Searching for Tomaz Humar
The story of one of alpine climbing’s shining stars, who died in the Himalaya in 2009.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 186 (June 2010).
Tomaz Humar left a legacy of close calls, achievement and self-promotion that made him both famous and despised, yet on his last climb he turned his back on the media and climbed in near secrecy.
In November 2009, the Slovenian soloist Tomaz Humar lay injured and alone high on a Himalayan peak. The man whom Reinhold Messner had hailed as the greatest high-altitude climber in the world, called his girlfriend on his cell phone. Rather than request a rescue, he reached out for one last human contact, and to say goodbye. Humar left a legacy of close calls, achievement and self-promotion that made him both famous and despised, yet on his last climb he turned his back on the media and climbed in near secrecy. Whether he was looking for redemption or a return to the limelight can never be known, but the mountain called Langtang Lirung was the kind of stage where he could most fully act out his life’s dramas.
Tomaz Humar warned it would be tough to find him. Even so, just 10 minutes after the Swiss rescue team reached the vast south face of Langtang Lirung, a 7,227-meter Himalayan monster, leader Bruno Jelk spotted a body through the helicopter’s window. Low clouds sat 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 southwest face at 5,500 meters. It was the morning of Saturday, November 14, 2009. The Slovenian had been there since 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, Tomaz 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 Pakistani helicopter pilot. After that, Humar all but disappeared from the scene, leaving just a hint of his famous smile. From being a headline, he became a rumor. He had approached Langtang Lirung completely alone, telling almost no one where he was. After a haunting call, however, the whole world knew the Slovenian daredevil was once again in trouble.
With Humar located, Captain Sabin Basnyat banked the Ecureuil AS 350 B-3—called an A-Star in the United States—and brought it down on a dirt airstrip 10 kilometers southeast of the mountain. Here a second helicopter was parked, also flown up that morning from Kathmandu with extra fuel and equipment, piloted by Suman Pandey, CEO of the charter company Fishtail Air.
The strip itself was scratched out of a flat gravel plain a few hundred yards east of Kyanjin Gompa, a shabby collection of lodges built in the last decade or so around an older Buddhist monastery to serve the thousands of trekkers who head up this valley each fall. Kyanjin Gompa is also last call for anyone heading to Langtang Lirung’s base camp.
Not many climbers head this way. The mountain hasn’t been climbed since 1995 and it’s easy to see why. Its huge southeast face is threatened by an ugly band of seracs. Its east ridge, route of the first ascent, is long and dangerous. The west ridge is long and technical. The south, or more accurately the southeast ridge, divides the mountain’s vast south face, and has also been climbed. On either side are miles of steep glaciers and steeper walls. A British expedition leader who tried the southwest 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 was Jagat Limbu, Humar’s friend, regular cook and base camp supporter from previous adventures. With Limbu was a small knot 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 a 26-year-old 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, winning a Piolet d’Or in 2009 for the new route he climbed with Ueli Steck on the north face of Tengkanpoche in the Khumbu. He got a call that Wednesday evening from rescue expert Gerold Biner, flight operations manager of 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 lowered on the end of a line to climbers in distress. No one in Nepal has 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 maneuver 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, November 9, and Anthamatten knew Jelk’s judgment was 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 25-meter length of static line into the helicopter and Anthamatten clipped into the other end. Basnyat had no experience of this kind of operation, with a man hanging beneath his aircraft, so he handed control to his co-pilot Robi Andenmatten. There was no way Anthamatten would be 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 back 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 50 meters. We have experience of this in our mountains. Somebody falls 300 meters then they lose boots, everything is ripped off and so on. Tomaz 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 November 8, from 6,300 meters on the mountain’s south ridge. This is where the Sherpa team had gone to look for him. But Humar was found much lower, at 5,500 meters, in the middle of the southwest 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 onto the southwest face and traversed. There’s a glacier there.”
Even more confusing was the lack of equipment. Humar was dressed, and wearing a duvet jacket, but that’s about all the gear 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 10 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 Tomaz 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 Humar. “He had a big heart, like the south face of Dhaulagiri, I always thought. Big and complicated and dangerous.”
Complexity—and contradiction—lie at the center of Humar’s compelling story. He was part showman and part mystic, eager 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 a 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. Egos come in handy at 8,000 meters, when the only thing left to keep you going is desire. 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. And it’s the story of modern alpinism and its fraught relationship with the media it both needs and often despises.
On a snowy day in early February, three months after Humar’s death, I find myself in the picturesque town of Kamnik, a short drive into the hills from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. Kamnik has produced lots of good climbers, including Humar, and I’m sitting in a quiet bar across the table from another, Marko Prezelj. To many hardcore alpinists, Prezelj is the real deal. Some would say he’s a more deserving recipient for the plaudits heaped on Humar. Judging by his pronouncements on the subject of fame, however, he doesn’t care. “In Slovenia,” he wrote in Alpinist magazine, “fame has the same word as a woman’s name: ‘Slava.’ Old people used to say: ‘Slave je kurba!’ Fame is a bitch. One day she is sleeping with one and the next day with another.”
Prezelj, who works as a mountain guide, is in formidable shape for a man of 44. He’s also formidably direct about Humar. “Tomaz was really skilled with the media,” he says in idiosyncratic but fluent English. “He would say before he went, ‘If I do this climb it will be like landing on the moon.’ And because he said so, people believed him. As personalities, we are totally different. I believe he did things because he liked his public profile and liked the attention.”
Prezelj introduces me to a novel English phrase of his own devising: “tasty talking.” “You talk nice so the other person will like you or what you’re saying. You talk bullshit. I think you say, ‘sugar-coating.’ General American population, they like to tasty talk. But I don’t think alpinism and tasty talking go well together. Bullshit is bullshit.”
You could argue that what Prezelj dubs tasty talking is just consideration for others—good manners, even—and that his straight talking is prompted more by envy than honesty. When I suggest he envied Humar’s fame, Prezelj nods and smiles.
“Maybe at a certain time in my climbing life I found this frustrating. I felt that what I was doing wasn’t recognized. People didn’t understand the difference between what I was doing and what others were talking about.”
Prezelj had a long association with Humar. Four years older, he saw Humar arrive as a rookie, followed his progress, knew his foibles and then watched from a distance while his charismatic rival became a national sporting hero. “He was always very energetic,” Prezelj says. “But now, looking back, I can see that from the start he was looking for recognition. I remember once, when we were very young, walking through town and seeing him cycling towards me on his bike very quickly. He saw me and was shouting, ‘What’s the time? What’s the time?’ He wanted me to see him, to see that he was racing, pushing limits.”
If Humar thrived on attention, then the timing of his success, just as Slovenia found its feet as a young nation, turbo-charged his rise to fame. It’s hard to appreciate Humar’s impact without understanding how Slovenia—and its climbing culture—changed in his lifetime. Stroll through central Ljubljana and its history is in front of you. Baroque churches from the era of the Austrian Empire stand alongside utilitarian concrete boxes from socialist Yugoslavia. The newest buildings are more striking, strongly individualistic and obviously more expensive than their grayer neighbors. Slovenia’s economy has surged since independence from Yugoslavia and incomes are closer to those in Western Europe.
It’s a common error to think of Yugoslavia, a former socialist federation of autonomous republics, as having been under the influence of the Soviet Union and locked behind the Iron Curtain. In fact, as former citizens enjoy reminding visitors, Yugoslavians were in some ways freer than Americans, certainly when it came to travel. “We could go anywhere in the world,” says Viki Groselj, one of the stalwarts of Slovenian mountaineering in the 1970s and 1980s. In his mid 50s, with a trimmed white goatee, Groselj has a grandfatherly appearance belied by his restless energy. He can’t sit still.
“We used to joke that our passport on the black market was more expensive than an American passport. We didn’t have much money, but that’s another story. The old system wasn’t so bad for all of us. Our healthcare system was better because it was free, whoever you were. Everyone was treated the same, whether you were from the street or a big politician.”
He is, understandably, proud of his nation’s record in Himalayan climbing. “In terms of new routes, we can compete with the Polish, or whoever, but we have only a tiny population, just two million. This is some kind of miracle.” Groselj climbed 10 of the 8,000-meter peaks before abandoning the project to raise his family. “That achievement,” he says carefully, “was quite interesting in the 1980s.” He now spends his time working as a high-school athletics coach and presenting a series of 14 documentaries about the 8,000-meter peaks for Slovenian television. Groselj’s cameraman is Stipe Bozic, an old friend of his who served as Humar’s base camp manager on Dhaulagiri. Groselj says Humar had approached him first to do the job, but Groselj turned him down. When I ask him why, he pauses.
“I got to know Tomaz well in 1995 on Annapurna,” Groselj says. “After that we became quite good friends. But he had two sides. He could be extremely kind and gentle, but also extremely possessive to those closest to him. He wanted them to adore him. When he asked me to come to Dhaulagiri I thought about it, but it wasn’t my way. He loved to be the center of attention. That public attention helped him make big climbs. This is the opposite of my philosophy. I want total peace. I don’t even want to think about my family. He enjoyed that everybody knew everything about him. That’s not to say that’s bad. If it helped, why not? It’s not against the law. But it made people jealous.”
Like the brash new buildings in downtown Ljubljana, Humar’s dazzling Slovenian star power pushed Yugoslavia’s grayer utilitarian past into the background, if only as far as the general public was concerned. People knew a little about Yugoslavia’s past mountaineering triumphs, but those stories featured large teams of grim-faced men who rarely made much connection with the public. They espoused the qualities of a now defunct social structure. Here was a mountaineer for a new age—of wealth, individual freedom and celebrity.
Tomaz Humar wasn’t the first Slovenian climber to blaze his own trail. Ten years before Dhaulagiri, Tomo Cesen, a gifted climber with a couple of siege-style expeditions behind him, claimed a new route on the north face of Jannu, climbed solo. The international climbing world was impressed. In 1990, he announced an even greater achievement, the solo first ascent of the south face of Lhotse. The climbing world went nuts.
