April 03, 2015


KURTYKA WAS A LEADING PROPONENT OF FAST AND LIGHT IN THE 1970s and 1980s. This is a historically important essay written in 1988.
The Art of Suffering
By Voytek Kurtyka
Mountain Magazine, #121

It's hard to believe, but the tongue-in-cheek speculation in the pub in the 70's has become a Himalayan reality of the 80's. We once joked about climbing naked at night (the ultimate lightweight), and now it's happening! During the past few years a new Franco-Swiss generation have made a number of ascents at night, and given the circumstances, they might well be considered "naked". But no perverse sense of humour drove them to choose such outrageous tactics, rather a spirit of adventure and sporting calculation.

There was once much truth in the saying, "alpinism is the art of suffering." The masters of this art ruled and shaped Himalayan climbing. Neither age nor lack of ability deterred the masters of suffering from achieving their aims. To survive intense cold, starve for days on end at high altitude and still be able to wade through deep snow, a man requires a peculiar stolid brand of passion and determination. A prerequisite for Himalayan climbing was an ability to accept pain. It was considered a sort of psychological triumph of mind over matter.

Only a few appreciated the psychological costs, yet it is true that inner strength is sometimes mirrored by an outward callousness. Physical dangers and the distress of partners may be blotted out. Hard work and suppressed fear, when combined with competitive determination, tend to narrow the field of vision. I am sadly convinced that egocentricity and a kind of inner deafness are common personality blemishes in our climbing community, more so than many care to admit.

Am I merely being sarcastic? I may be not without reason. Too often heroic performances are achieved at the expense of partners. "He's tired, well so am I. Someone's coughing behind? There's always someone coughing behind ..."

This attitude is not an inevitable consequence of Himalayan climbing. Choice of partner in the Himalaya is increasingly important to the successful lightweight group. If there is a strong bond, stronger than just companionship, an individual is less likely to miss possible fatal signs of distress in a partner.

I believe that the latest trends exhibit different qualities than those of the traditional "masters of suffering". They are successes both in sporting and human terms. Extreme lightness, the ease of action and the natural relationship with the mountain environment characterise, these ascents. Mind and body seem to listen to a new voice, follow a different rhythm. Suffering has been replaced by composure as the long hours of night are paced away. In two of the following ascents, it is astonishing that the climbers seem not only to have deceived the human psyche, but also the human body since acclimatisation was minimal. Possibly the speed of the ascents with only short spells at altitude prevented deterioration. Loretan for one is convinced that by depriving the body of sleep, stagnation is inhibited and the chance of oedema and altitude sickness is reduced. 

The first ascent I will relate was a relatively cautious affair on the Abruzzi Spur of K2 climbed in July 1985. The team members, Loretan, Escoffier, Morand and Troillet, acclimatised traditionally, spending one night at 8000m. At midnight on July 3, they left base camp at 5000m and by 10am were at Camp 2 at 6800m. Here they stayed until 7am the following morning. Previous ascents from this point had taken at least three days, but the plan now called for a single push. At 11am they reached Camp 3 at 7300m, where the lads fancied a "picnic" and waited for dusk. Leaving behind bivi gear and even the stove, they climbed through the night and reached the summit at 2pm on July 6, having climbed 1800m without sleep. They descended to Camp 3 before nightfall and down to Base next day. Next, the East Face of Dhaulagiri which Alex Maclntyre, Rene Ghilini and I had first climbed in 1981. The Swiss team consisted of Loretan. Steincr and Troillet, and this time they chose winter for their night-naked tactics.

The team spent little time acclimatising, spending one night at 5700m and climbing to 6500m on the NE Ridge as a warm-up. At midnight on December 5, they left Base Camp and climbed to the camp at 5700m. Here they rested in a snow hole, departing at midnight on the 2500m, 50° ice face. This time they were not only "naked", but cheeky: no ropes, hardwear, sleeping bags or bivi tent, just their one piece suits, one
stove and a chocolate bar each. Winter in the Himalaya is characterised by continuous hurricane winds and -40°C, but the lads guessed the weather right. They climbed continuously for 19 hours through the night and the following day, emerging on the summit ridge at 7700m at 7pm. Here they sat out the night, huddled together, brewing drinks during 12 hours of what Loretan described as "convulsive shivering". At first light the desire for the summit was still with them and at 8am they set off again, reaching the summit 6 hours later. They descended immediately and at 2am reached their snow cave at 5700m.

