STAVA, Italy — On June 27, 1970, Reinhold and Gunther Messner stood atop the 26,650-foot Nanga Parbat, a western Himalayan peak and one of the world’s highest.
The young Tyrolean brothers had just become the first climbers to scale the peak’s southern wall, considered the highest and biggest mountain face on Earth. Then Gunther, 24, began to suffer altitude sickness, which forced the brothers to take a different descent down the unexplored western side of the mountain, as Reinhold, then 25, later told the story. On the way down, according to Reinhold, an avalanche swept the weakened Gunther to his death.
Despite the tragedy, the remarkable climb launched the career of Reinhold Messner, who went on to become one of the world’s greatest mountaineers and adventurers. He was the first to climb Mount Everest without oxygen, the first to scale all 14 of the world’s 26,000-foot peaks and the first to traverse Antarctica without machines or dogs. He has earned millions of dollars from sponsorships, speaking fees and more than 40 books. In 1999, he was elected to the European Parliament as a member of the Green Party representing his native Tyrol in northern Italy.
Now, more than three decades after the climb that changed Messner’s life, the events on Nanga Parbat are threatening to ruin his reputation.
For the first time, four of the surviving members of the 1970 expedition have broken their silence about what happened. They accuse Messner, who is now 59, of lying about the events and placing his goal of personal glory above the safety of his brother. His much heralded descent, they assert, was not a necessary emergency route, but, rather, part of a plan he had all along to achieve the first ever traverse — up one side, down the other — of a 26,000-foot peak.
They believe Gunther died somewhere near the summit, after Reinhold abandoned him.
“Not even the emergency condition of your exhausted brother could keep you from your ambitious goal,” wrote Hans Saler, a member of the team, in an open letter posted last year on the Internet.
A furious battle has erupted, in the German-language press and in the courtroom. The accusations fly in several new books relating to the expedition that have appeared in the past two years, including two by Messner himself and two by fellow climbers from the 1970 expedition. He is suing to have books written by Saler and by fellow-climber Max-Engelhardt von Kienlin taken out of print temporarily so that what he considers inaccuracies can be corrected. The climbers are testifying now in a state civil court in Hamburg, Germany.
“Once you lose your credibility, you can never restore it,” says Messner, in the kitchen of the restored 13th-century castle where he lives, perched on a 3,000-foot cliff in the Tyrolean Alps. “The only way I can prove my case is to find my brother.”
To this end, Messner is now preparing to return to Nanga Parbat to scour the avalanche field on the western side of the mountain for his brother’s remains — to prove that he did not abandon Gunther at the top. He visited the mountain in October to begin training local villagers to help with the search. “I will do it as long as it takes,” he says.
Located in the western Himalayas of Pakistan, the summit of Nanga Parbat wasn’t reached until 1953, when Hermann Buhl, another Tyrolean, made a controversial solo dash — against the wishes of the trip leader — from his camp below the peak. Buhl’s aggressive single-mindedness deeply influenced the young Messner, who calls him his model as a climber.
The plan for the 1970 expedition was to try to repeat Buhl’s feat but this time by scaling the previously unconquered southern wall, called the Rupal Face. The first sight of the mountain was “overwhelming,” wrote Gunther Messner, in his journal dated May 15, 1970.
At 2:30 on the morning of June 27, Reinhold set out alone from the highest camp in the 25-below-zero darkness up the face. He had no pack or provisions, because he figured to be back that night and wanted to travel light. He was climbing alone because the team had decided that if the weather was bad, they would scrap the group climb and let Reinhold try a sprint for the summit. The weather actually was clear and sunny, but the expedition leader at the base camp mistakenly fired the signal flare for bad weather.
Late that morning, sensing he wasn’t alone, Reinhold turned to find Gunther following him up the face. Gunther knew Reinhold would make the summit in the clear weather and grew frustrated that he wouldn’t share the summit with his older brother, according to a climber who was with Gunther when he set out after his brother.
