Over the last six months I have been devouring books about mountain climbing. Some of the titles I have read include: Stone Palaces by Geoffrey Childs, Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonington, Beyond the Mountain by Steve House, The Ascent: A Novel by Jeff Long, and The StoneMasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies by John Long & Dean Fidelman. While I thoroughly enjoyed all of these books, when I read The Naked Mountain by Reinhold Messner I was enthralled from beginning to end. For me, this was not just your typical mountaineering book – it was special, so I attempted to articulate why in the review. Even though I had won the book in a Twitter contest (and I never win anything!) I immediately knew I should share it with the readers of Seattle Backpackers Magazine since it affected me so much.

Nanga Parbat, which means “Naked Mountain,” is the ninth highest mountain in the world. Clocking in at 26,660 ft, it is located in the northern area of Pakistan close to the border of Afghanistan, China, and the disputed border of India. From the first ascent by AF Mummery in 1895, Nanga Parbat has seen numerous attempts, failures, and deaths on all of its faces. Fritz Bechtold, an expedition member within the author’s party, had this to say about the mountain:

The mighty South Face of Nanga Parbat is the highest mountain face on the Earth. Small wonder that the Hindu farmer, looking up from his hard work in the fields at that fearsome wall of ice, believes that the summit above the clouds is the place where all the evil gods gather to send down sickness upon his family, pestilence upon his herds and bad weather upon his harvest.

The mountain is indeed enormous and photos of it hardly seem real. It is surrounded by green meadows and forests, and as the mountain rises from the serenity of the valley and deserts its face is covered in gravity-defying seracs and cornices, huge cliffs tumbling for thousands of feet, and avalanches constantly scouring its many faces.

The Naked Mountain pulls the reader into a world of bitter cold, avalanches, stunning scenery, and agonizing retreats as the author attempts to be the first person to climb this mountain via the tallest face in the world: the Rupal Face. The author, Reinhold Messner, and his climbing partner, Gunther (who is also his brother), not only fight the elements but a puzzling multifaceted clash of will between the expedition leader, Herrligkoffer, and their desire to be the first to successfully ascend the south face of Nanga Parbat. Reinhold’s prose is truly captivating and I often felt like I was there witnessing the events first hand. My palms were sweating as I read about the ascent of Merkl Couloir and the consequent hair-raising descent of the Diamir face where tragedy strikes.

The book is rich with history, first hand accounts, portions of journals, old photographs, sketches, and maps. It contained three main elements; the harrowing account of the various ascents of the mountain (including the first ascent of the Rupal Face by the Messner brothers), the relationship between Reinhold and his brother, and the mystery that still shrouds the tragedy that befell their expedition. This is further clouded by the idiosyncratic characters of the various expedition members, especially Herrligkoffer, who had a bone to pick with the mountain since it claimed his half brother’s life during an expedition many decades before.

Without giving away too much, Reinhold wrote The Naked Mountain in 2002 to share how the ill-fated 1970 expedition unfolded from his perspective and to defend himself from the diatribe of criticisms that ensued following the events surrounding the final descent of Nanga Parbat. The first three-quarters of the book lay the scene for the events, which to this day are still shrouded in uncertainty and differing accounts. The account that the expedition leader Herrligkoffer gave is wildly different than Messner’s recently delivered (at least in the form of a book) account. After reading The Naked Mountain I wanted to believe Reinhold’s account of how the expedition unfolded, from even before it began until the very bitter end. His writing style is mesmerizing and the way he articulates himself lent him the air of a competent, wise, well-versed mountaineer: the very opposite of how he has been portrayed by the rest of the climbing party, who were not even there when the expedition began to unravel.

One thing that comes to the forefront of the book is how close the brothers were – they were the perfect climbing partners and Reinhold illustrated this with the utmost care throughout the book.

As brothers we were more, far more than just a climbing partnership. We had our own lifestyle, our own secrets: routes that we planned to climb, dreams that we shared, and a mutual zest for life.

They were the perfect duo and partnership to attempt the first ascent of the Rupal Face. You will have to read the book (and don’t cheat by Googling it, either) to find out what happens. On that note, neither do I possess the skill, gift, or fortitude (although I would love to try some day) to ascend Nanga Parbat by even the easiest route, so my opinions are of the humblest variety. As a budding mountaineer and brother, I know where I stand in this engaging, non-fiction mountaineering mystery/thriller. No matter what side you take after reading The Naked Mountain I am sure you will agree that it is a great read and quite the page turner.

 

Editorial on the Photos in this article:

While the photos (see below) do not appear in the book by Messner, in compiling the information needed for this review, Isaac was compelled to track down these special images. Isaac relayed this to us during the final stages of writing this review. Please take a moment to gaze upon these photos in combination with the book review of The Naked Mountain. Seattle Backpackers Magazine is excited to have permission to publish these photos and hope that you will enjoy them as much as he enjoyed tracking them down.

Isaac writes:

I did not want to settle for just a photo of the cover, but didn’t seem to be able to find any others from the book online. So I contacted Reinhold himself through Facebook. However, he is a busy man and when I did not hear anything back I contacted the publisher, but they did not have rights to the photos within the book. It was then that I decided to contact the American Alpine Club’s Henry S. Hall Jr. Library to see if they could help me (one of the perks since I am a member). On a slow day at work I called the AAC Library and spoke to Alex Depta, who was more than happy to help me find some photos of Nanga Parbat that I could use for The Naked Mountain book review. He emailed me several spectacular photos of Nanga Parbat taken during the 1969 and 1971 Czechoslovak expeditions organized by the Slovaks from the High Tatras. Messner’s account of Nanga Parbat was for the 1970 climbing season – that same time frame as the photos I had acquired! Alex had scanned the backs of the photos too because there was a stamp that presumably indicated the rights holder of the photos. Unfortunately, he did not have the contact information for the rights holder, so all I had was a name.

Now I was on a mission. I needed to connect the dots after coming this far. After an extensive internet search, I discovered a Polish alpinism forum that mentioned the photographer and that he had worked or was working for a guide company in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. I contacted that guide company called Spolok horských vodcov Vysoké Tatry and that same day they replied to my inquiry with an email address to Ivan Urbanovič Jr., son of the photographer, Ivan Urbanovič. I emailed Ivan Urbanovič Jr. and the following week I had permission to use the photos that you see below!

These photos do not appear in Messner’s book, but are from the same era as the story. Obtaining photos for this article was an amazing adventure and I would like to take the time to thank the individuals who helped with this effort.

Alex Depta who sifted through the archives at the Henry S. Hall, Jr. American Alpine Club Library and was able to locate several spectacular photos of Nanga Parbat taken during expeditions in 1969 and 1971. The photographer, Ivan Urbanovich –  and his son Ivan Jr., who generously gave me permission to use the photos for this article. The ’69 & ’71 expeditions were Czechoslovak expeditions organized by the Slovaks from the High Tatras. His images truly capture the awesomeness of this mountain. Last but not least I would like to thank Emily White with The Mountaineers Books for helping me with my many questions while I was in the process of writing the review.

 

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