Nanga Parbat

The Killer Mountain

Mirella Tenderini

Fairy Meadows (Liver Khan)

Fairy Meadows (Liver Khan)

...but it is better not to call it Killer Mountain. Mountains do not kill. They offer themselves generously to human beings to enjoy the beauty and prove their courage and ability. I would like that she be called Mother Mountain, since she is the mother of the valleys which descend from her slopes and of the people who were born there and who live simple lives, welcoming travellers who cross their land to climb their mountains.

Nanga Parbat (8126 m above sea level), the ninth highest mountain in the world, is located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, on the western extremity of the Himalayan crest around which the Indus river skirts into the plains.

The name Nanga Parbat derives from Sanskrit and means ‘nude mountain’ but the mountain is also called Diamir in the valley of the same name, from ‘deomir’ which in the local Shina language means ‘huge mountain’. An old legend in the Diamir valley tells about a goddess or fairy queen living on the top of the mountain in a crystal castle guarded by ice dragons and ice snakes.

Nanga Parbat is also nicknamed ‘Killer Mountain’ because of the great number of climbers who died while attempting to reach its summit. Actually mountains never kill people - the causes of accidents are usually bad weather or bad chance, or insufficient skill, or human mistakes - or a combination of all that. Unfortunately these accidents are usually fatal. When deciding to climb a big mountain, mountaineers are aware of the risk they are going to take, and since the huge vertical walls of Nanga Parbat are more difficult to ascend than most of the other 8000-ers, it seems reasonable to think that not many people would be willing to put their life at stake to climb them. But on the contrary, risks make challenges more attractive and many strong mountaineers tried and died, hence the ominous label of ‘killer’ was assigned to this beautiful mountain.

Nanga Parbat and the 8000-ers in Karakoram (photographer unidentified)

Nanga Parbat and the 8000-ers in Karakoram (photographer unidentified)

Rather than a single mountain, Nanga Parbat is an isolated mountainous massif developed along a huge ridge which includes several peaks higher than 7000 m. The highest peak - the real summit of Nanga Parbat- culminates above three vast faces : the Diamir face (NW), the Rakhiot face (NE) and the Rupal face (S). The Diamir face can be reached from the valley of the Diamir river climbing between the Mazeno ridge and the Ganalo peak up to the Diamir glacier and forward to the summit. The Rakhiot face is a huge steep slope of 7000 m starting at the Indus river at 27 km from the top, and is one of the ten highest differences in level in the world. The Rupal face is a precipitous wall of 4500 m – the highest mountain wall in the world.

Nanga Parbat was spotted for the first time around mid-19th century by two German explorers, Adolf and Robert Schlagintweit, who left a description of the south face of the mountain. But the first man who attempted an ascent of Nanga Parbat was an Englishman, Albert Frederick Mummery, in 1895. Mummery is still a myth in the history of mountaineering because of his daring ascents on the Alps and his principle of climbing ‘by fair means’ that is without the use of pitons or any other artificial help. By fair means he went to attack the big mountain, not from the south side described by Schlagintweit because there was too much snow, but from northwest on the Diamir face. With him there were two other British mountaineers (Norman Collie and Geoffrey Hastings), two Gurkas (Raghobir Thapa and Gaman Singh) and Colonel Charles Granville Bruce. Mummery started with a series of short ascents to get acclimatized and to instruct the Gurkhas who were not familiar with big mountains. When they arrived at about 6666 m, he thought that everybody was ready for a push to the summit in one single effort. Unfortunately, Collie, Hastings and Bruce were not sufficiently acclimatized and turned back; Mummery went on with the two Gurkas, planning to cross a passage between a secondary peak of Nanga Parbat and Ganalo peak to join his mates at the opposite side of the mountain, the Rakhiot face at northeast, in a few days. The three men left on the morning of 24 August and none of them was ever seen again.

