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2004 — Diamir: Sweet Beginnings and Bitter Endings — A Brief Climbing History

At the end of the 19th century, there were no flights to Rawalpindi or Kathmandu, no jeep rides or treks up the valleys leading to the high peaks of the Karakoram and Himalaya. Nepal, where eight of the world's fourteen 8000 meter-peaks are located, was forbidden country then, and explorers had just begun probing the maze of glaciers around the Karakoram giants in Northwest India (today's Pakistan). Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest peak in the world at 8125 m (26,658 ft.), was an exception. Situated on the north-westernmost spur of the Himalayas in British India, yet still south of the political hot pot of the border areas, it was comparatively easy of access.

In 1895 the mountain saw the first attempt at its summit. It was led by British climbing ace, Albert F. Mummery. His companions were Norman Collie, G. Hastings, Charles G. Bruce (of Everest fame), and two Gurkhas (Nepalese soldiers), Goman Singh and Raghobir Thapa. After first visiting the stupendous Southeast- or Rupal Face and pronouncing it impregnable, the group crossed the Mazeno Pass into the Diamir Valley to reconnoiter the glaciers and subsidiary peaks there.

Mummery, however, had set his sights on the main peak. Truly sticking to his principle of climbing light, he set off on August 19, accompanied only by Raghobir and equipped with little more than ice-axes, a tent, some provisions and firewood. Their route was the most direct, straight up the steep rocky ribs cutting through the menacing séracs of the central Diamir Face. After a night on top of the second rib, "excessively difficult" climbing, which fortunately became easier higher up, brought them all the way to the last break in the sérac barrier (c. 6500 m/21,325 ft.). Then Raghobir turned ill and they were forced to retreat. The summit had looked deceptively close. Still, Mummery's estimation that he could have made the top with just one more bivouac has to be regarded as overly optimistic - as later expeditions showed, the upper snowfields can be sheer purgatory and the summit trapezoid requires awkward mixed climbing.

Now the expedition's hopes rested on finding a feasible way up the last remaining side of the mountain, the North or Raikot Face. While the other members opted for the long way around the Nanga Parbat massif, Mummery wanted to take a short-cut over the Diama Pass (6227 m/20,431 ft.) at the upper end of the Diama Glacier, which flows around the left part of the Diamir Face. Mummery started the crossing on August 24, together with Raghobir and Goman. All three vanished without a trace. We know now that the central Diama Glacier is like a shooting gallery, threatened by the ice cliffs of the North Summit. It is highly likely that Mummery's party was wiped out by one of the countless avalanches crashing into the valley.

Over 40 years passed before the next expeditions visited the Diamir Face. An attempt had been in the minds of German ice-climbing pioneer Willo Welzenbach in 1930, but was abandoned in favor of the easier Raikot side. It was only after the disastrous expeditions of the mid-1930s that Mummery's route came back into consideration. A brief look by Germans Uli Luft and Stefan Zuck in 1938 was followed by the German-Austrian Reconnaissance Expedition of 1939, which included Peter Aufschnaiter, Lutz Chicken, Heinrich Harrer and Hans Lobenhoffer.

Chicken and Lobenhoffer first tried the central rib of the Diamir Face. They found a piece of firewood at the site of Mummery's camp before avalanche danger drove them back from an altitude of c. 5500 m (18,045 ft.). Harrer and Lobenhoffer then tried a new way up one of the spurs leading to North Summit 1 (7816 m/25,644 ft.), reaching c. 6100 m (20,000 ft.). Their route was eventually completed by a Czechoslovakian expedition in 1978.

The expedition's return to India coincided with the outbreak of World War II. All members got interned at Dehra Dun. In April 1944, Aufschnaiter and Harrer escaped to the Himalayas and Lhasa - the beginning of Harrer's "Seven Years in Tibet".

The early attempts on the Diamir Face, 1895 and 1939.
Picture source: Bauer, P., Das Ringen um den Nanga Parbat
1856-1953, Munich, 1955; plate 11

Albert F. Mummery. Picture source: Bauer, P., Das Ringen um den Nanga Parbat 1856-1953, Munich, 1955; plate 7

Members of the 1939 German-Austrian Reconnaisance, f.l.t.r.: Hans Lobenhoffer, Lutz Chicken, Heinrich Harrer (front). Picture source: Mierau, P., Die Deutsche Himalaja-Stiftung, Munich, 1999; p. 140

The Diamir Face eventually saw its first ascent in 1962 by a German expedition under Karl M. Herrligkoffer, who had also led the first ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953. The previous year a reconnaissance party had found a safer route left of Mummery's rib. It followed a long couloir ("Löw-Gully") capped by a rock wall of 5.7 difficulty ("Kinshofer-Wall") before steep mixed ground and a long traverse led into the Bazhin Basin below the summit trapezoid.

Following this route, the 1962 party of Michl Anderl, Toni Kinshofer, Sigi Löw, Anderl Mannhardt, and Manfred Sturm reached Camp IV at the edge of the Bazhin Basin (7150 m/ 23,460 ft.). At 1 a.m. on June 22, the five set off for the summit. Anderl turned back soon after, Sturm three hours later. The remaining three pressed on through deep snow. It wasn't until 9 a.m. that they reached the Bazhin Notch (7812 m/25,631 ft.) at the northern base of the summit trapezoid. The difficult ridge above consumed another seven hours. At one stage, Löw broke through a cornice but was held on the rope by the others. At 5 p.m. Kinshofer, Löw, and Mannhardt stood on top.

