Mountains to Climb
Messner on Nanga Parbat Summit
“The top of a mountain is just a turning point.” (Reinhold Messner)
This is my story as a Liaison Officer with Reinhold Messner’s 1978 Nanga Parbat Solo Expedition in the Himalayas, Pakistan. After the successful attempt of Nanga Parbat, Reinhold wrote his bestseller book “Aliengang Nanga” which was later translated to English “Solo Nanga Parbat”. The book now is a collectible item. I feel honoured and privileged to have been part of history in mountaineering that year. The last page of the book contains a hand sketch which I made tabulating each hour and route Messner followed up to the summit the next five days. This was the first ever solo expedition to an 8000 Ms peak in alpine style. No one ever before at that time had climbed an “eight thousander” solo, in alpine style and that to without oxygen. It is a story of true grit, determination, courage and resolve to surmount something which was considered impossible till then. The book itself covers my role in detail as well. My friendship and association with Reinhold provided me with yet another adventure in climbing with him the following year. This time it was To Mount K2, the second highest mountain in the world. About that at a later time.
Solo Nanga Parbat 1978
Since my childhood I have been captivated by the power and beauty of mountains. High peaks have always mesmerized me. The yearning what lay beyond each mountain crest and the panoramic view each summit presented left an un-quenched thirst. The never ending crest lines, peak after peak kept me going no matter how tired I would become. Little I knew that many years afterwards my moment will come. It came in 1978 when I was detailed as a Liaison Officer with Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest climber in history. Pakistan is truly blessed with the most beautiful mountains. In Karakoram mountain range in a 20 square mile area around Concordia near K2 there are at least over 23 peaks over 7000 meters, the highest concentration of high peaks in so small a place anywhere in the world. There, amongst them four 8000 meter peaks as well. The spectacle of these peaks in my opinion represents the purity of nature. For thousands of years these majestic mountains have stood to be admired and challenged by world’s greatest mountaineers.
This is the story of first ever solo attempt on a 8000 meter peak. None other than Reinhold Messner was going to attempt it. In 1970 Reinhold Messner and his younger brother Gunther Messner attempted and successfully climbed the world’s highest wall (over 4000 Ms), The Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. On reaching the summit Gunther who was completely exhausted asked Reinhold that it was not possible for him to descend from the Rupal side and considering the situation the brothers decided to go down towards Diamer. Some where during the descent Gunther who was trailing some distance behind was caught in an avalanche and died. His body was never found until October 2005. He was buried near the base of Nanga Parbat. When Reinhold returned in 1978 for his solo attempt, first ever of its kind on a 8000 meter peak I asked Reinhold specific question if he was climbing Nanga to prove a point. He never answered but I knew he had something special going on with the ‘Killer Mountain’.
We left Rawalpindi on 11 July 78 and after 10 days using almost all the modes of transportation reached Diamer Base Camp on 20 July 78. Reinhold has inspired me in many ways. During our trek to the Base Camp I found him to be physically very fit. Singular in his purpose, never allowed distractions to sway him from his goal. Very selective in making judgments on climbing matters. Respected the local customs and was never shy of mixing up with the villagers en route. He respected the locals inhabitants of Diamer Valley a lot. A large hearted man who cared for the poor. They were the ones who found Reinhold unconscious in 1970. This was the period when the Karakoram Highway was closed for all kind of foreigners travelling on the road. He was taken to Gilgit from where he was flown out. His toes which were frost bitten were amputated. Any thing connected with mountains was sacred to him. He would drink muddy water of the rivers flowing down from the mountains, he would call it ‘Holy Water’ which he said was pure. While climbing alone he told me he would hear voices to guide him what and which route to adopt. This phenomenon was experienced above 7000 Meters and it happened to him on Nanga as well. It was like an intuition, he heard voices, and he felt its presence the higher he was on the mountain. He called this zone as the Death Zone.
In Base camp which was located around 14000feet most of the time was spent at reading writing and getting acclimatized. We would take turns in cooking. We were only three members, Ursula was our doctor of the expedition. During the stay at base camp Reinhold climbed Gnalo Peak which was over 6000 meters to check his fitness and acclimatization. Nothing was left to chance. Each item in the ruck sack was checked for its use up on the mountain. The camera rolls were even taken out from its packings. Messner always said the higher you go in Alpine style of climbing the weight of every item you are carrying gets doubled and tripled. Now we were waiting for the weather to get cleared. Messner kept a close watch on the weather pattern
Reinhold Messner was the first mountaineer to climb all the fourteen 8000 Meter Peaks. In 1978 he was the only person who had climbed four 8000Ms peaks. In 1978 he and Peter Habler of Austria became the first climbers to climb Mt Everest in Alpine style without Oxygen. During later years Messner visited Pakistan many times and most notable was his ascent of K2 and Gasherbrum Traverse ( G1 and G2) which was going for two 8000 Meter peaks in one attempt without coming back to base camp. Two Pakistani climbers accompanied him.