It would be hard to overestimate the impact this climb had. Almost nothing in climbing history compares to it. The cream of world mountaineering had attempted this face. The great Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka had died on it. No one had tried it alpine style, let alone solo. And now an almost unknown Slovenian had apparently strolled up it. The biggest names in climbing queued up to meet the taciturn Cesen at festivals around the world. Reinhold Messner anointed him as his heir apparent. Some climbers were uneasy at the lack of photographs and his vague route description. But at home in Slovenia, Cesen became a national celebrity, suddenly more powerful than the anonymous apparatchiks who up until then had governed the direction of Slovenian mountaineering.
Most influential of these was Tone Skarja, who is waiting for me at the headquarters of Slovenia’s national mountaineering association (Planinske zveze Slovenije, or PZS) in downtown Ljubljana. He ushers me into a meeting room. Skarja has been a climber for more than 50 years, joining the same Kamnik climbing club as Prezelj and Humar in 1956. He has been a driving force in Slovenian Himalayan climbing for decades, leading important expeditions, and helping develop several generations of mountaineers. This eminence grise slides a yellow booklet across the table, detailing every expedition involving Slovenians since the first in 1954. Among the many significant first ascents I spot is a difficult variation on Everest’s west ridge, climbed in 1979. The leader of the expedition was Tone Skarja.
Not surprisingly for a man who has led the expeditions section of the PZS for decades, Skarja is a shrewd—and tough—politician. He’s been retired from his job as an electrical engineer for 12 years, but he looks lean, fit and handsome. He first encountered Humar at their climbing club and, like everyone else who ever met him, was struck by the young man’s energy and charm. “Everybody who met him loved him,” he says. “He was a young boy then, a great speaker. He had a special talent for communicating. The director of my electrical company told me that when Tomaz asked to see him about his next expedition he decided that Tomaz wouldn’t get any money out of him. But when they met, he changed his mind.”
Skarja is justifiably proud of the decades of volunteer service he has given the PZS, and he talks respectfully about legends from the past. When I bring up the name of Tomo Cesen, however, he smiles in a way that says: “This is complicated.” After a moment’s thought, he says: “Maybe one day we will sit down and talk and I will ask him about Lhotse before I die. Unofficially, my position, my opinion, is that he didn’t climb Lhotse. Officially?” He runs his finger down the list of Slovenian climbs. Cesen’s name is still there, with the date of his Lhotse expedition. As far as the Slovenian establishment is concerned, Tomo Cesen is still in the fold.
“We all know what happened on Lhotse,” Viki Groselj says, “but nobody wants to talk about it anymore. We all know he cheated. He had an intentional plan to con the world. I’m sad about that. Because my biggest wish is that Slovenians do this face.” Groselj tells me a little about his own expedition in 1981 to Lhotse’s south face, where he injured his back. “They said I was jealous of him, but we were totally different, from different generations. I was a classic climber, he was part of the new generation of brilliant climbers. I could never be so strong in head or body to do Lhotse’s south face. But this [Cesen’s story] wasn’t good for any of us.”
Grozelj has an intimate connection to the Cesen controversy. Cesen had borrowed a photograph belonging to Grozelj, taken on an earlier expedition, and allowed it to be credited as his own. It could only have been taken from near the top of Lhotse and provided clinching evidence to contradict those doubting Cesen’s claims. Then Cesen made a fatal error. In front of a television camera, and with Groselj looking on, he opined that he didn’t think Groselj’s plan of climbing all the 8,000-meter peaks was realistic. Groselj might agree with him now, but back then Cesen’s judgment hurt. Within days, Groselj revealed that the photo taken high on Lhotse was his, not Cesen’s, and arguably the greatest achievement in the history of high-altitude mountaineering crumbled to dust.
Although Groselj says Slovenian mountaineers no longer believe Cesen, it really depends on which generation of Slovenian climbers you talk to. One Slovenian star of the 1980s, now in his 50s, told me how he and his climbing partners were amazed Cesen could claim the routes he did without apparently training for them. They found him aloof, not a team player. But those from the next generation, including Tomaz Humar before his death, are less certain. Humar never publicly doubted Cesen’s claim, simply saying that he wasn’t there, and that Cesen was “something special.”
Marko Prezelj takes a similar line: “There’s no proof he did it and there’s no proof he didn’t. So, to me, as long as he says he did it, I believe him. Almost every alpinist in the world has something they did without proof. So if I start disbelieving him, I’d have to start disbelieving others. Besides, I know Tomo, and it helps me to believe, because he’s a really special person who is able to do such things. Ultimately, whether he did it or not is not my problem.” Then Prezelj laughs, before adding: “He didn’t do it for me.”
Lhotse was Cesen’s last Himalayan peak. Now 50, he runs Slovenia’s sport-climbing association and has a good reputation as a rock climber. His sons, Ales and Nejc, are two of Slovenia’s brightest young alpinists. When Cesen championed sport climbing, political wrangling to restructure the PZS brought him into conflict once again with Tone Skarja. “We fought a bit when they wanted to change everything,” Skarja says, “but they didn’t get it all their way. Now we collaborate officially. It’s not friendly, but we work together. We work out our problems, as we did with Tomaz.”
Like Cesen, Humar’s bold solo climbs appealed to the public. Here was a feisty young talent taking on an out-of-touch, fusty establishment. See what you can do, he seemed to say, when you abandon the old, pre-independence ways of doing things. Your fate is in your own hands. It was an attitude in tune with the times. But it was Tomo Cesen who was first to strike out on his own, even before Yugoslavia collapsed. Marko Prezelj sees Cesen as Slovenia’s first climbing businessman, who was, in his colorful phrase, “a cockerel who called too early.” Cesen, for many a false prophet, cast a long shadow in Slovenia. But he showed there were other paths to follow.
Many young climbers in the West struggle to fund their habit. But they manage. They drive nails, wait tables or rappel buildings on maintenance contracts, whatever it takes. As long as they’ve got the cash, they can choose for themselves where they go and what they do. If they fail on an exedition, then it’s not the end of the world. They just lick their wounds, find another job and start again. Most age out and get steady jobs, while a tiny minority make climbing their career.
That’s how things are now in Slovenia, but not when Tomaz Humar was born, in a hospital in Ljubljana on February 18, 1969. His father, Max, worked in construction in a nearby factory and for neighbors, essentially on the black market. His mother, Rosalija, worked in a shop. They were observant Catholics, saying grace both before and after dinner. Spare weekends were spent on the ancestral farm, where friends and neighbors would gather on Saturday nights to share a bottle of homemade schnapps and sing the old songs.
It was a frugal way of life, predicated on hard work and co-operation. Although they could rely on regular wages, free schools and healthcare—and whatever they could get on the side—the Humars were not materially wealthy. Humar told McDonald that when he was given the job of feeding the pigs, he would wrap his feet in old bed sheets before putting on his rubber boots. Socks were for school and church.
Humar said that even from a young age he felt different from his parents and siblings. Hard work he could manage. He was working on construction projects with his father from the age of 6, fetching timber and cement. (“What are children for?” his father, Max, asked.) When occupied, he was a whirlwind of activity, his energy almost infectious. But the close—and closed—horizons of his parents’ lives chafed at his need for freedom. He needed more room to breathe than he found at home.
When his interest in climbing sparked and flared, his parents were bemused. Climbing was utterly pointless and actively dangerous. Why, when life was already hard enough, would he want to put himself—and them—through all that stress and anxiety? As Humar reached adulthood, the tension with his equally stubborn father only got worse. They argued about the money he spent on climbing and when he wrecked the family car and, worst of all, over Tomaz’s traumatic and degrading experiences during his compulsory spell in the Yugoslavian army.
Humar’s months as a conscript in the Yugoslavian army (JNA) changed him. Few mountaineers like being ordered around. If his parents couldn’t make him conform, what hope for his JNA superiors? But the mindless brutality and injustice was intolerable to him. His unit was sent to Kosovo, the disputed Balkan territory trapped between Serbia and Albania. As Milosevic turned the screws of oppression, ethnic Albanians resisted, often violently. Humar, serving in a corrupt and morally bankrupt army, hated what the Yugoslavian leader was doing.
Even worse, when he completed his term of service, his commanding officer ordered him to stay. Twice Humar deserted. He hid in a refuse dump, was discovered, and sent to a hellish detention center in Macedonia. He tried to escape again, jumping into the Vardar river. Returned to his unit in Kosovo, he was finally released, dressed in rags, half-starved, sick, and carrying an unloaded AK-47 on the streets of Podujevo, a mostly Muslim town. Locals stared at the fair-skinned northerner, but far from threatening him, an Albanian man drove him to the railway station, where the ticket-seller took pity and gave him a free trip home. “Before the army,” Humar later said, “I was an unusual guy. The army made me more unusual.”
Against this backdrop of civil war and economic collapse as Yugoslavia’s economy spiralled into chaos, Humar’s new passion for climbing bewildered his family. Many parents are puzzled, even alarmed when their children start climbing. Marko Prezelj’s certainly were. Prezelj tried to balance the need to plan for his future with his burning passion to be in the mountains, climbing. He studied chemical engineering at the University of Ljubljana, finally completing his four-year course after nine years trying. Like Humar, he came under pressure to give up his freewheeling lifestyle and knuckle down. “The rest of society saw me as a rebel,”’ he told me.
Both men found refuge from the tension in their lives among their friends in the local Kamnik climbing club. It met each Thursday night to plan that weekend’s adventure, and for both men making that Thursday meeting was an almost religious obligation. “The club was so important,” Prezelj says. “Those people were like my tribe.” Humar described the club meetings as Holy Thursday.
In the mid 1980s, before the collapse of socialism, Slovenia’s clubs were the backbone of climbing. Equipment and transport were luxuries few could afford, so clubs were essential to share resources. Other members were also the gatekeepers for reaching the Himalaya. If you couldn’t get along with people, you wouldn’t join the major leagues. “When I started, there weren’t any phones, let alone cell phones,” Prezelj says. “We would meet at the club, decide what we wanted to do that weekend and stick to it.”
