Nanga Parbat

by Per Jerberyd © 1997

After 31 people’s death on Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, the summit was reached by a single man: Hermann Buhl. Here’s the incredible story of this almost super-human climb.

In 1953, Nanga Parbat, was again subject to the German’s interest. Earlier, 31 people had lost their lives on this mountain, including the inter-war years German Himalaya elite, and it was the sceneof some of the worst tragedies in alpine climbing’s history. Once it was thought that Nanga Parbat (“The naked mountain”) was the easiest 8,000 metre mountain to climb. That was a fatal mistake. As destiny would have it, even the world’s highest mountain would be ascended before this ice-covered and avalanche-dangerous colossus.

The initiator for the 1953 German – Austrian Himalaya expedition was Dr. Karl Herrligkoffer, stepbrother to the late (1934) Willy Merkl, and the whole operation was meant to be a “memorial” expedition for the last-mentioned. Herrligkoffer’s way of organisation and preparation didn’t win the trust of the big alpine organisations, and he had difficulties engaging famous climbers; Heckmair and Rebitsch said no. Eventually he found a couple of climbers with high altitude experience from the Himalayas: Aschenbrenner (a veteran from 1934) and Frauenberger. Last but not least he managed to engage the famous duo from the Alps: Hermann Buhl and Kuno Rainer. Herrligkoffer managed to arrange the expedition at the last minute and they were finally underway. Everything went smoothly and a base camp was established during the end of May. Camp I – IV were established and stores and equipment were transported upwards. Heavy snowfall and uncertain weather made all attacks towards the higher regions impossible. On June 30th, Herrligkoffer ordered everyone to Base Camp. At that time, they hadn’t gotten higher up than the 1932 expedition.

However, the weather suddenly changed on July 1. Buhl, Kampter, Frauenbergar and the camera man Ertl were still in the higher camps. They had refused the retreat-order and after discussing it via radio, they managed to get their will through. (There had been conflicts the entire time between Herrligkoffer and Aschenbrenner, who was supposed to lead the climb). On July 2, Buhl and Kempter established Camp V at the Col on the ridge up to the Silver Saddle at 6,900 meters. Ertl and Fruenberger returned to Camp IV. The weather conditions seemed to have stabilised. Buhls plan was, if possible, to reach the Silver Saddle at 7,450 meters and the big plateau above. From there he could either ascend the preliminary summit or the Northern Summit and the expedition’s honour would be saved. Buhl’s famous solo-climbs in the Alps had proven his daring and strength, and now he was ready to invest it all.

At 1.00 a.m. July 3, Buhl left Camp V heading upwards, Kempter had difficulties leaving his sleeping bag and followed one hour later. The snow conditions were good and the night was clear with the moon lighting up the mountain. At 5.00 a.m. the sun rose above the horizon and Buhl reached the Silver Saddle. The three km long plateau taxed Buhl’s strength. The heat was almost overwhelming and the air stood completely still. At the end of the plateau, Buhl had some tea and left his pack behind. Now he could move more easily. Now Kempter as well had reached the plateau but Buhl was moving too fast, and was way ahead. Kempter realised he would never catch up, and so he turned back and reached Camp V safely.

Buhl reached the Col below the summit (7.800 meters) at 2.00 p.m. Buhl had the technically most difficult section of the whole climb ahead of him and the last 300 meters didn’t look promising. After an inner struggle he decided to continue. He took a dose of Pertvin (a stimulant) and startedclimbing the rocks. His apprehensions came true; the climb was partlyvery difficult and took a long time. First at 6 p.m. Buhl reached the shoulder and one hour later he stood on the summit. It was dead calmand perfectly clear, the chapter Nanga Parbat was finished for the lonely man on the top.

Down below, Kempter had reported that Buhl continued alone toward the summit, and from each camp they looked up towards the Silver Saddle hoping to see Buhl on his way back in the evening. But nothing was to be seen, Frauenberger had returned to Camp V during the day and spent the night there together with Kempter. They could however not sleep, thinking about Buhl’s destiny.

While Buhl still was at the summit, the sun went down. He drank his last tea and planted his ice-axe with Pakistani and Tyroli flags attached to it and took a few pictures. Night was falling fast as he started to descend. Above 8,000 metres at a tiny ledge below the shoulder he was forced to emergency bivouac – without any sleeping bag or warm clothes, he had left his pack on the plateau! Standing on a piece of rock between 9.00 p.m and 4 a.m. Hermann Buhl spent the night up in Nanga Parbat’s “death-zone”. The wind was calm and the night clear, and in spite of his thin clothing Buhl’s body managed the cold, but he was loosing all the feeling in his feet. At dawn he continued the descent and going up from the Col was extremely strenuous. Buhl took a new dose of Pertvin, and eventually reached the plateau and found his pack. He was in no condition to eat or drink anything. Pursued by hallucinations he struggled on downwards across the plateau in the burning sun. His thirst became overwhelming, some more Pertvin mobilized his last resources of strength and at 5.30 p.m. Buhl reached the Silver Saddle.

While Kempter on July 4 descended to Camp IV, Ertl reaches Camp V and along with Frauenberger erected the memorial plaque over Willy Merkl at the place where 1938 year’s expedition had found him, all the timelooking up towards the Silver Saddle. They planned to continue the nextday to try to find out what had become of Buhl. Frauenberger returned to the plaque to attach it better when he suddenly saw a small dot onthe Silver Saddle that is moving downwards! Buhl! His happiness at being reunited with his friends is indescribable. The photo to the right was taken by Hans Ertl when he met a 10 years older looking Buhl upon his return to the high camp: “Forty-one hours separated my departurefrom the tent and my return to it. Hans Ertl met me and took a snapshot (right). I was so dehydrated that I could not utter a sound, but Hans didn’t mind. All he cared about was that I was back.”.

Buhl was very lucky on Nanga Parbat, escaping with just a few frostbitten toes. This story reflects Buhl’s style of climbing; totally focused and by taking enormous risks he often succeeded where others failed. If anyone at this time could manage such a climb and survive – it was Hermann Buhl.

Four years later on Broad Peak, Hemann Buhl and his companions proved that, without any help from high altitude porters, a small team could climb an 8,000 metre peak. But it was Buhl’s last summit. Some days later, attempting Chogolisa together with Kurt Diemberger, he fell through a cornice to his death.

“ahead of us gleamed a radiance, enfolding every wish life could conjure, enfolding life itself. Now was the moment of ineffable truth… this was utter fulfillment… There we stood, speechless, and shook hands in silence. We looked down at the snow underfoot, and to our amazement it seemed to be aglow. Then the light went out.”
– Kurt Diemberger (on the summit of Broad Peak with Hermann Buhl


  1. That attempt for the nanga purbet summit was a dare devil attempt. Nanga parbet in many ways is more complicated than Annapurna. He was lucky but not so on neighbouring chogolisa. Luck favours the brave but not always. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: