Hermann Buhl remains one of the most iconic of European mountaineers. He made significant climbs in a highly fluid style before he died at the height of his powers. Among mountaineers the Austrian’s legacy lies in his influence in bringing alpine-style dash and Ã©lan to climbing the big mountains of the Greater Ranges.
His solo ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953 in particular was a tour de force. Buhl was so far ahead of the rest of the German-Austrian team in terms of speed and ability that on the summit bid day he simply left his partner behind and made for the top despite technically difficult ground and the knowledge that this dangerous mountain had already claimed 31 lives, including a significant proportion of the inter-war German climbing elite. Buhl spent a night at over 8,000m with no shelter before returning after 41 hours alone, hallucinating with frostbitten toes. This famous portrait, arguably one of the most iconic in mountaineering history, was taken as Buhl made his descent. Buhl’s book about his adventure, Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage, became a classic of mountaineering literature that would inspire thousands of climbers.
Buhl was born in Innsbruck and began climbing as a teenager in the Austrian Alps, rapidly becoming an expert and joining a mountain rescue team. During the Second World War he served with the alpine troops, seeing action in Italy before being captured. Following the war he trained as a guide and was clearly technically ahead of most of his peers at this time. He made many spectacular climbs in the Alps, often solo, and was particularly skilful at negotiating loose rock.
One of his most severe tests of character came in 1951 during an ascent of the Eiger North Face. Buhl and Sepp Jochler became trapped by bad weather high on the notorious face. The rock soon became coated in verglas and the climb turned into a battle to survive. Three other parties with a total of seven climbers were also on the face, including the famous experts Gaston Rebuffat and Guido Magnone. Buhl took the lead and fought his way up the Exit Cracks despite near-impossible conditions. Rebuffat remembered, “On the fourth day Hermann gave his all for us on one rope length for four hours. And then at the top suddenly flipped over and was hanging head down. So naturally I went up to him and had to turn him right way up, and seeing he was no longer in a fit state to lead, I had no option but to take over. Buhl had not only achieved absolute mastery, he had climbed above all the others.”
The experience would serve him well on Nanga Parbat in 1953. “Mountaineering is a relentless pursuit,” he described in 1956. “One climbs further and further yet never reaches the destination. Perhaps that is what gives it its own particular charm. One is constantly searching for something never to be found.” The following year on Broad Peak he and his companions proved that, without any help from high altitude porters, a small team could climb an 8,000m mountain. But it was Buhl’s last summit. Some days later, attempting Chogolisa, he fell through a cornice to his death.
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, see http://www.polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on twitter check out @polarworld.
For more from our Historical Badass series, go here.