On October 26th, 1989 the Polish newspapers followed the press agencies with the following information:
„Jerzy Kukuczka died in the Himalayas. The most outstanding - right next to Italian Rheinhold Messner - climber of our times died on Tuesday morning during his ascent of the Lhotse summit in the Himalayas. The 41-year-old Pole who captured the Crown of the Himalayas, climbing all 14 Himalayan eight-thousanders, was attempting to reach the Lhotse summit (8511 m) with Ryszard Pawłowski. The tragic accident occurred at a height above 8300 m. All signs indicate that Jerzy Kukuczka died on the spot. Pawłowski is being brought down by his colleagues who secured the summit team.”
Many people from the climbing circle could not believe this information. They hoped to hear their colleagues who were in Nepal, by Lhotse to deny it.
Unfortunately, the next day this sad information proved to be true – the body of Jerzy Kukuczka was found. His colleagues buried him in a crevasse.
Jerzy Kukuczka was born on March 24th, 1948 in Katowice. Both his parents came from Istebna, a small town in the Silesian Beskids. As he declared himself, although he was born in a typical Silesian multi-family Familok house, he always remembered his mountain origins and had a great sentimental attachment to Istebna and the nearby mountains..
As time went by, little Jurek started to attend school. He was not a wizard. The marks on his school certificates were clear evidence for the above but he always had good marks in physical education and geography – which bode well for his future climbing career.
After graduating from the primary school, he continued his education in the vocation school at the Signaling Facilities Manufacturing Plant in Katowice, where he also worked.
Finally, there came the moment for the interests of the future conqueror of the Crown of the Himalayas to crystalize. One day, on September 4th, 1965 a friend of Jerzy encouraged him to go on a trip to the rocks near Podlesice. The following words reflect the impact this trip exerted on him :
„I have made a fantastic discovery. This rock fun has absorbed me so much that nothing else really matters to me anymore.”
Just then he was admitted to a scout mountaineering club ( Harcerski Klub Taternicki).At the same time, he was a member of “Szopienice” scout sport club where he trained ... weightlifting. He did quite well and finally he was enlisted to represent the club in the weightlifting competition. Kukuczka was honoured to agree and one day later he went to climb the rocks with his colleagues. His coach was upset and made him decide: either weightlifting or the mountains. For him the decision was quite simple – the mountains!
The next stage in his climbing career was joining the High Mountain Club (Klub Wysokogórski) in Katowice. In 1966 he completed a mountaineering course in Morskie Oko, where he also made his first climbing route. That was the Classic Route in the north-west face of the Mnich mountain. He was coached by Janusz Kurczab and Kazimierz Liszka.
Kukuczka spent the following years practicing his skills in the rocks and the Tatra mountains, where he managed to climb the famous „Variant R” on the Mnich mountain and the Kazalnica Buttress (Filar Kazalnicy).
The mountain hostel in the Tatra mountains. The young Kukuczka third from the left.
Afterwards, Jerzy had a break in his climbing activities due to the necessity to serve in the army. Finally, in winter 1971 Jurek Kukuczka comes back to the Tatra mountains.
The 2 –year period of suspension in his climbing activities makes him nearly „rush” into the walls of the Tatras. He participates in the first winter passage of the route called “Kurtykówka” which was considered at that time as one of the most difficult walls in the Tatra mountains. Winter 1971 turned out to be tragic for Kukuczka’s climbing partner Piotr Skorupa. He died in an accident during his attempt to pass Kazalnica Męguzowiecka ( a diretissima of the north-west wall).
The next winter was marked with another successes (e.g. the first winter direttissima of the north-east wall of Mały Młynarz and the Biderman’s route on the eastern wall of Młynarczyk), which proved to be fraught with consequences. The officials of the High Mountain Club highly appreciated Kukuczka’s achievements and so he was appointed to participate in a sports camp in the Dolomites. He leaded there jointly with J. Kalla, T. Łaukajtys and Z. Wach new routes to Torre Trieste, which was afterwards called by the Italian “Direttissima delli Polacci”. The whole climbing team was awarded for this ascent with a bronze medal for “ Sports Outstanding Achievements”.
