Book captures action and drama of alpinist’s life
By Lynn Martel – Rocky Mountain Outlook – June 26, 2008
“Some called it the boldest rescue in recent memory, others called it a soap opera.” So writes Bernadette McDonald in the opening chapter of her new book, Tomaž Humar, the story of the Slovenian alpinist who Reinhold Messner calls in the foreword, “an absolute star amongst today’s Big Wall mountaineers.”
No matter how one looks at him, Humar is no lightweight, from his off-the-scale solo ascents of giant vertical Himalayan mountain faces, to his exuberant media persona, to his still-talked-about finger-crushing, shoulder-dislocating handshake inflicted on many at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
It doesn’t take long for readers to learn that, for the most part, Humar’s entire life is a soap opera, from his early climbing experiences wearing a harness fashioned from a discarded Fiat seatbelt to his formative training as a teen under a stern senior climbing club member who insisted he climb 14 rock routes in a day in his mountain boots, to describing his manic pursuit of “death solos” after a stint as soldier in the war in Kosovo, of which McDonald is almost understated in her remark, “Kosovo had given him a much higher tolerance for suffering, for risk and even death.” Working 16-hour days to feed his wife and children and manage his perpetually unmanageable debts, Humar’s character unfolds one chapter, and one climb, at a time. In the climbing world, particularly in Slovenia’s close-knit mountain club, he is viewed as an upstart – impatient, determined and headstrong – all of it deserved. He burns bridges defiantly, but also maintains close, long-term, loyal friendships.
As an alpinist he appears to be perpetually on the edge, all of which culminates in his spectacularly dramatic rescue from the 4,500-metre Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, at 8,612 metres the ninth highest peak in the world.
Spanning 10 days, the drama made the evening news all over the world, not the least in Slovenia where, after being successfully rescued by a pair of skilled, daring and highly motivated Pakistani military pilots, Humar was welcomed a hero, but vilified by much of the climbing community. The rescue in itself is a story worth telling, complete with spectacularly difficult technical flying, a post-rescue meeting between Humar and President Musharraf and Humar’s radio communications from his snow hole at 6,300m with his children and father, during which they chat about the garden and the cats.
Having initiated the rescue shortly after stating on his website that Tomaz is “on his own up there,” Humar instantly becomes the poster child for every side of the mountain rescue debate, even providing a hearty laugh as McDonald quotes another Slovenian climber saying, “This is the single biggest event since our liberation.”
Making the most of the drama and the suspense, McDonald begins each chapter with a portion of the events as they transpired on Nanga Parbat, carefully doled out like a climber’s food rations. Between the Nanga Parbat scenes, the reader weaves through the chapters of Humar’s life, as recorded through his Himalayan climbs – Ganesh V, Annapurna, Ama Dablam – during which his wife gave birth to their son in Slovenia; Bobaye – a solo first ascent, only six months after his son’s birth; Nuptse – which he descended alone after his partner was blown off the summit; Dhaulagiri, Shishapangma – climbed with metal in his knee and ankle while still recuperating from a three-metre fall in the basement of the home he was building.
Fortunately for the reader, the pages go beyond Humar’s personal and professional life; they considerately offer a crash course in the complicated political history of the war in Kosovo – where Humar’s experiences of dehydration, hunger, filth and psychological abuse as a solider are akin to those of a POW, leading him to admit he “discovered the bottom of humanity”. As well, McDonald provides much valuable insight into the positioning and competition within the international climbing community in pursuit of the big Himalayan gems.
A complex, multi-dimensional character, but with a singular purpose and considerably more than nine lives, a soloist who thrives on radio contact and website fan mail, who extracts an infected tooth filling with his pocket knife, and the recipient of Slovenia’s highest honor, the Honorary Emblem of Freedom, Humar emerges as the king of bold, trekking into base camp with his hand-picked team often including his own personal physician and an aura-reading psychic, both women. It comes as no surprise when he falls in love with the female journalist who is at the Rupal Face base camp to report on his climb.
Humar is a Tasmanian Devil with a Tootsie Roll heart. Not to disappoint, after the rescue – and the circus that followed it – Humar, a climber who believes “he could communicate directly with the mountain and the mountain in its turn spoke back to him,” returned to the Himalayas in October 2007, and without media coverage pre-climb and very little afterward, he accomplished the first solo ascent of the South Face of Annapurna, alpine style and in a season known for atrocious weather.
Like any good soap opera, the story of Tomaž Humar promises more episodes to come. Tomaž Humar, by Bernadette McDonald, is published by Hutchinson, a division of Random House.
