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A look through The Magician's Glass

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

We’ve got something a bit special to share this week: an exclusive pre-release look inside The Magician’s Glass – the outstanding compendium of eight climbing narratives by award-winning writer Ed Douglas. Featuring some of the most celebrated stories and personalities from the world of mountaineering, three of the essays were either shortlisted for or won at the Banff Mountain Book Festival in Canada. In this extract from one of the essays, ‘Searching for Tomaž Humar’, Ed talks about the death of the world-renowned Slovenian climber, the circumstances of which are as enigmatic as Tomaž was in life.

Humar was clearly dead, and in Anthamatten’s estimation had been for some time. ‘His first call was on the Monday,’ he told me. ‘In the call he said he would die. It was soon after that, for sure.’ Apart from that, the circumstances of his death were a mystery. ‘The way the body looked, he couldn’t have fallen more than fifty metres. We have experience of this in our mountains. Somebody falls 300 metres then they lose boots, everything is ripped off and so on. Tomaž doesn’t look like this.’

Two things didn’t add up for Anthamatten. First, there was the location of the body. According to Jagat, Humar had called him a week before, on 8 November, at 6,300 metres on the mountain’s south ridge. This is where the Sherpa team had gone to look for him. But Humar was much lower, at 5,500 metres, in the middle of the south-west face. In his next calls, after the accident, he didn’t mention this, just that he would be hard to find. What was he doing there? ‘The problem is nobody knows what he was trying to do,’ Anthamatten said. ‘Maybe he rappelled from the south ridge on to the south-west face and traversed. There’s a glacier there.’

Even more confusing was the lack of gear. Humar was dressed, and wearing a duvet jacket, but that’s about all he had with him. ‘I couldn’t find any rope,’ Anthamatten said. ‘I couldn’t find his backpack. He had no crampons on. He had no harness on. There was nothing. Two days before it snowed almost a foot, but it couldn’t cover all the gear.’ Anthamatten had time enough to look. Having rigged the body with slings he carried on his harness, he called in the helicopter and clipped Humar to the line. Then he waited for ten minutes while Robi Andenmatten flew the dead Slovenian back to the airstrip. ‘Something went wrong but we don’t know what.’ He paused, to think about it some more. ‘I have no idea.’

*

That Tomaž Humar should leave life in a swirl of mystery and headlines came as no surprise to his friends. His biographer, Bernadette McDonald, told me how, when she was researching her book, he could never tell a story straight. ‘He’d come at everything from an angle,’ she said. ‘He would tell stories like they were parables, with a hidden meaning. I’d sit there afterwards wondering, what did he mean by that? It was infuriating.’ Despite that, McDonald clearly liked him. ‘He had a big heart, like the south face of Dhaulagiri, I always thought, big and complicated and dangerous.’

Complexity – and contradiction – lies at the centre of Humar’s compelling story. He was part showman and part mystic, anxious for recognition but reluctant to conform. He could speak about spirituality and his inner eye, and drive around in a sponsored car emblazoned with his own image. When he had a project to sell, he was king of the world, but when things went wrong he could disappear without trace. After the Nanga Parbat rescue, when the journalists he courted were desperate to reach him, he just switched off his phone and took his kids fishing. It seemed the image of himself he had created had started to consume him.

Humar wasn’t alone among top climbers in having a big ego. They come in handy at 8,000 metres, when the only thing left to keep you going is ambition. And in the end, it was Humar and not his critics who paid the biggest price. But the arc of Humar’s career as an alpinist reveals more than one man’s desire to be famous or successful. It’s also the story of a young nation coming to terms with change. It’s also the story of modern alpinism and its fraught relationship with the media, which it both needs but often despises.

 

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