When a helicopter plucked celebrated mountaineer Tomaz Humar from a sheer Himalayan face, thousands cheered. So why are top climbers calling his rescue an utter shame?
From my tummy down I was completely frozen in ice," says 36-year-old Slovenian climber Tomaz Humar, "so I start with my ice ax to break. I was ready just before they came. There were two helicopters with ropes." Well up Pakistan's 26,660-foot (8,126-meter) Nanga Parbat, at the western edge of the Himalaya, Humar had been entombed for a week in what he calls an ice coffin, a small bivouac barely sheltering him from the relentless avalanches and falling rock. Worse still, he was in uncharted terrain on Nanga Parbat's infamous Rupal Face, a 14,800-vertical-foot (4,511-vertical-meter) nightmare of stone, snow, and ice, widely considered the greatest alpine wall in the world. "It's not something a high-money debutante can get guided up," says Colorado-based climber Kelly Cordes. "It's for real climbers, and you can't fake it." And Humar, one of the true superstars of contemporary climbing, hoped to secure his place in history by soloing an audacious new route up the Rupal Face. Instead, he was on the verge of the most intense controversy in his already controversial career, one that would raise questions about the very definition of alpinism in the 21st century.
A national hero with media sponsorship from the leading Slovenian newspaper, television station, and cell phone company (not to mention a few additional funds from Colgate-Palmolive), Humar had spent weeks in base camp watching terrible weather come and go. On his Web site, www.humar.com, where his climbing partners and friends charted his every move, he first declared that conditions were far too dangerous for an ascent. Then he announced that he was going to climb anyway. Then, no, due to an early monsoon, it would be suicidal to try.
After weeks of waiting, the pressure on Humar mounted when American climber Steve House arrived at base camp. Although not as well known as Humar, House, 35, is a fast-rising talent who nearly bagged Humar's intended route on the Rupal Face the prior summer when a debilitating chest infection forced his retreat. This time House's health was good, he had a strong partner named Vince Anderson, and he was determined to top out. After House's arrival, Humar decided that he'd better just start climbing. On August 1, 2005, he loaded his Lowe Alpine pack and took off. It was hard for observers not to think he'd decided to ignore his own best judgment about the variable conditions simply to beat a rival up the face.
For two days, Humar climbed remarkably fast and well. But then snowmelt began soaking his clothing and sleeping bag, fog all but eliminated visibility on the wall, and avalanches on all sides drove him to stop climbing, 7,300 feet (2,225 meters) short of the summit, and dig a hole in the snow just big enough to lie down in. As one day of waiting stretched into three, the conditions worsened, House bided his time in base camp, and the climbing world and a few international news agencies began tuning in to a life-or-death drama in real time.
"Climber Trapped on 'Killer' Peak," reported the BBC, on August 9, eight days after Humar began his ascent. Was a rescue even possible? Absolutely not, Humar's Web site had insisted on August 5, explaining that such rescues are too dangerous for their crews and beyond the capability of most helicopters because of the thin air, strong winds, and avalanches. "That is what makes mountaineering special," the blog entry explained. "Undamaged nature—virgin walls and routes—which stay virgin due to their inaccessibility. If it would be so easy to get rescued, someone would try to climb this route before. All mountaineers that decide to do such a feat know there might be no way back. They know only one [sic] that can help them are themselves and 'Him.'" Later that same day, however, a new post on Humar.com read, "Tomaz [at] 5,900 meters [19,360 feet]—helicopter rescue tomorrow."
Apparently things had changed.
"People in Slovenia were not sleeping," says Marko Prezelj, 40, Humar's countryman and an accomplished alpinist in his own right. "It was impossible to escape from that news." Despairing for Humar's life, his ground team had put out a plea for a rescue that had ricocheted around the world, drawing interest from an elite Swiss rescue outfit and a European company that had recently landed a helicopter on the summit of Mount Everest (See "Landing on Air," September 2005). On August 7 the Pakistan Army sent up an Alouette helicopter and flew a reconnaissance mission that suggested that Humar could be plucked off using ropes. But when the helicopter attempted to make a delivery of food and dry clothing to Humar, it was turned away by high winds.
Later that day, the Pakistan Army finally agreed to send two powerful Lama helicopters. By this point, Humar says, "I was colder and colder, and lower and lower on food." Although holding out for a helicopter rescue, he was also concerned that he would get so hungry and hypothermic that self-rescue—climbing down—would become impossible.
When the Lama helicopters made their first attempt to retrieve him on August 9, Humar could hear their approaching engines, but he couldn't see them through the dense clouds. He was bitterly disappointed when he heard their engines fade away. Time was running out.
