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Unforgotten: Jerzy Kukuczka

Jerzy Kukuczka (1948 – 1989)

One of the all-time best high altitude climbers would have celebrated his 70th birthday this Saturday. But he missed this day of honor by more than 28 years: In fall 1989 Jerzy Kukuczka died at the age of 41 in an accident on Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain on earth. The Pole had previously scaled as the second climber after Reinhold Messner all 14 eight-thousanders. At times it looked as if Kukuczka could even snatch away the crown from Messner, but then the South Tyrolean closed the eight-thousander match with his ascents of Makalu and Lhotse in fall 1986. Just one year later, in September 1987, when the rather publicity-shy Kukuzczka completed his collection, Messner honored him with the words: “You are not the second, you’re great.”


Memorial plaque at the foot of Lhotse South Face

In less than eight years – Messner took twice as long – Kukuczka climbed all 14 eight-thousanders and wrote alpine history: four winter first ascents, two of them in 1985 within three weeks (on Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu), the first ascent of the South Pillar of Everest and of the South Face of K2, the first solo ascent of Makalu – to name only a few milestones. Only on Mount Everest, he used bottled oxygen. In 1988, the International Olympic Committee declared Messner and Kukuczka honorary Olympic champions. Messner refused the medal, Kukuczka accepted it.

Fall to death on Lhotse

Even after Jerzy had completed his eight-thousander collection, the highest mountains in the world did not get out of his mind. For fall 1989, Kukuczka actually planned to traverse all peaks of the Kangchenjunga massif, but then he changed his mind. With his countryman Ryszard Pawłowski, the 41-year-old tackled the legendary, at that time still unclimbed Lhotse South Face. On 24 October 1989, Jerzy Kukuczka fell from about 8,200 meters to his death.


24. March 2018 | 12:57