Gear may have been rudimentary and cash limited, but Prezelj and his friends were dedicated and focused. In his first full year of climbing, at age 18, he went out 40 weekends. By the time Humar started climbing and joined the Kamnik club, Prezelj had been at it for five years and must have seemed to Humar the established young star. That year—1987—Prezelj joined his first Himalayan expedition, to Lhotse Shar, with some of the biggest names from the previous generation.
Humar meanwhile was going through the laborious process of a Slovenian climbing apprenticeship. There were no shortcuts. You learned to walk—literally—before you could climb, following a curriculum laid down over generations. It was another world of rules. Humar was tutored by one of the old guard, Bojan Pollak, who had been on some of Yugoslavia’s biggest successes in the 1970s. The young man learned to rock climb in heavy mountaineering boots, endured bivouacs without a sleeping bag and went without food and water, all at the behest of his mentor.
For Pollak, it was a duty to put something back into the sport. “Being an alpinist in those days had status,” Prezelj says. “It was socially more acceptable, not less. You were doing something for the nation. Those who were good at it got the benefits, free holidays and so forth. You were supported by society.” The beneficiaries of that system felt obliged to reciprocate.
“Without the help of the state nobody could have gone anywhere,” says Viki Groselj. “Our salaries at that time were around $150 a month. An air ticket to Nepal was around $1,000.” Not surprisingly, competition for places on expeditions was intense. The expeditions commission would choose the targets and alpinists would apply to join, attaching their climbing resumes. Prezelj says you had to prove yourself, to show your skill in the mountains to your peers, rather than fluff up your image on your website. “You couldn’t fake it.”
With this system, through the 1970s and 1980s, Slovenian mountaineers notched up a string of hugely impressive first ascents, on Makalu in 1975, Gasherbrum in 1977, Everest in 1979, and Dhaulagiri in 1981. That year another Slovenian expedition made a strong attempt on the south face of Lhotse. Tone Skarja had a plan to put a Slovenian on the summit of every 8,000-meter peak. It took exactly 20 years to complete the project, and in the process Yugoslavia built up a large cadre of experienced high-altitude climbers, almost exclusively Slovenian.
“It’s not easy for young Slovenian climbers,” Groselj says. “If you want to be the best here, then you’ve got to be among the best in the world. In 1975, I got onto a national team for the expedition to Makalu’s south face. That was after doing 25 climbs in 1974, of which 10 were relatively good. And for that expedition I was one of the best. Now, if I wish to get national attention, with 25 climbs, people would just smile and say come back when you’ve done a hundred difficult ones.”
The Makalu expedition, which made the first ascent of the south face, was an old-style siege trip with the strongest climbers Slovenia could muster: Stane ‘Srauf’ Belak, Tomaz Jamnik, Bojan Pollak (Humar’s tutor), and Nejc Zaplotnik among others. “We tried to do the best we could on the mountain,” says Groselj, “mostly because none of us knew when we’d get a chance to go back. It was a big drive for us all.” But as Tone Skarja says, that put the emphasis more on success than style or difficulty. “If there were two routes available to us, one hard and safe, the other easier but a bit more risky, our boys preferred the easier but more dangerous one—for speed. They would take the risk.”
With such a large cohort of grizzled Himalayan veterans at the disposal of Slovenia’s climbing clubs, it’s not surprising that the next couple of generations came on strong. More than a decade on from Makalu, Marko Prezelj joined Belak and Groselj and other legends attempting a new route on Shisha Pangma. Prezelj had read all their books and wondered how he would keep up with them. As it turned out, they had more trouble keeping up with him, even if he lacked their experience. Prezelj was paired with Belak, but the older man was sick and Prezelj moved twice as quickly. When Srauf dropped his rucksack, a frustrated Prezelj was forced to descend. The leader of the expedition—Tone Skarja—decided that with a new route in the bag and the mountain climbed, it was time to go home. This was, Prezelj says, the moment he realized that “being part of a machine was not for me.”
Influenced by Western climbers, and aware that technical standards in the Himalaya were surging ahead, Prezelj was just one of several Slovenian climbers to start branching out on his own, abandoning the PZS juggernaut for alpine-style. Cesen was another. Slavko Sveticic got support from the PVZ, but climbed his hugely impressive new route on the west face of Annapurna alone. Janez Jeglic, Silvo Karo and Franc Knez switched to alpine-style on hard new routes in Patagonia, as well as the Himalaya.
This vibrant new scene emerged just as “the machine” ground to a halt. At the start of the 1990s, Yugoslavia imploded in ethnic violence. Slovenia emerged relatively unscathed from its brief war with Slobadan Milosevic’s Serbian forces. But with the collapse of socialism, mountaineering’s security blanket was gone. “Less and less money came from the state, but we began to find sponsors,” says Viki Groselj. “They could see we were doing well.” Skarja says the PZS managed to support a few organized expeditions, but in the early 1990s they were forced to look for private sponsors just like everybody else. The number of expeditions leaving Slovenia more than halved.
