Monday, March 21, 2011

My Vertical World, by Jerzy Kukuczka

If Reinhold Messner was the man to break down the psychological barriers of high-altitude mountaineering, then Jerzy Kukuczka, in My Vertical World, was the man to break down the physical ones. Messner may have been the first to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks, but Kukczka did it in style. Save Lhotse, his first summit, all his climbs were first winter ascents or new routes. He states, "I have something inside me that makes me have no interest in playing for low stakes. For me it is the high bid or nothing. That's what fires me." In the early and mid 1980s, Kukuczka participated in the first winter ascents of Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Cho Oyu, and Annapurna, with Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu in the same season and Annapurna by the bitterly cold North Face. His new routes included the daunting South Face of K2 and the difficult Southeast Pillar of Nanga Parbat.

Kukuczka brings to light an entirely different Himalayan experience than the Western reader knows. On his first Himalayan expedition, to Nanga Parbat, team members could not even afford a Coke on the trip to the mountain, because every bit of foreign currency they had was needed to pay expedition expenses, even after several days of tense negotiations on porter wages. A telling episode occurred well into his 8000-meter quest on his trip to climb the South Face of K2 as part of Herrligkoffer's international expedition. The team was required to provide proper footwear to the local porters, and Herrligkoffer arranged for them to receive Swiss-made wool socks of a make and brand that Kukuczka had always wanted to own, but could never afford. At the beginning of his career, he helps pay for expedition expenses by painting industrial chimneys on weekends in exchange for donations to his local climbing club. As he works through the 8000-meter peaks, his renown helps him somewhat in his fund raising, but his Polish expeditions are never extravagant affairs. He works the system as best he can, getting in trouble for climbing Gasherbrum II without a permit, ascending Broad Peak as "acclimatization" for K2, and informing the expedition leaders of the Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu winter climbs that he was on both permits at the last moment.

The dual winter ascent is possibly the most amazing voluntary physical feat I've read about. His Dhualagiri ascent involved four bivouacs in the open in -50 degrees and colder, mostly in snow trenches, and three days without food or water. (He received frostbite in both feet.) The day after arriving in Base Camp from said winter hell, he leaves via a shortcut to the nearest airport, heading over two very high and treacherous passes alone, again often spending the night in the open, and finding the flights canceled, walks the distance of the flight in three days. He catches a plane to Lukla and hikes to Cho Oyu Base Camp in another three days, and the next day heads up Cho Oyu, days later summits, and barely lasts through the descent, again without food or water and with open bivouacs. Somehow, he's feeling pretty good as the Cho Oyu team descends to Namche Bazaar. I swear this man loves pain!

On Everest, Kukuczka joins the second half of a Polish expedition in 1980. The first climb was the first winter ascent of the mountain (by Wielicki and Cichy), which he missed to attend the birth of his first child. His was a follow-up spring ascent that put up a new route on the South Face of the mountain. He and a partner ascended slightly to the East of the South Pillar and followed the face (bypassing the South Col) up to the South Summit before finishing the Southeast Ridge to the main summit. Also during the story of his 1979 Lhotse trip, he comments on the 1979 international Everest expedition that put Ray Genet and Hannelore Schmatz on the summit, but did not bring them home. (Hannelore was a bit of an icon in Everest lore, since her well-preserved and comfortably reclining body greeted climbers just above the South Col for over 20 years after her death until her remains finally blew over the Kangshung Face.)

This book serves as an excellent introduction to the Polish Himalayan mountaineering phenomenon. Polish climbers have gained a reputation for ascending extraordinarily hard routes in the worst of conditions. The book is hard to come by (Copies are currently going for $130 and up online.), but I found it a very hard book to put down once I started reading it. I'm not sure any book is worth $130 to read it, but if you can borrow a copy (as I have), or find one at a store that doesn't know what it has, go for it!

Kukuczka died a couple years after completing the 14 8000-meter peaks while trying to mend the asterisk in his list (his normal-route ascent of Lhotse) by attempting the unclimbed South Face of Lhotse. He fell to his death after his second-hand rope snapped during a fall.


  1. Thanks for the review!
    It's true, the English version of this book is hard to find. Do you have it in the electronic version?

  2. i will sell for the right price

  3. if intrested

  4. I read his book at the San Diego Library, in 1993. It's definitely UP THERE on the all-time, best Himalayan books ever written. Kukuczka's genetic basal metabolism was like a raging Volcano....and the reason why extreme cold didn't even faze him. This madman's machine was running, even while deep asleep! Well worth the $130, in my honest opinion.

    You'll be hard-pressed to find another person with steely reserve as Jerzy Kukuzcka.

  5. I am also looking to buy the book

  6. is it still available? and for how much?

  7. The English version book her just been reprinted by a Kukuczka-dedicated Polish foundation and it can be bought from their website: (they do international shipping too)

    1. Thank you so much for posting this! I've been looking for an affordable copy for years. I purchased this off Amazon for about US$30 including shipping. Again, thanks for posting this link.