Jerzy Kukuczka was born on March 24th in Katowice – Bogucice at Markiewki street no 94.
His parents came from Istebna. Before the war his father worked as a bank clerk and after the war he was a railway worker. He also practiced skiing and participated in skiing competitions.
His mother was a labourer in the Mining Tools Factory in Katowice (Katowicka Fabryka Narzędzi Górniczych).
Kukuczka commented once on his background: “I am not – as it is called in the Silesian dialect – a “krojcok”. Even though I was born in a typical Silesian “familok” and I grew up in the courtyard with a “hasiok”, i.e. a rubbish tip as the central point, but my parents were the Beskids highlanders. I have a highland soul and heart and I always remember that I come from Istebna.”
He graduated from the primary school No 12 in Katowice – Bogucice. As he said, his school marks on the school reports were “diverse”. But in physical education and geography – very good. He started to work in the Signaling Facilities Manufacturing Plant (Zakłady Wytwórcze Urządzeń Sygnalizacyjnych) and he also he continued his education in the vocation school at the same plant.
Kukuczka graduated from the basic vocational school.
The future conqueror of the highest summits of the Earth became a member of the a scout mountaineering club ( Harcerski Klub Taternicki) in Katowice.
It all started when a friend of Jerzy, a scout encouraged him to go on a weekend trip to the rocks near Podlesice. „I made a fantastic discovery.” – Kukuczka said later. This rock fun has absorbed me so much that nothing else really mattered to me anymore.”
At the same time, he was enlisted to represent the “Szopienice” scout club in the weightlifting competition (325 kg in the triathlon). However, on the competition day, instead of standing on a weightlifting platform, he went to climb the rocks with his colleagues. Afterwards, his coach made him decide: either weightlifting or the mountains. He chose the mountains…
J. Kukuczka climbing in Jura Krakowsko-Częstochowska
Kukuczka joined the High Mountain Club (Klub Wysokogórski) in Katowice and completed a mountaineering course in Morskie Oko. He was coached by Janusz Kurczab and Kazimierz Liszka and his regular climbing partner was Piotr Skorupa. His first climbing route was the “classic route” in the north-west face of the Mnich mountain.
Kukuczka practiced his climbing skills in the rocks and the Tatra mountains ( he also went – with a rather tourist than sport attitude to the caves of Jura Krakowsko – Częstochowska and the Tatras). In the Tatras he managed to climb the Kazalnica Buttress (Filar Kazalnicy) and he went „Variant R” on the Mnich mountain.
A long break in climbing – a break in life: mandatory military service.
Winter. The Tatra mountains. Kazalnica Mięguszowiecka. Unsuccessful, tragic attempt to make in winter diretissima of the north-west wall. Piotr Skorupa died during their climbing.
Mały Młynarz: participation in the first winter pass of “Kurtykówka” route – which was at that time reputed as one of the most difficult routes in the Tatras.
Summer. On the Rila mountan in Bulgaria, with the scouts mountaineering club, among other things, he managed to repeat – in 8,5 hour – the route alongside the famous tum* "i jat Zyb wall (the best Bulgarian climbers passed it in 5 days). Moreover, Jerzy led a new route in Devil’s Needles mountains. He called it “Katowice”, however this route was not included in the report on this trip published in “Taternik” magazine since in that time solo climbing was not officially approved in our country since success of an individual was not acknowledged.
Winter. The Tatras. Kukuczka participated in the first winter passages of the routes which at that time were included in the group of extreme routes: direttissima of the north-east wall of Mały Młynarz and the Biderman’s route on the eastern wall of Młynarczyk and the route called the “Mushroom” on the north wall of Mięguszowicki Szczyt Pośredni.
J. Kukuczka climbing in the Tatras.
The officials of the High Mountain Club highly appreciated Kukuczka’s winter achievements in the Tatra mountains and so he was appointed to participate in a sports camp in the Dolomites. He leaded a new route to Torre Trieste. On the second day of climbing Kukuczka had an accident. The was injured and unconscious. His team wanted to retreat but the injured decided that they should finish the route and that he would last out. After they descended into the valley, Kukuczka spent six days in a hospital in Agordo. The doctors urged him to return home due to his extensive injuries. Kukuczka indeed returned but to his colleagues and climbing and with his partners he led a new route to Cima del Bancon and jointly with Zbigniew Wach he repated the route “Aste-Susati” on the north-west wall of Punta Civetta. For climbing the Torre Trieste route the whole team was awarded with a bronze medal for “Sports Outstanding Achievements”.
Winter. The Dolomites again. The first winter passage of the so called „Via dellTdealle" on Marmolada d' Ombretta. Another – this time silver – medal for “Sports Outstanding Achievements”.