Then, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg in The Terminator, Slovenia’s expedition commission flickered back into life. And that’s how Tomaz Humar got his big break. No one who knew him in his early years claims that Humar was preternaturally talented as a climber. In the Kamnik club, the talent was Marko Prezelj. But Humar’s toughness and vitality had made a strong impression. In the spring of 1995, Tone Skarja was planning an expedition to Annapurna, the last of the 8,000 meter peaks yet unclimbed by a Slovenian. He needed fresh blood to build his team. Skarja’s long-time comrade-in-arms Srauf Belak, now past his best, was planning an old-farts trip to Ganesh V (6,986m) for 1994 and Skarja asked if he’d take along a couple of young hotshots—Tomaz Humar and Gregor Kresal—if the PZS paid their way. It would be a chance to see if they had what it took for Annapurna. Humar finally had what he’d dreamed about: a ticket to the Himalaya.
It still wasn’t easy. Tomaz had married his girlfriend Sergeja in 1991 and they now had a young child, Ursa. He was working flat out at various jobs from being an electrician, to managing bank security, to painting, to keep things together and still get out climbing. Now he proposed to leave his family for weeks to go off to the Himalaya. At that early stage, Sergeja could deal with Humar’s passion for climbing, and she made the necessary sacrifices.
Humar shone on Ganesh. A general feeling that the team had missed its chance due to bad weather was overturned by Humar’s irrepressible determination to succeed. Not for the last time, he ignored an instruction from his leader to descend. In the end, it was the old warhorse Srauf, then 54, and the young dynamo Humar who reached the summit. Skarja was delighted. “They only succeeded because Humar was there,” he says.
If the old man admired Humar’s determination, the independent spirit that had prompted Srauf Belak to scream in frustration also gave Skarja a headache. The point of the Annapurna expedition was to put the brothers Davo and Andrej Karnicar on top so they could make the first ski descent and also put up a new route on the northwest face. Annapurna would be the last 8,000-meter to be climbed by a Slovenian. Humar was along to hump loads and make these ambitions happen. He wasn’t considered a likely candidate for a ticket to the summit.
Times, however, had changed. The PZS no longer offered young climbers a blank check like it had before independence. That weakened individual commitment to the team. Any sponsorship Tomaz found, Skarja told him, was required for the expedition kitty. But that didn’t mean his chances for the summit would be upgraded. So Tomaz refused to donate his money. He welcomed the chance to climb with some old hands like Viki Groselj, by then a 20-year veteran, and learned valuable lessons from them. But he wasn’t about to bury his personal ambition for the good of the team—not entirely. It wasn’t how the world worked anymore.
The Karnicars took their chance, and made the first ski descent of Annapurna. Humar carried loads and pushed the route, but was ordered down from Camp III so as not to get in their way. He didn’t take it well. Determined to give Annapurna one last shot, Humar went back against Skarja’s wishes into the face of worsening weather, where he and his Sherpa teammate, Arjun, struggled to find the tents at Camp IV in zero visibility.
Naively, they opted to rest at Camp IV for a day. The following morning, after Humar and Arjun had spent two nights at 7,500 meters, the climbers at base camp were anxious. What happened next is disputed. The weather was bad that morning, and Humar said Skarja told him once again to descend. Humar ignored the order, saying he was going to the summit, even though it was midday and the weather was still poor. But that’s not how Skarja remembers it.
“I told him it was better if he went down,” Skarja says. “But I would never stop a man if he wished to go up. I was angry, yes, but because he actually told me he was coming down. The route between Camp IV and Camp II was very dangerous. We were speculating about where he was, figuring he must be at Camp III. But we heard nothing on the radio. Two hours pass. Three hours. Nothing. Then at 7 p.m. we heard he was on the summit. For eight hours there was no word from him. He told us he was leaving Camp IV to come down to base camp.”
On the evidence from Annapurna, it was clear Humar’s personality and ambition were not suited to the kind of expedition Tone Skarja was used to leading. He wasn’t alone in that. Marko Prezelj had clashed with Skarja, and other Slovenian climbers were forging their own paths. Humar liked to complain that the establishment had stood in the way of his career, but Prezelj disagrees.
“It was a personal choice,” Prezelj says. “Slavko Sveticic was a good alpinist but he didn’t fit in any official frame either. He could still go on expeditions. Tomaz would complain that he was thwarted by the system but it wasn’t true. Not at all. Maybe in the old times he would have been, yes. But by the time we were going to the Himalaya, that was over.”
Despite their differences on Annapurna, Tone Skarja and the PZS stuck with Humar. His next three Himalayan expeditions all had some kind of official support, and to many of his fellow Slovenian climbers these were his golden years. In 1996, he and his partner Vanya Furlan won the Piolet d’Or for their pre-monsoon ascent of the northwest face of Ama Dablam in a five-day push of backs-to-the-wall alpine climbing that was a league or two above anything Humar had done before in the Himalaya. Tone Skarja’s expeditions commission paid for the whole thing.
That fall he soloed the first ascent of a peak in western Nepal called Bobaye as part of an all-star team that included Marko Prezelj and another presiding genius of Slovenian mountain climbing, Andrej Stemfelj. A year later, he was back in Nepal for the fifth time in three years, climbing a tough new route on the South Face of Nuptse with Janez “Johan” Jeglic in a five-day push. Steep, risky and an elegant line on a beautiful face, the Nuptse climb showed just how far Humar had come in a short period of time.
