Lonely climb to the top

“Jurek! Come over. I was below the west face of Makalu with Alex MacIntyre, René Ghilini and Ludwik Wilczyński, but we failed at a mere 6,700 metres! I still believe it can be climbed though. How about S. Lhotse? In the Cracow club account I still have some money left, you have to organise the rest and bring it to Kathmandu. I rely on you! Wojtek”

It was May and I was practically organising this trip solo, finding funds being the hardest task possible. It made no sense to look around for a chimney stack needing a lick of paint, since one month was hardly enough to find a commission, gather a team, and organise materials, not to mention the painting itself. I had to find sponsors.


Then a seemingly unsurmountable problem loomed ahead of us — shopping. In the Poland of 1981, when shops were virtually empty of any goods, it was an absurd undertaking. In those days of political turmoil there were vast problems in obtaining anything, and I mean anything. Even a jar of jam! Two years previously, while getting supplies for our Lhotse expedition, we would shop only for the best and choose just choice products that could withstand the trip and Nepalese conditions. This sort of ham was preferable to that one, such tinned soups were better than those. Now we counted ourselves lucky if we managed to buy anything at all. So I embarked on another tour of door-knocking and shaking hands with all sorts of officials in order to obtain some special vouchers or rations. To my surprise, I discovered that all the scarcity in the shops, even for goods in high demand, was rather superficial and the lack of products was just on shop shelves. With a bunch of vouchers and standard-issue orders I visited quite a few warehouses and similar stores and saw their shelves just sagging under the weight of all sorts of goods. In Janów, for instance, where I was supposed to get raisins and dried fruit, I was led into a huge storehouse stacked from top to bottom with crates and boxes of all manner of delicacies. I was flabbergasted.

‘What is this?’ I mumbled. ‘You can’t get any of these in any shop.’

Pod Makalu trzeba iść długo, jest to jedna z dłuższych dróg prowadzących w wielkie góry. Zazwyczaj trwa 12 dni, my dotarliśmy na miejsce po dziesięciu. Droga jest uciążliwa nie tyle w sensie fizycznym, ile nerwowym. A wszystko za sprawą przydzielonego nam oficera łącznikowego. Już przy pierwszym spotkaniu zorientowaliśmy się, że z tym człowiekiem będziemy mieli problemy. Przyszedł z drugim typem, którego przedstawił jako swego przyjaciela.

‘He was a liaison officer with an American expedition and you should ask him, gentlemen, what he had been given by them.’

‘If you don’t want to ask, then I will tell you anyway. He was given a set of fantastic clothing by Americans, and a stereo radio-cassette player. The reason I’m telling you this is that I am counting on our relationship being equally fruitful.’

Jerzy Kukuczka (1948 - 1989)

Jurek was never famous for his sporting stature. He liked to eat a lot and tasty. On expeditions, he was the only one who could distinguish unmarked cans with meat preserves by smell. A friend called him mr. Knuckle.

‘Are you this Kukuczka? Well, you don’t look like a climber at all…’ Markus, a Swiss mountain guide, was looking at me, not so much in the eye, as at the regions above my waist which showed a slightly less than sportsmanlike bulge. Granted, I had put on weight a bit in those last four months of inactivity at home, but it shouldn’t justify gibes from a bloke, built like a racing snake, who had never done anything else in his life but hike in the Alps. (...)

“We’ll talk again when we are both at eight thousand metres,” I thought and brushed his words aside.

Wojciech Kurtyka (1947)

Who was Wojtek? It seems impossible not to have heard about him, since he belonged to the cream of both our rock climbers and alpine & altitude mountaineers, with a fantastic record of achievements. In 1979, together with Ludwik Wilczyński, Alex MacIntyre and René Ghilini, he put up a new line on Dhaulagiri. His name was renowned on the international climbing scene. I had roped up with him twice in the Alps: the first time to establish a new route on the north face of the Petit Dru, and then on a new route on Pointe Hèlene on Grandes Jorasses.

And now he wanted to go to Makalu (...)

We had a very substantial, even heavy, meal with meat. I had to smile, because Wojtek seemed to have forgotten that only a short time before he used to be a staunch vegetarian. Now he preached that without eating meat one would be incapable of any mountain action. In his letters before the expedition he urged me to bring ham and dried sausages. Now we could feast on these hard-won goodies.

Alexander MacIntyre (1954 – 1982)

Englishman strongly associated with the Polish high mountain environment. Multiple partner of Wojtek Kurtyka. He died while trying to capture Annapurna.

We had guests, as Reinhold Messner and Doug Scott popped in to say hallo. They too, were acclimatising in this region before embarking on their ambitious plan of traversing Makalu along its south-east ridge and descending down the north-west ridge. We treated them to “goral-style” tea, which was a brew slightly fortified with pure alcohol, officially a disinfectant from our first-aid kit. I sat in the corner listening to their mountain tales. Wojtek was one of them, an important and famous Himalayan climber. Doug Scott knew him quite well too, because Wojtek did a few climbs with British mountaineers in the Hindu Kush. Wojtek and Alex were hosts of this meeting and I took care of the kitchen. I preferred not to butt into their conversation for another reason altogether. I had rummaged through my mountain gear at home and in the basement, combed through all possible drawers and boxes, but the flashlight picked up below the summit of Nanga Parbat was nowhere to be found. If I had known at the start that it was no ordinary piece of post-expedition junk but a precious family souvenir for Reinhold Messner, I would have kept it in a place of honour. But I didn’t and it couldn’t be undone.

They drank our goral-tea, said goodbye and were gone.

‘First of all, the weather is bleak. You can see for yourself, everyone is retreating because of those bloody winds. Secondly, I’ve got slight frostbite in my feet. I really don’t see us standing a chance.’ And then I said something that I really and truly hadn’t given proper consideration to.

‘In that case I’ll try alone.’ He was gob-smacked. He carefully considered what I had said before replying

‘Er… If you are determined so much, then give it a try. Up to you. To my mind, there’s no chance of succeeding. Sure you can go. After all we’re not in the mountains to impose or forbid anything on each other. If you want to take up a solo attempt, go for it. You can take as much of my gear as you want.’

‘Thank you. I’ll give it one more moment’s thought,’ I replied. It was no easy decision to take, the fear of the unknown! I would be relying solely on my own ability. I could only succeed if everything went my way.

Uphill or downhill? Up or down? In the end I went up. (...) There was something that nagged at the back of my head. Half an hour ago, at about one o’clock, when I was looking at the ordinarily blue sky above Tibet I noticed… common twinkling stars. I closed my eyes to give them a rest and then opened them again — the stars were there all right. I rubbed my eyes with the back of the glove to wipe away any snow crystal — the stars were still there. A handful of twinkling stars in the blue sky — as simple as that. I tried to be sensible about it. It was not an impaired vision due to exhaustion or head injury.

8463 m.a.s.l
October 15, 1981
At half past four I stood at the foot of a relatively easy rock step. It was the last one before the summit. A few more stops for a rest, a few more steps and what I had fervently hoped for would become reality. Soon I would reach… The last moments of approaching are for me the most fulfilling and the most beautiful experience. In the summit rock I found two pegs left by some previous expedition and I hammered in one of mine between them. I pulled out my good-luck charm from the rucksack, a plastic ladybird I had taken away from my one-year-old son Maciek, and put it next to the pegs. I took a picture of a flag fastened to my ice-axe.


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