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Anderl Heckmair- My Life


 Anderl Heckmair- My Life
 

by Sean Hudson

October 11, 2002

Legendary mountaineer Anderl Heckmair is celebrated for his ascent of the North Face of the Eiger (achieved in 1938 with climbers Heinrich Harrer, Ludwig Vogr, and Fritz Kasparek). The Heckmair Route is today considered one of the greatest climbs in history and a work of art. In 1951, under extreme conditions, Heckmair also made an ascent in difficult conditions of the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses. These adventures, as well as many others, are captured within the new edition of ANDERL HECKMAIR: My Life.

ANDERL HECKMAIR: My Life is a fresh, modern translation of the newly expanded and updated classic memoir, My Life as a Mountaineer. In addition to significant additions and revisions to content and style, this edition also includes two new chapters that bring the life story of Heckmair, now in his nineties but still looking for adventure, up to date.

In his introduction, renowned mountaineer and author Reinhold Messner describes Heckmair as "the prototype of the mountain vagabond." ANDERL HECKMAIR: My Life tells the complete story from fragile childhood--his mother literally packed him in cotton--to young adulthood when passion for the mountains began to overwhelm all other aspects of his life, to his eventual international acclaim as one of the great mountaineers of the twentieth century. After establishing himself as a brilliant climber in the Alps, Heckmair journeyed to Africa by bicycle and train, spending a night along the way in a Spanish jail when he and his friends were arrested for carrying what appeared to be deadly weapons (their ice axes). It is representative of Heckmair's easy-going attitude that he reveled in the comfort of the jailhouse bunks. While the climbing in Africa turned out to be less than spectacular, it gave Heckmair a taste for travel and exposure to a different culture.

In vivid color Heckmair relives his most remarkable accomplishment--the first ascent of the North Face of the Eigerwand, climbed in 1938 with Heinrich Harrer, Wiggerl Verg, and Fitz Kasparek. Heckmair provides many details that have never appeared in third-person accounts. For example, on the advice of a "lady friend," Heckmair prepared for the climb by wrapping his knees and toes in Thermogene--a material used to offset arthritis pain. Although initially the pads were comforting, when they became wet they burned horribly. The climb was successfully completed after many serious obstacles were overcome; Hitler arranged for the conquering heroes to be sent on a restorative cruise and then widely celebrated. About his encounter with Hitler Heckmair writes: "With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see what we should have done, but at the time we were more or less numbed by the reaction to our success and submitted to the will of others."

The spirit that led to success on the Eiger is evident throughout Heckmair's life: as a young man he was relentless in his desire to conquer skiing and even competed ina cross-country race covered in stinking mud only to end up in the hospital from a broken leg. After a short period asa tourist guide he climbed the Matterhorn--a serious technical challenge--in walking shoes and was back in time for tea at his local hotel, no one believing his assertion that he had made it to the top. And Heckmair's numerous encounters with wild beasts, fueled by his curiosity for nature, make this mountaineering memoir all the more unique.

Heckmair's first major post-war climb was the first ascent, along with Hermann Kollensperger, of the Grandes Jorasses. As with the Eiger the personal details of the account give new life to the story. He revisited the summit of the Eiger via helicopter in 1988 at the age of 82 for a commemorative celebration and later took a much awaited trip to Japan in 1991. ANDERL HECKMAIR: My Life closes on a reflective note, as the ninety-something Heckmair ponders his next big adventure.

On Choosing his path in life:


"Throughout my life when I came to a crossroads I always chose the path that led back to the mountains, even when a woman stood in the other road. Had I chosen otherwise, the course of my life would have been different. Perhaps I would have become a playboy, perhaps the adoptive son of a charming, influential French family. Perhaps...but that's not what happened."

On lessons learned in a life of mountaineering:


"As a climber, the play of balance that affords such a marvelous feeling of freedom came naturally to me. I was never extravagant in my demands, being happy to make do with small holds. Yet the death of my two comrades had been a salutary and painful lesson. Even if you are lucky enough to have a sixth sense for the mountains, it still needs to be excercised, developed, and sharpened. The early, impetuous years are the most dangerous for a climber."

On appreciating the beauty of nature:


"What I could never understand was why climbers are so often judged according to the difficulty of the climbs they undertake, when there were so many other beautiful things to experience in the mountains. In this respect I owed a lot to my work, which gave me an eye and a taste for botany and geology. But even the roughest lads among us were sensitive to all the beauties of nature. I am convinced that it has always been so with the mountaineers and always will be."

On Heckmair's encounter with Hitler in Nazi Germany:


"Below us the crowd shouted its unceasing cry of "Heil Hitler!". The torchlight procession came to a halt. Hitler saluted it with stiffly outstretched arm, something rigid in his gaze as though staring into the distance. For the first time in my life I raised my hand in the Hitler salute. My situation as a completely apolitical and disbelieving anonymous climber standing beside the fanatically acclaimed leader struck me as so grotesque that I felt like laughing out loud. The parade lasted two hours, and throughout this time I stood at Hitler's side on the balcony. As the umpteenth thousand marcher paraded past us yelling I thought of the loneliness of the mountains and the hordes of humanity below. I came to no conclusion; I simply found the whole thing remarkable, disturbing, and inexplicable."

On explorations into the Northwest United States:


"We were not hell-bent on only climbing mountains, of course. Yellowstone National Park lay on our route and who could possibly drive past such a wonder of nature? We therefore traveled by Greyhound bus from Calgary to Livingston, where we hired a car to continute the journey via Gardinier to the park. Nowhere in the world are there so many nautural marvels all gathered together in one place and easily accessible. The ground steams and puffs; there are not just hundreds but thousands of geysers, big and small, whole valleys of them."

On climbing the Ahaggar basalt towers in Africa:


"Naturally we didn't travel across the desert merely to climb, since we could do that both better and much more simply in our home ranges. Still, when you have the ability and find yourself in front of such an obelisk, you feel a certain itching in the hands and feet. It is a special kind of fun to climb such an unusual peak and gaze out across the endless expanses on which mountains look like the lost toys of giants."

On revisiting the Eiger:


"I am often asked wheter I would climb that route again. I cannot think of any reason why I would do so. I did not climb the North Face for prestige or glory, but for the experience it gave me. The record-breaking ascents of recent years do not interest me at all. There is an old poachers' saying that states, 'Freedom is to be found in the mountains.' The sentiment is equally applicable to mountain climbing. We should all be free to do as we please and to find personal pleasure as we see fit."

On growing old but still looking for adventure:


"How often I have returned from such travels with the fondest memories only to have the question come up, 'Will such a thing ever happen again?' Should I, at the age of 90-plus, close with 'Well, that was it'? Who knows? But at least it ends with a question mark."

For more information, visit the Mountaineers Books website.



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