By Alex Shoumatoff
This article originally appeared in the UK edition of Vanity Fair
and on VanityFair.Com,  in September of 2006.
|A decades-old mountaineering scandal has bubbled back up to the surface: did climbing legend Reinhold Messner—who made his name by being the first to climb all 14 of the world’s highest mountains—leave his brother Günther to die on Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan, in May 1970. By Alex Shoumatoff, September 11, 2006
Reinhold Messner secured his status as the most phenomenal mountaineer of all time in 1978, when he and his Tyrolean countryman Peter Habeler became the first climbers ever to reach the top of Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen. Two years later, Messner soloed Everest—at 29,035 feet the world’s highest peak—again without an oxygen mask. By 1986 he would complete climbs of the 14 highest mountains in the world—all the “eight-thousanders,” 8,000 meters (26,240 feet) or more. Since then, only a handful of climbers have matched these superhuman feats of endurance and survival.But in 1970, Messner was 26 years old and still unknown outside the small community of European extreme rock climbers. Two years earlier, he’d gotten their attention on a group expedition to the vertiginous granite Aiguilles of the Mont Blanc range, in the Alps. Some of the best climbers in the world stopped their ascents and watched through binoculars, aghast, as Messner hacked his way up Les Droites, then regarded as the most difficult ice wall on earth, in only four hours. The fastest ascent until then had taken three days; three previous expeditions had met with disaster and death.
Messner was able to move so quickly because he climbed alone, alpine-style—meaning he took only a rucksack. Not having to bang in pitons (thin metal wedges to secure protective ropes), or rappel back down each pitch to pick them up, saved him a lot of time and energy. But it meant that he had to have absolute confidence in himself. There could be no hesitation, no uncertainty in his movements.
Another factor in Messner’s success was his artistry at route finding. Picking a way up thousands of feet of sheer rock is like designing a large, complicated building, and Messner’s lines were elegant and innovative. He was in superb condition, from running for hours at a time up alpine meadows and practicing moves on a ruined building in St. Peter, the little village in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy where he lived. “Reinhold never made a move until he had studied the weather conditions,” says Doug Scott, one of the top Himalayan climbers of Messner’s era, “and when everything was right, he went for it and pulled it off because of his phenomenal fitness.”
But most important, Messner had the mysterious drive, the ambition, the single-minded focus that separates the world’s Lance Armstrongs, Michael Jordans, and Tiger Woodses from the merely talented. He had decided in his mid-teens that he was going to become the greatest mountain climber ever, and from then on was a man obsessed, pushing himself to the limit, then pushing the limit out some more, “learning the world through my fear,” as he puts it in one of his many books.
By 1969 the Alps had become too small for Messner, so he went to the Peruvian Andes and pioneered two ascents there. Now he longed for an opportunity to tackle the big boys: the 14 eight-thousanders in Central Asia—in the Himalayan, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Pamir ranges.
The chance came late that year, when a climber dropped out of a German expedition that was going to Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest mountain (26,658 feet), and Messner was invited to take his place. Nanga is in the Himalayas, in Pakistan, near the Kashmir border. It was the holy grail of German mountaineering. Thirty-one people had died on it by 1953, when Hermann Buhl finally reached the top, and 30 more have died since. A solo-climbing pioneer, Buhl, with the Italian Walter Bonatti, was Messner’s main role model. But the southern, Rupal Face was still unclimbed. Fifteen thousand feet of mostly exposed rock from top to bottom, it is the highest vertical wall on earth. Even Buhl considered it to be suicide. Starting in 1963, the best German climbers had pitted themselves against it. Four expeditions had failed. This was the fifth.
“This I was interested in,” Messner told me recently.
At the last moment, another climber dropped out, and Messner was able to get his brother Günther on the expedition. Reinhold and Günther had done easily a thousand climbs together, starting as little boys in their valley in South Tyrol, a German-speaking enclave at the border of Austria and Italy that has been under Italian rule since the First World War. Günther was very strong, but his rock climbing was not at the Spider-Man level of Reinhold’s. He was a few inches shorter and hadn’t been able to put in the same hours of practice and training because of his job as a bank clerk. Reinhold, who was teaching high-school math and making a desultory effort to get a degree in building engineering at the University of Padua, had his summers free. When Günther asked for a two-month leave of absence to go on the expedition, the bank wouldn’t give it to him, so he gave his notice. He was going to find a job that would let him do more climbing when he got back.
In May 1970, the expedition’s 22 climbers and their teams of high-altitude porters began working their way up the Rupal Face, setting up tent camps along the way. Reinhold quickly demonstrated that he was the strongest climber, and on June 27, after days of being snowbound by a blizzard, the death of one of the porters, and other setbacks, the expedition had one last chance to make the summit: it all came down to Messner making a solo dash up the last 3,000 feet from Camp Five. He set out before dawn and by the end of the morning had climbed the Merkl Couloir, a nearly vertical slit of snow and ice above Camp Five, and started on a long traverse off to the right, skirting the lower, south summit. Suddenly, he noticed another climber below him, coming up fast. It was Günther, who was supposed to be stringing fixed ropes in the couloir to ease Reinhold’s descent. But Günther had decided he wasn’t going to miss out on this.
The brothers reached the summit late in the afternoon and shook hands, as they always did. Elated by their triumph, and befuddled by the thin air, they lost track of the time and stayed too long on top. This happens in the “death zone,” above around 23,000 feet. Without an oxygen tank, you start to experience “rapture of the heights.” Günther had come up from Camp Five too fast and was completely spent. He told his brother that he didn’t think he could make it back down the Rupal Face. He didn’t trust his footing. One slip and it was 15,000 feet to the valley floor, and they didn’t have a rope, so there was no way Reinhold could hold him. Reinhold finally looked at his watch and realized that there was only an hour of daylight left. They were in big trouble.
What happened after that has been the subject of speculation ever since. Four days later, Reinhold appeared on the other side of the mountain, at the foot of the western, Diamir Face, which is encrusted with hanging glaciers and seracs (precariously poised blocks of ice) that are forever breaking off and causing avalanches. Reinhold was delirious and badly frostbitten; he would end up losing all or part of seven of his toes. He was also alone. According to Reinhold, he and Günther had spent three freezing nights on the mountain without food, water, or shelter and had made it almost all the way down the Diamir Face. Reinhold had gone ahead to pick the safest route across the avalanche chutes, while Günther staggered behind or sat resting until he got the O.K. to come. At last Reinhold reached safety, jumping off the lowest glacier into a grassy meadow. He waited there for Günther, but Günther didn’t come. Reinhold went back to the place, a kilometer back, where he had left Günther and found it smothered by a roiling mass of fresh snow—the aftermath of an avalanche. Reinhold spent a night and a day looking frantically for his brother, in case Günther had survived. By now Reinhold was hallucinating: he imagined a third climber walking next to him and felt separated from his body, as if he were looking down on himself from above.
But there was no sign of his brother. Over the next three decades, Reinhold returned to the Diamir Face many times and spent days searching, but Günther remained lost without a trace, joining a distinguished roster of climbers that includes A. F. Mummery, the greatest Victorian alpinist, who disappeared high on the same face in 1895; George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who disappeared on Everest in 1924 (Mallory’s body was found in 1999); and Reinhold’s hero, Hermann Buhl, who disappeared on Chogolisa, in the Karakoram range, in 1957.
Messner has written and spoken about what happened on Nanga Parbat in 1970 again and again (sometimes contradicting himself in minor details). In 2002 he revisited the subject in his book The Naked Mountain. But in the summer of 2003 two members of the 1970 expedition came out with books attacking Reinhold’s version of events and accusing him of choosing ambition over saving his brother’s life. They are Between Light and Shadow: The Messner Tragedy on Nanga Parbat, by Hans Saler, and The Traverse: Günther Messner’s Death on Nanga Parbat—Expedition Members Break Their Silence, by Max von Kienlin, neither of which has appeared in English. The latter claims that Reinhold had left his weakened brother on the summit and sent him down the Rupal Face alone, so that he could cover himself in even more glory by descending the Diamir Face. Reinhold’s was the first ever traverse—climbing one face and coming down another—of Nanga Parbat.
This was not a new accusation. It was first made by the leader of the expedition, Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, who was attacked upon his return for not going to look for the Messners on the Diamir side. Herrligkoffer tried to deflect blame onto Reinhold, claiming he had planned the traverse all along and had abandoned the expedition, and his brother.
But now there were fresh allegations: von Kienlin claimed that he had found his old diary of the expedition in the wine cellar of his castle, in South Wittenberg. One of the entries recorded that Reinhold, when he finally met up with the rest of the expedition, had frantically shouted to von Kienlin, “Where’s Günther?” This was proof, von Kienlin argued, that the two brothers did not go down the Diamir Face together.
Von Kienlin also claimed that Reinhold had expressed his desire to make the traverse days before he went to the summit. After the disaster and their shocked reunion, Messner told him, according to the diary, “I knew how much Günther wanted to get to the warmth of the tent, but I had to think that the opportunity to make this traverse would not come again.” (Messner vehemently denies this.) Von Kienlin said that they had agreed to keep what really happened secret, for Reinhold’s sake. After von Kienlin’s book came out, another member of the expedition, Gerhard Baur, came forth and said that Messner had also told him he was planning to do the traverse. The charge was gravely serious: the worst thing a climber can do is to abandon his partner. In essence, Messner was being accused of fratricide.
Von Kienlin and Messner have a tumultuous history. A year after they had returned from Nanga, von Kienlin’s wife, Uschi Demeter, ran off with Reinhold, who had spent months recuperating from the expedition at their home. Van Kienlin claimed this had nothing to do with it; the marriage was already over. “It was more Reinhold’s behavior [on the mountain] that upset me,” he told the London Sunday Times.
