ON THE SUMMIT OF NANGA PARBAT
1st July 1953
THE weather was wonderful. It was the first day for a long time that it had been fine and it looked as if it was going to last. Two days earlier we had had to struggle down from Camp IV through snow up to our chests: a very real danger of avalanches had also forced us to evacuate Camp IV and the position seemed hopeless for we were leaving the mountain and taking down with us all the equipment, sleeping-bags included. However, after a day's rest at Camp III our spirits rose.
Hans Ertl took the initiative and on the morning of 1st July, with our four remaining Sherpas, we climbed back to Camp IV. The snow was deep and exhausting, but we had taken on a new lease of life. Otto Kempter stayed on alone at Camp III to recover more fully from his exhaustion, but was to join us later. When we reached Camp IV we found it completely buried, with only the ridges of the tents showing and we had to sound for quite a while before we could find the porters' tent. It was a hard afternoon's work digging them all out, but everyone dug as if they were after buried treasure. Walter Frauenberger prepared the loads for next day and Ertl and I took 100 metres of rope with us and climbed up to prepare the steep Rakhiot face, up which it was imperative that the porters should follow us. We cut a veritable staircase, all the while being tormented by thoughts of the morrow, and then traversed under the Rakhiot peak, cutting steps and fixing ropes the whole way across. We then retired, tired out, fairly late in the evening to Camp IV.
Hans, who had woken very early, served our breakfasts in bed. There was no sound from the porters' tent and we wondered if they were ill again. It transpired that some of them had headaches, so we gave them some pills and they were soon ready to start. Otto and Madi joined us just before we left and the former decided to have a short rest before following us, but Madi came straight on. We took with us one tent, a load of stores and fuel, and two sleeping-bags.
I led the way up to the Rakhiot face, sweeping the loose snow out of the previous day's steps and generally improving the track. Unfortunately I was not feeling too good; I had evidently taken too much out of myself the previous day and therefore decided to take it easy with a view to the morrow. I was astounded that the porters crossed the slope so easily and quickly; they seemed to have lost their fear of heights. At the beginning of the traverse they waited quietly while I checked the ropes and then followed, with the exception of Madi, who had no crampons and passed his load to Frauen- berger. We reached the Moor's head over a slope of deep snow and decided to have a long rest. We wanted to take them as high as possible up the ridge, but they would only go as far as the first difficulty (sic). So, as it was late, we had to send them back to Walter and Hans at the Moor's Head. Otto and I put up our tent (6,900 metres). From there the ridge ran straight up to the Silver Saddle which shone bright in the evening light. Far beyond and above is the main summit of Nanga Parbat, the south face of which drops down perpendicularly to the Rupal valley; a formidable mountain height which brought home to us the size of our task-1,200 m. (say 4,000 feet), in addition to the tremendous lateral distance to be covered, makes more than one day's work. Night fell while we were still making our preparations for the morning. The wind rose and about 10 o'clock began to shake the tent terribly. I feared lest the cornice, which was giving us some measure of protection, might crumble and fall." About midnight I took advantage of a slight lull to reinforce the tent supports with our ski-sticks and ice-axes, and at last got a bit of rest. Sleep, however, would not come and I was relieved to get ready, for mentally I was already on my way to the summit.
Otto was buried deep down in his sleeping-bag and did not stir in spite of the disturbance I made getting up, dressing, and making tea. Our departure was timed for 2 o'clock and several times I shook Otto, who said sleepily that I had told him the previous evening 3 o'clock. I explained that every minute counted and that with him or without him I was going to leave at 2 o'clock. Just as I was packing my rucksack for a solitary trip I saw him working his way out of his cocoon and he told me that if I would go on and start making the track he would join me presently. I accordingly split the provisions, giving him among other things the fats, which I was to regret bitterly.
At 2.30, when I left, it was bright moonlight, quiet but cold. To start with the crust broke under me, but as soon as I got onto the ridge I found that the wind had packed it hard, and with crampons on I could make better progress. The ridge rose in majestic steps, crowned with cornices; to the right it fell in a giant cascade of ice to the plateau on which stood Camp II. To my left dark shadows limited my view and then I looked into a bottomless void. Sharp ridges of snow and cornices alternated with traverses along the face of the ridge. A bitter south wind was trying to blow me over to the Rakhiot face. When I got to the point where I began to cross towards the Silver Saddle I allowed myself a rest. It was 5 o'clock and the dawn was breaking over the Karakoram-a sea of pointed peaks rising from the shadows lit up by the rising sun. K2, Masher- brum, Rakaposhi, the Mustagh Tower, those mountains I only knew through books, lay before me, almost within reach.
