Nanga Parbat - Rakhiot Flank - East Ridge - 1953
Nanga Parbat was climbed for the first time in 1953, by Austrian mountaineer Hermann Buhl, climbing as part of a German expedition led by Karl Herrligkoffer
First ascent of Nanga Parbat ( 8126m )
Rakhiot Flank - East Ridge
3 July 1953
Climbed by Hermann Buhl
Other members of the expedition: Karl Herrligkoffer, Walter Frauenberger, Peter Aschenbrenner, Fritz Aumann, Albert Bitterling, Kuno Rainer, Otto Kempter, Hermann Kollensperger, Hans Ertl
Nanga Parbat was climbed for the first time in 1953, by a German expedition. The summit was reached by Austrian climber Hermann Buhl, climbing alone on the summit day. Supplementary oxygen was not used on the summit bid, and does not seem to have been used by the expedition except for medical purposes. Buhl took the drug Pervitin (methamphetamine) during his solo climb to the summit and back.
Nanga Parbat is situated in Pakistan at the western extremity of the Himalaya. It is the ninth highest mountain in the world and was the third of the world's 8000m peaks to be climbed, after Annapurna and Everest.
The expedition was led by Karl Herrligkoffer and was made up of a further nine climbers from Germany and Austria (including photographer and film-maker Hans Ertl, who was at that time based in Bolivia). The climbers were supported on the mountain by a team of Hunza porters. In addition, arrangements had been made for five Sherpas to join the expedition from India. However they were turned back at the India-Pakistan frontier in Kashmir. The resulting shortage of high-altitude porters, and the inexperience of the Hunza porters, led to serious difficulties in keeping the higher camps supplied as the expedition progressed.
The expedition approached the mountain from the north. This route had first been explored by a German expedition in 1932. It was generally thought to offer the only feasible line of ascent, despite some early exploration on the Diamir side (which has subsequently turned out to be more or less the normal route).
From a base camp at just under 4000m beside the Rakhiot Glacier, the route crossed the northeast flank of the mountain, beneath the avalanche-prone Rakhiot Wall, to gain the east ridge at feature called the Moor's Head. From here the way lay up the East Ridge, over the Silbersattel and the Silver Plateau to a 7850m fore-summit, and then across the Bazhin Gap to the the main summit of Nanga Parbat.
It is an extremely long and complex route, covering a distance of 18km with a height gain of 4625m.
The highest point previously reached on the mountain was a point just below the fore-summit., reached in 1934 by Peter Aschenbrenner and Erwin Schneider.
A storm then struck and the large group of climbers established at the top camp decided to retreat. Three German climbers and six Sherpas died during the descent. Aschenbrenner was one of the survivors. He became the climbing leader of the 1953 expedition.
One of those who died in 1934 was Willi Merkl, leader of the expedition and step-brother of Karl Herrligkoffer, who was 17 years old at the time. It was this that propelled Herrligkoffer - a doctor but not a climber - into initiating the 1953 expedition.
Poor weather and the limited availability of porters slowed the work of the 1953 expedition in establishing a chain of camps across the north-east face. On 10 June Buhl, Kollensperger and a group of porters established Camp 3 on the upper terrace of the Rakhiot Glacier, at around 6200m. This point marked the end of the expedition's long right to left movement across the northeast face of the mountain. From here, the route swings rightwards, crossing the face beneath Rakhiot peak to gain the east ridge of Nanga Parbat.
On 18 June Buhl, Frauenberger, Rainer and Kempter reached the site of Camp 4, at about 6200m beneath Rakhiot Peak. They dug out an ice cave for the camp and then returned to Camp III. Buhl and Kempter occupied the camp the following day. Beyond the camp, the route led across an ice wall that was close to the limit of difficulty that the inexperienced porters could be expected to tackle.
Buhl and Kempter crossed this section on 20 June, without porters, and fixed ropes across it. They reached the Moor's Head, on the east ridge of Nanga Parbat, and Buhl climbed a 20m rock needle - the Rakhiot Needle - near the top of Rakhiot Peak. That night they returned to Camp IV.
Poor weather and sickness amongst the porters, coupled with the difficulty of the icy Rakhiot Face, then blocked further progress. By the beginning of July, the expedition had still not established a camp on the east ridge - essential for a summit bid.
