Reinhold Messner's 25-Year Nightmare One Corpse, a Hundred Questions
Now that his brother, who died on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, has been identified, Italian climber and mountaineer Reinhold Messner considers himself rehabilitated. But his critics continue to harbor doubts -- and an upcoming court case could lend them credence.
Messner, holding his brother's climbing boot: Character assassination campaign off the table?
After "many sleepless nights" and more than 100,000 in legal fees and search expeditions, Reinhold Messner believes he has finally refuted accusations made by former climbing mates that he abandoned his mortally ill brother, Günther, on Nanga Parbat in Pakistan in 1970.
Messner, 61, feels rehabilitated as he speaks to journalists at the Institute of Legal Medicine at the University of Innsbruck. The DNA analysis of a toe has finally removed all doubt that parts of a skeleton found in August on the Diamir face of the mountain in Pakistan belonged to the corpse of his brother.
The "character assassination campaign" against him, the most successful mountain climber of all time said last Friday, is "now off the table." Messner now plans to collaborate with Munich director Joseph Vilsmaier in a documentary drama about the "crime" committed against him, a film that he hopes will "open peoples' eyes."
The central story of the planned epic about what is probably the ugliest dispute in the history of mountain climbing has been known for some time. At a book signing in autumn 2001, the native of Italy's South Tyrol region vehemently attacked his former Nanga Parbat crew for no discernible reason. In his most serious accusation, Messner said that a few members of the team would probably "not have been upset" if both Messners had died on the mountain.
Responding to Messner's accusations, Bavarian cameraman Gerhard Baur, Hans Saler, an adventurer now living in Chile and Munich author Max von Kienlin broke their decades-long silence over a few irregularities they say took place in connection with the death of Günther Messner. The men claim that Reinhold Messner had called out to two other members of the team, who had followed him and his brother to just below the summit of the mountain, and said that "everything is OK" -- even though his brother was already in mortal danger at the time.
Graphic: The Messners' route down Nanga Parbat
Messner claims that he accompanied his brother down to the base of the Diamir face, at an altitude of about 4,700 meters, and that it was only then that he lost sight of him. Günther Messner was then presumably killed in an ice avalanche.
But former members of the climbing expedition have called Messner's story into doubt. The central question in the feud is this: How far did Messner accompany his brother after he had begun suffering from altitude sickness? Did he abandon him shortly after they reached the summit so that he could achieve fame for himself by descending along the Diamir face? Why else would the exhausted Messner have asked, when he stumbled upon his team days later: "Where is Günther?"
For Messner, the fact that the corpse has now been found at an altitude of 4,300 meters finally proves that he did accompany his brother down to the base of the descent wall. "He could only have fallen into the ice near the lowest part of the wall," said Messner in Innsbruck, adding that there was "nothing but rock" higher up the wall.
But even after the results of the DNA analysis were disclosed, expedition member Gerhard Baur said that he still had "hundreds of questions," and that the location of the remains "by no means definitively proves that the Messners descended to below 5,000 meters together." If that were the case, says Baur, "the flowing glacier would have carried the corpse several kilometers farther down the mountain during the last 30 years."
Experts like Ralf Dujmovits, an expedition leader from the German state of Baden-Württemberg who led 10 climbers up the Diamir face to the summit four years ago, agree with Messner's critics. According to Dujmovits, it is "equally possible" that Günther Messner "fell just below the summit and was carried in downward flowing ice and snow to the altitude where the body was found." He believes that this location says "nothing" about the question of where the brothers separated.
However, a district court in Hamburg, Germany, could soon come closer to the truth. Max von Kienlin, a guest on the 1970 expedition and still a close friend of Messner at the time, has published his diary entries in a book he wrote about the case. According to Kienlin, a short time after he had climbed the summit, Reinhold Messner told his friend, in confidence, that he had already lost sight of his brother high up on the mountain.
Messner has denounced these records as later forgeries. The Hamburg judges, who will rule in a lawsuit Messner has brought against Kienlin's book, ordered a handwriting analysis in August and are currently awaiting the results.
In a private report commissioned by Kienlin, a well-known expert has ruled out, "with probability bordering on certainty," that the diary entries originated after the fall of 2001. That would mean that they were written before the dispute began.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan