Reinhold Messner's Mountain Madness
Credit: Reinhold Messner
Almost from the moment he staggered back alone, Reinhold Messner has been explaining what happened after he and his brother reached the 26,660-foot summit of Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world. That summer Reinhold was 25, Günther 24. They were part of a 16-member team of experienced German and Austrian mountaineers that for more than a month had been stringing camps up the south face of the mountain, an unclimbed 14,800-foot wall known as the Rupal face.

Beset by bad weather, the expedition was close to calling it quits, but on the evening of June 26 Günther, Reinhold, and Gerhard Baur were in camp 5, at 24,100 feet, hoping conditions would allow one last try. Out of radio contact, they were depending on colored signal rockets fired from the expedition base camp to give them the forecast: blue for good weather, red for bad. Expedition leader Karl Maria Herrligkoffer had agreed that if the weather were doubtful Reinhold would make a fast solo push for the summit, leaving Günther and Baur to fix ropes in the couloir to safeguard his descent and to facilitate any future summit attempts by teammates ascending from lower camps. However, while the actual weather forecast was favorable, a red rocket was mistakenly launched from base camp.

It was the first of a series of deadly miscommunications.

At 2 a.m. on June 27, with the temperature around -22 degrees Fahrenheit, Messner laced his boots and set out in the dark, seeking a place in the pantheon beside his idol Hermann Buhl, the Austrian climber who made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat alone in 1953. According to his own account, Messner carried only a camera, some fizzy drink tablets, a bit of utility cord, and some dried fruit – no pack, no rope, no tent. He climbed by the light of his headlamp and the stars, glad not to have too good a view of the 12,000-foot void at his heels. He worked his way up the rock and the snow-covered ice in the Merkl couloir, an 1,800-foot gully named for a German mountaineer who died on Nanga Parbat in 1934. By midmorning, having made good progress, Messner glanced back and saw another climber speeding up the couloir alone. It was Günther. Messner waited, and when his brother finally arrived after a phenomenal four-hour effort, Reinhold asked, "How did you find the route?"

"Your tracks," Günther said. As planned, Günther had started fixing ropes in the couloir with Gerhard Baur, but Baur had returned to camp with a sore throat, and Günther, tired of untangling snarled lines, set out after his big brother instead. Although Messner confessed later that he was initially "irritated" that a partner might slow his progress, it seemed fitting that he and Günther were now together. They had been climbing as a team since they were boys, forging notes to get out of school on days of fine weather, and later riding together to the cliffs on their father's Vespa. On their first summit as a pair, the Kleine Fermeda in the Dolomites, they had only one helmet, and took turns wearing it.

In the afternoon they reached the summit ridge of Nanga Parbat. To the right was the Rupal face, the way they'd come up; to the left, the less steep but equally massive Diamir face – which had been climbed only once before. The awful nighttime cold had given way to draining afternoon heat. Every few steps they stopped to gasp for breath. Reinhold took pictures. They pushed on. About two hours before sunset they could go no higher. They pulled off their snow goggles, removed their mittens, and shook hands. Günther clapped his brother on the shoulder. Their first 8,000-meter peak! Many more were in store for Reinhold; Günther could not know this was his last.

About an hour before sunset they started down into what Messner would later call "the most difficult days of my life."

As they came down the ridge dividing the two great faces Günther began to lag behind, spent from exertion. Messner wondered if his brother was suffering from altitude sickness. Günther pointed with his ice ax to the less steep Diamir face to the west.

"We have to go down the way we came," Reinhold told him.

"Too difficult," Günther replied. "I'm so tired."

"But we'll be even more tired tomorrow. We have to lose some height before it gets dark."

"But not the way we came up," Günther said. "We have to find an easier route." And Messner did not insist they return on the route they had climbed. It was then that Messner remembered the red rocket. Bad weather would be coming in soon. "We needed to get out of there fast," he said. And so they took the Diamir side of the ridge.

Desperate for a place to bivouac, Messner decided they would head down to the Merkl gap, at the end of the Merkl couloir. During their summit bid, they had exited the couloir shortly before the difficult section at the very top, but he thought it might be possible to traverse back into the couloir from lower down on the ridge. If they could not traverse, they might be able to shout down to camp 5 for a rope, and then with help rappel into the couloir.

They picked their way down, found a hollow, and prepared to spend the night out in the open in below-freezing temperatures. They sat on their boots, shivering together with their feet wrapped in a foil space blanket. Günther began to hallucinate; before daylight he stood up and began to walk in a circle, moaning to himself.