The two made the top together late that afternoon, when Gunther began showing signs of altitude sickness.
What happened next is in dispute.
According to Reinhold, Gunther said he was too weak to return the way they had come up and pleaded to go down the western side, called the Diamir Flank. Even though the risks on that route were incalculable — since no one had done it — Reinhold led his wobbly brother down the unplanned descent, he says. He happened to have a photo of the Diamir, which helped in finding a route, he says. After a night without a tent, Reinhold says he spent much of the next morning yelling for help.
He exchanged a few words late that morning with two other climbers from the team who were making their way to the summit, but they weren’t able to help from their location, says Reinhold. Later the next day, near the bottom of the mountain, Gunther fell victim to an avalanche, Reinhold says. The body was never found.
Reinhold suffered several frostbitten toes that would later require amputation.
The former team members now say it made no sense that Gunther’s weakening condition would force the brothers to choose the Diamir side. If anything, Gunther’s illness would be more of a reason to stick to the same route they came up, where there were fixed ropes, tents, provisions and other climbers, who could have helped Gunther down the mountain.
Reinhold chose the other route because that was his path to fame, charges von Kienlin, a baron who became close to Reinhold during the trip. The sunny weather meant that other members from the team likely would also make the peak, he says.
“To be one of a group of five or six on the summit was not the program for Reinhold Messner,” says von Kienlin in his antique-filled Munich home. “He wanted to be the next Buhl, and that required a Buhl moment.”
Von Kienlin and other team members say Reinhold had shared with them more than once in the preceding days his desire to descend the Diamir Flank, calling it the “next step” in the climbing world.
Reinhold admits he may have brought up the prospect of the Diamir, but, “I was just chatting like maybe in 100 years we’ll be climbing on the moon.”
The other team members also question the brief exchange Reinhold had with the two other climbers he met during his descent. The lead climber of the two on the way up, Felix Kuen, and Reinhold agree on the rudiments of their conversation.
“Hello,” Reinhold called out when Kuen was about 300 feet away, though with a precipice between them. Gunther was not visible. Reinhold suggested Kuen take a slightly different summit route from the one he and Gunther had taken.
Then Kuen asked, “Is everything OK?”
“Yes, everything’s OK,” Reinhold responded. Kuen and his partner continued their ascent.
After calling for help for more than three hours, why would Reinhold not mention Gunther’s predicament now that help had finally arrived? Reinhold answered that way because at that point he was alone, von Kienlin says, and didn’t need help. Instead of calling for help all morning, Reinhold had actually been looking for Gunther, whom he had abandoned at the summit the previous day, von Kienlin adds. Reinhold had confided all of this to him while recuperating after the team had reunited, von Kienlin says, but Reinhold later concocted his story, at von Kienlin’s suggestion, to protect his budding career.
Reinhold calls this nonsense. He explains that since the two climbers below had no rope, they could not have helped Gunther anyway. He adds that at that elevation, health is “relative.” The brothers were still alive, so they were “OK,” he says. Reinhold thinks von Kienlin has a motive for trying to destroy his name: Shortly after returning from the expedition, Reinhold fell in love with von Kienlin’s wife. Though she had just given birth to their third child, she divorced von Kienlin and married Reinhold. Von Kienlin says he got over the split years ago.
Over the next 30 years, the story faded into mountaineering lore — until Oct. 4, 2001. At a presentation in Munich launching a new book on the expedition’s leader, Reinhold said that his brother’s death “was truly a mistake of the other climbers’ not going in the Diamir valley” to look for them. He then accused several of the team members of wishing for them not to return.
Two expedition members in the audience were dumbstruck. The controversy that has followed hasn’t hurt Reinhold’s drawing power. Late last month, he delivered his first public account of the events, complete with a multimedia presentation, in a symphony hall in Munich.
“I am the only one who survived,” he told the sold-out audience. “So I am the only one who can say what happened.”
As reported by Christopher Rhoads, The Wall Street Journal.