In the first of an exclusive two-part interview, Kurt Diemberger gives his views on mountaineering.
Kurt Diemberger is a living legend among mountaineers. He is the only person alive who has made two first ascents of eight thousanders (Broad Peak in 1957 and Dhaulagiri in 1960), he's written seven books and made numerous documentaries. In April, he received the Piolet d'Or in Chamonix in honour of his lifetime achievement as an alpinist. Being a freedom-loving individualist, he wants to clarify that he is not supported by Red Bull. He talks to us about his fascination with Alpine geometry and the great mountaineer Hermann Buhl.
How do you feel about receiving a Piolet d’Or?
I was very happy to be honoured. After Bonatti, Messner, it’s nice that they thought of me. Most of the time, people say Kurt is the only man alive who has climbed two unclimbed eight thousanders; but that’s usually it. And the thing is, that’s not it at all. My whole life, I have achieved many and often completely different things.
David Lama was honoured with a Piolet d’Or as well. Did you meet him?
Yes! That David Lama is a great fella. I truly admire how he and Peter Ortner ascended the Compressor route of the Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Before that, you could only do that with the help of bolts. I think it’s phenomenal.
You started out as an alpinist because you were looking for crystals, and you could say that the Himalayas are enormous crystals. How important was the “beauty of a mountain” to you?
It’s possible that the search for crystals played an important role. I have always been impressed by mountains that just had that special something in their lines and their aura. And in that respect, K2 is the biggest crystal in the world!
Did this apply to Hermann Buhl, whom you have often described as your mountaineering father?
I’m not quite sure. He definitely had the drive to accomplish something new in the world. He was the creator of the West Alpine Style, which we put into action during the Karakorum expedition in 1957. When Marcus Schmuck, Fritz Wintersteller and I ascended Broad Peak (8,051m) together with him, we did so without high altitude porters and oxygen equipment. And when Buhl and I climbed on Chogolisa (7,668m and 7,654m), we already used a more lightweight West Alpine Style along with a single high camp. That’s become the general Alpine Style today. In 1975, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler used this style for the first time on an eight thousander, Gasherbrum 1, also known as Hidden Peak (8,080m).
Why did you never try to climb Chogolisa again after Hermann Buhl died in 1957?
I never even considered this mountain again because Chogolisa without Hermann... what would be the use of that? I lost him there. [While retreating in a snow storm Buhl broke off with a cornice and fell down the North Face. He was never seen again.] Buhl was obsessed with making this idea come true, namely, ascending such a gigantic mountain in only three days and not three weeks, like we did at Broad Peak. He wanted to prove that it was possible. It was this drive to attain, which I call the seventh sense. But it can never quite silence those small voices in the back of your mind that tell you “Turn around! It’s too risky!”
There are several reasons why he might have stepped out of my tracks — maybe there was a gush of wind and snowflakes that suddenly coated his goggles; Or maybe, when he saw the curve in my tracks, he thought, “Gosh, why does Kurt go so far to the right!” and so he stepped out too far onto the cornice. There have been a lot of assumptions about this but in the end, we just don’t know. Fact is we weren’t roped up which is always a mistake in a situation like that. But, had we used a rope, I probably wouldn’t be here anymore because Hermann would have pulled me after him into the abyss. That means, I owe my life to a mistake.