Northern Illinois University Press

Mountain Climbing, in Pursuit of Freedom

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Thirty-two years ago, on October 24, 1989, the legendary Polish mountain climber Jerzy Kukuczka died while attempting to summit the Himalayan peak of Lhotse via its then yet unconquered South Face. He had been the second man, behind the Tyrolean Reinhold Messner, ever to complete the Himalayan Crown—the successful summitting of not only Mount Everest but all fourteen mountains higher than 8000 meters (26,000 feet) above sea level. Ambitious, pioneering, and innovative, Kukuczka climbed them in half the time it took Messner, some via new routes, and some also in winter.

Polish Paradoxes of Mountain Climbing

Yet was not this Polish prominence (for another Pole, Krzysztof Wielicki, was fifth to complete the Himalayan Crown) paradoxical? Messner’s alpine homeland was mountainous. By contrast, Kukuczka hailed from a quintessentially lowland country—Poland. That said, there are mountains along the southern frontier of the country, the Carpathian Mountains. Among the ranges of the Carpathians are the Tatra Mountains, a miniature Alps with more than sixty peaks over 8000 feet above sea level. An earlier history of Polish mountain climbing—when the mountains were part of Austria-Hungary—makes Kukuczka and other climbers’ feats more comprehensible.  

Messner’s alpine homeland was mountainous. By contrast, Kukuczka hailed from a quintessentially lowland country—Poland.

As I discuss in The Carpathians, climbing Tatra peaks became fashionable in the second half of the nineteenth century. Upper-class Poles began to vacation at the foot of the Tatras, in the remote highland village of Zakopane. Returning from a trip to Zakopane in 1873, a Warsaw physician named Tytus Chałubiński began to encourage his patients to summer in the heights and take in the spectacular views from the range’s many peaks. Poles from what was then Imperial Russia (there was no Polish state in this period) went so far as to credit Chałubiński with “discovering” the mountains. This too is paradoxical, as individual Poles had visited the mountains since the early nineteenth century. Witness one poet’s early exhortation: “To the mountains, to the mountains, dear brother!  There freedom awaits you.” The phrase subsequently became the motto of the Tatra Society, the first Polish alpine club, also established in 1873. Freedom was indeed part of what was sought by Poles of Chałubiński’s age, whose country had been wiped off the map of Europe nearly a century earlier. Together with the Warsaw physician, members of the Tatra Society did what they could to turn Zakopane and the Tatras into a place where Poles could gather, in relative freedom from tsarist oppression.

Freedom Climbers

Chałubiński did more than just promote the mountains: he set the tone for how the Tatras should be climbed, freely and in the often boisterous company of indigenous highlanders. By contrast, Kukuczka’s climbing was more akin to that of the next generation of Polish climbers, many of them students, who made names for themselves from the end of the nineteenth century in technical solo climbs. Instead of seeking out the best views (from mountains that had already been conquered), they climbed peaks and crags that had never before been attempted. Upon summitting the Ostry (Ostrý štít) in 1902, the prolific climber Karol Englisch planted a Polish national flag atop the peak—again, this when there was no Poland. Zakopane and the Tatras had become a Poland of the mind.

Freedom was indeed part of what was sought by Poles of Chałubiński’s age, whose country had been wiped off the map of Europe nearly a century earlier. 

Born in 1948, Jerzy Kukuczka lived in another less free age, in a Poland controlled by communists. The purest sense of freedom was to be had only in places such as the mountains. Hardly helped by the regime, and equipped with whatever they could rustle up, he and his mountain climbing colleagues—women as well as men—made names for themselves as innovative and fearless Himalaya climbers. Kukuczka ironically perished just as Poland was turning away from communism in 1989. One of the freest Poles alive until his untimely death, he—much as generations of Poles before him—was obsessed with mountain climbing, in the process experiencing an otherwise unobtainable rush of freedom.

*Featured photo: Tatras Mountains, Zakopane, Poland. Credit: Chelsea Murphy.

The Carpathians
Cover image for The Carpathians.
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Patrice M. Dabrowski was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 2014. She is author of Poland and you can follow her on Twitter @pdabrow.

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