Home BLOGMOUNTAINEER Wojciech Kurtyka | Alpinist and Advocate of Alpine-Style Climbing

Wojciech Kurtyka | Alpinist and Advocate of Alpine-Style Climbing

by thesummiters.com

Inroduction of Wojciech Kurtyka known as Voytek Kurtyka

Wojciech Kurtyka, widely known as Voytek Kurtyka, emerges as an icon in the world of mountaineering, leaving an enduring legacy that defines the essence of alpinism. Born on July 25, 1947, in Skrzynka near Kłodzko, Poland, Kurtyka’s journey into the realm of vertical challenges unfolds as a saga of trailblazing ascents, shaping the very fabric of his unparalleled contributions to the sport.

From the outset of his career, Kurtyka displayed an innate ability to navigate the most daunting landscapes with finesse. His ascent to international acclaim began with the historic first winter conquest of Trollveggen (Troll Wall) in Norway in 1973—a feat that not only showcased his resilience in adverse conditions but also set the stage for a career defined by audacious climbs.

Wojciech Kurtyka | Alpinist and Advocate of Alpine-Style Climbing
Wojciech Kurtyka | Alpinist and Advocate of Alpine-Style Climbing

Venturing into the Greater Ranges marked a pivotal moment in Kurtyka’s trajectory. In 1972, he achieved the inaugural ascent of the wall of AkherChogh in the Hindu Kush region, introducing a lightweight, alpine style that prioritized efficiency and self-sufficiency in extreme environments. This seemingly modest climb would later be recognized as a crucial testament to Kurtyka’s commitment to a minimalist philosophy in mountaineering.

His exploration of the Himalayas, commencing in 1974, further solidified Kurtyka’s reputation as a master of alpine-style climbing. The mountains became both his canvas and crucible, and with each ascent, he etched his name into the annals of mountaineering history.

However, it was in 1985 that Kurtyka achieved what many regard as his magnum opus—the conquering of the “Shining Wall” of Gasherbrum IV. Climbing magazine bestowed upon this triumph the title of the greatest mountaineering achievement of the twentieth century, a testament to Kurtyka’s prowess in the face of the most challenging vertical landscapes.

In 2016, the mountaineering community bestowed upon Kurtyka the prestigious Piolet d’Or for lifetime achievement, underscoring the enduring impact of his legacy. Today, VoytekKurtyka stands not only as a Polish icon but as a global inspiration, his life’s work serving as a beacon for those who seek to conquer the peaks and push the boundaries of human achievement in the vertical realm.

Early Triumphs and Recognitions

Kurtyka’s ascent to international acclaim began with the first winter conquest of Trollveggen (Troll Wall) in Norway in 1973. This remarkable feat marked the initiation of his exceptional mountaineering journey. Trollveggen, the highest vertical cliff in Europe, provided a challenging backdrop for Kurtyka’s demonstration of skill and resilience in adverse conditions.

Venturing into the Greater Ranges

In 1972, Kurtyka ventured into the Greater Ranges, achieving the inaugural ascent of the wall of AkherChogh in the Hindu Kush region. While this accomplishment may not have garnered widespread attention, it held great significance for Kurtyka, illustrating his commitment to the principles of lightweight, alpine-style climbing. This approach prioritizes speed, efficiency, and self-sufficiency in the most demanding terrains.

Himalayan Odyssey – 1974

The subsequent year marked Kurtyka’s foray into the Himalayas, initiating a series of expeditions that further solidified his reputation. The Himalayas became both his playground and crucible, where he continued to refine his alpine-style techniques in the challenging and unforgiving high-altitude environments.

These early triumphs not only showcased Kurtyka’s technical expertise and physical prowess but also hinted at the pioneering spirit that would later propel him to conquer some of the world’s most daunting peaks. The recognition garnered during this period laid the foundation for Kurtyka’s status as a luminary in the mountaineering world, setting the stage for even more remarkable achievements in the years ahead.

The Shining Wall Triumph – Gasherbrum IV, 1985

One of Kurtyka’s crowning achievements occurred in 1985 when he conquered the “Shining Wall” of Gasherbrum IV. Climbing magazine later declared this triumph as the pinnacle of mountaineering in the twentieth century. Kurtyka’s success on Gasherbrum IV epitomized his dedication to the alpine style, showcasing his ability to navigate and conquer some of the world’s most challenging walls.

Piolet d’Or for Lifetime Achievement

In 2016, VoytekKurtyka, the trailblazing alpinist, received the prestigious Piolet d’Or for Lifetime Achievement, a crowning recognition that encapsulated the zenith of his remarkable mountaineering career. This accolade, symbolized by the golden ice axe, marked the pinnacle of Kurtyka’s journey, which had been characterized by daring ascents, groundbreaking techniques, and an unwavering commitment to the spirit of alpine-style climbing.

Piolet d'Or for Lifetime Achievement | Voytek Kurtyka
Piolet d’Or for Lifetime Achievement | Voytek Kurtyka


In 1985, he conquered the formidable “Shining Wall” on Gasherbrum IV, a triumph that Climbing magazine hailed as the most significant achievement in mountaineering of the 20th century. Additionally, in 2016, he was honored with the Piolet d’Or for his lifetime contributions to mountaineering. Kurtyka gained international recognition in early 1973 by achieving the first winter ascent of Trollveggen (Troll Wall) in Norway, the tallest vertical cliff in Europe, with a four-member Polish team.

He began his adventures in the Greater Ranges in 1972, making a less-known but personally important first climb of the Akher Chogh wall in Hindu Kush using a lightweight, alpine style. His Himalayan journey kicked off in 1974. After joining two significant Polish national expeditions in 1974 and 1976, he gradually shifted his focus to lighter expeditions. His climbing companions included renowned Himalayan climbers such as Alex MacIntyre (1977, 1978, 1980, 1981), Jerzy Kukuczka (1981, 1983, 1984), Doug Scott (1993, Nanga Parbat attempt), Erhard Loretan (1988, 1990, 1991, 1997), Reinhold Messner (1982, Cho Oyu winter attempt), and Yasushi Yamanoi (2000, 2001, K2 and Latok attempts), among others.

In 1985, Climbing magazine recognized Wojciech Kurtyka’s and Robert Schauer’s climb of the west face, also known as the “Shining Wall,” on Gasherbrum IV as one of the top 10 impressive climbs of the 20th century, covering various climbing styles like rock climbing and bouldering. Aside from his climbing achievements, Kurtyka is also an author, writing many articles about climbing in both Polish and English. Around 1980, he invented the local Polish grading system for free climbs, named the “Kurtyka scale” or “Krakowska scale.” In Poland, he pioneered new climbing routes with difficulty levels up to 8a and 8a+. Notably, in 1993, he achieved the challenging feat of a free solo ascent of a 7c+ route, which is considered one of the toughest free solo climbs in Poland.

In follow Achievements

1970:  Kurtyka, along with Michał Gabryel and Janusz Kurczab, pioneered a new free route called Mały Młynarz (Malý Mlynar in Slovak) on the NE face, commonly known as Kurtykówka.

1972:  He achieved the first winter ascent of Kazalnica’s Pająki route, a Slovak group’s route called “The Spiders,” with Kazimierz Głazek and Marek Kęsicki.

1973:  Witnessed Kurtyka’s contribution to the Superściek (Super Sewer) route in Kocioł Kazalnicy (Kazalnica Cwm, Kazalnica Sanctuary) during the first ascent in winter, partnering with Piotr Jasiński, Krzysztof Pankiewicz, and Zbigniew Wach.

1980:  On Kazalnica’s Kant Filara (The Edge of The Pillar), Kurtyka accomplished the first free ascent, recognized as the hardest free route in the Tatras, with Władysław Janowski. Additionally, he was involved in other first winter ascents and new routes in 1971 and 1992 on Kazalnica.

1991:  Kurtyka explored new routes up to 7c+ in the limestone part of Tatras.

Moving to the Mountains of Norway

In 1973, he achieved the first winter ascent of Trollryggen’s N face (Troll Wall) in Romsdal Valley with Marek Kęsicki, Ryszard Kowalewski, and Tadeusz Piotrowski.

1971:  Kurtyka completed the first Polish ascent of Aiguille Noire’s W face using the Vitali-Ratti route with Janusz Kurczab.

1972:  At Kohe Tez (7015 m) in Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, Kurtyka, along with Alicja Bednarz and Ryszard Kozioł, opened a new route on the N ridge.

1972: The following year, in 1972, on Akher Chogh (7025 m or 7017 m) in Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, he, along with Jacek Rusiecki, Marek Kowalczyk, and Piotr Jasiński, established a new route on the NW face.

1973:  Marked the first Polish ascent of Petit Dru’s W face, Directe Americaine, with Andrzej Tarnawski. Furthermore, in the same year, he, along with Jerzy Kukuczka and Marek Łukaszewski, established a new route in the left part of Petit Dru’s N face, Voie Petit Jean, to commemorate Jan Franczuk.

1974:  Kurtyka was a member of the first winter (autumn to winter) expedition on Lhotse (8516 m), reaching a height of approximately 8250 m.

1975:  The year 1975 saw the creation of a new route, Pointe Hélène, on Grandes Jorasses’ N face, with Jerzy Kukuczka and Marek Łukaszewski.

1976: Attempting the East Ridge of K2 (8611 m) in 1976, Kurtyka reached around 7900 m, marking the highest point achieved by the expedition at approximately 8400 m. The complete line to the summit via the NE-Ridge remained unexplored until it was finished in 1978 by an American expedition led by James Whittaker.