A light mist drifted in the valleys, a sign of good weather. Warmed by the sun I ate my breakfast, hoping that Otto would be joining me, but when I saw no sign of him I started off on my traverse. Once again I had been deceived as to distance. The kidney-shaped rock of the Silberzacken would not come nearer and, in fact, it was two hours later when I passed it and set foot on the vast glacier which hangs below the secondary summit. The altimeter showed about 7,400 metres, but so far I was not suffering badly from effects of altitude, but I gave myself another rest. I had some 3 kilometres to go across the glacier, the surface of which had been ploughed by incessant storms into furrows over 3 feet deep. Progress was very slow as I had to climb along the icy ridges between the furrows. It was incredibly still and it began to get hotter. Rests became more frequent and it seemed to me that 7,500 metres would be the limit, beyond which each step would demand tremendous effort. As to my friend Otto; after some time I saw a black shadow at the beginning of the Silver Saddle, which waited, started off again and then rested without further movement. My stomach contracted at the thought of the contents of my rucksack; I was to have no more to eat than my dried fruit and nougat, for Otto had the butter and the meat.
It had become very airless and hot and my limbs were drained of sap. I had been going a long time: my plan to reach the summit by midday had gone by the board, for by that hour I had not even got to the lower summit. I must hurry to reach the rocks, where I could leave the scorching ice. My rucksack cut into my houlders and I was tormented by thirst to the point of having no saliva to swallow.
At last I reached the rocks and decided to lighten my burden as much as possible by leaving my rucksack, winding my anorak round me as a belt, and taking with me only my camera, a flask, some Pervitine, some Padutine (against frostbite), my ice-axe, and a ski- stick. I felt better now and my stops were less frequent as I cut across the false summit to the Diamir Gap. Again I had underestimated distance and wondered whether my strength would last. Would it not be better to climb the secondary summit so that, although it was not an eight thousander, at least a virgin peak would have been ascended. I was still debating this when I reached a small breach between the lower summit and the Diamir Gap, from which over some broken rocks I could drop easily down to the Bazhin Gap. I hurried down and reached the gap at 3 p.m. Three hundred metres now separated me from the summit. What would three hundred metres be in the Alps? Here they seemed each like a mountain and I was far from feeling that I was nearing the end of my troubles. For I could see several tricky points ahead of me. The ridge leading to the shoulder was very narrow, crowned with cornices, and altogether very exposed. I hesitated about taking Pervitine; it was tempting but I knew its effects would only last for six hours, and where would I be in six hours' time? I started climbing but quickly realized that my strength was failing and decided to take the risk and swallow two tablets. It was not an easy climb; at times I was clambering over very smooth rock; at times over sun-softened slabs of snow. Progress was rather better on the south face where only a few metres below me there was a sheer drop of several thousands of metres. That south face of Nanga Parbat is a far more prodigious abyss than I had ever had below me. I finally came to a gendarme some 12 metres high, a veritable tower on the ridge. My only way was to traverse along the face, practically hanging by my arms, and then regain the ridge by a crack of which the beginning was overhanging. This drained my last drops of energy. Fortunately things went better when I reached the shoulder, for it was a snowfield, scattered with rocks and led to the foot of the summit itself. It was 6 o'clock. I was disillusioned to realize that on finally getting so close to the long- desired peak I experienced no exaltation. It seemed to me no more important than a small peak in my homeland. Was this the Nanga Parbat which had repulsed seven expeditions and cost so many human lives? I swallowed my last mouthful of tea and crossed to the north flank where a pile of large blocks should lead me to the top. Only 100 metres more! Each step was an undertaking and I abandoned my ski-stick and climbed up on all fours. On top of the rocks was a small snow-cone. It was the summit. I did not feel at all like a victor and just sighed with relief that my troubles were over for a while. I brought a small Tyrolese flag out of my pocket, took a photo, and then started in with a Pakistani flag. My eyes looked down to the Rupal valley and I marvelled at the immensity of the shadow cast by my mountain on the plain below. It was 7 o'clock and the sun suddenly disappeared below the horizon. It began to get very cold. Luckily, the rocks on the way down would retain some of the warmth of the day.
