Buhl was born in Innsbruck, the youngest of four children, on 21 September 1924. After the death of his mother, he spent years in an orphanage. He appears to have been a sensitive and sickly teenager, but took up climbing, and, in 1939, joined the Innsbruck chapter of the Deutscher Alpenverein (the German Alpine association). He was soon mastering the most difficult climbs, and became a member of the local mountain rescue team. World War II interrupted his studies, and he did service with the Alpine troops, seeing action in Italy before being taken prisoner by US troops. After the war, he returned to Innsbruck where he trained as a mountain guide, and made many spectacular climbs in the Alps, often solo.
In 1951, Buhl married Eugenie Högerle and they would have three daughters. In late 1952, he was invited to participate in the Austro-German “Willy Merkl Memorial” Expedition to Nanga Parbat (Merkl had led a fatal expedition to the mountain in 1934). Up to this time, no one had yet reached the peak, and 31 people had died trying. The expedition was organised by Merkl’s half-brother, Karl Herrligkoffer from Munich, but the expedition leader was Peter Aschenbrenner, from Innsbruck. Buhl made mountaineering history when, on 3 July, having seen his companions turn back, he reached the summit, solo, and without oxygen. It was 40 hours before he managed to return to camp, having bivouacked during darkness, standing upright on a narrow ledge.
In 1957, Buhl became the first man to be the first to the top of two eight-thousander peaks, when he reached the summit of Broad Peak with an Austrian team led by Marcus Schmuck. This was accomplished in the so-called Alpine style, without the aid of supplemental oxygen, high altitude porters or even base camp support. Two weeks later, Buhl fell to his death when he and another of the team attempted to climb nearby Chogolisa Peak.
Buhl’s book, Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage, published in English by Hodder and Stoughton in 1981, has become a classic of the genre. It is not freely available online (as far as I know), but a more staid book - Nanga Parbat, incorporating the Official Report of the Expedition of 1953 by Herrligkoffer - can be found at Internet Archive, and includes Buhl’s own account of his ascent. There is not very much biographical information about Buhl freely available online and in English, but try Adventure Journal, or the Alpinist (complete with a graphic biography). More complete information is available in German at Helmut Schmidt’s website dedicated to Buhl; and the Italian Wikipedia biography has some photographs.
Buhl kept expedition diaries during most of his climbs, including the famous Nanga Parbat ascent. Although these have not been published separately, they have been used, and quoted from extensively, in Hermann Buhl - Climbing without Compromise by Reinhold Messner and Horst Hofler, published by The Mountaineers in 2000. (See also the recent Diary Review article, Death on Nanga Parbat, for more on Messner who was much influenced by Buhl.)
The book, Climbing without Compromise, starts with various essays about Buhl, including homages by Messner and Hofler, but the substance of the book consists of original texts written by Buhl himself, essays and reports on his climbs, and some diaries: three early ones (1941, 1942-43 and 1944-50) and two expedition diaries from the 1953 ascent of Nanga Parbat. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, and includes an appendix of Buhl’s route climbs.
Part of the authors’ commentary with regard to the 1953 Austro-German expedition to Nanga Parbat is as follows: ‘Although Buhl is superior by far to all the members of the expedition team, he must first fit into the group. If anyone is capable of conquering Nanga Parbat, it is he. Buhl’s diary entries, written in the tent at the high camps and down at base camp, contain the true essence of the man and give us an insight like no other document into the daily expedition routine - at times very wearing - and even into the subsequent division of the team. We discover quite a lot about the lack of organization on the part of the leadership, and about the bigotry of the few dilettantes, who first try to stop the brilliant Buhl at base camp and who then want to monopolize him after his success. The narrow-minded way in which they try to force Buhl into the yoke of their group mentality is material for psychologists. It is a good thing that Buhl is not a man who would let himself be forced into anything.’
Here are a few extracts from Buhl’s expedition diary as quoted in the Messner/Hofler book.