In 1913, two other British, Edmund Candler and Alexander Kellas, made a short reconnaissance, but no other attempts to climb the mountain took place until 1932 when a German engineer and passionate mountaineer, Willy Merkl, organized an international expedition with four countrymen (Fritz Bechtold, Hugo Hamberger, Herbert Kunigk and Felix Simon) who had climbed several peaks with him on the Alps and Caucasus. Accompanying them were a Tyrolean guide (Peter Aschenbrenner), and three Americans : Fritz Wiessner, a strong German climber who was expecting American citizenship the following year, Albert Rand Herron, a journalist and Elizabeth Knowlton, a photographer – the latter two as reporters for the American press. The expedition was organized with scarce means, no oxygen and very few porters. This meant that a lot of time was wasted transporting equipment, and notwithstanding the skill of Aschenbrenner and Wiessner, the climbing team made no progress over 7666 m.

In 1934, Merkl went back to Nanga Parbat with members of the previous expedition, except for Wiessner and the American reporters. Instead, there were new recruits, one of whom, Willo Welzenbach from Münich, was one of the strongest mountaineers of those days. He had reached the top of over one thousand mountains in the Alps, fifty of which he was the first to climb. Unlike the previous expedition, this one was handsomely financed by the German government. In those years Adolf Hitler had succeeded in consolidating his power and, wanting to show the supremacy of Germany over all the other countries in the world, promoted and supported all kind of exploits which might arouse admiration and awe. Therefore thirty-five Sherpas and a good number of Bhutia porters were hired for the expedition. Besides, about 600 local porters were hired for the approach from Srinagar to Fairy Meadows at about 3666 m, where the real climb started. Two of the Sherpas, Sirdar Lewa and Nima Thondup had already some experience in Himalayan expeditions, and this added good chances of success to the enterprise.

Unfortunately, a serious accident would soon occur. The expedition had already established camp 4 at about 7433 m, when one of the mountaineers, Alfred Drexel, fell ill. His mates transported him down in a rush to have him treated at the base camp, but at camp 2 he collapsed and died, presumably of pulmonary oedema. This accident had a devastating influence on the spirit of his friends. The weather, too, was turning from bad to worse, and although there were many porters, the supply of food and equipment was very slow. The men at camp 4 were stuck, waiting. At last, food and tools arrived and five climbers, with a few Sherpas, went on setting camps up to about 8566 m. From there it seemed they had a good chance to proceed towards the summit. But an unexpected storm ravaged the camp and forced them to descend. Aschenbrenner, Schneider and a small group of Sherpas reached camp 4, while Merkl, Welzenbach, Wieland and six Sherpas, who were already suffering from frostbite, got lost in the tempest and did not return.

At that point, Nanga Parbat had become an imperative target for Germany. In 1937, another German expedition attempted an assault. They were seven and the leader was Karl Wien. They had no better luck than their predecessors because at camp 4, which they had established under the Rakhiotpeak, a huge ice avalanche swept everything off, killing them all and the nine Sherpas who were with them.

The year after, a group of young German mountaineers, who had come to recover the bodies of their unfortunate countrymen, found also the body of Merkl, and a letter written by him and Welzenbach in which they said that they had nothing hot to eat for six days and were also running out of water.

In 1939, a group of Austrians led by Peter Aufschnaiter made an attempt along the old itinerary of Mummery, but chutes of avalanches stopped their progress. They tried again on the Diamir side with no success and when they descended, they found a world which had completely changed. World War II had started and since the Austrians were enemies of Britain, which at that time ruled India, the Austrian mountaineers were interned into a British prisoner-of-war camp. Aufschnaiter succeeded in escaping together with Heinrich Harrer. They were recaptured a number of times and escaped again. In the end they found refuge in Tibet at the court of the Dalai Lama, which they left shortly before the invasion of the Chinese. Harrer wrote their story in a book : Seven Years in Tibet, which was translated into several languages and had a huge success.

Soon after the war, two young Englishmen made a fresh attempt to climb the big mountain. It was winter and they died before reaching a high altitude. With them, the number of people who had died on the mountain reached a total of 31.

Nanga Parbat was the third 8000-er to be climbed, after Annapurna and Everest, and that happened in the same year that Everest was climbed - in 1953.

After World War II, the ‘conquest’ of an 8000-er seemed to be a must for several nations,to confirm their supremacy and maybe as a tribute to those who had earlier been lost on those mountains. Germany and Austria, who were allies, had lost the war. Both these countries had paid a high toll in terms of lives, trying to climb the big mountain which they coveted and considered theirs. Conquering its summit would be something more than avenging national pride - it would establish their importance in the newly partitioned world. The step-brother of Willy Merkl, Karl Maria Herligkoffer, obtained the support of the Alpine Clubs of both countries (the Oesterreichischer Alpenverein and the Deutscher Alpenverein) to organize an expedition enrolling strong climbers. The team comprised four Austrians - Hermann Buhl, Kuno Rainer, Peter Aschenbrennr and Walter Frauenberger - and five Germans - Albert Bitterling, Hermann Köllensperger, Otto Kempter, Hans Ertl Fritz Aumann and himself. Unlike the previous expeditions, this time it was not possible to hire Sherpa porters because after the Partition, Nanga Parbat was in Pakistani territory and the porters were to be recruited from the Hunza valley. The new porters did not have the experience of the Sherpas but would soon acquire it.

The expedition was dedicated to the memory of Willy Merkl. Herrligkoffer chose to follow Merkl’s itinerary of 1934. They set up camp 1 under the icefall on the Rakhiot face, camps 2 and 3 on the glacier and camp 4 at the base of Rakhiot peak. Unfortunately, although it was June, it snowed all the time, which made climbing very difficult. Buhl and Kempter had been chosen for the top and were on the first line to equip the route for the Hunzas to carry tents and provisions to the high camps. From camp 4 they could see clearly the track they would have to follow to climb to the summit so they were surprised and upset when Herligkoffer ordered them to give up and rush down to camp 1. Herligkoffer had been alerted by the radio of an untimely monsoon and did not want any risk for his men, but Buhl and Kempter were well acclimatized, in top form, and did not see any sign of bad weather approaching, therefore they refused to go back and went on up. Herligkoffer threatened to cut provisions and support, but that did not stop them. They set camp 5 at approx. 7533 m; the summit was less than 1333 m above them. At 8833 m, however, Kempter stopped, exhausted. Hermann Buhl did not give up and went on alone to the top. He was the first man to accomplish the first ascent of an 8000-er solo and with no oxygen.

Hermann Buhl, 1953 (Courtesy Museo della Montagna, Turin)

Hermann Buhl, 1953 (Courtesy Museo della Montagna, Turin)

It was 3 July, 1953, at 7:00 p.m. He left his ice axe planted on the top of the mountain with the Pakistani flag knotted to the handle (he had forgotten to take the German flag with him) and descended carefully without an ice axe. He hoped to reach camp 5 at night but broke a crampon and had to be doubly careful in moving down the dangerous ice slope. He spent the night standing against a rock. He had no food, no water, he lost his gloves. It took him three days to reach base camp, exhausted and with frostbitten feet. He had disobeyed, but had accomplished the most extraordinary exploit in the history of mountaineering.

Hermann Buhl performed another first ascent of an 8000-er in 1957. He reached the summit of Broad Peak with an Austrian companion, Kurt Diemberger. Soon after that, Buhl and Diemberger attempted to climb Chogolisa (Bride Peak) an 8382 m mountain in Karakoram. They were very near the top when they were caught in a violent storm and had to descend in a thick fog, unroped, in order to go down as fast as possible. Buhl, who had survived unbelievable perils, fell through a precarious ice cornice to his death.

After the first ascent, Nanga Parbat continued to attract mountaineers. Herrligkoffer, had guided the first successful expedition to Nanga Parbat, but was unhappy with Buhl’s behaviour as he had acted against his orders. He looked for revenge leading another expedition to the mountain from the Diamir side in 1961, but once again it was unsuccessful. In 1962, he tried again and three Germans, Toni Kinshofer, SiegiLöw and Anderl Mannhardt, reached the top. Unfortunately, Siegi Löw perished during the descent.

Not content and not disheartened, Herrligkoffer, organized another expedition in 1964 to reach the top of Nanga Parbat from the Rupal face. The expedition was halted by bureaucratic problems of getting permits when they were already about half way up the mountain. Undeterred, Herrligkoffer put together another expedition in 1968, which climbed up to about 7766 m, but then was stopped and turned back.

Herrligkoffer’s stubbornness had no limits - he wanted absolutely to lead another successful expedition to the top of Nanga Parbat, and he tried again along the Rupal wall. This time – it was in 1970 – there were 17 members, including the leader. Two of the members were the Italian-Tyrolean brothers Reinhold and Günther Messner, who had left all climbers open-mouthed with their stunning achievements on the Alps establishing new standards of difficulty and style. Reinhold and Günther overcame all kinds of difficulties reaching the top of Nanga Parbat along a new route, in spite of bad weather. At first Reinhold had started alone, with the consent of the leader. Up on the route he heard somebody following him. It was Günther. They continued upwards together. They took routine pictures on the summit and started the descent quickly, but soon it was night and they were compelled to stop and bivouac on the mountain, at a temperature of -40 °C. Soon they both started to suffer frostbite. The weather was horrible, they had no ropes, and the descent along the Rupal wall seemed impossible. Günther suggested that they go down the other side, the Diamir face, which was less steep and apparently easier. So they tried that way, with Reinhold in front to find the path and Günther behind him. It took them the whole day to arrive at the foot of the wall. They had still a long way to walk but the major difficulties were over. They had another night of bivouac, on the glacier this time. The day after, early in the morning, they heard the crash of avalanches. Quickly they rushed down...Reinhold was in front and at a certain point he realized that Günther was not behind him. He stopped to wait for him, and waited and waited but his brother did not appear. Reinhold went back, checking every possible place where his brother might have stopped but found no trace of him. He had to give up – there was no hope : Günther had been swept away by an avalanche.

This is a sad story, not only because of the death of a man, but also because another man was unjustly accused of being responsible for that death. Instead of rejoicing in his success – which was indeed the success of the entire expedition – and instead of sharing his sorrow, Herrligkoffer and some of the members of the expedition accused Reinhold Messner of having abandoned his brother on the way up, along the Rupal face. They also hinted that he might have taken the Diamir way without climbing to the summit at all. It took years for Reinhold Messner to be believed. It was the finding of a fragment of bone at the foot of the Diamir side on which a DNA test was done which certified it belonged to Günther Messner. Finally Reinhold’s truth was recognized.

Günther Messner, 1965 (Courtesy Museo della Montagna, Turin)

Günther Messner, 1965 (Courtesy Museo della Montagna, Turin)

In 1978, Reinhold Messner went back to Nanga Parbat with the intention of solo climbing the mountain from the Diamir side. Nobody believed that a single man could climb alone all the way from the base up to the summit of such a mountain, but Messner did it.

In the meantime, Herrligkoffer had still not given up his ambition to climb Nanga Parbat. In 1975, with a group of mountaineers, he went looking for a new route on the Rupal face. Actually, the way they traced is the straightest to reach the summit of the mountain. However, they were not lucky - bad weather stopped them at an altitude of about 8666 m. One year later, in 1976, another group of Austrian mountaineers stook the same route and they succeeded. The leader, Hanns Schell, reached the summit together with his companions Robert Schauer, Hilmar Sturn and Siegfried Gimpel.

