The Angry Corrie 42: Jul-Aug 1999

TAC 42 Index

K2 and counting: The Kurt Diemberger Omnibus

Baton Wicks: 864pp, ISBN 1 898573 26 3, #16.99

Reviewed by Grant Hutchison

If you've never heard of Kurt Diemberger, then shame on you. He was plugging away at Alpine-style, oxygen- free 8000m ascents long before Reinhold Messner made the idea trendy. He's the only person alive who has made the first ascent of two 8000m summits - Broad Peak in 1957, and Dhaulagiri three years later - and he achieved both of these without bottled oxygen.

The thing about Diemberger is that he just goes on climbing - new routes in the Alps, scary early stuff on the Eiger Nordwand, glacier crossings in Greenland. And then back up to 8000m again, knocking off Makalu, Everest and Gasherbrum II within a fifteen-month period, between his 46th and 48th birthdays. In 1986, at the implausible age of 54, he reached the summit of K2 with his long-time climbing partner Julie Tullis. Thirteen climbers died on K2 that year, Tullis among them, and Diemberger barely escaped with his life.

But he's still going, it seems - 1998 saw him soloing to 6000m on the Kinshofer Wall. Sixty-six years old, for goodness sake.

What about the book? It's three volumes in one: Summits and Secrets covers Diemberger's early years in the Alps, and his first two big Himalayan climbs; The Endless Knot is the story of his relationship with Tullis, and the 1986 disaster on K2; and Spirits of the Air takes us up to 1990, covering a rather mixed bag of filming, expedition work, general travel and big climbs.

It has to be said that Diemberger is not the world's most natural raconteur. His writing is full of ... pointless ellipsis, which - after a dash or two - always leads to a triumphant exclamation mark! His funny stories wend their way slowly towards fairly evident punchlines, but then seem to sidle skittishly away at the last moment, obscuring the expected ending. There is also much in this book that a merciful editor might have profitably removed before publication - in Summits and Secrets, for instance, there's a philosophical digression on the nature of time that would, quite frankly, embarrass a drunk sixteen-year-old science fiction addict, let alone a stolidly sensible Austrian mountaineer. Nor has Diemberger been well served by the translator of Summits and Secrets, who seems to have made it 95% of the way to English and then given up. Phrases like "women-climbers" and "mountain-lays" may trip off the tongue in the original German, but they're far from standard English. And I'm sure Diemberger meant something by the following, but it's now impossible to guess what that might have been: "The cyclist has his 'why and wherefor' [sic] just as has the mountaineer; though neither of them could explain it. And both earn their 'dimension' again and again."

But, having got the carping out of the way, I should leave you in no doubt that Diemberger is magnificent when he's just telling the story of something that's important to him - when he stops messing about trying to be funny or philosophical or dramatic. And almost the whole of The Endless Knot is narrated in just such simple, moving prose - it well deserves its Primio Itas prize and Boardman- Tasker nomination. In this volume, with the benefit of hindsight and Diemberger's regretful commentary, the 1986 K2 story takes on the doomed inevitability of Greek tragedy. From the moment Diemberger and Tullis find a battered teapot in avalanche debris at the foot of the mountain (indicating the destruction of Camp 4, thousands of metres above), there is a constant sense of unease. Multiple climbing parties head for the summit, relying on the presence of high camps and gear stashes which have all been swept away - the mountain, it transpires, has been pretty well scoured clean above 7300m.

After their summit bid, a five-day storm pins down Tullis, Diemberger and five others, 8000m up on the shoulder of the mountain. Two tiny tents are all the shelter available. In the chaos, Tullis and Diemberger end up in separate tents, and she subsequently dies in her sleep - Diemberger is at his most moving when he describes the last few words they exchange, neither of them able to see the other's face.

When the weather clears, only Diemberger, Willi Bauer and "Mrufka" Wolf are fit enough to make a bid for safety. The others - Alfred Imitzer, Alan Rouse and Hannes Wieser - are delirious, and are left behind to die. As I sit here, snug in the panelled library of Hutchison Manor, I reflect that I can't make a judgement about that. Many people have judged, of course; but as far as I know none of them has had to face such a hellish dilemma, after eight days in the Death Zone with inadequate food and water, wet clothes and no supplemental oxygen. Lucky old them.

So - those with a particular interest in Diemberger or the history of Himalayan climbing will read the book from cover to cover, despite its stylistic eccentricities. But for the rest of us, The Endless Knot alone is probably worth the price of the trilogy.

TAC 42 Index