Tomaz Humar. Bernadette McDonald. London: Hutchinson, 2008. Hardcover. 244 pages. Cdn $45.95.
In The Sun Also Rises Hemingway describes the bullfighter Romero as a man who “never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line.” What Romero achieves in the bullfight is what the great alpinist achieves on the mountain, not thrill-seeking, but an aesthetic merger of life and death that intensifies existence. To understand, we have to put away our pedestrian notions of a pejorative death and see a quest requiring courage and driven by an uncompromising spirit. Critical to this quest, according to Hemingway, is solitude of self.
In Bernadette McDonald’s biography of Tomaž Humar we find a talented, even visionary, alpinist who is more conflicted: a Kosovo veteran who escapes harsh treatment to make his way home to Slovenia; a man who logs impressive climbs on Bobaye (1996), Ama Dablam (Piolet d’Or 1996), and Dhaulagiri (1999), among others; a man who abandons his young family to pursue climbing; a man who survives deplorable conditions on some of the most unforgiving mountains in the world but mangles himself in a fall while framing his house; a man who cloaks himself in spirituality but never seems to probe to a deeper understanding of his own psychology; a man who brings along thousands to witness, via the internet, his “pure-alpine” suicide attempt on Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face (2005), and then changes his mind, instigating one of the most dangerous rescues in Himalayan history. Humar is a little larger than life and, as his trip to Yosemite (1998) attests, walks with a swagger.
Other alpinists question the difficulties of Humar’s climbs and his need for media attention, perhaps suspicious of that drive for admiration and love, found and lost and found again through this surrogate of extreme alpinism. According to McDonald, Humar thinks “the public makes a fundamental mistake in confusing his climbing style with his public face.” Hemingway might suggest that it is Humar who is mistaken. A person cannot be bifurcated, a naturalness of line depends upon a man reconciled to himself in all things. Humar’s quiet, solo climb of Annapurna (2007) will likely do little to silence his detractors, even though it seems exactly the right move to repair the damage that the Rupal Face rescue did to his reputation.
Humar is a fascinating character because he is conflicted, and McDonald clearly has unprecedented access to a wide range of materials and notable personalities, and manages to weave together her diverse research and anecdotal material. However, as biographer, McDonald should provide the insight that Humar and the climbing community cannot. McDonalds is the “authorized” biography, a gossipy and well-researched conglomerate that leaves more questions than it answers. McDonald shows us enough to let us know it’s there: the heart of a talented alpinist, certainly compulsive, certainly remarkable, and certainly flawed. But she never quite uncovers it.
The aficionado might yearn too for more nuts and bolts: technical insight into Humar’s route-finding, his training, preparation, and execution—even logistics. The book depends too much on a structure that punctuates Humar’s life with a blow-by-blow description of the Rupal Face rescue, laboring a tension that might not be there. We do know, fundamentally, the end of that story. Still the reader will be gripped by transcript-like radio communications between Humar deep in his ice hole on the Rupal Face and his base camp and intrigued by the intricacies of Humar’s air rescue. Casual readers will certainly turn the pages, not slowed by inconsistency of detail or a style that favors melodrama over exactitude.