The Naked Mountain. Reinhold Messner. (Tim Carruthers, translator.) Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2003. 315 pages. Hardcover. $22.95.
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 Günther’s success in gaining the summit, and the tragic events surrounding Günther’s death on the descent.
Finally available in English and published in America last November, this is Messner’s 40th book. Intense controversy surrounding Messner’s account of Günther’s death has swirled around this book since its German publication in 2002. Expedition members have accused him of sacrificing his brother in an attempt to traverse the mountain, and Messner has responded vigorously—even with lawsuits. While I haven’t read the contradictory accounts*, I did go back over the relevant sections in Messner’s autobiography (Reinhold Messner—Free Spirit, 1991) and his All 14 Eight Thousanders, 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, but not at all surprising.
Following a preamble and short introduction, the initial 100 or so pages set up the tale. These include background on Messner and Günther’s boyhood and climbing partnership; the first attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1895, which claimed the life of English mountaineer A.F Mummery; the 1932 reconnaissance and 1934 expedition led by Willy Merkl, which took his life and those of nine others; and finally the 1953 expedition on which Hermann Buhl managed his heroic solo summit climb. It was Merkl’s death that prompted his half-brother Herrligkoffer to vow to “continue the battle for Nanga Parbat” as Willi’s legacy.
Much of the next section is told through excerpts from Reinhold’s and Günther’s diaries and letters home, interspersed with comments by other expedition members, including Herrligkoffer, which have been taken from their published accounts. Through these we get the timbre of the expedition, and a sense of the relations between the climbers, in particular the strained relationship between the young Messners and their leader. Reinhold uses this technique to advantage in portraying both the excitement and drudgery of expedition life. The closeness of his and Günther’s relationship comes through clearly.
However, the real meat of the story is in the next hundred pages. An incorrect weather flare triggering Reinhold’s decision to summit alone, Günther’s last-minute impulse to follow him (against the expedition’s plan), and the brothers’ simul-climb to the summit set the stage for one of mountaineering’s most poignant tragedies. Leaving the summit, Günther’s altitude sickness and the brothers’ lack of a rope make it impossible for them to reverse their ascent, forcing them to bivy at 8,000 meters in brutal temperatures. The following morning, in what must have been the ultimate frustration to the Messners, two of their party (Kuen and Scholz) pass within 200- 300 feet of their position. Exhausted and apparently unable to make their condition understood to their teammates, Günther and Reinhold feel compelled to attempt a descent via the Diamir Face. On the descent the two become separated. Reinhold backtracks to try to find his brother, but finds only avalanche debris. Grief-stricken and delirious, he wanders 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 the team’s reactions and the events that followed. It is here, and in his discussion of his recovery, where his frustration and anger are most apparent. Excerpts from published statements by Herrligkoffer and other members of the team, alternating with Messners italicized comments, present a fairly good summation of the controversy.
More than 30 years after these events took place, the reopened wound is an ugly thing. It challenges the reputation of one of the greatest figures in mountaineering history. As there were only two people who knew what happened on this climb, and one is dead, we can never be absolutely certain about the causes. For Reinhold Messners most recent and most thorough explanation, read this book.
*Editor’s note: Two books by 1970 Nanga Parbat team members were issued last year in response to the publication of The Naked Mountain. They are Hans Saler's Between Light and Shadow: The Messner Tragedy on Nanga Parbat and Max Von Kienlins The Traverse: Günther Messner’s Death on Nanga Parbat—Expedition Members Break Their Silence. Court injunctions granted to Messner prohibit further editions of these books. Opportunities to read English translations will depend on the outcome of legal proceedings.