Thursday, 15 July 2010

Two Innsbrucker climbing books

I have just read two books about climbers from Innsbruck, the Austrian city in the heart of the mountains.

Hermann Buhl's Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage (German title Achttausender Drüber und Drunter) does not need much introduction. I knew in advance that it describes his climbs in Austria, followed by the expedition in 1954 on which he made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat.

For anyone familiar with climbing in northern and southern Tirol it is very entertaining to be taken on a tour of known routes sixty years in the past. Buhl climbs on the Schüsselkarspitze in the Wetterstein, on the Fleischbank, the Predigstuhl and the Maukspitze amongst numerous others in the Wilder Kaiser, various better forgotten horror routes in the Karwendel and Stubai Alps, the Solda on the Marmolada and the Eisenstecken on the Rotwand. Taken individually these accounts are all very readable, compared to, say, the awkward prose of Joe Brown in The Hard Years. Read together, however, a pattern seems to emerge: Buhl succeeds in roping in another unsuspecting innocent for a madcap mission (Rainer/Aschenbrenner on the Schüsselkarspitze in January, Solda on the Marmolada in winter, etc.), they climb some overhangs, the weather turns bad, death seems almost certain, and against all odds they survive to climb another day.

It is a while since I read many climbing books from this era, so I am comparing from memory. However, while Lionel Terray doesn't set out to entertain the readers of Conquistadors of the Useless (French title Conquerants de l'Inutile) with a laugh a minute, and while he too survives some epic brushes with an untimely end (e.g. on the second ascent of the Eiger North Face), I didn't end up with quite the same impression of a never-ending cycle of staring death in the face, surviving by the skin of one's teeth, and then going and doing it again. Friendship too plays an important role in Terray's book, particularly his friendship with Louis Lachenal. While I don't know what role Buhl's climbing friends played in his life, I certainly didn't get to find out through reading his book.

The great French mountaineers of this epoque are mentioned twice. Buhl and his partner find themselves climbing the Eiger North Face at the same times as Gaston Rebuffat and Guido Magnone, and indeed join forces with them at the White Spider and in the exit cracks as the weather turns and the climb becomes a battle for survival. On the march out from Nanga Parbat Buhl then reflects bitterly on the acrimony within the expedition, comparing it unfavourably but almost certainly naively with the French Annapurna expedition, an "expedition of friends" as he puts it, showing that he was unaware of the bitter controversy surrounding Maurice Herzog's death-or-glory push for the summit which was to cost Louis Lachenal his fingers and toes. (This was probably generally not known outside the inner circles of French mountaineering at that time.)

Tom Patey, meanwhile, was also a contemporary of Buhl's, but in One Man's Mountains manages to make the most hair-raising of escapades seem like a bundle of laughs. Patey was, however, writing for fellow mountaineers who understood what really lay behind his understatement or lighthearted trivialisation, whereas Buhl was writing for the wider public.

This edition has been abridged in order to make room for a chapter by Kurt Diemberger about the Broad Peak expedition and the transcription of Buhl's diaries from the Nanga Parbat expedition. I don't know whether these have been translated into English, and while I didn't mind having these additions, I would have preferred more Tirolean adventures to the details of Buhl's thoughts on Nanga Parbat.

A totally different kettle of fish is the recently published Wo die Wilden Hunde Wohnen. (The title is a pun on the German title of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are.) 10 Tiroler climbers from the 70s and 80s, most from the area around Innsbruck, write about their local climbing scene from these years. Some of them, such as Heinz Mariacher or Heinz Zak, are well known to English-speaking climbers, while others, such as Otti Wiedmann or Luggi "Darshano" Rieser are not, despite their considerable influence on their own climbing scene. The period is that at the start of the free climbing revolution (until the early 1970s the usual climbing style in the eastern Alps was V+/A0) and before the bolt revolution, while the tone is rebellious and iconoclastic. Route names become references to literature or mock previous routes - following Heinz Zak's ascent of Schwarzer Spaziergang (Black Stroll) comes a whole series of Spaziergang routes, including a vegetated Grüner Spaziergang and ending with a Graugrüner Spaziergang durch die Rosa-rote Brille (Grey-green stroll through rose-tinted spectacles). When Heinz Mariacher comes close to an untimely demise while soloing in the Rofan mountains at the age of nineteen, he reflects that the bad piton which had nevertheless held his fall is not now likely to fail as he hangs some meters from the rock face and many more meters from the ground, so at first he rolls himself a cigarette and relaxes smoking that before prussiking his way back to solid rock. Possibly not entirely coincidentally a winter ascent of the Solda on the Marmolada is also included. Here, however, Mariacher and Rieser oversleep and only start climbing at midday, but manage to reach the top in three hours and are "down in time for tea".

The action is concentrated in the Karwendel, particularly around the Lalidererwand, and in a number of other areas such as the Kalkkögel in the Stubaier Alps which, to judge from the descriptions here, are not in danger of being overrun and which appear to rival the shale cliffs of north Devon in their lack of solidity. (The Schüsselkarspitze receives surprisingly little attention, despite being just up the hill from Innsbruck and across the road from the Karwendel.) If bolts are mentioned at all, then it is only to reject them, while long run-outs above pegs which scarcely support their own weight are more the order of the day.

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