I did a lot of climbing in my teens—enough that I became the youngest person to make several ascents in the Alps. And I had once been in a situation very similar to that of the Messners, in which we had no alternative but to go down a different face of a mountain in Switzerland, To me, Reinhold’s account of what happened on Nanga made perfect sense. I asked Doug Scott, who climbed Mount Everest in 1975 and has known Messner for 30 years, what he made of this latest controversy, and Scott said, “If Reinhold says that is what happened, I see no reason for not taking him at his word. Everyone likes to bash the icon, so I would take all this with a pinch of salt.”
Ed Douglas, a journalist-climber who is the former editor of The Alpine Journal, told me, “I don’t think anyone seriously says he killed his brother. But it is possible he doesn’t know himself what happened. When he came down from the Diamir Face he was completely strung out. Memories become fixed along certain lines. So how can he be sure about anything that transpired up there after all these years?
“German mountaineering is fraught with tensions,” Douglas added. “It’s very Wagnerian. And Messner was knicking off with one of their wives. Everyone wants to take him down because he is so astonishingly arrogant.”
The controversy, it seemed, would never be resolved until Günther’s body was found—which it finally was, in July 2005. But even this discovery has not closed the book on this bizarre and sad saga—at least as far as von Kienlin is concerned.
What impressed me was not only that he had had all these incredible adventures, but that between expeditions he had written 40 books about them—including one arguing that the Abominable Snowman of Himalayan lore is actually a rare species of long-haired Tibetan bear. The reactions to My Quest for the Yeti ranged from skepticism to outright ridicule when it was published, in 1998. Several critics invoked an old charge against Messner—that his brain had been damaged by anoxia, or lack of oxygen, during all those high-altitude climbs. But five years later a Japanese scientist presented evidence that had brought him, quite independently, to a similar conclusion.
Now in his early 60s, Messner has a thick, wavy head of hair that is starting to turn gray. He wore his shirt open, with a clutch of Tibetan good-luck beads at his throat. There was nothing wrong with his mind that I noticed, except that he had a tendency to say whatever was on it, sometimes making life more difficult for himself. In fact, I found Messner to be one of the sharpest and most focused people I’ve ever met, with a photographic memory of all the major routes and who climbed them and when. Maybe we should all undergo a little oxygen deprivation.
To understand what this was really all about, Messner explained, I had to go back to the Nanga Parbat expedition that the German Alpine Club sponsored in 1934. With more than 600,000 members, the German Alpine Club is the largest organization of its kind in the world and a bastion of conservatism and “good German values.” It was known for its anti-Semitism and in the 30s became associated with National Socialist ideology. The Nazis wanted all Germans to be comrades, and mountain climbing, which forges Kameradschaft (camaraderie), was the perfect model.
The leader of the 1934 expedition was a man named Willy Merkl. He expected unquestioning obedience from his climbers and had a Wagnerian obsession with conquering Nanga Parbat, “with its bright golden adventures, its manly struggles and austere mortal dangers,” as Merkl wrote. He tried to get eight climbers to the top, but they all died, as did Merkl. The bodies that could be recovered were brought down wrapped in flags with swastikas, and from then on Nanga became synonymous with the idea of Kameradschaft.
In 1953, Willy Merkl’s much younger half-brother, Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, led another German expedition to Nanga Parbat. A doctor, Herrligkoffer regarded the climbers as little more than chess pieces to be moved up and down the mountain from his command center at Base Camp. But his strongest climber, Hermann Buhl, was a soloist and soon found himself at odds with the cold, aloof expedition leader. Buhl ended up taking off for the summit alone, and Herrligkoffer sued him for disobeying orders and writing his own book. Herrligkoffer, who always made the climbers sign the rights to their stories over to him in his expedition contracts, would sue Messner for the very same reasons in 1970.
Herrligkoffer had led a second successful ascent of Nanga, by the Diamir Face, but he had failed three times on the Rupal Face. His career was on the line in 1970, so he had little patience for the insubordination that the Messner brothers soon manifested. The Field Marshal, as the brothers nicknamed him, tried to separate them and put them on different ropes, but they refused. When, midway up the face, they got word that the Field Marshal was thinking of aborting the assault because he was having doubts about its success, they told Gerhard Baur and von Kienlin that they would stay and do it themselves—and maybe even go down the Diamir Face. “But there was no plan to do the traverse,” Messner assured me. “It was something I discussed like a future dream, like something that would be nice to do someday if it was possible.”
Part of the conflict was a culture clash: South Tyroleans aren’t as regimented as Germans from the fatherland. Messner hates rules and Teutonic nationalism. “I am not an anarchist, but I am anarchistical,” he told me. “Nature is the only ruler. I shit on flags.” His personal philosophy is not unlike Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch—the “self-overcoming” person who approaches life on his own terms—which the Nazis appropriated and spun to their own Aryan-supremacist ends.
