between 1978-1991.

"The Americans, British, Italians and French dominated climbing magazines in the 80' with their pompous braggadocio and sentimental prose," continues Jorgen Vikstrom, "many were lured into believing that Western climbers were on the leading edge of the top Alpinist league."

"But when the formidable Himalayan winter descended, the Western loudmouths usually fled. And that's when the Poles struck."

In this second part of our interview, Artur recalls some of those unsung heroes, his best friends, lost to the mountains.

ExplorersWeb: You climbed with Kukuczka. What was that like? What was he like?

Artur: The climbs with Kukuczka were fantastic. I barely had to take any decisions, and I could count on him 100% to never give up (only once - on Annapurna East summit - did he not continue to the main summit). I climbed all four of my 8000ers with him. Since he perished, an invisible barrier seems to be keeping me away from the summits now. I haven't topped out another 8000er without Kukuczka (such as Lhotse South Face for instance), so I really don't know my real value as a climber without him.

We were equally strong - I was better on technical climbs, he was better in deep snow, but together we made a perfect team. I can proudly say that I've never climbed an 8000+ meter peak via a normal route. OK, I did on Annapurna - but that was winter! And again, well, I attempted Broad Peak's normal route - but I came down using only one leg :)

Anyways, in the '80s climbing new routes was common and natural - it's only today that I see what a big value these climbs have.

I always say that Kukuczka's profile was just like (or similar at least to) Lech Walesa's. Both were electricians (without higher education), came from poor families, were almost the same age and had the same great motivation. Kukuczka's climbing philosophy was simple: "We have to climb up to the top, no discussions." Kukuczka, like Walesa, became a national hero.

First is more important than style to the general public

ExplorersWeb: Messner published 50 books, how many did Kukuczka publish?

Artur: One or two, with the help of journalists. He was not a talker or philosopher. He was just a climber.

ExplorersWeb: It seems from the book "I'll call you in Kathmandu," that Liz Hawley favored Messner, Hillary and the Anglo-Saxons, and as she was the main source of Himalayan news to mainstream media; this created an unfair disadvantage for other climbers. Why is Kukuczka still so unknown and did you guys discuss this back then?

Artur: Kukuczka is unknown because of lack of marketing and PR. He was a climber from the East Bloc, communication with western countries was difficult back then. He had no natural know-how to sell himself and also faced language problems. Money and passport/visa problems made it more difficult to travel to Trento Film Festival, for instance, than to Nepal.

Kukuczka did not do as many "milestone" climbs that would garner public attention as Messner did - Everest without oxygen for instance, or first with all 14 peaks. Kukuczka was always second, but he did it in better style and partly in winter. But the only thing that is important for the mass public is that he was second. Anyway, Messner wrote nice words to Kukuczka just after his 14 peak: "You are not second," he said. "You are great." But only climbers know about this.

And then there is Wojtek Kurtyka - I agree with Messner that he has been the biggest influence in Polish and European climbing history, philosophy and standards - the best Polish climber ever, maybe not for the public at large, but definitely for climbers.

ExplorersWeb: If Kukuczka had lived, what else would he have liked to climb?

Artur: Big Walls of 8,000m peaks in Himalaya and Karakorum in light style. He started to realize this program on Annapurna South Face with me in 1988 (we failed and climbed the East Face only to East Summit 8,010m) and Lhotse South Face in 1989, but he had no luck that time.

The God Father of Winter Himalaya Climbing: Andrzej Zawada

ExplorersWeb: What do you think Kukuczka would have thought about modern mountaineering?

Artur: I can only guess that Kukuczka would be strongly disappointed with "modern mountaineering" but who knows.

ExplorersWeb: Why did only the Polish do winter first ascents in Himalaya?

During summer, in our Polish Tatra Mountains we have no snow, no ice, no glaciers. That's why the Polish have always seen, felt and defined a big difference between summer and winter climbs. Already before WWII there were two categories for the Tatras: winter or summer climbs. In the '50s and '60s it was the same - in the climbing community/environment, the winter climbs always had higher value and were noted separately. It is different in the Alps, where you cannot see the difference so clearly.

Poles have done first winter ascents in Himalaya for many reasons - motivation, complexes, etc. - but the main reason is that the Polish did a lot of winter expeditions and they did them very early. First winter expeditions to Noshaq (Afgan Hindukush) or Lhotse took place already in the '70s.

