Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Death on Nanga Parbat

Happy birthday Reinhold Messner, 70 years old today. An Italian mountaineer, dubbed by some as the greatest climber in history, he was the first to make a solo ascent of Mount Everest without additional oxygen, and he was the first to climb all 14 peaks in the world over 8,000 metres. The first of these was Nanga Parbat, in the western Himalayas, in 1970. During that expedition, his brother, Günther, died. Messner has published many books, but none, as far as I know, could be classed diaries. Nevertheless, a diary, and the evidence therein, has been at the centre of a controversy blighting his fame since the early 2000s, when several colleagues on the Nanga Parbat climb broke a long silence to claim that, contrary to Messner’s account, he had, in fact, been responsible for his brother’s death.

Messner was born in Brixen, in the very north of Italy, on 17 September 1944, and grew up, fluent in Italian and German, in nearby Villnöß. He was part of a large family, with many brothers; and his father was a teacher. From the age of 13, he began climbing with his younger brother Günther, and by their early 20s, it is said, they were already among the best climbers in Europe. Inspired by the Austrian mountaineer, Hermann Buhl (the first man to climb Nanga Parbat), Messner embraced the so-called alpine style of climbing, with light equipment and a minimum of external help.

In 1970, Messner undertook his first major climb, an ascent of Nanga Parbat. Alhough he and Günther succeeded in ascending the unclimbed Rupal face, Günther lost his life on the descent. (Messner himself lost several toes to frostbite, which meant he could not climb on rock as well, so, thereafter, he focused on higher mountains where the climbing was mostly on ice.) At the time, he was attacked by others for having persisted on the climb even though his brother was less experienced, and these accusations led to various disputes and lawsuits. In 1971, he returned to the mountain to look for his brother.

In the next few years, Messner succeeded in climber two further eight-thousanders, before ascending Everest in 1978 without supplemental oxygen. Two years later, he made a second Everest ascent, this time solo and without oxygen. He continued climbing the eight-thousanders through to 1986 by when he had become the first man to climb all fourteen of them without supplemental oxygen. After that, Messner eschewed climbing high mountains, preferring to undertake more unusual expeditions, such as skiing across the Antartic (1989-1990), and, more recently (2004), walking across the Gobi Desert.

Messner has written over 60 books, many translated into other languages, including English, with titles such as Free Spirit: A Climber’s Life; The Crystal Horizon: Everest - The First Solo Ascent; All Fourteen 8,000ers; My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas’ Deepest Mystery; and The Big Walls: From the North Face of the Eiger to the South Face of Dhaulagiri. He served as an MEP for the Italian Green Party between 1999 and 2004; he helped found the international NGO, Mountain Wilderness; and he now devotes most of his time to the Messner Mountain Museum, which is located at five different sites in Northern Italy.

There is some biographical material about Messner available in English on the internet, at Wikipedia, for example, at Badass of the Week, and at Youtube (interview in English), but there are also plenty of published books about his life, not least one being published by Mountaineer Books in two weeks time, Reinhold Messner: My Life at the Limit.

Although Messner has written many books about his climbing life, none, as far as I can tell, contain actual diary material. However, 30 years after his successful but tragic climb on Nanga Parbat, the controversy over his role in Günther’s death resurfaced. In 2002, Messner published The Naked Mountain, a retelling of the 1970 Nanga Parbat expedition. Even before its publication, though, several of the team’s members had publicly announced they disputed many of the details in Messner’s account. Two of his fellow team members (including Max von Kienlin) published their own books, in Germany, claiming that Messner held far more responsibility for his brother’s death than he had admitted. Messner reacted furiously, and the charges and counter-charges were played out in the European press.

Good summaries of the dispute can be found in 2004 articles in National Geographic and The Guardian, a 2005 article in Men’s Journal, and a 2006 article in Outside. The details are fairly intricate, 
but in summary are as National Geographic explains: ‘While Messner claims he led his flagging brother down the Diamir Face as a last resort, some teammates charge that he had planned a solo ascent and traverse of the mountain from early on in the expedition. He had even talked openly about it to his teammates (though not, of course, to expedition leader Herrligkoffer). Americans Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein had become instant legends with their traverse of Everest in 1963. To complete a comparable traverse of Nanga Parbat - solo - would make Messner a mountaineering celebrity on a par with his hero Hermann Buhl. Messner’s critics believe he was so focused on that goal that he placed it ahead of caring for his flagging brother.’

The evidence against Messner depends largely on von Kienlin’s diary, which he reproduces at length in his book, The Traverse: Günther Messner’s Death on Nanga ParbatMessner, though, claims von Kienen faked the diary pages and added them at a later stage. Messner has also made much play of the locations at which gruesome remains of his brother (first a leg bone, then a boot, then a headless corpse) were found to bolster his own account. Here is a good explanation of the role von Kienlin’s diary has played in the controversy, again from the 2004 National Geographic article.

‘Messner says he’s convinced that two crucial pages of von Kienlin’s diary are fake - written in 2002 or 2003 on “old paper” and stitched into the journal as if penned in 1970. Charlie Buffet, one of Europe’s leading mountaineering journalists, asked Messner about the diary during an interview for Le Monde in late January 2004. (Buffet also assisted in reporting this article.) Messner’s response was blistering: “Yesterday, I was on television in Berlin, and I said publicly that this liar has falsified his journal. If that’s not true, he can sue me. And show his journal, so that I can prove he falsified it and he will go to prison.”

The most devastating charge in von Kienlin’s book, however, concerns the conversations he says he had with Messner himself. The diary describes an anguished talk the two friends had, soon after being reunited in Gilgit, in which the distraught Messner says: “ ‘I’ve lost Günther! I called for him. I don’t know why he couldn’t hear me. Maybe he was in bad shape. Maybe he didn’t manage [to climb down]. Maybe he even fell. My God, I didn’t want that!’ ”

The diary depicts Messner as having been overcome with doubts and regret, wailing, “ ‘Perhaps I should have gone with him, because alone, he wasn’t capable of it. Why did he follow me? Why?’ He hides his face in his hands.”

Then von Kienlin’s account adds a stunning twist: Since the tortured Messner is almost incapable of talking, von Kienlin writes, “I feel obligated to guide him.” Messner doesn’t know what to say to their leader, Karl Herrligkoffer, so von Kienlin proposes a face-saving fabrication: “ ‘You must not tell K that you intended to make the traverse.’ ”

According to von Kienlin, he himself proffered the fiction that Günther was lost in an avalanche low on the Diamir Face - and understood that he must keep an eternal silence about the ruse.

Messner’s response, as recorded in the diary: “R pulls himself together. ‘You’re right.’ He looks at me with clear eyes.”

No comments: