My Vertical World. Jerzy Kukuczka. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1992. 192 pages. $29.95. On a sunny afternoon in the fall of 1989, I was coming off a modest expedition in the Khumbu when I heard that the extraordinary Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka had just died in a fall on the south face of Lhotse. Later in Lukla, I boarded the STOL jet to Kathmandu. In my company were that ill-fated Polish team’s remaining members who had gotten and remained good and drunk while waiting to continue their long journey home. They mourned the death of their friend, a quiet, robust working man. He was the second climber, after media star Reinhold Messner, to climb all 14 mountains in the Himalayan rosary of 8000-meter peaks. Unlike Messner’s great accomplishment, the routes Kukuczka chose on the Himalayan giants were usually original, many of them first ascents and often done in the grip of winter wind and cold. In My Vertical World, Jerzy Kukuczka reveals that he was indeed a very lucky climber, but also that he made his own luck through hard work, dogged determination, and inspired optimism. He was at once a singular, innovative, and unique adventurer.
He considered himself a regular guy and said that it was only when he failed on Nanga Parbat that he realized the Himalaya are for “the normal people,” not necessarily elite mountaineer superstars. He knew he could succeed. His ascents of the world’s highest mountains stand as some of the most daring in mountaineering history.
He was an “Everyman” to the worldwide community of mountaineers. He grew out of modest means; he was unpretentious, at times diffident, quietly intense. He loved to eat and drink. When a rakish Swiss guide greeted him at the K2 Base Camp with a sarcastic reference to his generous waistline, he held his tongue. Later, Kukuczka muttered to himself, “We can have a chat at 8000 meters.” He left the Swiss behind as he and his partner led a difficult new route up the south face of K2 in the infamous summer of 1986. That year 13 climbers tragically died, including Tadek Piotrowski, Kukuczka’s partner, when his crampon somehow worked loose and he fell.
In an era in Poland where even the most basic foods were scarce, Kukuczka was able successfully to mount and equip numerous ventures to the far-flung reaches of the world. Usually pressed for cash and equipment, he painted factory chimneys to earn precious zlotys to finance his mountaineering dreams. Although not always successful (he was “brought to his knees” by altitude illness on Denali), Kukuczka pursued his dreams on a budget a fraction of what most Western climbers enjoy. His source of drive was not the flash and fame that many highly regarded climbers today thrive on but rather the challenge of climbing the great mountains. Although a devoted husband and father, he was most at home in the big mountains, many times alone.
This book is more a chronicle of remarkable mountaineering achievements that provides clues to Jerzy Kukuczka’s personal side, than a revealing autobiography. The text suffers somewhat, perhaps in its translation to English. The photographs generally lack imagination and drama. Yet, what shines through is the indominatable spirit of a man who realized his highest dreams despite a hostile, oppressive government and a harsh, sometimes dangerous environment. My Vertical World is an important work in the library of modern achievement and classical mountaineering.
In Jerzy Kukuczka’s own words, “I went to the mountains and climbed them. That is all.”
Gary Ruggera, M.D.