In 1984, Nanga Parbat saw a lady on its summit - the French Liliane Barrard, with her husband, Maurice Barrard. In 1985, a Polish ladies’ expedition saw three of them on the top - Wanda Rutkiewicz, Anna Czerwinska and Krystyna Palmowska.

In 1990, Hans Kammerlander and Diego Wellig, two Tyroleans, made the first ski descent from the summit of Nanga Parbat along the Diamir side. Kammerlander had climbed seven 8000-ers, including Everest without oxygen, together with Reinhold Messner.

After 2000, the number of expeditions to the higher mountains of the world including the difficult and ill-reputed Nanga Parbat increased enormously. To write about all the expeditions to Nanga Parbat would require a separate article if not an entire book. A couple of them however deserve at least a mention.

In 2005, two American climbers, Steve House and Vince Anderson climbed a hard new route up the mountain’s Rupal face by fair means. They carried all their stuff up the mountain without artificial help and did not leave behind the least trace of their passage.

In 2012, two British mountaineers, Sandy Allan and Rick Allen made the first ascent of the longest route to the top of Nanga Parbat - the Mazeno ridge, which measures about 20 km and is the longest of all the ridges of the fourteen 8000-ers. Allan and Allen had already made an attempt to that ridge in 1995 with their compatriot Doug Scott. The Polish Woytek Kurtyka and the Austrian Andrew Lock, and several other teams had already tried to climb that ridge since 1979. The accomplishment of Allan and Allen was acclaimed as one of the most remarkable successes in recent years.

Nanga Parbat. Upper section of the Rupal Face (Photo Ercole Martina, 1961. Courtesy Museo della Montagna, Turin)

Nanga Parbat. Upper section of the Rupal Face (Photo Ercole Martina, 1961. Courtesy Museo della Montagna, Turin)

Nanga Parbat was the last but one of the 8000-ers to be climbed in winter. After a long list of attempts in the course of about half a century – if we consider Herrligkoffer’s expedition of January 1964 as the first try (though he did not think of a ‘first winter ascent’ at the time; he wanted the glory of the absolute first ascent!) – on 26 February 2016 an international team reached the summit, marking the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat.

That team comprised three members from three different countries. They were (in alphabetical order) - the Italian Simone Moro, the Pakistani Muhammad Ali Sadpara and the Spaniard Alex Txikon. The three of them had participated in previous attempts and this time with Simone Moro there was also a young lady climber - the Italian Tamara Lunger who took ill just beneath the summit. She deserves a mention because not wanting to hinder the completion of the ascent by her three companions she refused any help and descended alone to the camp below. The success of three men from three different countries instead of the ‘victory’ of a single nation made this event cherished by mountain lovers from all over the world.

Now the Naked Mountain will be no longer be assaulted by people aiming at breaking a record but will always be the goal of passionate mountaineers from all over the world. It is still one of the most difficult summits to reach, so climbing Nanga Parbat will always be a badge of excellence for any mountaineer.

However, it is better not to call it Killer Mountain. Mountains do not kill. They offer themselves generously to human beings to enjoy the beauty and prove their courage and ability. I would like that she be called Mother Mountain, since she is the mother of the valleys which descend from her slopes and of the people who were born there and who live simple lives, welcoming travellers who cross their land to climb their mountains.

Look up to the mountain waiting for you to reach her in peace.

Map of Nanga Parbat routes

Map of Nanga Parbat routes

Nanga Parbat sketch map

Nanga Parbat sketch map

A climbing history of the iconic Nanga Parbat.

About the Author

MIRELLA TENDERINI is an Italian mountaineering journalist and author. She has translated several books from English, French and Spanish into Italian, and has written biographies of mountaineers and explorers such as the Duke of the Abruzzi, Gary Hemming and Ernest Shackleton. She writes articles for Italian mountaineering magazines, and occasionally also for the British Alpine Journal, the American Alpine Journal and other foreign papers. She lives among the Alps.


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