Another attempt was planned for the next day, but a new storm was forecast for the day after that, so Humar decided, over the radio to his ground crew, that the August 10 attempt would have to be the last. "After Nuptse," Humar says, "when my partner died, I was three days without food or drink. I was almost completely finished. I find myself on the physical border of death." Knowing he was approaching the same marginal grip on life, Humar says he told himself that if the next rescue failed, Stop joking. No more plans. Climb down or die.
The sky cleared that night, the temperature plummeted, and Humar's soaked sleeping bag turned to ice. "In the morning dawn light," he says, "I was meditating, so many thoughts: Is this my last day?" Sometime around 4:30 a.m., he finally fell asleep, but at 6:18 a.m. he was awakened by the sound of a helicopter. He turned on his radio and was told the rescue was under way. The first helicopter, Humar recalls, was unable to hover safely in the thin air, but, in a dazzling display of technical skill, the pilots of the second managed to hover with the blades only a few feet (meters) from the rock. Three ropes dangled together from the chopper's skids, with a bag of rocks weighting them at the free end. The pilots moved the craft gently back and forth, sending the rope ever closer to Humar.
"My body was hanging off the wall and swinging and swinging," Humar says, "and the propeller gusts made it very difficult to breathe, and with the spin of the turbulence and the avalanches crashing on the propellers, it was total chaos. Both pilots were passing the oxygen from one to the other."
Finally, Humar's ax hooked one of the ropes. He had only a moment to attach himself to it, but his one free carabiner was frozen shut. "So I put my tongue on to unfreeze it. I tear the skin, but then it unfreeze so I can clip it onto the rope." And now Humar and the pilot faced the same problem: the two steel ice screws with which Humar had anchored himself to the mountain. He was still attached to them, which meant that the helicopter was now tethered to the mountain—something that mountain rescue teams go to enormous lengths to avoid. Because the pilot was already trying to swing away from the wall, the helicopter's thrust was pulling both the rescue rope and the cord that connected Humar to his anchor taut. Dangling in space now, he waited for something to snap or for
the helicopter to lose power and crash.
"I had prepared a knife the night before," he says. The problem was that his fingers were too frozen to find the knife in his pocket, much less to open the blade. He couldn't liberate either end. "That was such a moment!" he says.
The pilot's instruments, according to Humar, began to register the resistance—first 70 kilograms (154 pounds), then 150 kilograms (331 pounds), then 200 (441 pounds). Climbing ropes are made of elastic, dynamic material, so they were stretching dramatically, and when the force reached 270 kilograms (595 pounds), the helicopter swung down and to the right, as if losing the fight. "'OK, now it's finished," Humar recalls thinking. "I close my eyes, and at the same time the pilot close his eyes. He pray to Allah, I pray to my God, and then something break. I couldn't know what was going on. Like a bungee, I was flying up to the window of the helicopter." The cord to his ice screws had snapped first, and the overstretched climbing ropes had yanked Humar upward so hard that, if the helicopter hadn't accidentally dipped right, he would have slammed into its underside. Tumbling back down again, he found himself swinging free on the rescue rope. "I say it was God's wishes," he says. "If you repeat a hundred times, it [would] never happen. Never."
Born in Slovenia in 1969, to a working-class family, Humar burst onto the international climbing scene when the Iron Curtain fell and a whole generation of eastern European alpinists headed for the world's great mountain ranges. He quickly established himself as a rare talent through daredevil feats, such as his summit bid on the 26,503-foot (8,078-meter) Annapurna I, during a 1995 storm. Soon, Reinhold Messner, the living god of mountain climbing, had anointed Humar "the greatest high-altitude climber of the world." Humar was named Slovenia's 1999 athlete of the year and granted the Honorary Emblem of Freedom by Slovenian President Milan Kucan.
But Humar also raised eyebrows right from the start. When he downclimbed the 25,770-foot (7,855-meter) Nuptse in the dark in 1997 after his partner was literally blown off the summit, other Slovenian climbers blamed Humar for the death. When Humar pushed a suicidal new line up the south face of Nepal's 26,795-foot (8,167-meter) Dhaulagiri in 1999, climbers everywhere acknowledged that it was a monumental achievement, but some also groused about his constant, self-dramatizing blogging; his accounts of close calls by rockfall, for example, and of performing dental surgery on himself, mid-climb, with a Swiss Army knife, drew as many as two million hits a day.
