High-Risk Mountaineering 'I Understand the People Who Think We're Nutcases'
Mountain climber Hans Kammerlander, 51, spoke with SPIEGEL about the tragedy on Nanga Parbat, his friend Karl Unterkircher, who died on the mountain, and the insanity of extreme alpinism.
Italian mountaineers Simon Kehrer and Walter Nones built an impromptu memorial for Karl Unterkircher after they were rescued from Nanga Parbat in July.
Kammerlander: No, that can't be what happened. We were on the Jasemba in Nepal twice, in 2005 and 2007, a difficult mountain, one of the most challenging in the world. It wasn't until the second attempt that we managed to climb this breathtakingly beautiful peak. (Jasemba is 7,350 meters, or 24,100 feet, high.) You get to know someone in a setting like that. Karl had the ideal approach. He was courageous and cautious at the same time -- able to turn back and head down the mountain again if the situation seemed too dangerous. But I'm relieved that Kehrer and Nones were rescued. I was worried about them because it would have been difficult to survive another two or three days at an altitude of 6,000 meters.
SPIEGEL: People say you were Unterkircher's role model.
SPIEGEL: Did he still ask you for advice?
Kammerlander: Last year he called me from the base camp of the Gasherbrum, an eight-thousander (a peak over 8,000 meters), where he was the first to climb the north face on the Chinese side. We spoke for 15 minutes on the satellite phone. He said he wanted to return via the northern route after the ascent. I thought that was a bad idea because it's a hellish climb. I advised him to cross the summit and descend on the Pakistani side. And that's what he did.
SPIEGEL: Mountaineers often talk about the era of Reinhold Messner, who was the first to climb all 14 eight-thousanders without oxygen tanks, followed by the Kammerlander era with 13 eight-thousanders climbed without oxygen and many other world records. Then came the Unterkircher era.
Kammerlander: Yes, he was the rising star in mountaineering -- an exceptional climber. What he accomplished in 2004 was mind-boggling. He had never been on an eight-thousander before when he climbed Mount Everest (8,850 meters high), and then, in the same year, he climbed the extremely difficult K2 (8,611 meters). He was in incredibly good shape. He rose to the world's climbing elite and had a bright future ahead of him.
SPIEGEL: Kehrer and Nones, the two survivors, said recently that Unterkircher disappeared before their eyes in deep snow and fell about 15 meters into a crevasse. They said he hit the ice a number of times and there was nothing they could do. Apparently, he had not placed any protection. Wasn't that possible there?
Kammerlander: I'm not familiar with the exact circumstances. But you can't have protection everywhere. There are places where the whole rope team would be pulled over the edge if someone were to fall. On that ice fall on Nanga Parbat where those three men were climbing, it's possible to tie yourself in using ice screws. But in places with relatively loose snow, that's impossible, you can't place an anchor. Then some of these crevasses are covered by thin snow bridges, so they look safe to cross. It's extremely treacherous. If you take one false step, a trapdoor opens and you fall 10, 50 or 150 meters. Even if you survive that, you risk being buried by the snow from above.
SPIEGEL: Isn't that a terrible way to die?
Kammerlander: I don't think so, but that doesn't offer much comfort. If you're buried by the snow, it all goes very quickly. You're in a state of shock and your heart is beating wildly. You can't survive long in a constant state of stress, without breathing, and it's all over in less than a minute. Such a death is nightmarish for friends and family, but at least it's not slow and excrutiating.
SPIEGEL: Not even the best mountain climbers are immune to these risks?
Kammerlander: There is no point in glossing over these enormous risks after Karl's death. Over 50 percent of the world's top climbers die in the mountains. We still all go up there and believe we'll return. But ever since Karl's death I wonder if the risk is too high.
SPIEGEL: Odd things happened before Unterkircher's death. In his expedition diary he called Rakhiot Flank a "murderous climb" and, for the first time in his career as a climber, he expressed more fear than respect for the ascent. Do you have any explanation for this?
Kammerlander: No. I never saw Karl like that, so I can't comment on it. In general, I'd say that fear has a negative programming effect on your mind. Too many thoughts about safety can work against your chance of success. It can also be dangerous when you start to feel uncertain.
SPIEGEL: In the past, you gave the impression that a death in the ice was just an occupational hazard. Now you seem very affected by Unterkircher's death, almost paralyzed.
Karl Unterkircher in the Himalayas, 2007.
SPIEGEL: A large number of German-speaking climbers have perished on Nanga Parbat. Thirty-eight years ago, Messner's brother Günther died there at the age of 23. That was a long time ago. But it's not the first time a friend of yours has lost his life.
Kammerlander: I've lost many friends. Hardly any of my closest friends are still alive.