The monsoon seemed imminent, though its impact on Nanga Parbat is not as decisive as in the Nepal Himalaya and there have subsequently been successful ascents through July and August.
A further difficulty was that Peter Aschenbrenner, the climbing leader of the expedition, was due to return home - it was written into his contract that he should be allowed to do so at the beginning of July. The climbing leadership was handed over to Walter Frauenberger.
On 28 June Walter Frauenberger, Hermann Kollensperger, Hermann Buhl and Otto Kempter set off from Camp 4 towards the Moor's Head. According to Kollensperger's account, quoted in the official expedition report, the climbers delayed their departure in the hope that porters would arrive from below. None came, so they set off anyway at around noon, taking with them just enough equipment for Buhl and Kempter. A snow cave was to be created for them at the site of Camp 5, then Frauenberger and Kollensperger would descend, leaving Buhl and Kempter to make a summit bid. According to the account given in Buhl's autobiography, the team was carrying equipment only for him; he was to make a solo attempt on the summit.
The weather deteriorated as the foursome climbed, bringing mist and heavy snowfall. The accounts by Kollensperger and Buhl both agree that it was Kempter who eventually proposed that the attempt be abandoned, and that this was accepted by everyone, albeit only reluctantly by Buhl. It was dark when they regained Camp 4.
"It was not until we were inside our sleeping-bags and had had a good draught of Munich Lowenbrau that we began to feel more like ourselves again." - Hermann Kollensperger
The following day the poor weather persisted and the team descended to Camp 3, "probably for keeps" according to Buhl. Hans Ertl and four porters were already established there. Hermann Kollensperger, exhausted and suffering badly from toothache, descended to base camp.
30 June brought unexpected clear weather. Virtually everyone on the expedition - including Buhl - seems to have believed that the monsoon would at any moment close the mountain for the season. Only Hans Ertl appears to have had an inkling that the weather pattern was not that simple.
"None of us dreamed that this brilliantly beautiful weather was to last for a whole fortnight." - Karl Herrligfoffer.
From base camp, instructions were issued over the radio for the climbers at Camp 3 to descend. There had previously been concerns that the climbers high on the mountain were in need of a rest. It isn't clear from Herrligkoffer's expedition report whether this is what was intended, or whether the expedition was being abandoned. Buhl seems to have been in no doubt that the latter was the case.
The climbers at Camp 3, according to Buhl, made it clear to base camp that they intended to make an attempt on the summit with or without approval. But approval was, in the end, given, after a series of rather testy exchanges over the radio.
Walter Frauenberger dedicated himself to mentoring the porters in preparation for the crossing of the Rakhiot Face, which none of the porters had previously been prepared to tackle.
On 2 July Hans Ertl, Walter Frauenberger, Hermann Buhl, Otto Kempter and three porters - Ali Madad, Hadje Beg and Hidaya Khan - reached the east ridge near the Moor's Head. A fourth porter - Madi - was unable to make the ascent because no crampons large enough for his feet could be found. His load was carried instead by Frauenberger. Ertl, Frauenberger and the porters then descended to Camp 4. Kempter and Buhl stayed at the new Camp 5.
The problem confronting them was considerable. Their campsite was at about 6900m. The 1934 expedition had established a camp at about the same position. But then they had set up a further camp at 7480m on the Silver Plateau, much closer to the summit. This higher camp had been Aschenbrenner and Schneider's starting when they climbed almost to the fore-summit of Nanga Parbat.
Kempter and Buhl had 6 kilometres distance to cover to reach the summit. They had 1125m of vertical height to gain, with a total of perhaps 1225m height to climb, taking into account the descent into the Bazhin Gap and the subsequent re-ascent. Nothing like this amount of ground had ever been covered in a day before, at such altitude.
Hermann Buhl was apparently still relatively fresh. Otto Kempter was less fresh - he had climbed all the way from Camp 3, whereas the others had started from Camp 4.
Buhl woke at 2am on 3 July and began to prepare for the ascent. Kempter could not be roused from his sleeping bag. At around 2.30am Buhl set out for the summit, leaving Kempter (according to Buhl's account and the account given by Kempter in the expedition report) to catch him up later - a plausible plan, since Buhl had to break the trail.