Around 6 am Reinhold went to a nearby notch in the ridge and began to shout down the Merkl couloir. A bit later he traversed close enough to the couloir to spot the tracks he and Günther had made the day before on the way up. He realized that reentering without a rope from their position would be impossible. For two hours he shouted, "Help! We need a rope!" Günther remained back at the bivouac site below the crest of the ridge; when Reinhold returned Günther pointed out that the wind would probably have drowned the cries for help. Reinhold went back again to the ridge to look down the couloir and this time saw two figures coming up: teammates Felix Kuen and Peter Scholz. He was sure they were coming to rescue them. "Hello! Give us a rope!" Reinhold shouted when Kuen was about a hundred meters below his position on the ridge.

Kuen shouted back, "Were you on the summit?"

Reinhold screamed, "Yes."

Reinhold then thought Kuen shouted out, "Are you both okay?"

"Yes, everything's okay, Felix."

Later the puzzling exchange would be one of the pieces of evidence used to challenge Messner's account. Why would someone who felt himself and his brother to be in dire straits say yes, everything's okay? In The Naked Mountain, Messner explained: "Yes, we were okay. I had been shouting for help for three hours because we needed a rope, but otherwise everything was okay. Maybe I even said 'otherwise' – otherwise everything is okay – but I cannot be sure. I was so sure the two of them were coming up with the sole intention of helping us. And then it dawned on me they were intending to go for the summit. How were we going to get down now?"

Apparently another miscommunication. Kuen later wrote, "I didn't understand anything as the wind was blowing too hard over the ridge or maybe the blood was pounding too hard in my ears." Messner reported that Kuen had explained to him later that "he was convinced everything really was okay and that he was relieved to be able to carry on to the summit without having to worry about us."

Now, without a rope to get down the Merkl couloir or the strength to backtrack to their original route up the Rupal face, the brothers' lives were hanging in the balance. "The choice was simple," Messner wrote. "Attempt to descend, or die."

"I can't take another bivouac, Reinhold," Günther said.

So they began to climb down into completely unknown territory on the Diamir face, in what Messner would later call his "descent into despair." It was one of the most audacious feats in Himalayan annals: a full traverse of the mountain. Messner plotted the route as they went, comparing the vast terrain to what he remembered of photographs he had studied over the winter in Italy. "One of our companions," he wrote in The Naked Mountain, "was later to describe the descent as reckless and my decision as unreasonable and going against the basic principles of mountaineering. I still maintain that it represented the only alternative to certain death."

Down and down and down. They marched through the day and into darkness. Around midnight they bivouacked again, at about 6,000 meters, above the Mummery Rib, a prominent feature named for the English mountaineer A.F. Mummery, who had died attempting the Diamir face in 1895. Frostbite was starting to creep into Reinhold's feet. After a short rest Günther felt better, and they continued by moonlight. By sunup they were nearly down. The terrain grew easier; the route through the seracs was not hard to follow. Reinhold walked faster, trying to hurry off the face and onto the glacier before avalanches were unleashed by the morning sun. It was 8 a.m.

"Are we going to head down there to the right, between the seracs?" Günther asked.

"Yes," said Reinhold, certain the difficulties were over and the way to the bottom of the face was obvious. "It will be the fastest way down. We'll wait for each other at the first spring."

In another puzzling decision – given that he had spent the last 39 hours shepherding his flagging brother down the Diamir face – Reinhold took off. He had ranged out ahead the day before to scout the labyrinth of the face and then climbed back up to guide his brother down, but now the route was obvious, and he was convinced Günther would be fine on his own. When Mummery had come over the same stretch he hadn't even bothered with a rope. "I just kept on going, heading down between the ice cliffs," Messner wrote. "Günther would be fine. He couldn't miss the route now and he wasn't going to fall into any crevasses. The difficulties were well and truly over."

When Reinhold reached the bottom of the face, he slaked his desperate thirst with glacier melt water, and waited for Günther to show up. Then he began to hear voices. He hadn't eaten in five days. He called and whistled for Günther. Could he have gone another way? Anxious now, he began to search. Lead-legged, he retraced his steps up the now-slushy snow. Nothing. No tracks, no sign of crevasse falls, only mounting horror that something unthinkable had happened. Near sunset he stumbled upon the rubble of an avalanche and realized Günther must be buried somewhere beneath it.

In despair he shouted Günther's name over and over. He passed another endless night on the glacier. His toes were turning blue. He began to hallucinate, seeing visions of his mother in the kitchen of their home in Villnöss. He could see no reason to go on except "to let our parents and all others at home know what had happened, my mother above all."

The next day, according to Messner's account, he began dragging himself down on his injured feet. He staggered into the uppermost village of the Diamir Valley, and was eventually carried down the valley by some local men. Two days later, a week after he had left camp 5 on the Rupal face, he was reunited with his teammates 20 miles outside the village of Gilgit.