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Messner's Burden
On June 27, 1970, Reinhold Messner and his brother Günther reached the summit of Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth highest peak. Reinhold went on to become history's most visionary and accomplished mountaineer. Günther never made it home. Three decades after that tragedy, four of their former teammates have suddenly come forward with the accusation that Messner's ambition was the true cause of Günther's death. From his castle redoubt in Italy's South Tyrol, Messner has now launched a fierce counterattack against his accusers, brandishing as evidence a leg bone he believes to be his brother's, and the DNA tests he says confirm that claim.
By David Roberts with Charlie Buffet

Photo: Messner
Photo courtesy of Arnie Schultz
As he neared the crest of the summit plateau on June 27, 1970, Reinhold Messner felt a bursting optimism. Nothing can stop me now, he thought. Only 25 years old, the climber was on the verge of making a solo ascent, by a route never before climbed, of Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, at 26,660 feet (8,126 meters) the ninth highest summit on the globe. Beneath his boots yawned the treacherous 14,800-foot (4,511-meter) Rupal Face, the tallest mountain wall in the world. Above him, a mere thousand feet of apparently easy snow climbing separated him from the summit.

Then, as Messner leaned on his ice ax to catch his breath, he glanced down the slope and saw another mountaineer approaching from below—"climbing fast and well," as Messner would later put it, "as if he were trying to make up time." It had to be his younger brother, 24-year-old Günther.

Messner's initial reaction, he would later write, was irritation. His aggressive style of climbing demanded traveling as light and fast as possible. Having another climber on hand—even his own brother—would inevitably complicate the delicate equations balancing risk and survival.

The expedition had already spent more than 40 days surmounting the Rupal Face. Günther's unexpected arrival now represented a glitch in the climb's carefully planned logistics. The evening before, both brothers—along with teammate Gerhard Baur—had been poised in Camp 5, at 24,100 feet (7,346 meters). Because their high camp was out of radio contact with base camp, the expedition relied on colored signal rockets to convey the weather forecast. But the men had received a botched report: Someone had launched a red rocket, indicating, incorrectly, that bad weather was closing in. As a result, it was decided that Reinhold, the fastest member of the team, would push alone to the summit. Günther and Baur would stay behind to fix ropes over the steeper sections of the route, ropes Reinhold could later use to safeguard his descent.

Reinhold set out for the summit a little after 2 a.m. Baur, stricken with a sore throat, spent much of the day resting in the tent and then descended to Camp 4. Günther dutifully set out to rig fixed lines, but the ropes were a tangled mess. Dropping them in frustration, he impulsively set off to follow his brother. Making a long, powerful sprint on high-angle snow and ice, he caught up with Reinhold at 25,600 feet (7,803 meters).

"How did you find the route?" Reinhold asked him when he arrived.

"Your tracks," answered Günther. "The route is logical anyway."

Reinhold's irritation dissolved. His dream of a solo triumph on Nanga Parbat was gone. Instead, he thought, "We would carry on together. We belonged together and we would soon be on the summit." Taking turns in the lead, the brothers plugged upward through soft, deep snow. They reached the summit a little more than an hour before sunset.
By the time Reinhold Messner was invited to join the elite 1970 German expedition to Nanga Parbat, he had already forged a blazing career of first ascents in the Alps. Climbing both with Günther and with other rising stars, he had taken the ethos of "alpine style"—attacking even the hardest routes in a single push, without stocked camps and with minimal use of fixed ropes—to new extremes. He was ready for bigger things. And, to the ambitious Reinhold, Nanga Parbat was a special mountain. It was the only 8,000-meter peak whose first ascent had been accomplished solo—in 1953, by Messner's hero, the brilliant Austrian climber Hermann Buhl.

Over the next two decades, Messner would go on to compile an unmatched record of mountaineering firsts on the world's highest peaks. In 1978 Messner and his fellow Tyrolean climber Peter Habeler became the first men to climb Mount Everest without bottled oxygen. Two years later, Messner climbed Everest solo, without oxygen, by a new route—a feat judged by many to be the single finest deed in mountaineering history. And in 1986 Messner became the first man to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks.

Nanga Parbat was the first of those 8,000-meter successes. Yet many of Messner's climbing companions had urged him not to join the 1970 expedition. The team was to be led by Dr. Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, an expedition leader who, though not a serious climber himself, had organized numerous Himalayan climbs and was known as a martinet and control freak. Then 54, Herrligkoffer had been obsessed
At 26,660 feet, Nanga Parbat is the world's ninth highest summit.
Photo courtesy of Galen Rowell/Corbis
with Nanga Parbat ever since losing his own half-brother, the meteoric Willi Merkl, on the peak in 1934. Herrligkoffer had returned to lead the 1953 expedition that put Hermann Buhl on top. Instead of celebrating Buhl's accomplishment, however, Herrligkoffer had denounced the climber. It turned out that Buhl's solo push to the summit had been made in defiance of an order from the leader to descend to base camp. After the expedition, Herrligkoffer would bury the climber in lawsuits, though he could do nothing to dampen Buhl's fame.

Reinhold chose to join the team, despite any qualms he might have had about Herrligkoffer. (And when another climber dropped out, Reinhold recommended Günther as the replacement.) Success on Nanga Parbat, Reinhold reasoned, might give him the fame he needed to make climbing a full-time career, and to avoid the dreaded slide into "middle-class life."

Nanga Parbat would indeed be a turning point for Reinhold Messner, at once a towering achievement and a shattering tragedy. Years later he would call it "the defining experience of my life." Yet for the next three decades, though he became an obsessive chronicler of his own exploits and the author of some 40 books, Messner never offered the public a full, emotionally detailed account of the events of that climb. Then, in 2002, he published Der Nackte Berg (The Naked Mountain), a thorough retelling of his Nanga Parbat ordeal.

Yet by the time his book hit the shelves, several of Messner's teammates from that climb had turned on him. Accusing Messner of the worst sort of betrayal, they fiercely challenged point after point in his account. Instead of settling the questions that had hung over that expedition, The Naked Mountain only reawakened a controversy that had been smoldering for decades.

Over the months following the publication of The Naked Mountain, as the charges and countercharges flew between Messner and his critics, the European press gave generous play to the debate. The details proved as lurid as the plot of any crime story, including Messner's seduction of the wife of a close friend on the team, a long-secret conspiracy of silence among the teammates, an allegation of forgery, and the discovery of a mysterious human leg bone in an icefall on Nanga Parbat—a bone that might hold the ultimate answer to the controversy. "This is not anymore a climbing story," Messner told me when I reached him by phone at the height of the drama, in February 2004. "This is a thriller."

The mystery has only just begun. For the full story pick up the May issue of Adventure.

Additional Excerpts
From the Print Edition, May 2004

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May 2004

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