Reinhold Messner: Surviving Nanga Parbat
Welcome back to our regular series on survival “literature,” where we take a novel, a film, a game, etc. and frame it within the context of The Long Dark. In this entry I look at Reinhold Messner: My Life at the Limit, a collection of interviews with the legendary climber on life, death, and survival in the high mountains. — Patrick Carlson
“Your throat is generally swollen and phlegmy, and you have a cough because you’re gasping for breath and the air is so dry. Your food tastes like nothing. It’s too hot during the day and too cold at night. The radiant heat saps your strength; you get a bit apathetic. High up it’s bright, but the sky is black. And when you look down, most of the time all you can see is a kind of gloom, rather than the valley bottom. That face is an abyss; it’s impossible to tell whether it’s 2000, 3000, or 4000 meters from bottom to top. There’s just a gaping void all around you. But I wasn’t scared.” — Reinhold Messner
Widely considered to be one of the most outstanding alpinists of the 20th century, Reinhold Messner has spent decades dealing with the challenges that accompany extreme survival situations. And his need to test himself has at times come at great personal cost. What’s maybe most significant about Messner’s climbing career, however, is the way he is able to communicate the cold reality of his adventures in gripping, psychologically-rich detail.
In The Long Dark we go looking for a vulnerability that challenges our idea of what might be possible in the northern Canadian wilderness. Messner has sought these kinds of fragile moments his entire life. A fantastic collection of interviews with the climber carries the title: My Life at the Limit. The volume, based on a series of conversations between Messner and the journalist Thomas Hüetlin in 2004 and 2014, covers the entirety of his career. While the Tyrolean climber’s life has been marked by tremendous success—he was the first person to summit all 14 of the planets mountains over 8,000 meters—his story is also one of trauma and tragedy.
In 1969, after a series of pathbreaking achievements in rock and ice climbing in the Alps, Messner was looking for new challenges. In a decision that would define his personal and professional future, Messner accepted an invitation to take part in his first Himalayan expedition—an attempt on Nanga Parbat.
The ninth-highest mountain in the world, Nanga Parbat sits at the Western edge of the Himalayan range in Pakistan. Even by high-altitude mountaineering standards, the 8,126 meter peak is—and was—known to be especially problematic. Messner recalls:
“And it wasn’t just one of the most difficult 8000-meter peaks. Nanga Parbat was where the biggest face was to be found: the unclimbed Rupal Face. It was 4500 meters high and vertical at the top— the face that legendary Austrian climber Hermann Buhl had said was impossible and would never be climbed.”
In fact Buhl, who had made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953, called any attempt on the mountain’s Rupal Face “suicidal.” So naturally this looked like the kind of challenge Messner wanted to take up when the expedition arrived at the mountain in 1970. But Messner wasn’t alone in his ambition. His younger brother Günther, a frequent climbing partner, was with him that June. The pair would go on to take part in one of the most controversial, and tragic, stories of mountaineering survival to ever come out of the Himalayas.
Messner’s narration of the climb and descent are precise and stirring in his retelling, and I can only recommend you pick up a copy of his book to get the first-hand account of what happened and how it happened. To summarize the events: Messner, intending to set out alone to the summit, is followed by his brother. They ultimately reached the top together, but as so often happens in high-altitude climbing, it was the descent that proved to be the biggest challenge.
Unable to descend back down the dangerous Rupal Face, the brothers began climbing down the less-steep opposite side of the mountain—accomplishing the first traverse of Nanga Parbat. But the cost of their spectacular achievement was high. Weakened by the difficult climb and his rush to catch up to his brother, Günther had exhausted himself. The pair would go on to spend two nights bivouacked high on the mountain as they attempted to continue their descent. Their supplies, as Messner recalls in the book, amounted to some vitamin tablets and a handful of dried fruit and nuts—no water. They had risked everything on a fast ascent.
In his interview, Messner still holds on to the grief and conflicted reality of the situation the brothers had found themselves in:
“For sure. If I’m on my own and I die, then I die. But I couldn’t allow Günther to die; I had to get him back down safe and sound. I was older, so I was responsible for him. It wasn’t the same as it used to be; it wasn’t as safe. I was more experienced, a soloist, the older brother, the one who had always done the leading. So yes, I was my brother’s guardian; of course I was. That’s why it is so inhuman when certain expedition members say, ‘He didn’t look after his brother. He simply sent him back down the Rupal Face.’ I didn’t send him back down, either before or after the summit.”
And here we can see the heart of this controversial survival story: Other members of the expedition would go on to accuse Messner of abandoning his brother, or at the very least recklessly guiding the weakened climber through a dangerous traverse of the mountain.
It was sometime after the second night spent exposed on the mountain that Günther vanished. The older brother had been far ahead, looking for the best route down the face. When Messner started to understand that his brother might have disappeared behind him, he began to hallucinate: “I kept trying to ascertain where he was, then I’d realize again that he was dead. I looked everywhere for him, and with the search came the realization, the certainty, that my brother was dead. There was no other explanation. I’d have found him otherwise.”
Messner completed his descent alone, eventually reaching the Diamir valley below the mountain. Exhausted and frostbitten, local villagers found him and carried the climber down the valley until he was eventually transported to a hospital. In addition to his brother, Messner would lose seven toes and three fingertips to the frostbite. But his experience would also leave him with internal scars, emotional wounds that changed how he approached his dangerous passion:
“As long as the hope of staying alive is still there, the thought of dying is frightening. When all hope vanishes—as my experience on Nanga Parbat taught me—something redemptive comes over us, an acquiescence, an understanding of death. Then, finally, a slow sinking into death itself. No, dying is not so bad.”
After Nanga Parbat, approaching death and getting a glimpse of it, became the goal for Messner. But, as he maintains in his book, it’s not a “death-wish.” Instead, he’s looking for the “joy of having survived.”
In light of Messner’s realization, where do you situate the joy of survival in The Long Dark?
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