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My Vertical World

By Jerzy Kukuczka

Translated from Polish by Andrew Wielochowski, postscript by Krzysztof Wielicki.
The Mountaineers, Seattle/Hodder and Stoughton, Britain, 1992.
Hardbound,189 pages, colour photos, B & W drawings,

"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. (…)

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.”
Gary Ruggera, “American Alpine Journal” 1993, p. 300-301

“In this postumous autobiography of Kukuczka, My Vertical World, the overwhelming magnitude of his climbs emerges — all fourteen 8,000m peaks by new routes or in winter, occasionally both, except for Lhotse on which he eventually died.(…)
This book goes a long way to explain the drive and urgency. We may harbour illusions that British and Polish climbers get along particularly well because we share a similar attitude to the hills. There may be a grain of truth in that but the book reveals in the most vivid way the sheer struggle of the Poles to outwit the system, to raise precious money, to unlock the doors of Polish bureaucracy. Painting factory chimneys seems to be almost the only career available to aspiring Polish Himalayan climbers and reading the book one is reminded over and over again just how privileged we are and how comparatively easy it is for us to get to the big mountains. Kukuczka amusingly suggests that Western climbers are like western cars, fast on good roads, useless on bad. Polish cars just keep staggering on, however bad the conditions.”
Jim Curran, ”High” 1992, October, No. 119, p. 76

“Jerzy ‘Jurek’ Kukuczka was the man who also ran—against Rheinhold Messner—in the so-called race to climb all fourteen 8000-meter peaks during the 1980s. (…)
Messner's trips were well-funded, he courted fame, and he wrote enough books about his climbs to fill a bookshelf. (…) Kukuczka only wrote this one book before his death near the summit of Lhotse's south face in 1989.

Kukuczka's unembellished, accessible language stands in stark contrast to Messner's abundant, sometimes purple, prose. In writing so plain and honest, the occasional insights stand out like peaks jutting above a sea of clouds. The author's note sets the tone: There is no answer in this book to the endless question about the point of expeditions to the Himalayan giants. I never found a need to explain this. I went to the mountains and climbed them. That is all. (…)

Kukuczka was a pretty damn tough and good climber, with a deep intuition about himself and the mountains he climbed. Call it superstition if you will, but he was clearly moved by things most readily described as premonitions, such as the coincidence of a rope crossing an ice axe to form the image of a cross in the last photo take of Czok. Or impressions, such as the one made on Kukuczka by an incident on the mighty south face of Lhotse during a 1985 attempt, when Rafal Holda, climbing a few feet behind Kukuczka, unexpectedly fell thousands of feet and disappeared; the only hint of the accident was his rucksack falling down the wall. The incident gnawed at Kukuczka, forcing him to write: and again a vision returns, from which I will be unable to free myself probably to the end of my life: a slope of hard snow sparkling in the Himalayan sun, down which a rucksack is rumbling. Ironically, the same wall of the same mountain claimed Kukuczka in a similar fashion a short time after he wrote this book.”
Greg Child, “Rock & Ice” 1993, March/April, No. 54, p. 114




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