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Asia, Pakistan, Nanga Parbat

Nanga Parbat. Finally after 7 unsuccessful expeditions and 31 deaths, 14 of them sahibs and 17 porters, Nanga Parbat has been climbed. At seven o’clock in the evening of 3 July 1953 the 29-year-old Austrian, Hermann Buhl, member of the “German-Austrian Expedition in Memory of Willy Merkl” stood on the summit of the 26,658-foot giant of the western Himalayas, the second highest peak yet climbed.

It has not been easy to present the facts about the expedition. There has been considerable controversy aired in the press, and the accounts by various members of the climbing party differ considerably. Even before nine of the ten climbers left for India on April 17th, there were bitter quarrels among the sponsoring groups, and the German Himalaya Stiftung under Paul Bauer and the Deutsche Alpenverein withdrew their support from Dr. Karl Herrligkoffer, the leader of the expedition and half-brother of Willy Merkl who died on the mountain in 1934. When the group reached Pakistan, they discovered that the Sherpas they had engaged were not granted permission to join them. However, the Pakistani government, giving them excellent cooperation, arranged for Hunza porters, who, though not trained mountaineers, rendered fine service in establishing their high camps. They reached base camp at 13,000 feet on May 15th, where they were joined by the leader of the climbing group, 51-year-old Peter Aschenbrenner, veteran of the 1932 and 1934 expeditions. The work of establishing the high camps began immediately. Camp I at 14,650 feet and Camp II at 14,650 were placed at the same spots as in previous years, but Camp III was set up on June 10th at 20,300 feet on a small plateau where in other years Camp IV had been. Here storms struck them and it was not until June 18th that at 22,000 feet, at the foot of Rakhiot peak, Camp IV was established in caves dug in the snow. Bad weather continued to plague the climbers, and although they reconnoitred the route up the ice slope on Rakhiot Peak and carried up some loads, they were stormbound for days at a time. Finally when the weather cleared on June 29th, Hermann Buhl, Hans Ertl, Otto Kempter, and Dr. Walter Frauenberger at Camp II received an order by radio from the base camp to evacuate all the camps on the mountain. There is some confusion as to whether they disregarded this order or whether it was rescinded. In any case, while the lower camps were being evacuated, cutting them off from all communication from below except by radio, the four climbers ascended to Camp IV. On July 2nd, with the help of four Hunza porters, they climbed the formidable Rakhiot Peak slope and set up a camp for Buhl and Kempter in a low point on the ridge between Rakhiot Peak and the Silbersattel near the “Moor’s Head.” Although this Camp V was comparatively low, being nearly 4,000 feet below the summit and four miles distant from it, the threatened onslaught of the monsoon made them decide to try for the summit from there.

During the night there was a frightful windstorm, but by one o’clock in the morning it had died down. Buhl cooked breakfast and prepared to leave at 2 A.M. He claims that Kempter at first refused to get up but that while he was preparing to go alone, Kempter finally awoke. He removed most of the food for the climb from his rucksack and put it into Kempter’s, expecting him to follow, and left at 2 A.M. His companion did not leave until 3 A.M. Kempter’s story is that Buhl simply gave him the slip (“Buhl ist mir einfach davongelaufen”) and departed alone for the summit. Separately and with excellent snow conditions the two climbed the long ridge and up to the Silbersattel, where the 1934 party was struck by the fatal storm in their 24,500-foot Camp VIII. Buhl reached the saddle at about seven o’clock and Kempter three quarters of an hour later. Looking back as he crossed numerous ridges of hard drifted snow on the two-mile-long plateau that ascends gently to the summit ridge, Buhl saw Kempter reach the Silbersattel, stop, and lie down. Kempter says that it seemed hopeless to try to catch Buhl, so he sat down and fell asleep. The comparatively warm air, unstirred by the wind, sapped his energy, and he dozed from time to time all day until 5 P.M. when, still not seeing Buhl returning, he began his descent to Camp V.

Meanwhile Buhl continued up to the base of the lower peak, where he left his rucksack and climbed on, turning the peak on the northern slope. At two o’clock he stood on the final ridge, a thousand feet from the summit. This ridge, which was alternately corniced snow and rather rotten rock gendarmes, at several places offered serious climbing difficulties. Feeling his strength failing him, Buhl took two Pervitin pills (apparently benzidrine) and drank the last of his “tea” brewed from coca leaves. At seven o’clock he finally unfurled Tyrolean and Pakistani flags on the summit and took photographs, of which unfortunately only one came out. It was already sunset, and he had to start the long way back. Night overtook him struggling downward without his ice-axe, which he had left on the top with the Pakistani flag attached. One crampon kept falling off. He spent the night about 500 feet below the summit without food, drink, or extra clothing on a 45°-slope on a large rock that wobbled when he moved. He did not dare sleep and could hardly move although he realized that his feet were becoming frostbitten. Finally at dawn he again began the painful climb down, plagued by thirst, hunger, and fatigue. He was bothered by hallucinations, imagining that someone was with him. It was not until 5:30 P.M. that he reached the Silbersattel. He first picked out four climbers who were on the way down from Camp V to Camp IV. These turned out to be Kempter and three porters. Kempter had not been above Camp V all day. He then saw Frauenberger and Ertl at the Moor’s Head, dedicating a tablet to the memory of those who died on the mountain in 1934. These two gave him a joyous reception when he staggered into Camp V.