Summer. His first expedition in the iceberg mountains – the Alps, in the area of Mont Blanc, with a base set in Chamonix. He was a member of the team which led a new route Petit Dru, which was called „Petit Jean” in the honour of Jan Franczuk, who died in Kunyang Chhish in the Karakorum.
J. Kukuczka in a hospital in Alaska.
Kukuczka was enlisted in the prestigious “First Polish Expedition in the Mountains of North America” organized by the Silesian climbing club.
Alska. Mount McKinley. At a height of only 4000 metres Kukuczka suffered for the first time from an altitude sickness with which – or rather against which – he reached the summit. Not until his descent did he start to acclimatize. It turned out that in his case this process takes longer than in other persons, but it also proved that its effects are much deeper and long-lasting.
He supported his team during a several days long waiting for the end of a snow storm. At that time his feet were badly injured by frostbit. However, this adventure had a happy end: only a part of his toe had to be amputated…
On June 22nd in the Kubalonka church in Istebna he married Cecylia Ogrodzińska. All member of the “Alaska ‘74” expedition were present at the ceremony (except for its leader, Henryk Furmanik who died in the second part of the expedition in the Saint Elias Mountains),
The wife went to spent the honeymoon in Masuria and the husband went in the Alps, where he was a member of the team which led a new route in the northern wall of Grandes Jorasses.
At that time he graduated from the extramural school for mountaineering trainers (Studium Trenerów Alpinizmu) at the Physical Education Academy in Cracow and was awarded the degree of II class mountaineering trainer. His graduation thesis was titled “Mountaineering in the subarctic Alaska Range and the Saint Elias Mountains”. It is a scrupulously developed and well documented with source documents study on the history of climbing exploration of these mountains (thesis supervisor: professor Ryszard Kozioł, Ph.D.).
The Hindu Kush. Preparation for the expedition was so absorbing for Kukuczka that his employer, the Coal Industry Construction and Mechanical Plant (Zakłady Konstrukcyjno – Mechaniczne Przemysłu Węglowego) gave him notice.
Right from the very beginning the expedition was unlucky – tonsillitis with high fever. When his colleagues were on their way down from the summit, he started to acclimatize after the sickness while climbing alone Kohe Aval). Afterwards, he participated in a rescue mission (an accident of a team descending Kohe Tez) and winding up the base. Kukuczka could not accept that his dream fail to come true – he managed to urge his colleagues to repeat the ascent. As a result he managed to establish his lifetime’s altitude record – Kohe Tez 7015 metres. At that moment a major feature of his sport attitude became apparent, which he commented some time later:
“I have never been able to accept to return empty-handed. I have always tried again. Sometimes against the logics but in line with a kind of inner conviction.”
Jerzy Kukuczka went for the first time to climb an eight-thousender and his first defeat in the Himalayas: Nanga Parbat. Seven years before Reinhold Messner climbed Nanga Parbat which was his first Himalayan success – paid with death of his brother – Gunter.
J. Kukuczka in the camp at Nanga Parbat 1977.
The second expedition in the Hindu Kush. Kukuczka was the sport leader. The purpose of the expedition was to climb the highest mountain of the Hindu Kush - Tirich Mir (7706 metres). Kukuczka and seven other persons managed to climb the lower summit of this mountain Tirich Mir East (7692 metres).
The first conquered eight-thousender - Lhotse. In that year Reinhold MEssner climbed his fifth one – K-2 (after Nanga Parbat in 1970, Manaslu in 1972, Gasherbrum I in 1975 and Mount Everest in 1978).
Three years after Kukuczka climbed Lhotse, the expedition’s leader - Adam Bilczewski published a book “ Lhotse – the fourth mountain in the Earth”. Kukuczka received from the author a copy of this book with the following dedication: “For the best of us all.”
Kukuczka refused to participate in national expedition to Mount Everest (the first winter ascent) as his wife was expecting a baby. On December 31st his son Maciek was born and a few months later Kukuczka was in the base of the expedition which attacked again Everest in spring with a new route.
Kukuczka’s second eight-thousender – Mount Everest. At that time R. Messner had already climbed five eight-thousenders and he had seven ascents to eight-thousand summits (Nanga Parbat and Mount Everest twice).
J. Kukuczka and Andrzej Czok after climbing Mt Everest 1980.
Spring. A scout, sport and tourist trip in the New Zealand Alps. New, difficult routes on Malte - brun. Kukuczka had there a very dangerous – though happily ended accident: a descending hook fell out after Kukuczka was on his way down after completing a route - Kukuczka stopped on an exposed wall on a rock ledge.
Autumn. Kukuczka’s third eight-thousender — Makalu. R. Messner’s sixth one (Shisha Pangma).