This intense burst of activity brought Humar to international attention. Before the Piolet d’Or, few outside the small world of Slovenian climbing had heard of him. After Ama Dablam and Nuptse, people wondered what this extrovert character would do next. Like Reinhold Messner, Viki Groselj says, Humar developed the knack of taking his career to a new level that captured people’s imagination. But while the Italian can seem austere and arrogant, Humar knew how to connect with ordinary Slovenians with no prior interest in his sport.
Moon-faced and with small, paw-like hands, Humar wasn’t a wiry athlete who kept himself finely tuned, more a compact bear of a man. His weight fluctuated, and he would rub his belly appreciatively, adding that this was what kept him going when the going got harsh. He would talk seriously and quietly, but then the energy inside him would spill out, and he’d grin and laugh, and his eyes would light up. His broad grin drew people to him. “Before Tomaz,” Groselj says, “I had to explain to my sponsors what alpinism was. After Tomaz, it was no problem. He made climbing big in Slovenia for his enemies as well as for himself.”
But while Humar found success in the mid 1990s, creating a buzz with his meteoric rise, the seeds of his failure were also sown, some by his own hand, some by fate. First, came the loss of friends. Srauf Belak, his mentor on Ganesh, died alongside his girlfriend in an avalanche in Slovenia’s Julian Alps on Christmas Eve 1995. Vanya Furlan, his partner on Ama Dablam, died in a fall, also in the Julian Alps, the following summer. On Nuptse, his partner Johan Jeglic was blown from the summit in a gathering storm, leaving Humar to make a harrowing descent.
Nuptse had been Jeglic’s idea. Coming back from Everest years before, he had spotted a stunning, tenuous line up the peak’s impressive south face. Jeglic was undoubtedly a more technically capable climber than Humar. He did it all—big walls in Yosemite and new routes in Patagonia, 8b sport climbs, ice-climbing competitions, modern testpieces in the Alps, even a new variation on Everest. His new route on Bhagirathi III in Garhwal Himal, done with Silvo Karo, impressed most of all. But the weather that fall was dreadful. As October wore on, teams started packing up and leaving. Humar and Jeglic dug in at a base camp. Well acclimatized after climbing Pumori, they waited a week, and then started climbing on October 27. Carrying only some 5 mm Kevlar static line, they sprinted up an ice couloir up to 80 degrees, menaced by seracs, to a ledge at 5,900 meters and their first bivouac. In the morning the weather was grim. In thick cloud and threatened by avalanches, Jeglic and Humar made it only another 400 meters and camped in a crevasse, their tent pummeled by a strengthening wind.
Visibility improved on October 29, but they only climbed another 400 meters of steep mixed ground, strafed by loose rock and ice. They chopped out a ledge and fixed their tent with ice screws, but it was buried by snow. Humar woke with a splitting headache as air in the tent grew stale. It was time to dump the bivouac gear and race the last thousand meters to the top. They were moving by 4 a.m. and made good progress, despite a menacing wind. Climbing in their own private bubbles, the two men said little, meeting to share a little liquid, joking that it was held in their pee bottle. “We’ll rinse it out, Johan. It can’t hurt. As long as it’s liquid.” At 7,500 meters, Jeglic could see the summit of Everest, capped by a frightening lenticular cloud. A gale howled over the ridge above them. They agreed to keep going until 2 p.m.
Jeglic drew ahead and, at 1 p.m., Humar looked up to see him waving, apparently on the summit. But when Humar arrived 15 minutes later, there was no sign of him. Jeglic was gone, blasted into oblivion by the savage wind. Humar was utterly alone, stranded on the summit of Nuptse. His descent was a nightmare, spent on the brink of exhaustion. He reached their bivouac tent at midnight, and promptly set it on fire when the stove malfunctioned. Base camp stayed on the radio, urging Tomaz to focus, but by the next evening he was hallucinating wildly, and suffering frostbite. It was three days since he’d drunk anything. He was found at the bottom of the face at midnight, marooned in a crevasse field, and led to safety. Coming down from Nuptse, said Humar later, was the “hardest situation in my life. Freezing hell. No water, no nothing.”
The physical wounds—he suffered frostbite in four toes—took months to heal. The psychological scars stayed with him for good. Jeglic was well loved in the Slovenian climbing community, quieter than Humar, less entranced by his own story. For many, including Viki Groselj, “Janez was the better climber at that time. Tomaz was the second.” Humar agreed, saying in an unpublished 2004 interview with Rock and Ice, “Jeglic was simply the best. The only mistake he made was his last trip to Nepal.”
Despite years of success with partners, after Nuptse, Humar preferred to climb alone. “When Janez died he left children and this is not easy,” he said in the Rock and Ice interview. “I didn’t want to come home with [just my partner’s] passport and wallet again.”
Grief at the loss of Jeglic prompted some wild accusations about what really happened on Nuptse. The speculation left Humar to comment that the wrong man had come back from the mountain. “Humar was a lightning conductor for all the different tensions in Slovenian climbing,” says Groselj. “He was very sure [his way] was right and wouldn’t listen. He couldn’t get a perspective on things.”