In the 50's, when the Eastern countries' borders were closed, there was no way for Polish climbers to go to climbing in the Himalayas. Back then Andrzej Zawada, considered the God Father of Winter Himalaya Climbing, did his "winter Himalayan expeditions" in the Tatras: He would climb the 70 km-long main ridge (not easy) of the range in winter, in Himalayan style in 1959. He would lead large expeditions and set up camps, fixed ropes, and thus remained almost one month in the mountains :-).

(Tomorrow part 3 final: New eras, Piolet d'Or, making and losing money, leaving and returning to the mountains.)

Jerzy "Jurek" Kukuczka entered mountaineering history as the second man to conquer all 14, 8000ers after Reinhold Messner yet many consider Kukuczka the greatest mountaineer of all.

Jurek didn't only climb the 14, 8000ers; he summited them all in just eight years. It took Messner 16 years to complete the list. Another remarkable fact is that Kukuczka climbed most of his Great 14 through new routes or/and in winter season. At the end of his 8000ers quest he had opened nine new routes one of them solo - and accomplished five of the climbs in alpine style and four in the winter.

Kukuczka was born in Katowice (Poland) in 1948 and worked as a miner. Obtaining founds for expeditions and getting a visa to travel beyond the 'Iron Courtain' would prove a major issue for Jerzy all his life. In addition, he was known to struggle with altitude. But motivation was the one thing that never lacked Jurek. His bad luck also traded for great strength; in body and mind. Messner would remark that Kukuczka, once in the Himalayas, was the strong man. Voytek Kurtyka said about him: -"Jurek was the greatest psychological rhinoceros I've ever met among alpinists, unequalled in his ability to suffer and in his lack of responsiveness to danger.

Jurek's climbing career went from the Tatra mountains to the Alps; over Denali to the Hindu Kush - and finally the Himalayan 8000ers.

Lhotse would be the first 8000er for Jerzy Kukuczka - He summited October 4, 1979 via the normal route together with Andrezj Czok, Andrezj Heinrich and Janusz Skorek. On May 19, 1980, Everest got a new line up the South Pillar. This would be the only time that Kukuczka used supplementary O2. In 1981, Kukuczka reached a double goal on Makalu: A variation on Makalu La - the huge saddle between the main peak and Makalu II - and the NW Ridge, solo.

Next came Broad Peak: In 1982, Kukuczka returned to Himalaya with mate Kurtyka to climb the normal route but, feeling unsatisfied, two years after (1984) the two climbers returned - to open a new route, including the traverse of the Three Broad Peaks summits. Twelve months earlier, (in 1983) the two had climbed new routes on both Gasherbrum I and II - in alpine style.

1985 started out spectacular for Jurek: He climbed Dhaulagiri (with Czok again) on January 21! And before the winter ended, he and Czok joined three other climbers - Berbeka, Pawlikowski and Heinrich - to open a new route on the SE Pillar on Cho Oyu. They summited February 15, and it was the first time a new route had been opened on an 8000er in winter.

That same summer of 1985, Jurek teamed up with Heinrich, Lobodzinski and a young Mexican named Carlos Carsolio (a future youngest climber to complete the 14, 8000ers) - for another first: The SE Pillar of Nanga Parbat. Next he summited Kanchenjunga together with Wielicki on January 11, 1986.

That same year Jerzy teamed up with Piotrowski and opened a new route on the south face of K2 - the resulting line, combining sustained difficulty with suicidal exposed passages, is still awaiting a first repetition. The two men summited July 7, but at a terrible prize: Piotrowski fell to his death on descent, by the Abruzzi Spur.

Later that year, on November 10, 1986 Kukuczka made a first ascent of the Manaslu's NE face together with Artur Hajzer.

The next year, Jurek and Hajzer summited Annapurna North Face on February 3, 1987. Hajzer returned to the mountains with Kukuczka already in September. Thats when they made a first ascent of the East Ridge on Shisha Pangma (Summit on September 18, 1987).

A few months later Kukuczka and Messner would receive the Olympic Gold Medal. But Jurek had more stuff to do on the 8000ers. Already the next year, in 1988, he climbed Annapurna East. In 1989 Kukuczka completed his dream climb - the Lhotse south face - but fell to his death from 8350 meters when the 7mm rope he was tied to snapped.


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Nanga Parbat 2006/2007. Cold.
Image by Artur Hajzer
They were everywhere, doing big walls, and Himayalan speed ascents in their 'off-season': spring and summer. Even their women outclimbed men of the western world; Wanda Rutkiewicz did 8, 8000ers between 1978-1991. Image of Wanda in a page of Peak Performace's 2007 catalogue (click to enlarge).
"My aim was to show Jerzy Kukuczka (in image) as a role model in our increasingly commercial times," Porebski said.

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