The Naked Mountain
by Reinhold Messner
Translation by Tim Carruthers
The Mountaineers Books
The Naked Mountain is Reinhold Messner’s account of the 1970 expedition to climb Nanga Parbat's Rupal Face led by Karl Herrligkoffer. In it, Messner recounts his and his brother Günter’s successful summit, and the tragic events surrounding Günter’s death on the descent.
Finally available in English and published by the Mountaineers last November, it is Messner’s 40th book. Intense controversy surrounding Messner’s account of Günter’s death has swirled around this book since its German publication in 2002. Expedition members have accused him of sacrificing his own brother in an attempt to traverse the mountain, and Messner has responded vigorously – even with lawsuits. While I admit haven’t read the contradictory accounts, I did go back over the relevant sections in Messner’s Free Spirit, A Climber’s Life and All 14 Eight Thounsanders as well as a 2003 article by Greg Child in Outside that discusses the controversy. To say this is a somewhat incestuous and complicated tale is a huge understatement and not at all surprising.
Following a preamble and short introduction the initial 100 or so pages set up the tale. A bit of background on Messner and Günter’s growing up and their climbing partnership, the first attempt on the mountain in 1895 that claimed the life of English mountaineer A.F Mummery, the 1932 reconnaissance and then the 1934 expedition led by Willy Merkl that claimed his life and those of 9 others, and finally the 1953 expedition on which Hermann Buhl managed his heroic solo summit bid. It is Merkl’s death that prompts his half-brother Herrligkoffer to vow to “continue the battle for Nanga Parbat” as his legacy.
Much of the next section is told through excerpts from Reinhold and Günter’s diaries and letters home, interspersed with comments by other expedition members, from their published accounts, including Herrligkoffer. Through these we get the timbre of the expedition, relations between the climbers and the strained relationship between the two young Messner’s and their leader. Reinhold does a good job in using this technique to portray both the excitement and drudgery of expedition life. The closeness of his and Günter’s relationship comes through clearly.
The real meat of the story however, unfolds over the next hundred pages. The incorrect weather flare indicating bad weather and triggering Reinhold’s decision to summit alone, Günter’s decision to follow him against the expedition’s plan and their simul-climb to the summit all make for a riveting tale. Unfortunately their inability to reverse their ascent due to Günter’s altitude sickness and their lack of rope forced them to bivy at 8000 meters in brutal temperatures. In what must have been the ultimate in frustration to both brothers, the next morning two of their party (Kuen and Scholz) passed within 200-300 feet of their position. Exhausted and apparently unable to make their condition understood, Günter and Reinhold felt forced to attempt a descent via the Diamir Face. On the descent Günter and Reinhold became separated. Reinhold backtracked, saw only avalanche debris and was unable to find his brother. Grief stricken and delirious, he wandered the glacier calling out in agony.
The final chapters deal with Reinhold’s epic journey back toward base camp aided first by local villagers and then soldiers, finally meeting the retreating expedition team by chance. He relates their reactions and the events that followed. It is here and in his discussion of his recovery where his frustration and anger becomes truly apparent. Excerpts from published statements by Herrligkoffer and other members of the team, alternating with Messner’s italicized comments, present a fairly good overview of the controversy.
I don’t know if anyone can really determine who is right and who is wrong in the controversy surrounding these events. As there were only two people who really know, and one is dead, we can ever know what truly happened. Regardless, from the standpoint of a mountaineering adventure it’s a compelling story and well worth reading.
315 pages, 5.5" X 8.75", ISBN: 0-89886-959-5