Katie Ives, Alpinist
August 6, 2005: huddled alone in a small ice hole, between 6100 and 6300 meters on Nanga Parbat’s steep Rupal Face, with a snow mushroom hanging menacingly above, Tomaz Humar was arguing over the radio. As his base camp pleaded with him to down climb in order to make a helicopter rescue slightly less improbable, he responded that he was trapped. Avalanches roared on all sides, “If I move even one meter I will be swept down…. It’s not only about the descent, I am in a labyrinth, I can go nowhere.”
For many who followed the story, in the next few days, Humar’s labyrinth would prove to be not just one of ice, rock and snow–but a far more baffling one of the human mind: Why had he gone up the face when he knew the weather forecast was so bad? Why, after stating on his own website that rescue would be impossible, did he now seem to be counting on one? And why would a man with two young children accept this level of risk?
Even as it occurred, Humar’s solitary drama was in the process of replicating itself, hourly, on countless computer screens around the world. And from the very opening scene of her biography, Bernadette McDonald encapsulates the essential paradox not only of this one Slovenian climber’s life, but also of the world in which he inhabits: while media reports of Humar’s plight appeared to have nearly unlimited–even voyeuristic–access to his private agony, Humar seems to have stayed, nonetheless, an enigma to everyone–especially to himself.
When Pakistani helicopter pilots Rashid Ullah Baig and Khalid Amir Rana rescued Humar (putting their own lives in serious danger), many online viewers rejoiced. But throughout much of the climbing community, there remained a prevailing sense that a kind of tragedy had still occurred. Purists saw the high-altitude rescue as a new “murder of the impossible”–the destruction of true adventure, self-reliance and wilderness in one of the most remote places left.
But as McDonald’s biography so eloquently hints, beneath Humar’s story lies another annihilative act–the violence done to a human self, performed long before Humar started up the Rupal Face. Conscripted into the Yugoslav army in 1988 at age twenty and sent to Kosovo, Humar witnessed war crimes that made him feel as though he had “discovered the bottom of humanity.” After his failed attempts to desert, Humar was interned in a detention camp, then abandoned without food or money in a city far from his home. Some local Albanians took him to a train station. When the ticket-seller asked, “Where do you come from?”, Humar replied, “I am coming from hell.”
To this day, McDonald notes, Humar has preserved the train ticket, leaving the reader to wonder about the extent to which that “hell” has permanently defined his sense of being in the world. Could Humar’s depersonalization of his own climbing experiences–through the overwhelming media presence he brought with him to Nanga Parbat–be, in part, a reflection of that earlier, self-shattering encounter with the war?
It’s to McDonald’s credit that she raises this–and other questions–about Humar, without attempting to answer them fully. Through her intricate, complex portrait, Humar emerges as a man who is, as he himself states, “predictable only in his unpredictability.” In contrast to the media circus surrounding the Rupal Face rescue, McDonald describes the virtual news blackout of his recent Annapurna solo and the quietness of other, earlier ascents. Ultimately and wisely, she leaves the final word to her subject: “Every climb is a story in itself,” Humar says, explaining the vast differences in his approaches over the years. “You come back changed from each one.”
McDonald’s thorough research ensures that the reader is able to re-experience each of these stories with richly textured complexity; dramatic, vividly re-created scenes; and harrowing depth. But it’s the close connection between its style and content that makes the book a real benchmark in contemporary alpine-climbing biography. Switching points of view from subjective third person (as if the reader is allowed a brief glimpse into Humar’s own mind) to omniscient (as if we can see him from the outside perspectives of those around him) to her own voice, the biographer lets us see the incompleteness of each conflicting image and recognize the persistent unknowns. Likewise, McDonald’s choice to structure the story around repeated flashbacks to the Rupal Face rescue makes the book itself reflect the immensity of public attention and debate, of private memory and imagination, and of unanswerable questions and mysteries that whirled around the vortex of one of the most surreal episodes in climbing history–at its time.
Shortly after he returned from the Rupal Face, Humar told Daniel Duane in a National Geographic Adventure interview, “Honestly speaking, it’s not a good thing to be an actor in a reality show.” By the end of the biography, the reader has to agree with him–but also to recognize that, both in the mountains and at home, virtual reality has increasingly encroached upon the real. Less than a month after Humar’s rescue, Steve House and Vince Anderson pulled off a successful, impeccable alpine-style ascent on the Rupal Face. Many considered the simplicity of their climb to be the antithesis of the reality-show atmosphere of Humar’s failed attempt. Only three years later, the nature of reporting in the climbing world has changed. Today, even House calls in regular satellite phone reports of his climbs, which are then posted on Patagonia’s blog.