Messner was undoubtedly affected by what World War II did to his father. Joseph Messner had joined the Wehrmacht, along with thousands of other naïve young South Tyroleans, and came home embittered, a shell of his former self. Young Reinhold began to think that blind obedience, the Führer principle, was the tragic flaw of German culture—a conviction that was reinforced when he learned about the Holocaust. When Reinhold returned to South Tyrol from his triumph on the Rupal Face, some local politicians had gathered a crowd to give him a hero’s welcome. After one of them said, “What a victory this is for South Tyrol!,” Messner took the microphone and said, “I want to correct something: I didn’t do it for South Tyrol, I didn’t do it for Germany, I didn’t do it for Austria. I did it for myself.” After that, Messner was spat on in the street. He received death threats and letters containing feces. The local newspapers called him a Heimatverräter (a traitor to his homeland) and a Nestbeschmutzer (someone who besmirches his own nest).
So it was inevitable that friction would develop between Messner and the German Alpine Club. In 2001, a new biography of Herrligkoffer was presented at the club’s museum in Munich, and Messner, who had written the foreword, was asked to say a few words. He started magnanimously, saying, “It is time for me to bury the hatchet with Herrligkoffer. He was wrong to accuse me of leaving my brother on Nanga Parbat, but he did bring three generations of German climbers to the Himalayas.” Yet Messner could not stop himself from adding, “But I do blame my former comrades for not coming to look for us.”
Von Kienlin had not been one of Herrligkoffer’s climbers. He happened to have been born on the very day in 1934 that Willy Merkl met with catastrophe, so he had always had a fascination with Nanga Parbat. When he read in the paper that Herrligkoffer was leading an expedition up the Rupal Face, he arranged to come along as a paying guest. It cost von Kienlin 14,000 marks (about $17,500 in today’s currency), and he stayed at Base Camp while the climbers made the ascent.
Messner says he and “the baron,” as they all called him, hit it off immediately. (Von Kienlin is not actually a baron, but his lineage is impressive.) Von Kienlin had never met anyone like Messner, and he became absorbed in his new friend’s triumph and tragedy. In the expedition’s aftermath, when Herrligkoffer started to attack Messner, von Kienlin was Messner’s biggest defender. “He was the real hero of the story then,” Messner told me. Von Kienlin invited the other climbers to his Schloss and got them to sign a letter of support for Messner.
One evening Messner and the baron went to a beer hall in Munich to hear Herrligkoffer lecture on the expedition. In the middle of it, Messner got up and said, “That’s not true.” Von Kienlin stood up beside him and said, “Here is someone who really knows what happened—Reinhold Messner.” And they both went to the stage, to Herrligkoffer’s mortification and the enthusiastic applause of his many enemies in the audience.
But when Messner and von Kienlin’s wife started their affair, in 1971, the baron felt understandably betrayed. He said nothing about the controversy for years, but in 2000 he agreed to help his comrades, he says, after being approached by Baur and Winkler. He prepared a statement and sent it to all the important newspapers and magazines in Germany, Austria, and South Tyrol, saying that Messner’s former comrades were breaking their silence about what had really happened: Messner left his brother on the summit or on the Merkl Gap, an icy notch above the Merkl Couloir, and had been planning the traverse all along. Messner’s reaction was, “All my former comrades wish me dead.”
“If I had planned to go down the Diamir Face,” Messner told me, ticking off the reasons for the umpteenth time, “I would have brought along my passport and some money and a map of the face. [A descent down the Diamir Face would eventually lead to Rawalpindi, the city they’d flown into.] And I wouldn’t have waited all morning on the Merkl Gap, shouting for the others to come up and help me get Günther down. That we didn’t go down right away is proof that we were still trying to get down the Rupal Face. What other choice did we have? It was impossible to go down the Rupal Face from where we were without a rope and help. We couldn’t go back up to the summit, because Günther wouldn’t have made it.” Günther had started hallucinating during the night, fighting with Messner for a nonexistent blanket as they huddled together on the Merkl Gap, and was barely able to walk.
“He had to get lower,” Messner went on. “We couldn’t continue along the southwest ridge either, because it is very long and up and down. And we couldn’t wait for the others to come, because they couldn’t have gotten to us until the following morning, and another day and night at that altitude would have been fatal for Günther. That left only the Diamir Face.” As Messner writes in The White Loneliness, his second book about Nanga Parbat, published in 2003, “We had a choice between waiting for death and going out to meet it.”
“The others”—the second summit team, who heard Messner shouting for help as they came up the Merkl Couloir—were Felix Kuen, an Austrian soldier, and climber Peter Scholz. Reaching the top of the Merkl Couloir, Kuen and Scholz saw Messner shouting and waving from the overhanging cornice of the Merkl Gap, 300 feet above them. But there was a sheer cliff between them, making it impossible to reach the Messners.