I hurried down the slope, jumping from block to block. I had intended to bivouac on the shoulder, but while there was light I went on down. I might even be able to reach the Bazhin Gap. The ridge itself, just below the shoulder, was an unpleasant memory so I decided to traverse the Diamir face. I had left my ice-axe on the top, keeping only my ski-stick. I was in the middle of the traverse when suddenly the fastening of my right crampon broke and left me, like a stork, on one leg in the middle of the face. It was with difficulty that I regained the rocks and night had enveloped me during the incident. It was pitch dark, but a few yards away I was able to discern a large block. It shook a bit but would nevertheless do as a spot for a bivouac. I must say that after the dramatic changes of fortune during the day it did not seem at all extraordinary to me to contemplate a bivouac at 8,000 metres without a sleeping-bag or provisions. Indeed, I remember several nights spent at 20 degrees below zero in similar situations. Towards midnight the moon would rise and I would be able to continue the descent.
It was 9 p.m. and the last glimmers of light faded in the west. Fortunately the night was calm. I started to doze, shaken by shivering. Presently I swallowed two tablets of Padutine because my feet were beginning to go particularly dead. A good deal later the moon began to rise and at two o'clock was just a thin crescent which faintly illuminated the north face but did not reach me; my route for the descent remaining in deep shadow. I therefore had to wait for the day and the cold was wicked.
A thin band of colour shone on the horizon but the stars had not yet disappeared. It was 4 o'clock: my feet were dead, my shoes solid, completely frozen. I redoubled my caution as I began the descent, crampons on my feet, for the rocks were covered with verglas. I took off my gloves when it came to a delicate traverse and when I wanted to put them on again could not find them. Lost! ?
During the whole day I had had the impression of an invisible companion behind me: several times I had turned round to talk to him, and now I wanted to ask him where my gloves were: but I was alone. I had now reached the snowy foot of the shoulder. Twice I slipped, recovered myself and had to wait awhile to get my breath back. At last I got to the Bazhin Gap. This time I wanted to pass through the Diamir Gap because the difference in level would be less by this route than on the way by which I had ascended. During the traverse my right crampon had come loose again. I had fixed it with sticking plaster and this had given way. I mended it again but the effort, in the middle of the traverse, exhausted me. At midday I reached the Diamir Gap. The sun was hot and I gave myself a few minutes rest in the most comfortable spot I could find. I was woken by thirst. I felt absolutely dried up. I imagined I heard voices, those of my friends who were bringing me tea. I rose and started down again. Each step was by now a struggle and I kept asking myself how I had had the strength to reach the summit the previous day. I saw mirages; everywhere I could see traces of footsteps, even cairns, although I knew that no man had been on that glacier. Often I scanned the glacier and imagined Otto waiting for me with a flask of tea. In despair I tried to find my rucksack. It took time because the crack in which I had put it had filled with snow. There was no question of swallowing either the dried fruit or the nougat. My bleeding mouth only allowed me to swallow a little Dextrosport, mixed with snow. It tasted delicious at the time, but after a few minutes I was thirstier than ever. I gave myself a long rest and started down again-only to see two black spots on the Silver Saddle coming towards me. I heard someone call Hermann! and my heart jumped for joy, but a few minutes later the dots had not really moved: they were small rocks. I was bitterly disappointed and quite overwhelmed. And as I descended I kept hearing my name called and was prey to all sorts of hallucinations. Where was Otto? I was indignant at not meeting him and utterly discouraged. My halts became more and more frequent and longer.
At the lowest spot on the plateau, before the climb up to the Silver Saddle I gave in. What did it matter? I swallowed three Pervitine tablets at one go, but knew they would only be of use if I had any reserves left. At 5.30 p.m. I reached the Silver Saddle. Camp IV, of which I could only see the small tent, seemed to be empty and it was only at the Moor's Head that I saw two men. I went forward with a stronger step. The others came to meet me and I cannot describe that meeting to you. They were absolutely dumbfounded, for they had given me up as dead, and here I was coming back from the top. They looked after me as best they could and we all three spent the night in the tent. Before leaving next morning they treated my right foot which was frostbitten. I looked back for the last time at those crests on which all our hopes had been built, and my emotions of the previous day coursed through my mind like an impossible dream which had only for an instant come true.
Translated by Barbara Tobin from Alpinisme with the concurrence of the Club Alpin Frangais.