This incredibly bold and cold feat is to me more inspirational and revelational than frenzied 8000er collecting. These three had discovered a new secret, proved the possibilities of extremely lightweight winter ascents, and suffered successfully together. Peak bagging is a form of emotional consumption, a sign of a mountaineer overwhelmed by a desire to collect. If there is such a thing as spiritual materialism, it is displayed in the urge to possess the mountains rather than to unravel and accept their mysteries. Adventure is thus replaced by a regimen of routine actions and emotions. The collectors make clever use of the magic of numbers such as 8000 and 14 x 8000. These figures were once symbols of extremes in Himalayan achievement, but now have been skilfully turned into commercial measures of mountaineering fame. Numbers are simple and understandable, even by those who have never had cold fingers. The demand for numbers is unlimited. The number eaters gulp them greedily for they confirm the illusion of possession and soothe the nerves of the consumers.

It is difficult to imagine a sport without numbers and many now classify mountaineering as sport. No doubt, there is excellent sport to be found in the hills, but is it merely sport? How do we excuse the common and horrifying presence of death in the mountains? Do we really accept it as part of a funny game and competition? I believe that the inner response that drives us onto the precipices and into danger has nothing to do with competition. As an activity, it expresses the classical opposition of the urge for self-preservation and the need to test mortality. To feel in control of one's fate spontaneously frees the spirit from mortal skin. While sensing these frontiers, a mountaineer experiences his greatest joy. How much of this is expressed in collecting numbers? To me, the Swiss ascent of Dhaulagiri, gambling with their nakedness at night, was a return to the essence and good taste in mountaineering.

In 1986, there were two superb "night naked" style ascents on Everest and K2. The first, an ascent of Everest's fine Japanese/Hornbein Couloir Direct was made by Loretan and Troillet. With them was Beghin, but he rebelled after the first night when instead of sleep the team climbed a mere 2000m. The total ascent time from the base of the wall to the summit was 40_ hours! Almost as incredible was the time of descent. Finding the snow in condition, the pair made a sitting glissade (in Polish this is literally translated as "arse sliding") down the majority of the route, and reached Advance Base in only 4_ hours! As a Pole, I find it difficult to stay cool knowing that the Swiss have beaten us at one of our national sports! I don't mind hangliding or parapenting from 8000ers, but I am boiling with rage to know that these two Swiss have experienced the greatest arse slide in the world! This very rapid ascent was preceded by a five week stay during the monsoon in a Base Camp at 5500m. Acclimatisation above Base, however, was minimal. They spent one night in Advance Base at 5850m and ascended two 6500m neighbouring peaks.

That was enough, all other energy was saved for the face. They left ABC at 10pm on August 28 carrying no more than had been used on Dhaulagiri. The first 2000m took 13 hours. At 11am, the team had reached 7800m, where they spent the rest of the day continuously brewing up. At 9pm, Loretan and Troillet continued without Beghin. Sometime after midnight, at about 8400m, the intense cold and pitch darkness forced them to a halt. They huddled close together and waited for the cruellest hours to slip past. Around 4am when the first glimmer of dawn had crept into the couloir, they set off and at 1pm they reached the summit. They lounged on top of the world for 1_ hours. By 7pm, and hopefully a little sore in the hind parts, they were 3000m lower. The one night and day ascent of the Abruzzi Spur of K2 by Benoit Chamoux is the simplest story to tell. He set out from Base at 5pm on July 4 and at 4pm the next day he stood on the summit. Clearly, he had no time to sleep. A few days earlier he had made a 16 hour ascent of Broad Peak.

When I met Loretan and Troillet in Kathmandu two summers ago, my curiosity provoked a few questions aimed at Loretan;
"Do you train for climbs?"
"No, the best training's here," tapping his forehead.
"Do you smoke or drink?"
"No to the first, yes to the second."
"Any medications taken?"
"Only mild sleeping pills, never anything to improve blood supply."
"What do you want most in high altitude mountaineering?"
"As difficult, high and quick as possible, alpine style of course."
"What advice would you give to aspiring Himalayan climbers?"
"Try to listen to and to understand your body systems."

Although the four climbs described here are athletic feats, their appeal is not that of sport, but lies in the style in which they were done. Traditional methods were abandoned in favour of a new approach.

Whenever a climber leaves the known paths, he enters an area without rules or routines to rely on. The only advice comes from deep inside the self, and hopefully the motivation is true. At such moments, the mountaineer is creative, not merely a participant in sport. This creativity manifests itself in styles of climbing or in exploration of unknown areas. It is impossible to cram mountaineering into a sport framework. To me there are as many ways to experience the mountains as there arc real and passionate emotional bonds with the mountains. If you allow my earlier sarcasm, permit me a momentary contact with the mystical. I conclude that mystery is essential to mountaineering. What is unveiled to the individual when involved with creative mountaineering forms part of a new bond with the mountain experience.

One needs to recall only a few figures such as Tilman. Uemura or Hemming. It is in forging true bonds rather than the collection of numbers or establishment of records that unveils a bit of mystery. But mystery remains a mystery and sport is sport.

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