Reinhold Messner's Mountain Madness
Credit: Reinhold Messner
Upon his return to europe, Messner prepared a report for the expedition leader, Herrligkoffer. Then in 1971 he published a longer account of the saga, accusing Herrligkoffer of incompetence. Herrligkoffer sued to enforce provisions in the strict contract the climbers had signed that gave him sole rights to the story.

Thus it seemed strange to some of Messner's former Nanga Parbat teammates when, in 2001, Messner was listed as the co-author of a positive biography of Herrligkoffer, a man whom he called "that despiser of mankind." And it was absolutely confounding that Messner, speaking at a Munich presentation that year in honor of the book's release, shifted his condemnation from Herrligkoffer to his former teammates, implying that Günther's death was the result of their negligence.

Former Nanga Parbat teammate Jürgen Winkler, who attended the presentation, recounted Messner's charges to me by phone: "He said some members of the expedition would not have minded if the Messner brothers did not come back from the Diamir Valley. This was so terrible that Gerhard Baur spoke up to say it wasn't true. I said the same thing. Later on the same evening we all went downstairs to have some bread and wine, and I took Reinhold by the shoulders and spoke to him directly and said, 'It's nonsense what you are saying!' He began to shout very loudly about the Munich [climbing] mafia. It was these two things he said that night that started the [media] avalanche."

Messner subsequently denied making the remarks blaming his teammates for Günther's death. But word of the allegations spread. The story got into the press, and two other expedition members, who had long harbored doubts about Messner's account of the traverse and Günther's death, were provoked to break what had been more than 30 years of loyal silence.

In May 2002 former teammate Hans Saler, from his home in Pucón, Chile, published an "open letter" to Messner on the Internet, refuting Messner's charge that the expedition had been unwilling to help the brothers either high up at the Merkl gap or low down in the Diamir Valley. "I am convinced that your brother would have reached base camp alive if you would have asked unmisunderstandably for help, assuming he was still alive. Would that not have been more clever and responsible of you than to risk the descent on the unknown [Diamir] wall that you described as uncertain? We all ask ourselves, 'What really happened to Günther? Where is he buried?'"

The main claim asserted by Saler and Max von Kienlin, a nonclimbing member of the team who had been one of Messner's closest friends, is that Messner's decision to go down the Diamir face was not born of emergency, or suggested by Günther in his fatigue, but a gambit Reinhold had planned and had openly discussed with members of the team. Günther's impulsive decision to follow his brother had jeopardized what the ex-teammates said was Reinhold's dream of making a solo traverse. In his lust for glory Reinhold put his ambition ahead of his brother's safety.

"What happened up there on the mountain," Saler wrote (he and von Kienlin both published books about the controversy), "was no case of murder and manslaughter, only a kind of moral failure. Ethical norms were simply overridden by ambition, which resulted from Reinhold's history, personality, and specific mentality."

Saler compiled a list of some 200 contradictions and inconsistencies in Messner's various versions of the descent. Among the most significant was the substance of the wind-tortured conversation at the Merkl gap, in which Messner apparently did not convey to Felix Kuen the gravity of his and Günther's situation. Kuen cannot offer his side of the story anymore. He committed suicide for unknown reasons in 1974.

Another major disagreement comes from the testimonies of Baur, Winkler, von Kienlin, and Saler, who insist that not only did Messner talk of the traverse, he actually had a black-and-white photograph of the Diamir face with him on the mountain. In an affidavit Gerhard Baur said, "In our base camp, Reinhold Messner showed me his picture of the Diamir face. On this picture he showed me which route he had planned to descend." Messner has denied having any such picture, and stated that his enthusiasm about traversing Nanga Parbat was just excited speculation.

A third bit of evidence, and perhaps the most unsettling, comes from the bottom of the mountain where Saler and von Kienlin witnessed Messner's reaction when he was reunited with his teammates. Max von Kienlin wrote: "[Reinhold] looks at me with wide open eyes, seems to sob and screams, 'Where is Günther?'"

Why would he say once, and then again – Where is Günther? – if he were all but certain, as he later maintained, that Günther was buried under an avalanche at the bottom of the Diamir face?

Saler speculated that Günther was exhausted but not yet suffering from altitude sickness, and preferred to return the way he'd gone up. Citing many sources, including Messner's account of his solo climb on the Diamir face in 1978, Saler argued that the terrain on the upper Rupal face was actually easier to negotiate than the terrain on the Diamir side. The brothers could have seen that the weather was good, red rocket notwithstanding. Günther would have been able to find a spot to bivouac near the entrance to the couloir, and then hope for help on the descent from Kuen and Scholz, who would be coming up in the morning. Meanwhile Reinhold, eyeing the prize of the traverse, would have descended on the Diamir side to the Merkl gap, where he would bivouac across the couloir from Günther. Thus he could have made sure his brother got down okay with the help of climbers coming up. Saler contends that Reinhold did exactly that, but that Günther, very tired, fell somewhere en route to his bivouac. It is likely he fell down the Rupal face, but he could have fallen down the Diamir face, because a stretch of the route between the main summit and the south summit sloped away to the Diamir side.

In other words, when Messner said "Everything is okay" to Felix Kuen around 10 a.m., he was actually alone, and had been up since daybreak calling Günther's name, wondering where he was. (Von Kienlin wrote in his book that Messner had told him this is what happened.) When Kuen asked Messner if he had been to the summit, Messner knew that Kuen had not seen Günther. Saler wrote, "He can now assume his brother is missing and he also knows that he will have to justify himself for this later and must answer the questions: Why did he allow his exhausted brother to descend alone? Why was he descending on the route to the Diamir side?"