1977:  At Kohe Bandaka (6868 m) in Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, Kurtyka, along with Alex MacIntyre and John Porter, established a new route on the NE face.

1978:  On Changabang (6864 m) in Garhwal Himalaya, India, he, along with Alex MacIntyre, John Porter, and Krzysztof Żurek, completed a new route on the S face directly.

1981:  On Makalu (8481 m), Kurtyka attempted two direct new routes on the West face, reaching approximately 7900 m during the second attempt in autumn. His climbing partners included Jerzy Kukuczka and Alex MacIntyre, with Kukuczka later reaching the summit in a solo climb through the variation of the normal route.

1982:  He joined Reinhold Messner in a winter attempt on Cho Oyu.

1985:  Saw Kurtyka’s significant achievement on Gasherbrum IV (7925 m) in the Karakoram region. Along with Robert Schauer (Austrian), they made the first ascent of the West face, known as the Shining Wall, in alpine style, though not reaching the summit.

1988:  On Trango Tower (6239 m) in the Karakoram region, Kurtyka and Erhard Loretan established a new route on the East face.

1987 and 2000:  Kurtyka made several attempts on K2 (W face) up to 6650 m.

1993 and 1997:  Kurtyka attempted the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat (8126 m).

1995: He achieved the second ascent of Losar, a 700 m high icefall above Namche Bazaar, Nepal, with Maciej Rysula.

2001:  Kurtyka, along with Taeko and Yasushi Yamanoi, established a new route (Japanese-Polish Picnic) on Biacherahi Tower (Central, ca. 5700 m) in the Choktoi Glacier, Karakoram, S face, during attempts to Latok I N buttress.

Moving on to the Eight-Thousanders

1980: On Dhaulagiri (East face), Kurtyka, along with René Ghilini (Swiss), Alex MacIntyre, and Ludwik Wilczyński, established a new route in alpine style, though not reaching the summit.

1982: Saw his ascent of Broad Peak via the normal route in alpine style, partnering with Jerzy Kukuczka.

1983:  Kurtyka, along with Jerzy Kukuczka, achieved new routes on both Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II in alpine style, part of the Polish Alex MacIntyre Memorial Expedition.

1984: Marked the traverse of all three Broad Peak summits (North face, Middle or Central, and Main) in alpine style with Jerzy Kukuczka.

1990: Kurtyka, along with Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet, established a new route in alpine style on Cho Oyu (SW face).

1990: On Shisha Pangma (central summit, 8008 m) in alpine style, Kurtyka, along with Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet, pioneered a new route on the South face.

Photo of Voytek Kurtyka at Himalayas
Photo of Voytek Kurtyka at Himalayas

Culmination of Dedication

The Piolet d’Or stands as a symbol of excellence in the mountaineering world and for Kurtyka it represented the culmination of a lifetime devoted to conquering some of the most formidable peaks across the globe. His exceptional skill combined with a philosophy rooted in alpine style climbing had set him apart as a true pioneer in the field.

Acknowledgment of Pioneering Spirit

Beyond acknowledging specific climbs, the award celebrated Kurtyka’s pioneering spirit that had left an indelible mark on the world of alpinism. His approach, characterized by a commitment to lightweight, self-sufficient climbs, redefined the norms of mountaineering. The Piolet d’Or recognized him not just as a conqueror of summits but as a visionary who had reshaped the very essence of how climbers approached monumental challenges.

Inspiring Future Generations

By bestowing Kurtyka with the Piolet d’Or for Lifetime Achievement the mountaineering community acknowledged his role as a source of inspiration for generations to come. His life’s work became a beacon encouraging aspiring mountaineers to embrace adventure innovation and a profound reverence for the mountains. Kurtyka’s legacy encapsulated in the golden ice axe serves as a perpetual source of motivation for those seeking to push their limits in the pursuit of alpine excellence.

Enshrinement in Mountaineering History

The Piolet d’Or, with Kurtyka as its recipient, elevated him to the revered ranks of mountaineering legends. It not only honored his individual achievements but also recognized his enduring impact on the philosophy and practice of climbing. Kurtyka’s legacy, carried by the golden ice axe, continues to echo through the mountains, inspiring climbers to embrace the adventurous spirit that lies at the core of alpinism.


VoytekKurtyka’s odyssey through the most daunting mountain environments has left an indelible mark on the annals of mountaineering history. His pioneering spirit, unwavering commitment to alpine-style climbing, and numerous triumphs, including the conquest of Gasherbrum IV, position him among the elite alpinists of all time. Kurtyka’s enduring legacy continues to inspire budding mountaineers, underscoring the indomitable human spirit in the face of nature’s harshest challenges.

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