American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Tomaz Humar, 1969-2009

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2010

Tomaž Humar 1969–2009

Tomaž Humar’s first climbing experiments took place in the basement of the family home, where he leapt from beam to beam above his father’s tools. He soon ventured out to the nearby Kamnik crags, clad in his first harness: a discarded Fiat seatbelt. He joined the local mountain club in 1987, but politics intervened and Humar went to war. As a Yugoslavian soldier stationed in Kosovo, he was shocked at the treatment of ethnic Albanians. When his conscription ended, he asked to return home. Instead he was detained, brainwashed, and mistreated before being abandoned, filthy, hungry, and thirsty, at a Kosovo train station. Humar’s wartime experiences of torture and degradation affected him deeply.

When he returned home, he coped with post-traumatic stress syndrome by fleeing to the mountains. He became increasingly bold, soloing routes that many in his club referred to as “sick.” The club was part of the highly regulated Slovenian Mountaineering Association. Novices had to adhere to a strict training program, and the most promising climbers, chosen by a small but powerful committee, were groomed for expeditions. The system produced a generation of high-performance Himalayan climbers. Humar was seen as a rising star.

At 25 he went on his first Himalayan expedition, to Ganesh V in Nepal. He performed well and was invited to Annapurna in 1995 by Tony Škarja, the most powerful man in Slovenian climbing. But when Škarja ordered Humar down off the mountain, Humar ignored him and went to the summit alone. The decision fatally undermined his relationship with the Slovenian climbing establishment, but it didn’t stop him from climbing. In 1996 he and Vanja Furlan summitted the Northwest Face of Ama Dablam, a climb that was heralded as futuristic and that won them the prestigious Piolet d’Or. Less than six months later, Humar was back in Nepal and soloed 6,808-meter Bobaye. The following year he returned for the West Face of Nuptse, a climb that many regard as his finest. Climbing with Janez Jeglic, they reached the summit on October 31st. When Humar arrived, shortly after Jeglic, all he could see were footprints in the snow and the radio that Jeglic had been carrying. Jeglic had simply disappeared.

After an epic descent, Humar was praised for this climb, but some blamed him for the death of Jeglic, who had been a favorite of many. Emotionally and physically crushed, he conclued that “the wrong man came back from Nuptse.” The psychological scars from Nuptse went deep, and from then on Humar climbed mostly alone. His next big effort was the steep, dangerous south face of Dhaulagiri, in 1999. The world’s response to the climb was intensified by the enormous traffic on his website, which he had set up to monitor the climb.

A few months later he sustained multiple compound fractures when he fell while building his house. After a series of botched surgeries and a couple of brushes with death, it appeared that he would never walk again. But he did return to the mountains: Shishapangma in 2002, the south face of Aconcagua in 2003, Jannu in 2004, and Cholatse in 2005.

Later in 2005 he attempted a new route on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. He had climbed to around 6,300 meters when a brief window of good weather closed in. He dug into the slope and hunkered down, waiting for a change in weather and reduced avalanche activity. That change didn’t materialize and finally, after days on the face, he called for a rescue. The dangerous rescue had a happy ending for Humar, his family, the brave Pakistani pilots, and his team. But he was vilified by climbing journalists and his peers. In Slovenia the reaction was different. For 10 days people had been glued to their television sets and, when he was plucked from his icy coffin on the Rupal Face, he became a national hero. Many Slovenians urged him to run for President. He probably could have won.

After the Nanga Parbat rescue in 2005, many climbers dismissed Humar as a has-been who had disgraced himself and the climbing community. But he retrenched, alone, in his spiritual center—the forest—and in the Kamnik Alps, and he continued to climb.

Among his post-rescue climbs was a solo of the east summit of Annapurna in October 2007. His last expedition, again climbing solo, was in November 2009, to Langtang Lirung in Nepal. He suffered multiple injuries part way up and managed one last call on his satellite phone, indicating his weak condition. A rescue team from Air Zermatt found his body on November 14th. Later that month several thousand people gathered in a meadow near his home in the Kamnik Alps to bid their farewell. [A detailed account of the Langtang Lirung tragedy appears in the Nepal reports earlier in this Journal.]

His climbing career mirrored his personal life: explosive, futuristic, visionary, and controversial. His vision was defined by the one constant in his life, the mountains that defined his soul, made him feel alive, and gave him joy. It was through alpinism that Tomaž felt those rare moments of grace: “I carry out a climb for my soul.”

Tomaž Humar is survived by his ex-wife Sergeja and their two children, Tomi and Ursa.

Bernadette McDonald

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