x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Death and rivalry on killer mountain

Reinhold Messner hopes that a new film will show the world what really happened on Pakistan's treacherous Nanga Parbat in 1970.

The mountaineer Reinhold Messner hopes a new film will set the record straight about his brother's death on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat in 1970.
The mountaineer Reinhold Messner hopes a new film will set the record straight about his brother's death on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat in 1970.

BERLIN // Reinhold Messner, one of the most successful mountaineers of all time, has been dogged throughout his career by allegations that he left his brother, Günther, to die during a Himalayan expedition in 1970. Now he wants to set the record straight. The first man to climb Mount Everest without using bottled oxygen and the first to conquer all 14 mountains above 8,000 metres is collaborating on a feature film about the sibling's fateful ascent of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan in the western Himalayas, the world's ninth-highest mountain at 8,125m. Nanga Parbat, by German director Joseph Vilsmaier, is scheduled to debut in January. It recounts Mr Reinhold's version of how the two brothers from South Tyrol in northern Italy became the first to reach the peak via the most dangerous route - the 4,600m Rupal Face, the world's tallest mountain face - and how Günther vanished during the descent. Nanga Parbat, first conquered in 1953 by Hermann Buhl of Austria, is known as "Killer Mountain" because dozens of mountaineers have died trying to climb it since the 1930s. By the time the Messner brothers had battled their way up the ice-covered Rupal Face to reach the summit, on June 27 1970, Günther, 23, had developed severe altitude sickness and said he was too weak to take the same route back down. Reinhold, 26 at the time, said they both decided to traverse the mountain and descend by the less challenging Diamir Face on the other side. He said he went ahead and that Günther was almost certainly swept away by an avalanche. After failing to find his brother, Reinhold made the arduous descent on his own through ice and snow, reappearing at the bottom six days later with frostbite so severe that six of his toes had to be amputated. Two other climbers on the team who did not reach the summit, Max von Kienlin and Hans Saler, later claimed that Mr Messner had abandoned his brother and sent him back down the Rupal Face so that he could take the Diamir route down and gain added fame by becoming the first climber to traverse Nanga Parbat. It was a charge Mr Messner, now 64, has always denied in what German media have described as the ugliest row in the history of mountaineering. He took legal action prohibiting the climbers from publishing their unproven claims, and he said he was vindicated by the discovery in 2005 of his brother's remains at a height of 4,300m on the Diamir side of the mountain. "The discovery of the body was deliverance for me, salvation," Mr Messner said. He said he and Günther had no choice but to try the alternative route of descent. "It was impossible, it was so wild, so steep, so difficult; the mountain was the director, the mountain dictated what we had to do and we only followed our survival instincts." Mr Messner returned to Nanga Parbat several times to search for Günther's remains. "We all, and my experience on this comes from Nanga Parbat, have the desire to be with the dead, the dying. I didn't have this possibility; the whole family didn't have this possibility." He insists that the feature film is not an attempt to vindicate himself, because he has already been proven right. "It's about two brothers. About rivalry. About mutual responsibility," Mr Messner said, adding that he was most interested in "the psychology between the big and the little brother". However, the mountaineer and explorer, who has been adept at self-promotion throughout his record-breaking career, must be hoping that the movie will help restore his image. He said he was acting as "adviser and controller" on the movie in which he and his brother are being played by two little-known actors, Florian Stetter and Volker Bruch. "He has won global fame, but the final rehabilitation, the cleansing in front of a major audience, has been denied him so far. The film must bring closure for Reinhold Messner. It must bring back the credibility he has lost," Renate Meinhof, a journalist and author, wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Filming started last year when the crew hired a helicopter to shoot footage of Nanga Parbat at almost 7,000m. "I told him you must be crazy to have climbed it," Vilsmaier, the director, said. "Just the sight of it scares you." The climbing scenes will be shot in a less challenging environment in the South Tyrolean and Austrian Alps. dcrossland@thenational.ae