Even more shocking is von Kienlin's claim that the story of Günther dying in an avalanche at the bottom of the Diamir face was not Messner's idea but von Kienlin's invention, which he offered to Messner as a way of explaining Günther's disappearance to Herrligkoffer after rejoining the team in Gilgit.

Messner accuses von Kienlin of faking the pages of his diary that purport to document the genesis of the face-saving cover story. "It's clear," he told me, "that for the members of the whole expedition, we disappeared for them. Just the fact that they didn't go to look for us in the Diamir Valley is proof that the traverse wasn't a possibility they knew about beforehand."

And then a bone came tumbling into the midst of the charges and countercharges. On an expedition to the Diamir face Messner made with his brother Hubert in 2000, one of the members of the team found a shinbone in the glacier near the spot where Messner claimed Günther had been lost. Hubert, a doctor, discounted the idea that it could have been Günther's after making a quick estimate of the size. Messner thought it might be the remains of a Pakistani climber who had died on the face, or perhaps even of A.F. Mummery. He brought it home and kept it in his library. When the skeleton of the Pakistani climber was later found intact, and the charges of Messner's ex-teammates were splashed all over the news media in Europe, Messner decided to have the DNA of the shinbone assayed. Initial tests at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck compared the bone DNA with DNA in cells swabbed from Messner's mouth and found a high probability that the DNA from each sample was from the same family. A few months later another test compared the bone DNA with genetic material from Messner's brother Hubert. The probability was even higher. The clinching evidence was the mitochondrial DNA tests.

"There is no doubt now," Messner said. "The first test said it was 60 times more probable the bone was from our family, the second one that it was 600 times more probable, and the last one showed there is no logical way to conclude that this is not our brother." But Saler has argued that the discovery of the bone, while eliminating the possibility that Günther fell down the Rupal face, tells nothing about how or even where he died on the steep ice of the Diamir face.

Messner sued both Saler and von Kienlin over their published accounts of the events. The case against von Kienlin is still in the courts, but last August the Hanseatic Higher Regional Court in Hamburg ruled that the publishers of Saler's book, Zwischen Licht und Schatten ("Between Light and Shadow"), had to revise nine of 24 contested statements, essentially saying that what had been presented as fact must be recast as perception.

Messner to this day seems bewildered by what motivated four of his ex-teammates to engage in what his court papers termed a "campaign of character assassination." He speculates that their actions were driven by "jealousy," "self-importance," greed for book sales, displaced guilt, or shame for not having done more to help when he and Günther were in dire straits. "A permanently bad conscience always looks for ways to relieve itself," he observed on his website. "They are parasites," he told me, in warrior mode. Von Kienlin is "a broken man," "a forger." Messner can't understand how journalists can take these "fairy stories" of his ex-teammates seriously.

If he believes his account of those hellish days is exactly what happened, and if it truly is, then no wonder the warrior is enraged. But in his wrath and vehemence, in his repeated and sometimes contradictory versions, it's hard not to see the handiwork of some displaced guilt of his own. He seems not to recognize that when he impugned his teammates' honor he precipitated the avalanche of challenges and rebuttals. Nor does he appear to be able to accept that Baur, Winkler, Saler, and von Kienlin might have come forward motivated not by jealousy or publicity but fidelity to what they believe is the truth. There is no mistaking the conviction with which Saler threw down the gauntlet in his open letter to Messner: "Why do you not show real greatness and speak about the truth? That would be up till now your unknown 9,000-meter summit."

Baur, for his part, told me in an e-mail, "I am convinced Reinhold Messner would have done anything he could to save his brother if Günther had needed his help. So I would never say that Reinhold 'sacrificed' his brother, as many journalists have put it. My only reproach against him is that he is trying to pass the responsibility to others and accusing former comrades in a completely unjustified way." 

Just a year after Günther's disappearance Messner went back to Nanga Parbat to search – unsuccessfully – for his brother's body. While he was there he dreamed that Günther came crawling out of the ice. He returned to climb the peak again in 1973 but was defeated. Consumed by the despair of an unraveling marriage, he made another bid in 1977, and again was turned back. In his book The Big Walls, published that year, Messner wrote, "I have had to defend myself against all the persecution and the many accusations that this Nanga Parbat traverse brought in its wake. I am well aware that it doesn't help at all to keep going back over the whys and wherefores of the accident. And I am no longer bitter about the outcome of the expedition, just unbearably sad that my brother never returned."

But he kept going back – to the whys and wherefores, and to the mountain itself, wishing, as he wrote, that he could be buried there alongside his brother. In 1978, newly divorced and having learned "that life can be borne alone," he soloed the Diamir face, "the greatest leap forward" in his career, he believed – bigger than the ascent of Everest without bottled oxygen he and Habeler had accomplished a few months earlier. Messner built a school in the Diamir Valley. In 2000 he returned to Nanga Parbat yet again and climbed a route on the Diamir face. His brother Hubert accompanied him up to 6,000 meters. After long conversations with Hubert he resolved to write again about the 1970 expedition. "Hubert said, 'I read your books but I didn't understand before. It's so brutal and terrible with all the avalanches and crevasses every day. Now I understand.' I asked him should I write about it again? And he said, 'Yes, put it down more exactly.'"

In 2005 Messner plans to return yet again to Nanga Parbat. "I think this trauma of his brother's death has been with Reinhold his whole life," said ex-teammate Jürgen Winkler. "I think the reason is that he doesn't know where his brother is and how he died. He just doesn't know." And there is the haunting and inescapable truth that in the end Messner did leave his brother. It may matter as a point of Alpine history whether they were separated high on the mountain or at the bottom when their ordeal was nearly over, but it is beside the point as a matter of the heart. Günther didn't make it home.