Kukuczka was one of the first people who stood alone on Makalu’s summit (before: Hermann Buhl on Nanga Parbat and Reinhold Messner on Mount Everest). When climbing above 8 thousand metres, he was under the illusion that he was not alone. He caught himself talking and preparing tea for someone.
Kukuczka recalled this solo ascent stating: „ I am very religious. This several-day long fight with the mountain provided me with some unique experience, which could be referred to as a wonderful, deep prayer. It is more natural and easy to pray in the mountains. The mountains enhance experience. In the mountains I saw people who never go to church a yet they were praying there.”
Kukuczka’s fourth eight - thousender — Broad Peak. Messner’s seventh and eighth one. (Kangchenjunga and Broad Peak).
Kukuczka’s fifth and sixth eight - thousender — Gasherbrum II and I. Messner’s ninth one (Cho Oyu).
That year Messner announced his plan to climb all fourteen eight-thousand high mountains. During the expedition to the Gasherbrums — while talking to Wojtek Kurtyka — Kukuczka took up Messner’s idea.
J. Kukuczka on Gascherbrum I 1983.
October. Kukuczka’s second son — Wojtek was born. Soon after this happy event his father retuned in the Himalayas.
Kukuczka’s eighth and ninth eight - thousender (Dhaulagiri, Cho Oyu, Nanga Parbat) —Messner’s eleventh and twelfth one (Dhaulagiri, Annapurna).
Kukuczka climbed Dhaulagiri in January and Cho Oyu in February. It was the first time when a man climbed two eight-thousand high mountains during one winter season.
Kukuczka: „ You live a few years in a month of intensive life in the mountains It is for the people who are greedy for life.”
After Kukuczka in one winter climbed Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu, the result of the competition between them was 8:10 for the Tyrolean.
As it turned out later it was the smallest distance the Polish climber managed to approach his rival.
The first failure on the southern wall of Lhotse. Kukuczka’s partner Rafał Chołda died.
Kukuczka’s tenth, eleventh and twelfth eight-thousender (Kanchenjunga, K-2, Manaslu) — R. Messner’s thirteenth and fourteenth one (Makalu, Lhotse).
In autumn of that year Kukuczka took into account the chance — if he managed to climb Manaslu and Annapurna — to overtake Messner.
As he was waiting at Manaslu for weather to improve, he was informed that the Italian climbed Makalu and Lhotse and thus he conquered the “Crown of the Himalayas".
Kukuczka’s telegram to Messner: “Congratulations on the grand slam".
During the expedition to Kanchenjunga Andrzej Czok - Kukuczka’s partner and friend died. „Andrzej Czok — Kukuczka recalled this tragic accident — was my best friend. With him I entered my Himalayan road. I was deeply affected by his death. Kanchenjunga was a san success". During the expedition to K-2 Tadeusz Piotrowski died. After the latter expedition a journalist asked Kukuczka: ”When a partner dies, a Himalayan climber pursues further across this death to the goal." Kukuczka: „ You are affected by death the same in all places. It’s just that reaction to death in untypical in the mountains since such are the conditions. When my partner dies, I cannot get soppy. I cannot just sit and think. Nobody will come for me, nobody will help me. I have to go because I will die as well".
Kukuczka’s another opinion issued after Piotrowski’s death: ”I have noticed that I have a kind of shell, carapace for protection. Perhaps, after all those years of climbing, coming close to death, watching it, I developed some callousness, a kind of insensitivity. After all, you have to pay for all these things."
Nanga Parbat 1985.
Kukuczka’s thirteenth and fourteenth eight-thousender (Annapurna and Shisha Pangma).
Messner climbed all eight-thousand high mountains in 15 years. The majority of them — in summer seasons and using classic routes.
Kukuczka — accomplished it in 10 year; most of them using new routes and in winter.
Messner’s telegram to Kukuczka: ”You are not the second one, you are the great one".
Kukuczka was seen in Tarnów by the Pope John Paul II during his pilgrimage to Poland. He was congratulated by the that time President and Prime Minister of Poland. He was awarded the Minister of Foreign Affair’s Award “For making Poland’s name famous all over the world." In the popular vote organized by the Polish television and ”Trybuna Ludu" —a high-circulation Polish magazine he was chosen the best sportsmen of 1987. He won in the popular vote organized by the Silesian magazine ”Wieczór" as the best sportsmen of Katowickie province. He was also chosen ” The Men of the Year" by the readers “Perspektywy" weekly magazine. He had the second position — among ten ones — in the prestigious, annual popular vote organized by “Przegląd Sportowy" for the most outstanding sportsmen of 1987.
He went to Italy invited by large companies producing climbing equipment (e.g. Scarpa, Camp, Bailo) which sponsored his expedition to Shisha Pangma. He had there a number of press conferences , he gave interviews for radio and TV.
