Solo Nanga Parbat, by Reinhold Messner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. 145 illus. including 46 color photographs. Price $19.95.
This is Reinhold Messner’s most emotional work. He writes of this remarkable mountaineering achievement as if he were looking deep inside his mind and its disturbances. Consequently, in reading Messner, everyone of us will see a little piece of ourselves in his attempts to overcome the human frailties we all share, on and off the mountain.
Messner allows us all a vast benefit of the doubt in his assertion that “Almost any young, fit person could climb Nanga Parbat alone—if he wanted to.” But, there’s the catch. Physically, Messner has many equals, but mountains aren’t climbed by muscle alone. Everest without oxygen and Nanga Parbat solo are, mentally, far beyond most climbers’ capabilities. In fact, this was Messner’s third solo attempt on the Diamir Face of Nanga Parbat since 1973. His first two attempts failed because even he was not mentally prepared at the time.
Messner’s attraction to Nanga Parbat has many facets. It was his first 8000-meter peak, which he climbed in 1970, reaching the summit with his brother, Günther. They were forced to descend the Diamir Face, where Günther was killed in an avalanche. Reinhold, frostbitten and exhausted, crawled to the nearest village down the valley and was saved. A year later, he returned to the face to search for his brother but with no success. In 1973, he returned again to solo the Diamir Face only to turn back at 6500 meters. Unable to explain this failure to himself, Messner needed to try again. Several years later, accompanied by his younger brother, he turned back during the walk in. With his marriage then failing, he could not concentrate on the climb and knew it was doomed.
Perhaps the most tragic event in Messner’s life was his divorce from his wife, Uschi, following which weaknesses began to show in him. “There are moments when naked despair breaks out of control and all I want to do is to die,” he wrote. Loneliness was far harder for him to overcome than reaching the summit of Nanga Parbat alone.
His climb of Everest without oxygen gave Messner a new sense of purpose and a rejuvenated psychology. He vowed “to do whatever it is I like doing provided only it doesn’t disturb anyone else.” He recognized that he was prepared to solo Nanga Parbat when he turned the “black loneliness” he had lived with since his divorce to “white loneliness”—his way of drawing strength only from himself.
Solo Nanga Parbat touches briefly on such subjects as the local Pakistani people, the trek, and Messner’s previous solo attempt. It also covers interesting climbing history on the “German mountain.” Although he cannot agree with the sentiment expressed, Messner quotes Willi Merkl, “The most decisive factor in the Himalaya is the collaboration of like- minded individuals, a community of labor which devotes itself, not to personal ambition, but is loyal to the main goal.” Messner far prefers Buhl’s individuality, saying, “Perhaps he understood how to exploit strength which others weren’t able to do.” Buhl’s strength, like Messner’s, was, of course, mental.
There are lessons for all of us in every chapter of this book. Messner often appears just as frail as the rest of us and has the same problems in life we all do. However, he solves them differently and more effectively by converting his worry, despair and tension into a positive climbing force. If, indeed, he is the world’s best mountaineer, it is because he uses adversity to build strength, controls his fear rather than overcoming it and shrewdly heeds his deepest emotions.
Although scattered paragraphs describe the climb itself, Messner focuses mainly on his thoughts throughout the narrative. I found the summit account anticlimactic, but the hair-raising descent brought the climb into perspective—he was lucky to be alive at the bottom. Where he had climbed a relatively safe route, Messner took the fastest, but most dangerous, route down—an avalanche gully in the middle of the face.
I feel that Messner goes too far in building an image of Nanga Parbat as the finest mountain in the world. To him, I’m sure Nanga Parbat or Diamir (meaning “King of all the mountains” in the local language) was his ultimate achievement at the time. Since then, he’s soloed Everest from the north and I’m sure he’ll accomplish even better feats. The “ultimate” is a moving target for us all.
The ascent of Nanga Parbat solo took mountaineering another big step forward. Everyone, I’m sure, can learn something from this incredible athlete’s experience.