According to a short note published in the American Alpine Journal in 1954, Otto Kempter said of these events simply that Buhl gave him the slip ("Buhl ist mir einfach davongelaufen"). Kempter's account for the expedition reports contains nothing along those lines.
Dawn broke at 5am. Buhl was working his way up the east ridge, still some distance below the Silbersattel. Kempter was perhaps an hour behind him. A couple of hours later Buhl reached the Silbersattel, paused briefly for a drink, then set out across the level snow-field of the Silver Plateau. Kempter reached the Silbersattel at around 8am and continued to the Silver Plateau. He was "feeling horribly low." He rested, took some refreshment, and then fell asleep. At about 9am he woke up again, feeling no better. Buhl had by then disappeared from view. Kempter waited all day on the plateau, then returned to Camp 5.
At about 10am, approaching the fore-summit, Buhl decided that he could go no further unless he could lighten his load. He left his rucksack in a hollow, put some essential items in his pockets, and carried on. From a point close under the fore-summit he began traversing its north-eastern slopes. He was now having trouble staying upright, and kept wanting to go to sleep. Instead, and with some difficulty, he found a route into the Bazhin Gap.
There, he took two tablets of Pervitin, a trademark for methamphetamine (aka crystal meth or speed). Pervitin had been very widely used by German forces during World War II (methamphetamine and amphetamine had also been used by allied forces). It staves off fatigue, reduces hunger and thirst, and reduces the need for sleep. Some wartime German military sources had attributed near-miraculous feats of endurance to it. Pervitin can induce self-confidence, euphoria and an increased willingness to take risks. It can also induce irritability and paranoia.
Buhl was also drinking coca tea, brought by Hans Ertl from Bolivia. The tea, brewed from coca leaves, is widely drunk in Bolivia and is said to alleviate the effects of altitude. Its effects are extremely mild compared with the Bolivian practice of chewing coca leaves. Still, Buhl was now combining this very modest coca intake with a serious dose of methamphetamine.
The ridge beyond the Bazhin Gap proved to be more difficult than had been hoped. At one point, the route around a gendarme involved difficulties that Buhl estimated at about grade IV or V.
It was 7pm when Buhl arrived on the summit. He stuck his ice-axe into the snow and photographed it with a Tyrolean pennant flying from it. Then he removed the Tyrolean pennant and replaced it with a Pakistani flag (the 1934 expedition had hoped to plant on the summit a "flag decorated with the swastika and the imperial eagle", according to a 1934 report in Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung).
Buhl took some more photographs. Then, leaving the ice-axe and the Pakistani flag behind, he started down.
The rock ridge that he had followed on the way up seemed out of the question, in descent, without a rope. Instead, he took a route down the ice slope on the Diamir side of the face. A crampon became detached. He retrieved the crampon, but not the strap. He had nothing from which another strap could be made and his situation was in any case too precarious - he had ski-sticks but no ice-axe - to permit repairs. Somehow he made his way to a rocky gully near the ridge. And then it got dark.
There was no prospect of movement without light, and nowhere to lie down or even to sit. He took some Padutin tablets to stimulate the circulation and protect against frostbite. His spare pullover was far below, in his rucksack. He had no bivouac sack. Fortunately, the night was virtually windless.
"My rest did me good, even if I was standing all the time. The hours passed surprisingly quickly. I dozed, nodding a little now and again, then jerking myself upright once more. Then a cold shiver would run through me. But it was all quite bearable." - Hermann Buhl, quoted in Herrligkoffer's official expedition report.
In the morning he continued the descent, eventually regaining his rucksack. Part way across the plateau, feeling at the end of his strength, he took three more Pervitin tablets.
On the eve of his summit climb Buhl had felt, according to his autobiography, that there was a vacuum below him - support had disappeared. Several climbers were ill in base camp. Nevertheless, according to Herrligkoffer's report, the expedition was working to fill the vacuum.
On the afternoon of 3 July - while Buhl was still heading upwards towards the summit of Nanga Parbat - Walter Frauenberger went up to Camp 5. He was there when Otto Kempter returned alone, at about 7pm. Lower down the mountain, Fritz Aumann and Hermann Kollensperger were preparing to set off with porters towards the higher camps.