One of the most ambitious and significant portraits of alpine climbing’s postmodernity, McDonald’s book gives us fleeting windows into a life that has resisted the continuous narrative of traditional biography. Instead we get a series of contrasting moments–reminiscent of well-crafted blog posts and anticipating, perhaps, how the new-media revolution will transform the old. For as strange as the world of Tomaz Humar appears in each of these stories, stranger still is the realization that it is, now, partly our own.
08|08 CLIMBER 29 Review by Ed Douglas. WITH GOD ON HIS SIDE
Tomaz Humar was one of the world’s best alpinists in the 1990s – and one of the most controversial. In a compelling new biography, Bernadette McDonald delves deep into what makes the Slovenian tick. But, Ed Douglas asks, did he take the cult of celebrity too far?
In 1998, Tomaz Humar was easing his way up the El Capitan aid horror show Reticent Wall, when he heard a disturbing sound. It sounded like something metallic was tearing. Not what you want to hear above a sequence of horribly marginal placements hundreds of metres off the ground. Humar soon relaxed. It was only the sound of Croatian mountaineer Stipe Bozic ripping the lid off a beer, as he waited to continue filming the climax of Humar’s solo climb.
It’s a good story, told in Bernadette McDonald’s new biography of Humar, and one the Slovenian no doubt laughs over. But the dangers of dragging the spotlight onto yourself while simultaneously risking your life aren’t always so amusing. Humar may be a national hero in Slovenia, but it was his very public rescue from the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat that most strongly resonates in Britain.
McDonald uses that famous rescue as the framework for this book, interweaving biography with updates on Humar’s fight for survival. It’s all very dramatic, and the final climax, as a very brave and skilful Pakistani air force pilot called Rashid Ullah Baig plucks Humar to safety, is riveting. But I don’t suppose that when Humar agreed to the project he thought it would involve quite so many awkward questions about his stratospheric rise to fame.
There’s no doubt that Humar is a big character, strong, enthusiastic, often warm-hearted and bursting with energy. But equally, there’s no doubt he not only likes attention, he’s also rather good at getting it. Journalists, particularly those with little interest in the details of mountaineering history, seem drawn to him like moths to a flame. (His current partner is a famous television reporter in Slovenia who covered the Nanga Parbat climb.) Why blow your own trumpet when others will do it for you?
McDonald is clearly mesmerised by this restless, expansive character whose dramatic life story encompasses feuds with his parents, strops with the Slovenian climbing establishment, and a harrowing period serving with the Yugoslavian army in Kosovo. (He fell out with them, too.) At times, her portrayal teeters on hagiography, as she defends Humar’s reputation, as she sees it, from jealous contemporaries. But her analysis is more often shrewd and balanced, particularly later in the book. She doesn’t hesitate to pick apart Humar’s essentials, rummaging through the breakdown of his marriage for insights, but is oddly tolerant of the dodgy philosophising Humar indulges in. “I do not search,” he says at the end of the book, “for the truth of life in earthly rewards, which merely gather dust. My life’s dream is an eternal struggle for inner peace and happiness, imbued with love, the creator of the world.” Right on.
The mysticism extends to his mountaineering and is at times laugh-out loud bonkers. Humar took an astrologist, Natasa Pergar, to Nanga Parbat to read his aura and that of the mountain and pick an auspicious date for him to set off. To be fair to the woman, she was rather more accurate about her forecast than the weather reports Humar preferred to rely on to start his climb.
Clearly, this hippie shtick goes down a bomb with the public, who like famous adventurers to be mercurial and obscure, always disappearing off into the wilds to contemplate the big questions and find healing. As Humar’s fame grew after his somewhat flawed solo ascent of the South Face of Dhaulagiri, he became a sort of fuzzy Catholic-Buddhist guru for some in his home country.
One does try to be tolerant of religious feeling. Anything that gets you through the night in an indifferent universe is usually fine with me. But I found myself clutching my forehead at the revelation Humar keeps a picture of the Indian religious leader Sai Baba handy. Perhaps Tomas hasn’t seen the BBC film documenting allegations of child abuse, fraud and embezzlement by Sai Baba.
Still, dodgy gurus aside, it’s no crime to be clever with the media, and it’s not as though Humar ever told any big fat lies about what he climbed unlike the alleged porkies Tomo Cesen cooked up – more of whom later. Many frontline alpinists are selfish egomaniacs, just as many top musicians or actors are. So what?
There’s really only one thing most climbers will be interested in; just how good is he? Putting aside last autumn’s solo of an existing route on the eastern fringe of Annapurna’s southern aspect, which was bold and committing but not technically that hard, his reputation really lies on a sequence of climbs done in the mid and late 1990s.
These include the North-West Face of Ama Dablam, climbed with Vanya Furlan in 1996, the colossal South Face of Dhaulagiri in 1999, and the climb that I find most inspiring, the South Face of Nuptse. It’s a truly great line, completed with Janez ‘Johan’ Jeglic, the Slovenian ace who was tragically blown from the summit ridge. (According to McDonald, Silvo Karo feels the same, which is nice, since Karo is an altogether more worthwhile judge than lil’ ol’ me.) But I can’t help feeling that Reinhold Messner didn’t do Humar many favours when he turned up at Ljubljana airport essentially to anoint the Slovenian as his successor as the world’s best, as though any such person could exist. Slovenia is dripping with mountaineering talent and the ‘also-rans’ – who all deserve biographies – won’t have enjoyed the snub. Anyway, the psychology of it all was suspect. Announcing that a man who appears to be just like you is the best climber in the world is a rather obvious way to burnish your own reputation.
What was truly hilarious is that Messner only agreed to come (unless he got a fee from Humar’s sponsor, which is more than possible) on the understanding that no-one would mention the ‘C’ word, ‘C’, of course, being Cesen. Having heralded a man now widely regarded as a fraud, the great Messner wasn’t going to be embarrassed by inconvenient questions. Not that there is anything remotely fraudulent about the Dhaulagiri climb, although many will argue that the true line on that face has yet to be climbed. But its high profile, massaged by a wealthy sponsor, raises some fascinating questions about why people climb the things they do, and how, in the absence of written rules, the small community of top alpinists regulates itself.
Apart from the compelling account of Humar’s rescue, diligently researched and compulsive to read, I found myself glued to McDonald’s explanation of how Slovenian mountaineering worked, the impact of state subsidy on the climbing scene and how Humar broke free after benefiting from a state leg-up. Like Messner, he is the arch-individualist, turning his back on an equal climbing partner in favour of bold, solo statements. But coming from a rich, social network, it’s not surprising his fellow climbers feel somehow betrayed. By hogging the limelight he has devalued the community.
Despite this book’s many excellent qualities, McDonald does a disservice to alpinists like Steve House, Vince Anderson and Marko Prezelj, among the very best in the world today but presented as hard-faced fanatics. They pop up at regular intervals, apparently existing only to do down the hero of the piece who must struggle past the jealously and backstabbing to reach the sunlit uplands of success. But it’s the cheapest trick there is; do something provocative to get attention, and when people squeal, loftily denounce it all as beneath you.
After House and Anderson succeeded on their Nanga Parbat climb, House acknowledged the influences and lessons learned that made that landmark climb possible. They gave a sense of the journey being made in the company of others. Humar too came from a world rich with talent. Many of those climbers are now dead: Slavko Sveticic, for example, or Humar’s partners Stane Belak, Vanya Furlan and Janez Jeglic. So many Slovenian climbers were pushing hard and falling on the wrong side of the boundary. Why?
In his introduction, Messner writes: “I am convinced that one of the most decisive factors for enduring a borderline situation is the will to survive. I would even dare to suggest that the climber who is in tune with himself and the world will not normally perish on a mountain. These days I see inner harmony as the prerequisite for any climber who seeks to push the frontiers. Without it, he should give up extreme mountaineering. Humar possesses this inner harmony.”
This is a dangerous philosophy to put before an ignorant public. The idea that only the strongest can survive in the high mountains is both wrong and cruel – a kind of Nietzschean fantasy. So many times in his career, Humar could have crossed the boundary as so many of his partners did. Was he really that much stronger than Anatoli Boukreev or Alex Lowe? Was Humar’s attitude really so harmonious? Wasn’t he also fortunate?
He is clearly a tough man, but maybe his public isn’t ready to hear that he’s also relied on dumb luck. One image near the end of the book caught for me that gap between celebrity myth and mountaineering reality in perfect relief. In 2005, McDonald writes, Humar climbed a new route on Cholatse in Khumbu, and called it Yarchagumba, “after a rare Nepal flower”. But Yarchagumba is not a flower. It is a strange, even freakish thing, a caterpillar infected by a fungus that consumes the larva and then, in the spring, extends in a long shoot from the carcass. It mimics a plant, but is not the real thing. Yarchagumba is also, as it happens, worth its weight in gold as an aphrodisiac and cure-all, for people looking for some ardent glory.