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published: Sep 2017

Art of Freedom

The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka

by Bernadette McDonald

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adventurers & explorers, mountaineering
0 of 5
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list price: $32.00
also available: eBook
published: Sep 2017

Winner of the 2017 Banff Mountain Book Award for Mountain Literature (Non Fiction). Winner of the 2017 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Winner of the National Outdoor Book Awards.

A profound and moving biography of one of the international climbing world's most respected, complicated and reclusive mountaineers.


Voytek Kurtyka remains one of the greatest alpinists of all time. Born in 1947, he was one of the leading lights of the Polish golden age of Himalayan climbing. His visionary approach to climbing resulted in many renowned ascents, such as the complete Broad Peak traverse, the “night naked” speed climbs of Cho Oyu and Shishapangma and, above all, the alpine-style ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV. Dubbed the “climb of the century,” his route on G IV, as of 2016, has yet to be repeated. His most frequent climbing partners were alpine legends of their time: Polish Himalayan climber Jerzy Kukuczka, Swiss mountain guide Erhard Loretan and British alpinist Alex MacIntyre.


After repeated requests to accept the Piolet d’Or lifetime achievement award (the Academy Award of the climbing world), Kurtyka finally accepted the honour in the spring of 2016. A fiercely private individual, he continues to decline countless invitations for interviews, lectures and festival appearances, but has agreed to co-operate with internationally renowned and award winning Canadian author Bernadette McDonald on this long-awaited biography.


Certain to be a major event in the climbing world, Art of Freedom will appeal to all readers who dream of mountain landscapes and those who long to touch the sky.

About the Author

Bernadette McDonald is the author of ten books on mountaineering and mountain culture, including Alpine Warriors (RMB 2015), Keeper of the Mountains (RMB 2012) and Freedom Climbers (RMB 2011). She has received numerous mountain writing awards, including Italy’s ITAS Prize (2010), and is a two-time winner of India’s Kekoo Naoroji Award for mountain literature (2008 and 2009). In 2011, Bernadette’s first book with RMB, Freedom Climbers, won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival (Canada), the Boardman Tasker Prize (UK) and the American Alpine Club’s H. Adams Carter Literary Award. Bernadette splits her time between Banff, Alberta, and Naramata, British Columbia

Author profile page >
  • Winner, Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature
  • Winner, National Outdoor Book Awards
  • Winner, Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival
Editorial Reviews

The story of Kurtyka's departure from the conventions of high-altitude mountaineering, and the legacy left by his impeccable lines, will hold a special place in the history of alpinism. It will continue to remind us that the experience is what we bring home from the mountains, not the summits.

— Marc-Andre Leclerc, alpinist

Art of Freedom is a brilliant work of insight, not only into the life of the great alpinist, but also at the questions that compel us to the mountains in the first place; a work of art that will provoke and inform discussions on the potential transformative power of climbing for decades to come.

— Alpinist.com

Wonderfully strange, muscular, poetic at heart, and brimming with curiosity, Art of Freedom portrays the towering, but intensely reclusive Polish mountaineer, Voytek Kurtyka. By now I've come to expect Bernadette McDonald’s vivid writing style, her over-research (a high compliment,) and cosmopolitan insights. Once again, she raises the bar, pushing mountain literature to do what it does best: discover. She has become a virtual ambassador to the terra incognita of post-Soviet mountain culture in Eastern Europe, a territory every bit as buried in silence or myth as Tibet used to be. With Art of Freedom, I now recognize another of McDonald’s gifts, her quiet searching for what I'll call "deep ascent." At some point - during a storm, facing a crux, or otherwise outlasting the extremes - many climbers experience an altered or transforming perception. A rare few have the ability to express and live it as a convincing philosophy. In Voytek Kurtyka’s biography, Bernadette McDonald gives us yet another such spirit, a mountaineer in whom the mountains live.

— Jeff Long, award-winning author of <i>The Descent</i>

With the accuracy of a musician and the sensitivity of a writer, Bernadette McDonald unveils the myth of the great Voytek. Joining him on the journey through his remarkable mountaineering opus she collects forgotten notes from the steep faces of the Himalaya, the granite spires of Troll and Trango, and composes them into a magnificent symphony.

— Silvo Karo, alpinist

Art of Freedom explores the fascinating complexity of Voytek Kurtyka, an alpinist who was driven by aesthetics and by style to achieve some of the most notable ascents in the Himalaya and Karakoram, many of which have never been repeated.

— Sir Christian Bonington, alpinist, author of <i>I Chose to Climb</i>

It’s no exaggeration for me to say that Bernadette McDonald’s Art of Freedom is among the most eagerly anticipated mountaineering books of the decade—a work by one of the most respected writers in the genre about one of climbing’s greatest legends. Both Voytek Kurtyka’s ascents and his philosophy have long represented a form of quiet resistance to the commercialism and competition that encroach on much of adventure media. Now, at last, readers have a chance to glimpse more of his vision of alpinism as an art, a path and a deeply personal quest. From scenes of Kurtyka climbing storm-blasted walls in the Greater Ranges, to standing in his mist-drenched garden, coffee cup in hand, we perceive a sense of some mysterious, almost numinous impulse that runs through it all, the possibility that, as Kurtyka himself puts it, that “Beauty is some kind of laser connection to higher worlds.”

— Katie Ives, Editor-in-Chief, <i>Alpinist</i>

Sieging Himalayan peaks with masses of manpower, supplies and rope was always the norm when climbing in the death zone, but during the nineteen-seventies and –eighties, a new breed of climber shunned those behemoth expeditions to experiment with a small-team philosophy that embraced risk and uncertainty, and utilized self-reliance and speed. The most visionary of these prophets was a soft-spoken Pole named Voytek Kurtyka. He tackled his ascents with an ascetic, intellectual minimalism that resulted in pure, unadulterated alpinism. Voytek taught us that the style by which one climbs a mountain is what it’s all about, and the summit is merely a stop along the way.

— Greg Child, alpinist

This biography of the enigmatic Voytek Kurtyka is intimate and poised, revealing much that we did not know about Kurtyka, but never dispelling the mystery that surrounds him. Voytek’s life has been a quest to find a language to communicate with mountains. This story of his life proves that mountaineering can itself be a form of art, a state of being that perhaps only Kurtyka has achieved.

— John Porter, author of <i>One Day as a Tiger</i>

In Freedom Climbers, McDonald located the great Polish Himalayan climbers, including Voytek Kurtyka in the complex political and mountaineering contexts of Cold War climbing. In Art of Freedom, she focuses on offering a compelling account of the inner life of Kurtyka, one of the greatest climbers in history. McDonald pulls no punches in sharing her insights into Kurtyka’s complicated relationships with partners, the law, climbing goals, risk and lifestyle, resulting in a picture of a truly remarkable man. Everyone interested in what drives a man capable of accomplishing some of the greatest climbs ever attempted will find this a very rewarding read.

— David Chaundy-Smart, founding editor of <i>Gripped</i> and author of <i>A Youth Wasted Climbing</i>

This book tells both the history and the future of alpine climbing. Art of Freedom reveals profound lessons about climbing, deeply rooted in romanticism, blood, sweat and toil, as reflected by one of it’s greatest protagonists. Voytek Kurtyka is a legend, in part for his many brilliant climbs, both attempted and accomplished. But even more so for his intellect, his self-reflection, and his growth from each experience—both the tragic and the triumphant. Here, for the first time, we have full access to his travails and his musings. An absolute gem of a book.

— Steve House, alpinist, author of <i>Beyond the Mountain</i>

I highly recommend this book. Buy it now and read it. Put it on your Christmas list for your friends. Perhaps give it to your budding climber or your student graduating high school or college next spring. McDonald crafted a significant biography of Voytek Kurtyka that has enough lessons of success, failure, and maintaining joy through it all that goes beyond climbing and can apply to how we can all live our lives.

— Andrew Szalay, The Suburban Mountaineer

No other author living today writes about mountaineering with the insight, care and consideration of Bernadette McDonald. Like the alpinists she portrays, McDonald leads us into the unknown, shining a bright and burning light into the hearts and minds of those who have dedicated their lives to exploring the world’s great ranges.

— Chris Noble, author of <i>Why We Climb</i>

Many years ago my friend Alex MacIntyre told me stories about his climbing partner Voytek Kurtyka, and their fast, light ascents of big walls in the high Himalaya. Voytek seemed a near mythical figure, for whom such intense climbing was an art form and a spiritual endeavor. He shunned publicity, and for decades remained a ‘climber’s climber’, little known outside the inner sanctum of mountaineering. With this graceful biography, Bernadette McDonald now introduces Voytek to a wide audience. She creates a 3D picture of a remarkable alpinist, following the arc of his astonishing life and sharing with us his climbs, his writings, his complexities and his wisdom. Art of Freedom is an important addition to mountaineering history and literature, and is sure to become a classic.

— Maria Coffey, author of <i>Fragile Edge, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow</i>

Climbing legends don't come more legendary than Voytek Kurtyka, nor their biographers more diligent, stylish and informed than Bernadette McDonald. This book's her best yet - an enthralling account of a life focused around audacious ascents in the World's Greater Ranges by the man they nicknamed "The Animal". Proof here that animals have souls, and only readers without one could fail to be impressed!

— Jim Perrin, award-winning author of <i>Shipton and Tilman</i>

In Art of Freedom, Bernadette McDonald succeeds in getting inside the complex character of Voytek Kurtyka in a book that slowly takes hold of the reader and makes it hard to put down.

— Cloudburst

Against all odds, Bernadette McDonald has crafted a masterpiece in this biography of the dazzling and enigmatic genius of alpinism that is Voytek Kurtyka. His climbs soar beyond the page even as his tangled character anchors a vision few have shared. It is almost as though McDonald comprehends the man better than he does himself.


— David Roberts, award-winning mountaineering author

McDonald has a magical knack for honing in on what makes climbers tick, and she definitely unravels threads from the enigma that is Kurtyka in her book.

— Joanna Croston, Canadian Alpine Journal

Bernadette McDonald has outdone even herself with this stunning portrayal of the reclusive visionary who turned mountain climbing into an art form. A mighty impressive work. Bravo!

— Ken McGoogan, author of <i>Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage</i>

In Art of Freedom, Bernadette McDonald dances up the wall adroitly and with admirable precision. As a biographer, she is Voytek's match in finding the unlikely fingerholds, the beauty and the prettiest line.

— Marni Jackson, author of <i>Don’t I Know You?</i>

Polish climbers, particularly the pre-perestroika generation, hold a special place in the history of alpinism. Collectively they climbed more peaks in better style with less gear. And they knew how to suffer. We looked up to them, we aspired to be half as tough as they were. One climber, Voytek, was a world unto his own. His physical capability was legend, yet what set him part was a hidden mysticism. We knew it was there. In Art of Freedom Bernadette follows Voytek's thread as young man coming of age in post-war, communist Poland to the greater ranges. We learn of the intellectual drive that fueled these great ascents. Regardless of your background, from the armchair to the alpine suffer artist, there is something that will resonate with being human, living by your ideals and enjoying life in its purest form.

— Conrad Anker, alpinist

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