Realizing this, and accepting that he and his brother were on their own, Messner shouted—this is all that Kuen could make out in the whipping wind—”Alles in Ordnung” (“Everything is O.K.”). So Kuen and Scholz continued to the summit, reaching it at four p.m. Kuen later wrote that the brothers, with their “little prank” of going down the Diamir side, had “alienated themselves from our company” and “perplexed the leadership.”
It is undisputed that Herrligkoffer had given the order to pull up Base Camp and head home without the Messners on the assumption that no one in their condition, without oxygen, food, or a sleeping tent, could possibly get down the Diamir Face alive. (Messner himself has put the odds of his making it at 1 in 2,000.) When the returning expedition met Messner by accident five days later, “they were all of course happy to find me still alive,” he told me, “but Kuen was happy and he was also unhappy. Because the hero of the Rupal Face was not him, but me.” In 1974, Kuen committed suicide, for reasons not related to Nanga Parbat. Scholz fell to his death on Mont Blanc a year after the expedition.
The books by von Kienlin and Saler came out a few months after they made their public statement, in 2003. Von Kienlin argued that Messner had been shouting down not to Kuen and Scholz but to Günther, who was somewhere below him on the Rupal Face. This fit in with his theory that the brothers had separated the night before—with Günther heading back down the Rupal Face and Messner proceeding to the Merkl Gap en route to the Diamir Face.
The Alpine Museum, in Munich, hosted a big party for both von Kienlin’s and Saler’s books. There were many who wanted to see Messner fall, and the moment seemed to have arrived. The bad boy was going to be punished for breaking the rules and being a bad comrade. This had been his real transgression, I was starting to think.
In December 2003, Messner took me to his stunningly sited castle, in Juval, South Tyrol, on a knoll guarding the head of the Schnalstal Valley, which was one of the main routes north through this part of the Alps for a bunch of armies, from Charlemagne’s to Napoleon’s. Built from the fifth century through the Renaissance, it was the original seat of the Herzogs, or dukes, of Tyrol, and was in ruins when Messner bought it for $30,000 in 1983; it is now fully restored and worth millions.
Up the Schnalstal Valley is the Similaun Glacier, where the 5,300-year-old Iceman was found in 1991. Messner has a yak farm near the glacier that is now the site of an “ice museum,” where people can experience the world of glaciers. It is part of his ambitious project to create five mountain museums in South Tyrol, four of which are now open. “After the museum, there will be a new challenge,” he assured me. He was already planning a 1,000-mile trek across a desert whose name he wouldn’t tell me. (It turned out to be the Gobi.) Deserts are his new arena of adventure, since he has climbed practically everything.
He took me to Villnöss, the valley in the nearby Dolomites where he grew up. His father’s people have lived in Villnöss for generations, and half the people in the valley are called Messner. “I climbed every [mountain] wall in Villnöss by the most difficult route by the time I was 18,” he told me. The tiara of spires at the head of the valley was breathtaking and intimidating.
His father had climbed many of the walls in the valley in the 30s with his schoolmates, but when he came back from the war his partners were all dead or gone. He became the local schoolteacher and married an intelligent, kindhearted local woman named Maria. They had eight sons and a daughter: Helmut, Reinhold, Erich, Günther, Waltraud, Siegfried, Hubert, Hansjörg, and Werner.
“My father lost the ground under his feet with the war,” Messner told me, “and he was very insecure. Inside he had tremendous anger, but he couldn’t express it, so he took it out on us.” Once, Reinhold found Günther cowering in the dog kennel, unable to get up because he had been whipped so badly. “Günther was more submissive than I was, so he got beaten more,” Messner continued. “I stood up to my father, and after I was 10 he never touched me.”
The mountains became the brothers’ secret kingdom, their escape from their brutal father and the stifling provinciality of the South Tyroleans, their way of transcending “the confines of the valley and our home, into which the lottery of birth had thrown us,” as Messner writes in The Naked Mountain.
It was his father who pushed Reinhold to get Günther invited on the Nanga Parbat expedition. “Help him so that he can also have this chance,” Joseph Messner urged. Coming home without Günther was the most difficult moment in Reinhold’s life. “Where is Günther?” his father asked. For a long time he would not talk to his son. “But my father would have said the same thing to Günther if he had come home without me, and gradually he accepted what had happened.” As Reinhold’s fame grew, Messner père basked in the reflected glory. “Reinhold thinks he can get up Everest without oxygen? He’s crazy,” a local barfly would say, and Joseph would tell him, “You wait and see.” He died in 1985, the same year his son Siegfried was killed by lightning on a climb in the Dolomites.