During the afternoon of 4 July, while Buhl was struggling back across the Silver Plateau, Hans Ertl and three porters arrived at Camp 5 with oxygen apparatus in their loads (they had been unable to make the trip on 3 July because the porters were unwell). The essentials for a rescue were now in place, but the climbers at Camp 5 judged that it was too late in the day to set off in search of Buhl. This meant that if Buhl were alive but unable to descend unaided, he would have to survive a second night in the open.
Early that evening (4 July), the group at Camp 5 conducted a short ceremony in memory of those who had died in 1934 (including Herrligkoffer's half-brother Willi Merkl), and put a memorial plaque in place. Afterwards Otto Kempter, still exhausted from his efforts the previous day, descended with the three porters to Camp 4.
Then Walter Frauenberger, still putting the finishing touches to the memorial (at nearly 7000m!), spotted a dot descending from the Silbersattel.
"I was laughing and crying at the same time as I hurried to finish my chiselling, constantly glancing upwards." - Walter Frauenberger,
At 7pm Buhl reached the camp, over 40 hours after setting out.
Buhl was given hot drinks and oxygen. According to Frauenberger, Buhl was still high on his last dose of pervitin, "over-wrought" and with "something quite uncanny about his behaviour."
Frauenberger seems to have been in a rather odd emotional state himself. At the moment Buhl reached the camp, he was still at the memorial plaque, a little way from the tent. He wrote afterwards (for Herrligkoffer's expedition report) that he had "communed with the dead."
He worked late into the night massaging Buhl's feet. But both Buhl himself and Ertl told Herrligkoffer over the radio (according to Herrligkoffer's account) that the frostbite was not serious.
On 5 July Buhl, Frauenberger and Ertl descended to Camp 4 and then, joined by Otto Kempter, to Camp 3 . Buhl was still very weak. The next day they continued the descent, each carrying a load. They passed Aumann and Kollensperger, heading upwards with 15 porters to clear the higher camps. It seems to have occurred to no one that some of this team could have assisted Buhl down the mountain. Buhl reached base camp on 7 July.
Herrligkoffer - expedition doctor as well as expedition leader - examined Buhl's frostbitten foot and concluded that the injury was more serious than had been thought. The expedition finally departed from base camp on 14 July, the day that the weather broke.
Buhl was carried to the roadhead and was treated for his frostbite injuries in hospital first in Gilgit, and then in Lahore. In the end he lost two toes.
The climbers were feted in the villages they passed through, and there were cries of "Germany Zindabad" ("Long Live Germany"). In Karachi all the expedition members were presented with medals by the President of Pakistan.
The expedition was almost immediately engulfed in controversy, with expedition members giving conflicting views about the ascent to the media.
Hermann Buhl, in his autobiography Achttausend Drüber und Drunter, published in 1954 (and then in English in 1956 as Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage), was deeply critical of the organisation and leadership of the expedition.
He complained that the leaders of the expedition would not face up to the risks involved in climbing the mountain, and that after he returned to base camp only the porters showed any joy at his success. His feelings were perhaps partly a manifestation of the tension between lead and support climbers that is commonplace on large expeditions. After-effects of the pervitin may have influenced his mood at base camp. But the cool reception that he believed he experienced might perhaps also have had something to do with the fact that it was a Tyrolean pennant, not a German one, that fluttered briefly on the summit of Nanga Parbat.
Everyone on the expedition - whether Austrian and German, whether from the new generation or from the pre-war generation - seems to have felt an emotional link to the dead of the 1934 expedition. The tragedy had been the subject of an intense propaganda drive by the Nazi regime. Apparently the emotions the Nazis stirred up had outlasted the Nazi state.
When Buhl celebrated the first anniversary of his climb, he did so in the company of just two other expedition members - Austrians Walter Frauenberger and Hans Ertl.
For his part, Karl Herrligkoffer wrote at the end of his report on the expedition: "Of the nine members of the team, six have remained my friends." He does not name them.
Buhl's book was written with help from the journalist and climber Kurt Maix, who has acknowledged that he made significant alterations to some parts of Buhl's text. Maix also assisted with Heinrich Harrer's classic book The White Spider (about the ascent of the north wall of the Eiger), and wrote a number of books under his own name.
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More about this ascent
Nanga Parbat, Pakistan
N 35° 14′ 14.5752″ W 74° 35′ 20.6052″