Born in the southern Polish town of Katowice, world-famous Polish alpine and high-altitude climber Jerzy Kukuczka would celebrate his 71st birthday today if not for an unfortunate accident during his attempt to climb the South Face of Lhotse in Nepal on 24 October 1989.
It was on September 18, 1987, that he became the second man (after Reinhold Messner), to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders in the world. This feat took him less than 8 years to accomplish.
Moreover, he is the only person in the world who has climbed two eight-thousanders in one winter. Altogether, he ascended four eight-thousanders in winter, including three as first ascents. Along with Tadeusz Piotrowski, Kukuczka established a new route on K2 in alpine style (the so-called "Polish Line"), which no one has repeated.
Although born in a city, Jerzy Kukuczka remained true to his highlander’s descent, something that became clearly visible when his friend invited him rock-climbing one day in 1965. From that day, he fell in love with the activity and sacrificed his potential career as a weight lifter and blue-collar worker to conquer mountains one after another.
From the Polish Tatra Mountains, through the Dolomites where he pioneered a new route to Torre Trieste named after him “Direttissima delli Polacci”, the North American mountains, the Alps, the Hindukush and the Himalayas.
However, having conquered all fourteen eight-thousanders in the world, Jerzy Kukuczka decided to ascend Lhotse – the first eight-thousander with which he had started. According to Ryszard Pawłowski, Kukuczka's climbing partner on the tragic day, Kukuczka was leading a pitch at an altitude of about 8,200 meters on a 6 mm second-hand rope he had picked up in a market in Kathmandu. When he lost his footing and fell, the cord was either cut or snapped from the fall, plunging Kukuczka around 2,000 meters to his death.
After having conquered Annapurna East – the last of the eight-thousanders, Reinhold Messner telegraphed Kukuczka telling him “you are not second, you are great.”