On 6 Aug 78, Reinhold moved to the base of Nanga and bivouacked there so that he could start the climb very early next morning. On 7 Aug Messner started his ascent at 0445 hours. I could not sleep well during that night. I woke up at 0500 hrs and followed Messner on his way up with my binoculars. I mapped his entire ascent and descent on a hand made sketch showing details of every hour the distance traversed. On first day he reached his first halt at about 1100 hours. This was few hundred meters above a very big ice wall. A position which he chose and was to save his life the next day. On 8 Aug at about 0505 hrs while me and Ursula were in our tents i felt a massive earthquake and then a very loud bang. Came out and saw very big avalanche on Nanga Parbat. A gust of wind blew our tents and it was followed by snow particles on our face a distance of 4-5 KM away from avalanche site on a clear blue sky day. When the snow settled we were relieved to see Reinhold leaving his bivouac. The sketch which I drew has been printed on the last page of Reinhold’s best seller book SOLO NANGA PARBAT. It is a collectable book. Messner climbed Nanga Parbat on 9 August 78. History had been made. He stayed a night and a day in last bivouac. On morning of 11 Aug we started getting very worried. At about 0515 hours Ursula shouted and broke good news that she observed Messner coming down from a different route. He took just 5 hours to reach the base of the mountain. He had frost bitten fingers and in lot of pain. We however, toasted his success with a can of beer I borrowed from the Austrians. After allowing Reinhold to rest for a couple of days, we started a trek back from a different prohibited route not allowed for foreigners. Seeing Messner’s condition I decided to go around the rules and take a chance. We left the base camp early and by afternoon we reached a deserted shepherd village and slept on roof tops of empty hutments.
14 August was to be the toughest day of the entire expedition for me and Ursula. We started our march at 0600 hrs. From 12000 feet we climbed pass at 18000feet and reached the Karakoram highway at around midnight walking 25 miles (40 KM) at a height of 200o feet. The unforgettable part; it was a full moon night. When we laid down on our beds looking at stars it did not take long for all of us to go to sleep. Someone from the village brought us hot meal. With difficulty we drag ourselves out of our beds, ate hot meal followed by a cup of tea and soon we did not know where we were. Next morning I kept my fingers crossed not to be noticed with foreigners tagging along. I told Reinhold and Ursula to let me do the talking if some one started questioning. Our hop to get off the road was not very far. We drove for two hours and were back on out trail. Drove the whole day long and reached Islamabad at 0130 hours on 17 Aug 78. On 20th Aug Messner and Ursula left for home. He promised me he will return next year to climb K2 the second highest mountain in the world. He wanted me to be his Liaison General, that is what he called me. His parting words were ” Nobody could stop us, my friend”
This expedition leaves some good tips for readers who are interested in trekking and climbing. I always told officers under my command and young boys and girls to get out there. Enjoy nature. Physically and mentally test yourself. Go as a team, develop the spirit of comradeship. Team work in outdoor activity is a greatest tool to build character, to identify your own strength and weaknesses and of your colleagues. A great self confidence builder.
Frostbitten Toes from Rupal Face Expedition 1970
Cooking in Nanga Base Camp 1978
Reinhold Messner climbed Nanga Parbat’s highest mountain face in the world over 4000 meters high -The Rupal Face . Gunther Messner and Reinhold Messner both brothers successfully climbed Nanga and while descending from Diamer Face Gunther died in an avalanche. Reinhold was found by locals at the base of Diamer. He had severe frostbite and his amputated toes can be seen in the picture taken in 1978 when I was his Liaison Officer and he returned to climb Nanga solo. A first ever successful solo attempt of a 8000 meter peak.
REUNION WITH REINHOLD MESSNER
On 18 September, 2013 after more then three decades I met Reinhold Messner in Islamabad. We had a dinner together and recollected my association with Messner of 1978 Nanga Parbat and 1979 K2 expeditions. The narration of so many incidents brought life into the other guests who had joined us during that dinner, notable being the Ambassador of Austria in Pakistan, Mr Axel Wech. Messner recounted his never ending adventures all over the globe. From North Pole to the South Pole, from the Gobi Desert to South America. He has opened four Museums in Italy, Germany. I am proud to be part of his adventures in many ways. I re-presented his Nanga Parbat Ice Axe which he gave me after his first solo climb of an 8000 metre peak; a feat which had not been attempted before. He cherished and appreciated the gesture and that Ice Axe is now part of one of his museums. He proudly says and writes that I was his bet liaison officer ever. I wish Reinhold Messner great health, joy and long life.