We stopped to pick up Uschi Demeter, who was living in a farmhouse she and Messner had purchased for a song and fixed up in 1971, after she left von Kienlin. She and Messner married in 1972, and she got the house when they divorced, five years later. Demeter went on to marry a textile designer named Peter Seipelt, and they were helping Reinhold put together his mountain museum. “Reinhold and I have a strong friendship that survived divorce,” she explained. “We are an invincible team—an ideal combination for projects.” Demeter is four years older than Messner—a classy, highly educated, very emotional and attractive woman. It is not hard to understand why Messner fell for her, and she for him. They are both free spirits.
Messner rejects the idea that his affair with Demeter broke up a blissful union. “No one leaves a man unless there is a problem,” he told me. “Surely Uschi did not leave her family, the castle, and a wealthy German nobleman to live with a poor South Tyrolean climbing freak unless she was very unhappy.”
When von Kienlin and Demeter divorced, von Kienlin obtained custody of their three children, and from 1971 until a few years ago, Demeter had little contact with them. By the time they reconnected, all three children were in their 30s. After Demeter and Messner got married, she suffered terribly from being separated from her kids, and Messner was gone a lot of the time, climbing in New Guinea, guiding some rich Italians up a 24,000-foot peak in Nepal. (“I started the whole Into Thin Air thing—nothing I’m proud of,” he told me, referring to Jon Krakauer’s best-seller about a disastrous guided climb of Everest.) Demeter went on several of Messner’s expeditions, but it was boring for her sitting at Base Camp and watching 30 men climbing up and down. In 1977 she left Messner and went to Munich. “I left him because he was a man-eater,” Demeter explained. “He eats you up. Reinhold loved me very much, but he absorbed me completely, and there was just no more space for my own creativity.” Werner Herzog, another German obsessive, made a stark film called Scream of Stone, about a fictional triangle based on Demeter and two climbers, one or both of whom could be Messner.
In 1980, Messner and Demeter got back together, but it didn’t work. “As Sartre says, if you get the chance for a new beginning, you commit the same things and there is never an escape,” Demeter told me. They stayed together until 1984. That year, in a mountain hut, Messner met a pixie-like Austrian woman 18 years his junior named Sabine Stehle, and they have been together ever since. “Sabine has been the most important woman in my life,” he told me. I met her and their three children in their enormous duplex apartment in one of the grand old resort hotels in Merano, a 19th-century spa town once popular with the Hapsburgs and other European royals. Stehle struck me as a prim, immaculately coiffed, perfectly mannered mother and homemaker. A friend told me that Stehle is “willing to be content with the little of Reinhold that she can have.”
Max von Kienlin lives on Kaulbachstrasse, in a nice but not fancy part of Munich. When I visited, his flat was cozily cluttered with antiques and old paintings, including a few minor Old Masters; most of them were from the Schloss. It was like a Merchant Ivory set, and Max himself was not of this century. At 69, he was flamboyantly clad in tweed and felt, like a central-casting baron.
He met his wife, Annemarie, in a café in Baden-Baden; she had waited on him then and had since taken to the role of the modest, adoring wife of a nobleman. Now a radiant blonde in her 40s, Annemarie brought us some tea and crumpets, and we got down to business.
I had brought my copy of his book, and he explained that the “Traverse” of the title had a second, moral implication: the “transgression,” like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and setting off the bloody civil war that established the Roman Empire. “Reinhold is ambitious, like Caesar,” the baron said. “But this is not a world-political question. It is about the death of a young man, friend, and comrade.” He got up and started pacing and declaiming and expostulating, and kept it up for eight hours without a break. The next day, he continued the same way for another six hours. It was a commanding performance.
He gave me the latest edition of his book, from which contested passages had been removed by court order. Among the excised material was the “special page,” as Messner called it, an addition to von Kienlin’s diary detailing Messner’s supposed confession that he left his brother on the summit. The special page had been reproduced on the back endpapers of the first edition of the book but was gone from the second. Von Kienlin had refused to submit to the court the original document, which he said he’d written in pencil on Pakistan Airlines stationery in Rawalpindi a few days after Messner’s surprise reappearance.
Iasked to see his original diary. Von Kienlin’s book includes 80 pages of his diary entries. Herrligkoffer had given each of his climbers an orange hardbound journal to write in, but von Kienlin claimed that he had stopped writing in his early on in the expedition because Messner told him that he would eventually have to turn it over to the Field Marshal. After that, von Kienlin said, “I wrote on loose sheets, even napkins.” Yet he could produce neither the hardbound diary nor the loose sheets for me to look at. How, I asked, had he reconstructed the polished, lengthy diary included in the book from notes on scraps of paper?
“I never said it was a perfect diary,” he told me. “It is just a conglomeration of loose notes.? They are like a puzzle, just little notes to jog my memory. One will only say, for instance, ‘Got to Camp Three on June 17.’ And I had to reconstruct what happened from that. It took time and concentration and a good memory to put the puzzle together.”
“But these direct quotes of Reinhold—how could you remember exactly what he said more than 30 years later?,” I asked.
“Everything he said is burned in my mind. How could I forget?” von Kienlin answered.