Until now, most climbers critical of Humar kept ungenerous thoughts about him to themselves, but the world of alpine climbing places enormous emphasis on aesthetic purity—the unknown hero, climbing only for himself, heading into the unknown with a minimum of gear and a maximum of self-reliance. This is why Humar's increasingly successful publicity machine and the music it made with the Nanga Parbat rescue—every news outlet from Pravda to the New York Times carried the story—has finally brought out the long knives. Humar had set himself up as the paragon of climbing's ultimate virtues, in part by pure example. But then he'd charged ahead into uncertain conditions on Nanga Parbat, with sponsors breathing down his throat and a competitor sitting in base camp. And he'd called for a rescue as soon as he got into trouble. Most astounding of all was the way he turned a fiasco into a great success.
Marko Prezelj, who has been critical of Humar in the past, says he could admire his countryman's media acumen if he didn't mix it with alpinism. "He's original. He's acting himself, like a pop star or like the leader of a religious sect," he says. "The problem is if you are an alpinist because he's creating a silly image of alpinism. But it's not alpinism, it's show business."
Others are less sanguine. "It sucks to see something you love bastardized and portrayed as a three-ring circus," says Cordes, 37, who established a new route on Pakistan's Great Trango Tower in 2004. Cordes adds that in the middle of Humar's ordeal, he overheard another Colorado climber joking, "Why can't Humar just shut up and die like a real alpinist?"
"It's like reality TV versus real survival situations," says Michael Kennedy, 53, a prominent American mountaineer and the longtime owner of Climbing magazine. "Like Survivor. It's got the appearance of reality, but it's fiction." By contrast Kennedy points to the first ascent of the Rupal Face itself, 35 years ago, by Reinhold Messner and his brother Günther. Essentially vanishing into the mountain for five days, without a whisper of publicity or a prayer of rescue, they reached the summit on June 27; two days later, while they were struggling to get back down, Günther disappeared.
Kennedy worries that intensive media attention and the technology that allows moment-by-moment Internet reporting places undue pressure on climbers to bring home a good story, instead of just focusing on their climb. "That's what you're selling," Kennedy says. "So what effect does that have on your judgment?" Another concern of Kennedy's is the psychological impact on climbers of knowing that a helicopter rescue is a possibility and the way that devalues the aura of the Himalaya. Helicopters have been plucking climbers from the face of Yosemite's great rock walls, from Alaska's Mount McKinley, and even from the European Alps, for decades. The Himalaya were a last holdout, a final frontier, because of the extreme danger faced by any helicopter crew that ventures to such high altitude in such extreme conditions and then attempts to hover close to a mountain. To climb alone on the most dangerous of Himalayan faces and then call for a rescue when you can't go on is to ask others to risk their lives to save yours.
It also lessens the risk and the need for self-reliance, which is the essence of Himalayan alpinism. "Any successful, limit-pushing rescue breeds expectation in the future," says American alpinist Mark Twight, 44. "A short haul off Nanga Parbat, a helicopter at the summit of Everest . . . and now every ill-prepared sad sack whose ability falls short of his Himalayan ambition can get on the radio, call for help, and expect the cavalry to save the day. And if it were the United States, the surviving family might sue for damages if help was not successfully rendered."
In the words of another American alpinist, who prefers to remain anonymous, Humar's rescue was yet another blow in the ongoing "murder of the impossible." Twight agrees. "There is now one less place in the world where true personal autonomy is required, where there is no safety net," he says. "Man has used technology to whittle away at risk for years, making once remarkable adventures more accessible and common, and therefore less remarkable. An alpine-style ascent of a Himalayan summit meant more on August 9 than it did on August 11 because the risk and the perception of risk were much higher before that rescue. Some will see this new margin of safety as a positive, healthy development. Personally, I think this rescue f'd the evolution of alpinism in a way that no other single act could have done."
Unfazed by his critics, Humar seems mostly moved by his ordeal. On the fourth day in the cave, he says, he grew so worried about his chances that he began filming himself with a video camera. "Just in case," he says, "I was saying to the audience—not to the audience, to the camera—'Here I am.' I was just telling the story in case somebody find me one day. Honestly speaking, it's not good thing to be actor in a reality show." From base camp, Humar says, his support team began trying to cheer him by reading e-mails from his fans over the radio.
"We get thousands and thousands," Humar says of the e-mails. "We started with small media, and in the end we have 15 million clicks a day on the Internet. All over the world we have people praying, from Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, people pray for some tourist who is stuck somewhere in the mountains. If you planned all this, you cannot do this. It was very spontaneous. All these cowards who sit back and criticize, they will criticize everything and everyone because they have no calling to do nothing in their life."
Inflammatory words, but their impact may be dulled by the latest news from Nanga Parbat. On September 8, nearly a month to the day after Humar's rescue, House and Anderson returned safely to base camp having successfully established, in pure alpine style, the first new line on the Rupal Face since the disastrous trip of the Messner brothers 35 years before. Despite the damage that Humar's rescue threatened, alpinism was, just weeks later, redeemed.
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