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Book of the month: The Magician's Glass

Friday, 6 July 2018

Our book of the month is The Magician’s Glass by Ed Douglas. Ed presents eight varied essays on some of the most high-profile stories and controversies from the world of climbing. In this extract from the third essay, he describes the mystery surrounding Tomaž Humar’s fatal expedition in the Swiss Alps. 

This July with every purchase of The Magician’s Glass we will be giving away a free copy of Ed’s ghostwritten autobiography of Ron Fawcett, Rock Athlete.

Tomaž Humar warned it would be tough to find him. Even so, just ten minutes after the Swiss rescue team reached the vast south face of Langtang Lirung, a 7,227-metre Himalayan monster, its leader Bruno Jelk spotted a body through the helicopter’s window. There was low cloud sitting on Langtang’s summit. Humar wasn’t where they expected him to be, nor at the right altitude. Yet there he was, in the middle of the steep south-west face at 5,500 metres. It was the morning of Saturday 14 November, 2009. The Slovenian had been there since the previous Monday and Jelk saw at once he was dead. 

Even before he achieved fame with his daring solo climb on the south face of Dhaulagiri, Tomaž Humar was a magnet for attention – and trouble. Wildly charismatic, people found him either inspiring or infuriating. His fame spread around the world like a brush fire, taking him far beyond the brilliant but obscure world of Slovenian mountaineering. He consulted astrologers and said the mountains spoke to him. Was he genius, or madman?

Then, like Icarus, Humar found himself plunging back to Earth. Millions of people watched him survive a very public epic, marooned for days on Nanga Parbat, saved only by the selfless courage of a Pakistan helicopter pilot. After that, he was gone, leaving just a hint of his famous smile. From being a headline, Tomaž became a rumour. On Langtang Lirung he was completely alone; he told almost no one what he was doing or where he had gone. Now, however, the whole world knew the Slovenian daredevil was once again in trouble.

With Humar located, Captain Sabin Basnyat banked his Ecureuil AS 350 B-3 and brought it into land at a dirt strip ten kilometres south-east of the mountain. Here a second helicopter was parked, also flown up that morning from Kathmandu with extra fuel and equipment and piloted by Suman Pandey, boss of charter company Fishtail Air. The strip was scratched out of a flat, gravel plain a few hundred metres east of Kyanjin Gompa, a shabby collection of lodges built in the last decade or so round an older Buddhist monastery to serve the thousands of trekkers who head up this valley each autumn.

Kyanjin Gompa is also last call for anyone heading to Langtang Lirung’s base camp, although not many climbers head this way. The mountain hasn’t been climbed since 1995 and it’s easy to see why. Its huge south-east face is threatened by an ugly band of séracs. Its east ridge, route of the first ascent, is long and dangerous. The west ridge is long and technical. The south – more accurately the south-east – ridge divides the mountain’s vast south face, and has also been climbed. Either side are kilometres of steep glaciers and steeper walls. A British expedition leader who tried the south-west face in 1980 told me: ‘It’s very serious, a hell of a long route, hard mixed climbing in between steep glaciers and scree.’ 

Waiting at the airstrip with Suman Pandey was Humar’s friend Jagat Limbu, his regular cook and base camp supporter from previous adventures, and a small group of Sherpas. Most of them had flown up three days before in the same helicopter on an earlier rescue effort. That day the weather had been perfect, but none of them had seen Humar, mostly because they were looking in the wrong place. Even if they had spotted the Slovenian star, there was nothing they could have done to reach him. The difference this time was the Swiss mountain guide Simon Anthamatten. Three days before, he’d been at home in Zermatt, his gear barely unpacked after returning from his own expedition to Nepal. 

Anthamatten is a strong alpinist himself, in 2009 winning a Piolet d’Or, sometimes dubbed alpinism’s Oscars, for the new route he climbed with Ueli Steck on the north face of Tengkangpoche in Khumbu. He got a call that Wednesday evening from rescue expert Gerold Biner, flight operations manager at Air Zermatt, asking if he’d join a rescue in Nepal. Next morning he was on a flight to the Gulf en route for Kathmandu. Anthamatten is one of a dozen guides Zermatt’s rescue services can call on for emergencies. He’s used to being dropped on the end of a line to climbers in distress. No one in Nepal had that kind of experience. No rescue like the one he was contemplating had ever been performed in Nepal – or anywhere else in the Himalaya. The helicopter itself, the workhorse of Alpine rescue teams, had only been in the country for three weeks.

Soon the B-3 was back in the air, with just Basnyat, his Swiss co-pilot Robi Andenmatten and Simon Anthamatten on board. With fewer bodies in the back they could manoeuvre closer to the site of the accident so Anthamatten could judge how best to approach the rescue. Humar had fallen five days before, on Monday 9 November. Anthamatten knew Jelk’s judgment was likely correct; no one had expected him to still be alive. But the rescue team felt they had to try. 

Back at the airstrip, the crew fixed a twenty-five-metre length of static line to the helicopter and Anthamatten clipped in the other end. Basnyat had no experience of this kind of operation, with a man hanging beneath his aircraft, so he handed control to Robi Andenmatten. There was no way Anthamatten was going up otherwise. Bruno Jelk watched the helicopter and its cargo head back down the valley towards Langtang. It crossed the col on the peak’s south ridge and disappeared from view. Almost at once, Anthamatten was once more with Humar, this time hanging free in space. The body was lying on a relatively flat snow-covered ledge on a steep rock spur. The pilot was able to inch forward until Anthamatten was standing on the mountain. 

He unclipped and radioed the pilot he was off the line. The helicopter drew back a short distance to let him work.

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.’

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