I asked if I could see some of these loose sheets and he said, “I won’t show anything—first, because many of them are private thoughts about my problems with Uschi; second, because they are only of help to me; and third, because my hypothesis is not from the diary. It is the logical consequence if someone thinks.”
“Where are these loose sheets?,” I pressed, and von Kienlin said, “They aren’t here. They are in my daughter’s Keller, 50 kilometers from here. No, 46 kilometers. My own Keller is too stuffed with carpets and paintings. There is no room for them.”
In conformity with the German stereotype, von Kienlin was meticulously organized. He had all the documents from the lawsuit, for instance, chronologically filed in a thick binder. So I found it surprising that the diary pages wouldn’t be close at hand, especially when they were the only substantiation for his claims about what he had been told by Messner. I also wondered whether he would have absentmindedly stuck something as crucial as the special page in a scrapbook of press stories about the expedition (which he showed me) and forgotten about it until 2002, when he started writing the book and “accidentally discovered it.” I wanted to see something in his handwriting from 1970, so I could compare it with the handwriting of the facsimile of the special page in the first edition’s endpapers. But von Kienlin didn’t want me to see the loose sheets.
He realized that he had to show me something or he would lose credibility, though, so he decided to show me the special page, which was in his study. “No one has seen this, not even the judge,” he told me. We spent three hours going over every word and discussing each point.
It had entries for three separate days, but it appeared to have been written in a single shot, with a neatness and a uniformity suggesting that it was not the first draft. It seemed odd that right after the really explosive parts—Messner’s incriminating remarks about planning the traverse and his “Where’s Günther?” outburst—von Kienlin writes that he plans to go to the market the following day and buy some hats for his children.
Von Kienlin’s book takes its life from this diary, and especially from the special page, which he would be forced to submit to the court in 2005, as part of an appeal. “I wrote the book for the sake of my living comrades and the children and grandchildren of my dead comrades,” von Kienlin told me. “Reinhold said many times it is O.K. to leave others if it is a question of your own survival. But this is absolutely ugly and not a good example for young people. The true human being is not this raptor mentality, eat or be eaten.” (Messner denies this charge, saying, “Nobody would leave his brother or anybody dying, but in the case of no possibility, you are not going to sit beside a dead man and die yourself. You go down. Instinct forces you down.”)
One entry in the diary shows a different side of von Kienlin from the endearing ham that I was seeing, one that was capable of self-righteous maleficence. He sees a porter eating snow and writes: “This is very dangerous, as dangerous as it is to drink rain water without minerals, because when you sweat, you lose the rest of the minerals in your body. I criticize the porter, and he stops. But shortly afterward, he starts again, so I beat him with a ski pole. All eight porters are speechless and look at me. But in their looks I don’t see criticism but appreciation. When we reach the foot of the mountain, the punished porter comes close to me and thanks me with folded hands and remains by my side and does not leave me any more. In the afternoon comes the sirdar, the head of the porters, and thanks me again. For Western Europeans this may be difficult to understand, because today we see in such a deed humiliation and a dishonoring of the person. Not so there. The porters saw in what I did a necessary engagement and an element of caring.”
As someone who has encountered sudden trouble during a climb, I found logical problems with von Kienlin’s theories about what happened on Nanga Parbat. Take his explanation for why Kuen and Scholz heard Messner shouting above them from the Merkl Gap as they were making their way up the Merkl Couloir. Von Kienlin claimed that Günther had gone down the Rupal Face alone the afternoon before, and that Messner was shouting down to him. But if this had been so, wouldn’t Kuen and Scholz have found Günther farther up the Rupal Face, after Messner waved them on? Except that Messner probably wouldn’t have waved them on and shouted, “Alles in Ordnung,” if Günther had been on the Rupal Face; he would have made sure Kuen and Scholz knew that his brother was above them. Not only that, but Messner wouldn’t even have been on the Merkl Gap if he’d been descending alone; he would have bivouacked farther down the Diamir Face.
And yet, despite my misgivings, I liked von Kienlin—as indeed I liked Messner and Demeter. Perhaps their disagreement was not so surprising: we are all the heroes of our own novels, after all.
The only character in this story who never had a chance to tell it his way was Günther. According to von Kienlin and other expedition members, Günther always carried a heavier load than Reinhold and set up their tent and cooked for him. He was his factotum, his grunt, and he already owed Reinhold for even being on the expedition. But Messner disagrees: “Günther and I always shared the work. Each of us carried his own sleeping bag and tent, and porters carried the rest, until the highest camp, when we were on our own. Nobody helped us up there.”