Darkness caught them while still on the summit ridge. In a scraped-out hollow the three shivered the night away. The next morning they picked a more direct way of descent. The weather deteriorated, and Löw in particular was exhausted. While approaching the last gully leading down to easier-angled snowfields, he lost his footing and fell, suffering lethal injuries. Kinshofer stayed with the unconscious Löw, while Mannhardt descended for help. He reached Camp III at 6 p.m. Löw died an hour later. Dehydrated and hallucinating, Kinshofer continued down through the night, finally meeting with a rescue party above Camp III the next morning. He and Mannhardt later lost all toes and parts of their feet to frostbite. Looking back on the climb forty years later, Anderl Mannhardt admitted, "At the time there was lots of talking about 'victory' over the mountain. … We felt the least victorious. We felt rather beaten. We felt we had failed."

Main Features & Routes of the Diamir Face. 1: Czechoslovakian Route to North Summit 1, 1978; 2: Kinshofer Route (orange: original 1962 finish); 3: Mummery Rib, Messner Descent 1970; 4: Messner Solo, 1978. © Jochen Hemmleb

Members of the 1962 Diamir Face expedition. Back row, f.l.t.r.: Karl M. Herligkoffer, Sieglinde Ulbrich, Capt. Haq; middle row: Toni Kinshofer, Anderl Mannhardt, Rudl Marek; front row: Michl Anderl, Hubert Schmidtbauer, Manfred Sturm. (missing: Sigi Löw). Picture source: Herrligkoffer, K.M., Nanga Parbat. Sieben Jahrzehnte Gipfelkampf in Sonnenglut und Eis, Frankfurt, 1967

Climbing the Kinshofer Wall below Camp II, the technical crux of the Kinshofer route. Picture source: Herrligkoffer, K.M., Nanga Parbat. Sieben Jahrzehnte Gipfelkampf in Sonnenglut und Eis, Frankfurt, 1967

The first descent of the Diamir Face, in 1970, was accidental - at least if one believes the sole survivor, Reinhold Messner. He and his brother, Günther, had reached the summit late in the afternoon of June 29 after making the first ascent of the Southeast or Rupal Face. According to Reinhold, Günther was by then showing signs of exhaustion and was afraid of reversing their route of ascent. They decided to descend the Diamir Face and spent the first night in the Merkl Notch (c. 7900 m/25,920 ft.) at the southern base of the summit trapezoid. During the night, Günther got altitude sickness.

The next morning, June 28, Reinhold called for help from the Merkl Notch. Around 10 a.m. he had a shouting conversation (80-100 meters distance) with Felix Kuen, another team member, who was repeating the Rupal ascent that day. To Kuen's question, "Is everything alright?", Messner replied "Yes, everything alright" and indicated to go down the other side of the mountain.

According to Reinhold Messner, he and his brother managed to descent as far as the top of the Mummery rib that day, spending their second night at c. 6000 m (19,685 ft.). The following day, June 29, they got down to the base of the wall, where Günther disappeared. Apparently he was buried by an ice avalanche. Reinhold searched one day for his brother and was finally taken under the wings of herders in the Diamir Valley, who carried him down to Bunar Bridge in the Indus Valley. On July 3, a military jeep took Messner to Gilgit, where he met again with his expedition.

(The discrepancies in Reinhold Messner's accounts of the events and the accusations he leveled against the expedition leader and other team members remain to this date subject of public controversy and legal battles.)

Reinhold & Günther Messner in 1970. Picture source: Herrligkoffer, K.M., Kampf und Sieg am Nanga Parbat. Die Bezwingung der höchsten Steilwand der Erde, Stuttgart, 1971; pp. 72-73

Click here to read Tom Dauer's article, "One Truth and another" (BERGE, 5/2003), an excellent introduction to the controversy surrounding Nanga Parbat 1970.

Reinhold Messner returned four more times to the Diamir Face: In 1971 to search for his brother, two years later to solo the Mummery route (he reached c. 6000 m/19,690 ft.).

In 1978, shortly after making the first ascent of Everest without supplementary oxygen, he attempted the solo again. This time Messner chose the hanging glacier in the right part of the face for his ascent. After three bivouacs at 4800, 6400, and 7400 m, he gained the top in the afternoon of August 9, having exited via a steep mixed buttress at the right edge of the summit trapezoid. On the descent he initially retraced his steps from 1970 to the South Shoulder, then followed down the flank left of the Merkl Notch to the highest bivouac. Storm and snowfall delayed further downward progress until August 11. As Messner's route of ascent had been obliterated by a huge ice avalanche, he took a direct line through the gullies right of the Mummery rib and swiftly reached the base of the wall.

In 2000, at the age of 55, Messner made yet another attempt on the Diamir side: Together with his team of three (Hans-Peter Eisendle, Hubert Messner, Wolfgang Tomaseth) he tried the unclimbed NW-Flank of the North Summit 1 from the upper Diama Glacier, a route Mummery may or may not had in mind before he disappeared. Deep snow halted their progress at c. 7500 m (24,600 ft.). Although this route was subsequently referred to as "new" in various publications, it had already been climbed to a similar altitude in 1991 by Austrian Herbert Rainer.

Nowadays, the 1962 Kinshofer Route on the Diamir Face has become the standard route on Nanga Parbat. There is still new ground to be found in the unclimbed NW-Ridge of North Summit 2 (7785 m/25,543 ft.) from the Diama Pass, or the incomplete NW-Flank of North Summit 1. In 2003, Jean Christophe Lafaille (France) and Simone Moro (Italy) opened up a new line just to the left of the 1978 Czechoslovakian route to North Summit 1, linking up with the Kinshofer route above Camp III. Repetitions of the other lines are rarely tried (mainly because the central Diamir Face is extremely avalanche-prone), and most years the Kinshofer is the only route that sees any traffic. Still, despite its designation, it is one of the most challenging "standard routes" on any of the 8000 meter-peaks, continuously steep, long, and dangerous.

As we were to witness this year...

—Jochen Hemmleb

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