Jerzy Kukuczka was the second climber to scale all 14 of the world’s highest mountains, but that’s not why he’s remembered as one of the greatest alpinists of all time. It’s the way he climbed them.
His resume is mind-boggling. In just eight years he climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, including four in winter. He was a pioneer of the Alpine style and among the first to climb regularly above 8,000 meters without supplemental oxygen. And he did it all on a shoestring, in secondhand and home-made gear, with money he earned through hard work and black-market hustles in his native Poland.
Kukuczka is often compared with Reinhold Messner, with whom he raced to finish the so-called Crown of the Himalayas. Messner won that competition, though Kukuczka did it faster and in better style.
Take nothing away from Messner, who put up six new routes on 8,000-meter peaks. Kukuczka blazed 10. “If I had a choice, I would always take the road not yet taken by anyone else,” he said.
Both men could have run the table faster if they’d been willing to sacrifice style. Each played down the rivalry, but make no mistake—it was a race. Messner took the unusual step of knocking off two summits in the autumn of 1986 to claim the prize, but when Kukuckza finished a year later, Messner was among the first to express his admiration, via telegram. “You are not second, you are great,” he wrote.
“Jurek Kukuczka in my view, from 1980 up to 1989 was the leading climber worldwide in high altitude for the fact that he was mentally and physically very strong,” Messner said in years later, adding that Kukuczka was never one for long discussions and philosophy. “He decided and he went.”
Kukuczka was born in 1948 in Katowice, an industrial city set amid the coalfields of southern Poland. Much of the city had been razed during the Second World War, its historic buildings replaced with concrete apartment blocks and factories under the influence of the Soviets, who drove out the Nazis and didn’t leave. When Kukuczka came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, accomplishing almost anything in Poland required perseverance and creativity.
Climbing was no exception. Kukuczka funded his first trip to Lhotse in 1979 by painting smokestacks in the steel mills of Katowice. Under the communist regime, factories couldn’t legally pay individuals to do the work, so the climbers funneled the money through their climbing clubs. It was a convenient marriage of capitalism and socialism.
Bernadette McDonald describes the smokestack hustle in Freedom Climbers, her definitive history of Polish alpinism’s golden age. Kukuczka knew the state-approved chimney-painting companies were expensive and interminably slow, and also that factories were under pressure to get their chimneys painted quickly. Kukuczka introduced an unexpected twist into that Kafkaesque bargain. In McDonald’s telling, he marched into a factory director’s office and announced that he and his climbing friends could do the job in a week.
The director chuckled at Jurek’s naiveté. “It would take more than a week just to put up the scaffolding,” he threw out.
“We don’t use scaffolding,” retorted Jurek.
“How do you do it?”
The hook was set, and after that Kukuczka could name his price: 1 million zlotys—200 times the average monthly wage, and exactly what his expedition needed to get to the top of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain. Kukuczka climbed it without oxygen, by what passed for the normal route. The mountain had only been climbed twice before.
The following spring, Kukuczka and Andrzej Czok established a new route on Everest’s south pillar, tracing a captivating line along the right-hand edge of the mountain’s southwest face. They used bottled oxygen on the ascent, which was hardly a knock at the time. In 1980, only one climber—Messner—had reached the top of the world without the aid of canned air. Still, Kukuczka would never climb with oxygen again.
The next year he forged a new line on Makalu, solo and in Alpine style. In 1982 it was Broad Peak, then Gasherbrum I and II the following year, then back to Broad Peak in 1984 for a groundbreaking traverse of the mountain’s three summits. All these were new routes, done in Alpine style. But Kukuczka sought a greater challenge.
Polish climbers of his generation honed their craft in the Tatra mountains along the border with Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). The range isn’t a high one, but the routes are varied and full of technical challenges, particularly in the bitter central European winters. It was a fitting testing ground for their hand-made gear, not to mention an initiation to the “art of suffering,” an aesthetic Polish alpinists embraced with cult-like devotion. Young climbers quickly learned that talk of summer exploits invited an inevitable retort, “Yes, but what have you done in winter?”
Polish teams brought that mindset to the Himalayas, spurred on by the fact that by the time they arrived in the 1970s the big first ascents had long since been claimed by others. The winter summits, however, were a blank slate.
The Poles started at the top, with a winter ascent of Everest in 1980. Kukuczka wasn’t on that expedition (he had already committed to the new line with Czok in the spring of that year), but he soon became one of the foremost Ice Warriors, as Poland’s pioneering winter climbers styled themselves.
In the winter of 1985, Kukuczka made the first winter ascent of Dhaulagiri, and the second of Cho Oyu. No one had ever climbed two winter 8000ers in a single season. The next winter he summitted Kanchenjunga, another first.
Kukuczka drew his masterpiece on the south face of K2 the next summer, with Tadeusz Piotrowski. Their 1986 line was an elegant and excruciatingly risky piece of work, even by the standards of K2. In the 33 years since, no one has ever tried to repeat the route, which is known simply as the Polish Line.
Kukuczka reeled off four more 8,000ers in the next two years, completing the so-called Crown of the Himalayas in the autumn of 1988. He was the second climber to run the table of the world’s highest mountains, and also the fastest. He’d completed the challenge in just 8 years compared to Messner’s 16. More importantly, he’d done it in fine style.
Of his 14 summits, most were climbed in Alpine style, and all but one were either new routes or winter ascents. The outlier was Lhotse, his first Himalayan summit. In the fall of 1989 he returned to try the peak by it’s still unclimbed and highly prized south face, which climbing blogger Paul Lewis describes as a “vast, intricate jumble of pillars, couloirs and ridges.”
Kukuczka had come a long way since his chimney-painting days. Back home the communist regime had crumbled and soon Polish mountaineering would change forever. But that fall on Lhotse Kukuczka climbed, as always, on a budget. In a bazaar in Kathmandu he bought a thin secondhand rope. He and his climbing partner planned to use it only for resting and to haul gear, but when their frozen lead-rope jammed above 8,200 meters they pressed it into service as a lead rope.
Kukuczka’s crampon slipped as he negotiated one of the last icy slabs before the summit. The thin rope snapped and he fell about 2,000 meters to his death. His body was never found.
A memorial plaque in the valley below was raised in his memory, though it hardly seems necessary. Kukuczka’s legacy is written indelibly on the great faces of the Himalayas, in the bold and imaginative lines he traced on the mountains he loved.