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Steep Price

Nov. 07, 2005
Nov. 07, 2005

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Nov. 7, 2005

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Steep Price

A daring rescue saved TomaÀòz Humar's life. Did a quest for fame endanger it?

On Aug. 1 TomaÀòz Humar set out on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat to attempt a new route up the central pillar of the Rupal face, the tallest mountain wall on the planet. Humar, from Kamnik, Slovenia, was nearly three quarters of the way to the summit after two days of solo climbing when the weather turned bad. Four feet of snow fell on the steep, exposed slope, causing avalanches that made it impossible for Humar to ascend or descend. For seven nights Humar huddled in a wet, cold snow cave the size of a coffin at nearly 20,000 feet. After the fourth night he radioed his crew at base camp, "I won't be able to hold on for much longer. This is not a bivouac anymore. [Water] is pouring over me, and everything is freezing," he said. "What's with the rescue? Why aren't the helicopters at base camp yet?"

This is an article from the Nov. 7, 2005 issue

An international rescue mission was in fact being organized. Humar's base camp team had been filing multiple daily dispatches on his website and had sent out a desperate plea for assistance. The mountaineer was receiving 1,000 e-mails a day from well-wishers; more than 250,000 viewers tracked Humar's story through 22 million hits on his site while he was trapped on the mountain. On Aug. 8 Slovene president Janez Drnovsek asked Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, to help save the 36-year-old climber, who had been surviving on cookies, cheese and prosciutto for a week. Musharraf consented, and the Pakistani army dispatched two high-altitude Lama SA-315B choppers and an MI-17 fuel tanker to attempt one of the highest and most dangerous helicopter rescues ever.

On the seventh morning the storm clouds cleared and the sun shone brightly on the Rupal face. Shortly after 6 a.m. Humar woke to the powerful roar of a Lama helicopter's blades cutting the cold, thin air. "I can see it!" he radioed to base camp. Wearing a bright red jacket, Humar waved frantically at the pilots. A 50-foot rope with a body sling was dangled from the chopper. After 14 tries Humar caught the sling with an ice ax and secured himself in it. Within minutes he was dropped off at Herrligkoffer base camp, where he collapsed on his knees, sobbing and kissing the ground.

two hours up the Rupal valley a rival climber was quietly staging his own attack. Steve House, regarded as the best contemporary American Alpinist, had arrived a day before Humar began climbing to establish a new route with partner Vince Anderson, also of the U.S. Both teams were hoping to become just the fifth to set a new line on the Rupal face and the first to do it Alpine style (carrying all your own equipment and using minimal support--no oxygen, fixed ropes, etc.) since Reinhold Messner and his brother Günther in 1970. The world-class climbers were jockeying for a similar route, the so-called proud line, a direct path up the rarely summited face, which stands an imposing 14,800 feet above base camp.

The competition to get there first created a natural rivalry, but their different approaches to climbing prompted a bitter feud. Though Humar had made more than 1,500 ascents, House did not think he lived up to the pure standards of Alpinists and he questioned some of the Slovenian's decisions and motivations.

On their way to their own base camp, House and Anderson passed through Herrligkoffer, where Humar was staying. The three men chatted for an hour and drank tea as they discussed their climbs. "The weather's been so bad--it's driving me crazy. We don't get any good days," Humar told the Americans. Despite warnings of a monsoon heading for the face and what his team described as "suicide" conditions, Humar left the next morning for a four-day bid. "He was really willing to push it further than he should," Anderson says. "I guess he felt pressure by us being there. He said he did."

Humar's approach--and his behavior after the climb--struck the Americans as self-promotional. His five-person support crew, which included an "aura reader" who monitored the color of Humar's energy, was primarily charged with helping Humar document his climb through his daily radio dispatches and videos posted on his website. A week after his rescue Humar showed up at several press conferences in Islamabad with a banner behind him that read PAKISTAN FEELS PRIDE IN ITS HEROES FOR SNATCHING TOMAÀòZ HUMAR FROM THE JAWS OF DEATH ON NANGA PARBAT. He received a gold watch from President Musharraf and vowed to build a hospital for Tarashing, a village near Nanga Parbat. "TomaÀòz Humar has successfully transformed himself from an Alpinist into a circus clown," House says. "This whole rescue was a staged reality-TV show. A real Alpinist interested in climbing the Rupal face would not have started in that weather, and he would not have had a radio and a seemingly limitless supply of batteries. If I thought I [could carry] four pounds extra, then I would have brought fuel and food. It's disingenuous to say this is the hardest climb if you're bringing batteries. It's not cutting edge."

As if he sensed the ill will brewing, Humar apologized for requesting a rescue. "It was my fault getting into that mess. I took the wrong decisions," he told ExplorersWeb.com on Oct. 20. "When you are a climber, you don't ask other climbers for help. Helping someone on a mountain is a personal decision, but no one has the right to ask you to help." At the same time, however, he publicly questioned why the American climbers did not offer to assist in the rescue when their camp was so close.

"It wasn't like we could walk next door and say, 'Hey, how's it going?'" House says. "We were [about five miles away] acclimatizing on a nontechnical route. We had no idea that he was on the mountain. The first time I knew of the rescue was when I heard the helicopter in the morning."

House, meanwhile, approached his summit bid with zero fanfare. "It's too serious and too dangerous to have that background noise," he says. The 35-year-old climber from Bend, Ore., arrived with Anderson, also 35, of Ridgway, Colo., and two climbers who were attempting a separate route on the Rupal face. House and Anderson waited a month for a good forecast and packed 30 pounds of equipment, food and water for their summit push. "I didn't have a single ounce of anything that was unnecessary," says House, who made a bid in 2004 with Bruce Miller but retreated just 1,890 feet from the summit when he got sick.

House and Anderson started off on Sept. 1 and scaled the central pillars of the Rupal face in six days. The pair stayed to the southwest of Humar's attempted line, on a route that had less exposure and risk of avalanches but was technically more difficult. On the second day they spent 10 hours ascending just 300 meters through delicate ice-filled pillars and loose rock. The final summit push was an almost equally grueling 15-hour grind.

House and Anderson's Rupal ascent is considered one of the greatest climbs in modern Himalayan mountaineering. "It's an enormous face at high altitude. It's a hell of an undertaking. They did it in perfect style," says Christian Beckwith, editor of Alpinist magazine. Maintaining a pure Alpine style is key to House and Anderson, who see expedition climbing--with its Sherpas and bottled oxygen--as almost pointless.

"With expedition style, you make camps and stock supplies--you remove the commitment. Mountaineering is dead with that philosophy," House says. "Alpine style is the only way to keep it fair. If there's no chance of failure, there's not as much meaning when you do succeed." In other words, as long as House climbs, batteries will not be included.

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"He was willing to push it further than he should," says rival climber Anderson. "I guess HE FELT THE PRESSURE of us being there."
TWO PHOTOSWWW.HUMAR.COMONE FALSE STEP A doctor tends to Humar (inset) after a snowstorm pinned him at 20,000 feet, where he had to survive for seven nights. PHOTOWWW.HUMAR.COM (ARMY)GREAT SAVE After his dangerous, high-altitude rescue, Humar celebrates with the Pakistani soldiers who saved him (inset).PHOTOALPINE CLUB OF PAKISTAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (HELICOPTER)TWO PHOTOSMARKO PREZELJ (HOUSE)TOP NOTCH House (right, and on Cayesh, in Peru, in 2005) made it up Nanga Parbat after Humar had failed.