During one of his climbing a huge rock fell on Kukuczka and injured him badly. Despite his serious condition, he did not want to disrupt his colleagues’ climbing so he decided to wait until the end of climbing. After they descended into the valley, he spent six days in a hospital in Agordo. Doctors urged him to return home, to Poland. Kukuczka indeed returned but to his colleagues and climbing.
During the same expedition he led a new route to Cima del Bancon and jointly with Zbigniew Wach he made again the routes “Aste-Susati” on the north-west wall of Punta Civetta.
His first expedition to the iceberg mountains was in summer 1973, when he led with his colleagues a new route Petit Dru, which was called „Petit Jean” in the honour of Jan Franczuk, who died in Kunyang Chhish in the Karakorum. One year later he went to the mountains of North America, where he was for the first time badly injured by frostbit and suffered from an altitude sickness.
Two years later, in 1975 he married Cecylia Ogrodzińska. He spent his honeymoon in the Alps, whereas his wife... in Masuria. At that time he graduated from the extramural school for mountaineering trainers (Studium Trenerów Alpinizmu). His graduation thesis was titled “Mountaineering in the subarctic Alaska Range and the Saint Elias Mountains. ”
1976 was the year of the expedition in the Hindu Kush mountains, which absorbed Kukuczka so much that his employer decided to give him notice.
Right from the very beginning the expedition was unlucky – the sickness prevented Kukuczka from participating in the attack on Kohe Tez (7015 m), and when he finally was well again and started to acclimatize, his colleagues were on their way down from the summit. His determination made the ascent to be repeated. As a result he managed to establish his lifetime’s altitude record. From this time on, there was only one way - higher and higher.
His first Himalayan expedition was unsuccessful. He did not manage to climb Nanga Parbat (Marian Piekutowski and Kukuczka reached a height of 7950 metres) but two years later he ascended Lhotse (8511 m) as a member of the expedition organized by the High Mountain Club from Gliwice headed by Adam Bilczewski. He reached the summit with Andrzej “Zyga” Heinrich, Janusz Skorek and Andrzej Czok using the “classic route” – the western flank, from the Khumbu glacier.
J. Kukuczka during the Lhotse expedition in 1979.
Kukuczka did not participate in the memorable expedition to Mt Everest in 1980 as his wife was expecting a baby. But he joined his colleagues who attacked Everest in spring of the same year. He reached the summit with the southern buttress jointly with Andrzej Czok.
In the subsequent years the number of ascended eight-thousenders increased rapidly. In 1981 he climbed Makalu (8463 m), alone and at the same time with a new route and in 1982 he added to his collection another summit which was a part of the Crown of the Himalayas – Broad Peak (8047 m) which he ascended jointly with Wojciech Kurtyka.
The following year of his high mountain activities brought another two eight-thousenders - Gasherbrum I (8068 m) and II (8035 m) ascended within three weeks. This expedition was very significant. Both summits were ascended with Wojciech Kurtyka, with whom Kukuczka spent a lot of time.
From the left: Wojtek Kurtyka, Jurek Kukuczka, Alex MacIntyre during the Makalu expedition in 1981.
J. Kukuczka sets off from the Dhaulagiri base at Cho Oyu
During one of the discussions he picked up the Messner’s idea to climb all summits which exceed 8000 m.
Winter 1984/1985 was notable. Two Polish expeditions were operating in the Himalayas, one of them, at Ghaulagiri was headed by Adam Bilczewski and another one, the Polish –Canadian expedition was at Cho Oyu. Kukuczka was a member of the Cho Oyu expedition but he was released by its head, Andrzej Zawada from the hardships of the caravan and setting up the base, which allowed Kukuczka to join the colleagues from Gliwice’s High Mountain Club who had been for some time climbing Dhaulagiri. On January 21st he reached the summit with Andrzej Czok. Afterwards, he quickly moved to Cho Oyu to joint his original expedition. Another victory - on February 15th, he climbed Cho Oyo, three day after Maciej Berbeka and Maciej Pawlikowski, who were first to climb this summit in winter. In the same year Kukuczka returned once again to attack Nanga Parbat (8125 m). This was the first eight –thousender in his climbing career where he was unsuccessful. The expedition was organized by the High Mountain Club from Cracow and Jerzy Kukuczka was invited to participate. He managed to reach the summit with Andrzej Heinrich and Sławomir Łobodziński on July 13th, 1985. It was the first Polish ascent on Nanga Parbat. Two days later the summit was also conquered by Anna Czerwińska, Wanda Rutkiewicz and Krystyna Palmowska, who were the participants of the female expedition.
In 1986 Kukuczka appeared three times in the Himalayas and the Karakorum. At home he was virtually a guests spending a few days before another expedition. First, on January 11th, he climbed Kangchenjunga (8598 m) and afterwards in July he was on K2 in the Karakorum and finally, four months later, Manaslu. He already racked up twelve eight-thousenders, when Rheinhold Messner summiting Lhotse conquered his fourteenth eight-thousender.
Kukuczka had Annapurna and Shisha Pangma left to climb. In winter 1987 he went to the first summit, which at that time had not been ascended by the Poles. Already at the very beginning, the expedition encountered some problems. It turned out that due to failure to meet some formal requirements, the permit to climb the summit was withdrawn.
After many efforts, of more or less diplomatic nature, they managed to get a new permit and the climbers left the base. In the meantime, some of the winter expeditions were already on their way back. After many difficulties, the summit was ascended by Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer on February 3rd, 1987.
The last eight-thousender in the Crown of the Himalayas which was left for Kukuczka to climb was Shisha Pangma. The expedition in which he participated was the first Polish expedition to operate officially on the Tibetan side. The stress caused by the pressure from the journalist waiting for the name of the first man to capture the Crown was gone. Kukuczka himself admitted in one of the interviews that it was a joyful expedition, although some perturbation were unavoidable. First, an unexpected caravan towards the Nepal-Chinese border caused by the fact that the route towards the border crossing in Kodari Pass was blocked with soil heaps.
Afterwards, the Chinese who accompanied the expedition refused to climb directly to the wall (it was too high for them) and finally there were some problems with fuel for their cookers. Despite the above, the expedition proceeded and moved up.
However, the climbing took too long and at some time it became obvious that the climbers would not have enough time. They started straightaway to make attempts to extend the term of the permit. Another 5 days were granted. On September 18th, 1987 Jerzy Kukuczka climbed his fourteenth eight-thousender required to capture the Crown of the Himalayas.
J. Kukuczka on the summit of Shisha Pangma, his 14th eight-thousender, 1987.
After capturing the Crown, Kukuczka did not rest on his laurels and one year later he climbed Annapurna East. Finally, there came 1989. At first, he planned an expedition to traverse all summits of Kangchenjunga but finally the purpose of the expedition was changed for the mythical south face of Lhotse. At that time, this peak was considered to be one of the greatest challenges in alpinism. A few months earlier defeated Rheinhold Messner had to retreat.
There were odds that the attack launched with Kukuczka by Ryszard Pawłowski might be successful. They climbed steadfastly and they quickly reached high altitudes. On October 23rd, they put up their tents for the third time at a height above 8000 metres. Next morning they continued. Kukuczka climbed first, there was not much terrain left to the summit but it was very difficult. He fell off the wall, the rope failed to hold and it broke ...
Jerzy Kukuczka died on the eight-thousender where, exactly ten years earlier, he started his Himalayan successes.
tłum. Katarzyna Fałkowska