SPIEGEL: When your friend Luis Brugger died in 2006 at a height of 6,800 meters while abseiling on Jasemba, you were just 50 meters above him. It was actually not a dangerous situation.
Kammerlander: It was routine stuff. I was over a ledge in the ice and couldn't see Luis -- he was climbing ahead of me down below. When I looked over the ledge, he was gone. Simply gone. We had secured the route during the ascent with fixed ropes in dangerous places, and he had taken the protection -- the carabiner -- and transferred it from one anchor to the next. He was unprotected for two seconds. At this moment he must have slipped with his crampon and fallen about 1,000 meters. A banal error. I didn't even hear him scream.
SPIEGEL: How could you descend alone after a shock like that?
Kammerlander: In an extreme situation, there is no room for thinking about the accident. The only thing that counts is your own survival. It's really terrible when you get back to the base camp, when you pick up the satellite phone, put it down again, and then finally tell his family, "He's never coming back." That's the worst.
SPIEGEL: How often has it been a close call for you personally?
Kammerlander: More than ten times. On the Ortler, (the seventh highest mountain in the eastern Alps), I came within a hair's breath of an avalanche because I went three or four seconds before a fellow mountain guide who died in the avalanche. On Nuptse Mountain, opposite Mount Everest, two of us wanted to pitch a tent, but then we decided to climb down to the base camp instead. The next morning the place where we had considered camping was gone. It had disappeared when huge chunks of ice from the glacier came crashing down.
SPIEGEL: You have quite an admirable spirit of adventure. But isn't it in fact crazy to climb these mountains when you consider the hundreds of climbers who have died alone in the Himalayas?
Kammerlander: I understand the people who think we're nutcases. I don't have much to say in my defense.
Silke Perathoner, Unterkircher's widow, and their three children.
Kammerlander: I can recognize that in myself. But in my case there was a key experience. At the age of eight, in my hometown of Sand in Taufers, in South Tyrol, I skipped school and followed two tourists to the top of the 3,059-meter-high Grosser Moosstock, which towers over our town. The view from up there set everything in motion for me. It's possible that the enthusiasm which took hold of me back then later became an addiction, at least for a while.
SPIEGEL: Aren't people like you and Unterkircher looking primarily for fame and recognition?
Kammerlander: I was glad when the square in front of my office was named after me last year, to mark my 50th birthday. Most people don't receive an honor like that while they're still alive. When it comes to Karl, though, you're off the mark. He didn't care about fame. He received top Italian awards, but since he realized how much the Italians love medals, it didn't mean much to him. He was, however, absolutely delighted when he was named an honored citizen of his home district of Wolkenstein im Grödnertal.
SPIEGEL: Unterkircher is survived by his wife, Silke Perathoner, and three children. She told SPIEGEL that she never condemned her husband for his risky life; instead she loved him for having the courage to live his dreams. Manuela Nones, the wife of surviving climber Walter Nones, has assured her husband that despite their two children, she will never pressure him to give up mountaineering. Nevertheless, isn't it irresponsible for family men to go up into the mountains and put their life at risk out of pure selfishness?
Kammerlander: Let me ask you something: Is it possible to make a more beautiful declaration of love than Silke Perathoner? Don't such words make it clear that love means accepting your partner the way he is, not molding him as you would like? Silke is a very strong woman. She understood Karl, perhaps also because she was once a climber herself and met him at a climbing practice area. During our expeditions, Karl talked about his family and I knew how important they were to him. During the 12 years they spent together, it remained a stable and intact relationship. That doesn't happen very often.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, don't these fathers risk the happiness and welfare of their families?
Kammerlander: That's shortsighted. They also put food on the table with their mountaineering. During a four-month season, a good mountain guide earns 50,000 ($78,000), which is as much as a master craftsman takes home. Some work as ski instructors during the winter. If you've made a name for yourself, you can find a main sponsor who pays 50,000 a year, and perhaps a few minor sponsors. And everyone who works as a mountain guide -- and most of them do -- is covered by a 200,000 work-related life insurance policy. That's not enough to make up for an entire life, but it helps.
SPIEGEL: You have a four-month-old daughter. Do you still want to take the same risks as Karl Unterkircher?
Kammerlander: You can't compare our situations. I can say 'no' to that question because I've made all of my dreams come true. I'm not planning any more expeditions to K2. That's a mountain that has to be on your list if you have the ambition to rank among the world's top climbers. After 2,500 mountain tours, I'm free of such obsessions. I have a house, a wine cellar, plenty of Tyrolean smoked ham and an antique car collection with an 85-year-old Ford Model T 4. Now I also have a family, although I never planned to have one. I'll still take climbing trips, but not to the highest mountains in the world. Watching my little daughter Zara grow is something indescribably wonderful.
SPIEGEL: Thank you for this interview, Mr. Kammerlander.
Translated from German by Paul Cohen