12 May 1953
‘Wonderful path through pine woods, completely, wildly romantic, reminds me of Karwendel. First view of Nanga. Fairy-tale meadows, really fantastically beautiful. Temporary camp in a moraine hollow at the edge of the woods.
At 12 o’clock the dispatching of the coolies begins. Wild chaos, wild shouting. A large tent and two normal tents are pitched. Approximate height 3700 meters. Scenery fantastic, just like home.’
31 May 1953
. . . Peter, who is out hunting, comes back in the afternoon, asks about Kuno and then lays into me because everyone is doing exactly as he pleases. If we don’t want to obey the orders we should go on our own . . .
As Peter says nothing to me about going up, I ask him again. As my altimeter is broken and we only have one between four, as opposed to Base Camp where there are four altimeters, I would like to swap mine, also on the wishes of the others. After asking several times and being told we could manage with one, I eventually get Albert’s. I don’t even want to mention the map - although there are five of those at Base Camp.
As I set off Peter tells me not to be such an egoist. I don’t really understand and ask why. He finally says it’s because of the altimeter. It’s all too much for me so I give it back to him and leave. Peter calls me and then comes after me. Gives me the altimeter back and tells me not to be so childish, he had put himself out for me, and after all they were not dependent on me, and could manage without me, whereupon I leave. It takes me 50 minutes to get to Camp 1, it is snowing heavily again. Walter is waiting for me up there.’
21 June 1953
High winds during the night. Entrance under a meter of windblown snow, tent no longer visible at all. Set off at 8:30 with a 100 m rope up the Rakhiot ice wall. Stretched it out with other bits of gear at the bottom, but still 30 m short of the bergschrund. Traverse behind the Rakhiot Shoulder prepared: smooth ice . . . Cut many steps, weather good but windy.
Then a diagonal traverse up brittle snow to Rakhiot Peak. Strong wind and cold. Climbed the last needle, IV, without gloves; just like being at home. First seven thousander, 7070 m. Otto stayed down below.
Over the summit, down the other side without rope. Wonderful view to Silbersattel and Nanga, particularly the South Face above the fog.
Climbed down to Moor’s Head, left snow shovel behind. Mist whipping up the ridge. Traverse back to Rakhiot Face. Send Otto back to cook something while I cut a ladder of steps down the Face. Three porters, Hermann and Kuno are at the Camp. I arrive at 7 o’clock but no food is ready yet. There are two tents in the hollow.
Tomorrow we are supposed to go to Camp 5. I’m already looking forward to it.’
1 July 1953
Set off for Camp 4 at 6 a.m., Walter, Hans and I with three porters. Otto stays at Camp 3 for another day. He does not feel very well and wants to rest up for another day and follow on with Madi the next day. Wonderful weather, no clouds as far as you can see, haze in the valley, best indication of a lasting period of good weather. Minus 20 degrees in the morning, deep snow, difficult to break trail.
Three walkie-talkie calls with Base Camp. Order to retreat; we should rest and then follow new orders for attack. Do not say what those orders are. We don’t even consider climbing down, we’ve never been in such good shape.
Aschenbrenner still at Base Camp. He’s still officially the mountaineering leader, although he handed the task over to Walter days ago. Conversations with a very agitated Ertl end with the message “kiss my arse,” and we continue. Ertl makes us aware that they will have cause to thank us one day . . . Midday at Camp 4. Totally snowed up, first have to dig everything out, very arduous. Then Hans and I each take a 100 m rope and climb up the Rakhiot Face with them, fix them on the traverse to the Moor’s Head and climb down again, while Walter busies himself with the porters, fitting crampons, etc. Back at Camp 4 again at 7 p.m. Slept well all night.’
There is a further entry quoted, for 2 July, and then Messner/Hofler say: ‘Hermann Buhl recorded the summit approach in his diary as far as the Bazhin Gap. The entries end abruptly with the words “Enormous cornice, really hard, steep rock ridge.” ’ They then include one (of several) essays written subsequently by Buhl about his ascent on 3 July.