“Günther is often portrayed as the smaller brother who was misused by Reinhold like a marionette,” Demeter told me. “But he was a strong, gifted sportsman, and he wanted to get to the top as much as Reinhold did. It is wrong to repeat this victim kitsch.” When Günther threw down the hopelessly tangled rope that he was supposed to be fixing the Merkl Couloir with and said to Gerhard Baur, “The hell with this. I’m not going to let my brother take all the glory this time,” says Demeter, “it was a spontaneous reaction but a beautiful one. He paid for it with his life, but it was a triumph. It was the first time he wasn’t obedient. Nobody talks about this because it is so practical to have Günther as the victim. But he must have been a lovely man and merits a better reputation.”
In the fall of 1971, Messner took Demeter to Nanga Parbat, and they went to the Diamir side to see if they could find any trace of Günther. “Reinhold went up on the glaciers, and he did not come back and he did not come back and there were avalanches coming all day long,” Demeter told me. “Finally, very late at night, he fell into our tent and he couldn’t eat and he just cried and cried for hours, and that’s the reason why I do know he’s not a liar. It was so terrible.” And she started to cry herself, just thinking about it.
Messner showed me pictures of the Günther Messner Mountain School he had built in the village of Ser, which sits at 10,000 feet, at the foot of the Diamir Face. “I built it between 2000 and 2003, and for five years I have been paying the teacher. I have told the people of Ser where to look in the summer, when the snow is gone, and have offered a reward for whoever finds anything,” he told me.
In 2000, Messner took his brother Hubert, a doctor, to Nanga with an alpine guide named Hanspeter Eisendle and two other climbers. The two brothers had crossed Greenland together the long way, from north to south, and now the five of them were trying a new line up the Diamir Face, but they bailed out high up on it because of the avalanche danger and spent several days looking for traces of Günther further down. Eisendle found a human femur a kilometer and a half below where Messner had last seen him, but it was very long—longer than Reinhold’s femur, and Günther was several inches shorter than his brother—so Hubert said it couldn’t be Günther’s.
Maybe it was Mummery’s. Mummery had been missing for more than a hundred years. Or maybe it was that of a Pakistani climber who was lost at the bottom of the Diamir Face in the 80s. Messner took the bone home and kept it in his castle and didn’t think much about it until the fall of 2003, when he went back to Ser, and the villagers showed him photographs of the Pakistani climber’s body, which they had since found there with both femurs intact. Messner remembered the bone. “I gave it to the scientists in Innsbruck who are studying the Iceman,” he told me in January 2004, “and they sent it to a laboratory in the United States along with DNA samples from Hubert and me. I’ve just heard that the bone is Günther’s, with a margin of error of 1 in 575,000.” Agatha Christie couldn’t have come up with a better ending.
“In 2002 and ’03, Max and I had an exchange in the papers,” Messner told me. “I said, ‘Someday, maybe not in my lifetime, my brother will be found on the Diamir Face.’ And Max said, ‘If Günther is found on the Diamir Face, we are sheepsheads and liars.’ And that’s exactly what they are.”
But if Messner hoped that the discovery would rid him of von Kienlin, he was mistaken. “I did not say ‘if Günther’s body is found on the Diamir side’ but ‘where Reinhold said it was,'” he told me, adding that he is about to come out with another book, advancing his new theory—that Günther had been abandoned at the top of the Diamir Face. “Reinhold is a very talented climber, and his problem was not on the mountain but on the flat land,” von Kienlin went on. “He talks too much. In the end we may all be sheepsheads, but no one so much as Reinhold.”
So von Kienlin will keep up his attack. Whether anyone will notice remains to be seen.
In August 2005, Messner returned to the Diamir Face after climbers found the rest of his brother’s body, minus the femur and the head, which he told me in December 2005 “probably washed away in the water. The body was 100 meters lower in elevation than the bone and more than three kilometers from where my brother was lost. So in 35 years it had traveled more than three kilometers inside the glacier, which is in complete agreement with a study of the glacier—that it is moving more than 100 meters a year [partly owing to global warming]. The scientists in Innsbruck have determined that the body is Günther’s within a probability of 17.8 million to one. We also found one of his boots. I have a relic of Günther in my museum. Just the boot and a sentence by Ernst Jünger: ‘In history the truth always wins.'”
This August, I spoke to Messner again and asked him about the status of his lawsuit. “There is still no final answer from the court in Hamburg,” he told me, referring to von Kienlin’s appeal of the 2003 ruling which required him to delete the special page and other contested passages from his book. The court’s handwriting analyst recently determined that she cannot accurately gauge when the special page was written, except to say that it was most likely sometime before 2002.
When we spoke, Messner was at his Schloss. Later that month, he said, he and 24 members of his family, including his five surviving brothers, his sister, and some of their spouses and children, would make a pilgrimage to Nanga Parbat in memory of Günther. Messner planned to take them to the Rupal Face and then to the Diamir Face, where he would show them where Günther died and where his body was found. Then they would pay their respects at the Chörten, a pyramidal Tibetan shrine where Reinhold placed his brother’s ashes. “I built the Chörten for Günther,” Messner told me, with a surge of emotion that was palpable even over the crackling transatlantic connection.