50 years ago, an expedition targeting the Nanga Parbat (8.126m) turned into a tragedy. In the main roles, two brothers: the Messner brothers. Reinhold and Günther. The first has become a legend of himalayism. The second one has not have been so lucky. This expedition in the summer of 1970 was his last adventure in the big mountains.
The 1969 Christmas gift!
Christmas 1969. Doctor Karl Herrligkoffer confirmed to Reinhold and his little brother Günther that they would be part of an expedition under preparation. An expedition to the Himalayas. They’re just in their twenties. They would therefore pack their bags to reach the steep slopes of Nanga Parbat. Seventeen years after the first successful expedition to the top of this mountain in Pakistan, already organized by Herrligkoffer, the plan was to try a new route. On the hardest slope, to the south. The Rupal face. With 4,500-meter vertical drop, it is the highest wall in the world. Although Italian, the two brothers from Tyrol were German-speaking. They were also great climbers, with multiple successes in the Alps. When Herrligkoffer formed his team to come back to Nanga Parbat, he obviously chose Reinhold. Günther joined the team at the very last minute, following the defection of another mountaineer. On the suggestion of his older brother.
For several years, the two have climbed and distinguished themselves in the Alps, but on leaving for the Himalayas, they have entered a new dimension. Part of the team made the long road trip. Expedition leader Reinhold and a few others flew a few weeks later. The two groups joined in late April 1970 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
The basecamp down the Rupal face
A few days later, a plane took them to Gilgit and jeeps took over on bumpy tracks. They then started walking. About fifteen carriers shared heavy loads. With the mountaineers, the caravan had nearly 30 men and a woman. Alice Von Hobe, a 30-year-old Munich pharmacist, was part of the adventure. She did not climb but intended to make herself useful at basecamp. In mid-May, the main camp was settled at the bottom of the Rupal face, altitude: 3,600 meters.
Two days later, a first altitude camp was set up at 4,700 meters. The men took turns to equip the track between midnight and ten in the morning, before the sun came to transform the face into a furnace. The other camps were set up on the following days: camp II at 5,500 meters, camp III at 6,000 meters … Bad weather interfered with this well-oiled mechanism and delayed everything. Camp IV would only be inaugurated on June 23, more than a month and a half after the previous one, whereas it had taken 2 days between Camp II and Camp III!
All is not rosy in the group, competition between mountaineers; a very inflexible expedition leader… The long weeks of waiting did not help to ease tensions. On the contrary, the basecamp was ready to explode.
Read more: about this 1970 expedition with Messner books!
Reinhold’s attack via the Merkl couloir
At the end of June, thanks to a few hours of good weather, Reinhold Messner jumped alone in the last part of the face: the Merkl couloir. Merkl was Willy Merkl. A mountaineer died in 1934 on the same mountain. Since then, his half-brother dreamed of one thing. Only one thing. Paying tribute to the memory of the deceased mountaineer by taming this mountain. This half-brother is none other than Karl Herrligkoffer, leader of the 1970 expedition. He led the first successful ascent in 1953, already obsessed with the Nanga Parbat. And he returned in the summer of 1970 for this attempt to first climb the most difficult face.
Against the pre-established plan, Günther embarked on the last part of the ascent. Within hours, following the trail, he joined his brother. He would miss the extra energy he had spent catching up a few hours later, but he didn’t know it yet. The end of the ascent is hard, endless, but the two Tyroleans ended up standing on top of Nanga Parbat. The Messner brothers defeated the Rupal face.
Forced retreat via the Diamir face
The Messner brothers were exhausted. Günther did not have the strength to climb down by the same route. They therefore ended up heading towards a supposedly easier retreat route. Diamir face. But they did not know this side and it was not equipped at all. Without even a rope, they had no choice but to jump on these snowy slopes. Exhaustion, hallucinations, the brothers were at the end of their strengths. A second improvised bivouac and the descent continued. While the green pastures were finally close, they splitted, without wanting to. When Reinhold began to worry, not seeing his brother joining him, it was already far too late.
He would try to find him, but without success. A fall of seracs certainly swallowed him up. In the confusion, exhaustion helping, Reinhold did not notice anything. He was then alone, miles from his basecamp, separated by a colossus of stones, snow and ice. The next day, lost, he found Pakistani peasants who would help him out.
One miraculous: Reinhold
On the other side of the mountain, the basecamp has been withdrawn. The caravan has started up again, heading towards Gilgit. They returned with two missing mountaineers: the two Messner brothers. Pakistani authorities eventually reached out the expedition, and a few days later Karl Herrligkoffer was at the bedside of a Reinhold Messner.
Suffering from frostbite, he would lose a few phalanges. This terrible experience, accompanied by inconsolable mourning, was not the end of his career, however. Quite the contrary. In the following sixteen years, Reinhold Messner would reach the summit of every mountain above 8,000-meters. He would be the first man to achieve this feat, without even using additional oxygen. He retired as a mountaineer in the 2000s. Several observers would dispute the true achievement of the summit by the Messner brothers that year. Would Reinhold have found it easier to accept the death of his brother by “offering” this victory at the top?
Günther Messner’s body was found in 2005, ending the controversy. He was found on the face which certainly confirmed that they went to the summit. Karl Herrligkoffer would return to Nanga Parbat and many other Himalayan mountains. Organizer and expedition leader, he has never reached one of these terrible peaks himself.
Credits © Moiz Ismaili – CC BY-SA 4.0