He was a laureate of the annual award granted by one of the Italian “schools of survival and adventure” (Schola di Scoraviveriza a Aventura). Until that time, among the alpinists only Reinhold Messner was awarded with this title. In the justification of the award for Kukuczka, his modesty and willpower in extremely difficult condition were especially highlighted.
Wanda Rutkiewicz, the most outstanding Himalayan climber of her times published in “Taternik" magazine issued by the Polish Climbing Association, an article entitled: “Jerzy Kukuczka, the alpinist of great stature".
The International Olympic Committee awarded R. Messner and J.Kukuczka the Silver Olympic Order Medal . The Tirolean refused to accept this distinction and justified this decision stating that he considers alpinism as creative and not competitive activity. Kukuczka stressed on numerous occasions the sport features of competitive climbing and accepted the Olympic medal as a highly satisfactory distinction.
“In alpinism, just like in chess — he said — there is place for a kind of creativity and sport competition. If it was lacking, perhaps I would have never climbed."
„It is not enough for me simply to be in the mountains — he added later — it is not enough to participate in the expedition. I think that if you come at the mountain, you have some goal, and this goal is to climb this mountain."
Kukuczka’s talked about Messner: „Reinhold has always been and still is for me the most famous Himalayan climber in the world. He is the man who performed great feats in the mountains, a pioneer of new directions in the high-altitude climbing. He was the first one to conquer all eight-thou senders and the history will never forget about it".
Kukuczka commented on his achievement: „During one of the meeting with the public in Italy someone asked me how I estimate my achievement being the second one after Messner. I answered with the question: „Is there anyone here who remembers the second person to climb Everest? There was nobody to remember."
Poczta Polska issued an occasional postage stamp, designed by J. Konarzewski. On the stamp there is a panorama of the Himalayas, the image of Jerzy Kukuczka and the image of his Olympic medal.
J. Kukuczka on the summit of Shisha Pangma 1987.
The expedition to the southern wall of Lhotse. The last expedition of Jerzy Kukuczka.
Initially, the purpose of the Kukuczka’s expedition was to traverse all summits of Kangchenjunga. When R. Messner’s expedition operating in spring of that year at the southern wall of Lhotse failed to succeed, Kukuczka changed his plans and decided to attack this was which was notorious for its inaccessibility.
Kukuczka’s expedition was the eight serious attempt to solve this greatest sport problem of the Himalayas of that time, whereby for Kukuczka it was already his second attempt (the first one was in 1985).
On October 24th, at 8:00, with very good weather, Kukuczka set off from the storm tent put up above the most difficult section of the rock barrier in the upper part of the southern wall of Lhotse. Ryszard Pawłowski, Kukuczka’s partner in his last climbing said :
„...After our third in a row camping above 8000 metres we woke up filled with hope. We were at distance of nearly 70 metres of easy, as we though then, terrain from the ridge. Visually we considered this terrain as “no problem". Jurek was leading. I supported him. We were tied with a rope, about 80 metres long. It was a 7-millimeter thick rope — it was slightly thinner than the ones which are usually used in lower mountains or when climbing in the rocks. However, at such high altitude every gram of equipment counts. Usually – at such altitude the terrain is usually easier, climbers often do not support each other at all, even if they go together. We were in the location from which there was a three kilometer, nearly vertical precipice of the southern wall of Lhotse — the wall which had never been conquered by any person so far. So even this thinnest thread, we were bound with, provided us with a sense of safety which we needed there.
Jurek, as always, climbed confidently and quickly. The rope moved in my hands slowly but almost continually. Before reaching the ridge, Jurek found some rock plates covered with fresh, yet unbound snow. Was there any surprise awaiting us in the end? The rope was nearly ending. Jurek had to be some 70 metres above me. I looked for him carefully, as I always do trying to support my partner, even if only visually. There was no supporting point between use. The rope was tied in only at my position. Jurek made two quick moves and when it seemed to me that he touched the snow –covered ridge, he unexpectedly started to slump. Initially slowly, but within seconds he went down faster and faster. Hardly did I grasp what was going on when Jurek flashed right next to me. I thought that in a moment I will be going down with him. There was a minimal change that the position I had could stand an over hundred metres long flight. I felt a hard pull which threw me against the rock. My helmet hit on some rock protrusion which made me a bit dizzy. Suddenly, the force, which a moment ago made me helpless, let up which instantly threw me in the opposite direction. Nearly at the same time I felt that I was hanging on a self-supporting noose. I saw the end of the rope hanging loosely – this is where the rope broke…”
J. Kukuczka died at his seventeenth expedition in the Himalayas (precisely speaking: in the high mountains), the third expedition to Lhotse, ten years after climbing his first eight-thousender — Lhotse...
Ryszard Pawłowski, J. Kukuczka during the expedition to Lhotse 1989.
tłum. Katarzyna Fałkowska