His injuries meant he had nothing to do but brood, revealing a darker aspect of his personality very different from the ebullient enthusiasm he showed his fans. His marriage, too, was starting to unravel. Sergeja had given birth to their second child, also Tomaz, while Tomaz Sr. was on Ama Dablam. The long months of separation and anxiety had taken their toll. When he was gone, she lived with the fear he might not come back. When he did come back, the force of his personality seemed to take over her life.
Leafing through the family’s photo albums, biographer Bernadette McDonald could see the strain of Humar’s obsession etched on Sergeja’s face. “In the early photographs she looks happy, and then as I turned the pages I could see the lines of desperation growing deeper.”
In a profile for Outside magazine, Peter Maass wrote that being with Tomaz was basically like being with a child with ADD. Humar, Maass said, would not stop talking and skipped from subject to subject, touching on his father, his climbing club, George Bush, abortion, climbing and food in non-stop dialogue.
“[Humar] must have been hard to live with,” says Viki Groselj. “We’d go round there and he’d be incredibly entertaining, but then we’d get to go home and rest.”
Sergeja had always been deeply religious, but her frustration at living with Tomaz pushed her further into her faith. She told Maass she chose Tomaz as “Jesus chose the cross.” But she was clearly anxious about where they were heading and longed for him to take his foot off the gas.
Humar, too, talked often about his own spiritual life, which conflated his childhood Catholicism with pretty much every brand of soul food on the market. “I was born a Christian,” he told Rock and Ice, “but if you believe in Allah or Buddha, the main thing is love. It is all the same.”
Buddh-ish just about captures it. He carried a photograph of the Indian spiritual leader Sai Baba, who has faced allegations of fraud and sexual abuse, but whose eclectic attitude to religion suited Humar. He began talking about having a spiritual relationship with mountains, as if mountains were living entities.
“The face of the mountain has a soul,” he said. “Mountains are not dead. They are very living things.” Hallucinations prompted by exhaustion on Nuptse were a spiritual experience that allowed him to survive. He began to think of them as seeing with his third, inner eye, or what Buddhists would call our inner gate to a higher consciousness. “When you accept danger, then it is easier to handle,” he said. “You must understand when you feel the mountain. My third eye [guides me]. Even when you are on loose rock you know which ones will hold.”
His own friends were skeptical. “Tomaz reached the limit of where training and experience would take him,” Groselj says. “He saw that there was nowhere to improve and maybe he thought his third-eye approach was a way to be better, that if you understand these things you can be a better climber. It was a way of seeing. It wasn’t classically religious, not what they say in our churches. And I was different than him in this. I thought it was dangerous, this spiritual thing. We laughed about it. When he came down from Nanga Parbat, I asked him: ‘Where’s your third eye now?’ And he laughed. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I dropped it?’ It’s amazing. People loved him for that stuff. It was a little bit mystical. His arms would wave and people would watch him.”
Driven on by his own momentum, Humar found himself increasingly isolated from the Slovenian climbing establishment. That process reached its climax on Dhaulagiri, the mountain that transformed his life. In his autobiography, No Impossible Ways, Humar suggests that his rupture from the PZS occurred during the furious arguments he had with Tone Skarja on Annapurna. Skarja doesn’t see it like that.
“Here, at Dhaulagiri, we divide,” he says. The reason wasn’t spirituality or the death of friends, he says, but money, pure and simple. “He came to us in June or July in 1999. I knew he’d already been to our sponsors on Annapurna asking them why they were giving money to such big expeditions [like ours] when he could do it alone for less. He wanted $10,000, but we were in the red. I told him it was a big risk.”
The phrase “big risk” is an understatement. The south face of Dhaulagiri is vast, 13,000 feet high and bristling with objective danger. The solo ascent Humar proposed was like going over the top in World War I. His boyhood mentor Bojan Pollak put the odds of Humar’s survival on Dhaulagiri at 50/50. Tomaz himself, after the event, nonchalantly suggested he had a 20 percent chance of survival. Later he justified the risk by saying, “In alpinism you need risk. Without risk you don’t have alpinism.”
Messner had tried the climb—and failed. A big Polish team had climbed an easier line on the face’s left. A Slovenian team had climbed to the right, and then veered onto the east ridge. The true line, the center of the face, stood untouched, just waiting for someone with the right kind of extreme personality and wild energy to come along and try it. Humar filled the bill perfectly.
When Skarja pulled the rug from under Humar’s request for cash, he was infuriated. Humar went into overdrive, phoning contacts and following leads until he got 20 minutes with the Slovenian telecommunications company Mobitel. They agreed to back him and the trip was back on. In signing up with a large corporate sponsor, Humar broke the mold for Slovenian climbing. He entered a new game, one of managing huge financial and public expectations, which tested his mental strength as much as seracs and stonefall. A lot was riding on Humar’s plans, much of it beyond his control. He was consulting astrologers to choose the best date to begin climbing while signing deals with companies that were transforming Slovenia from socialism to the free market. Skarja could only stand aside and admire his former protégé’s business acumen.
Humar might have been climbing alone, but he took a caravan of friends and helpers to ease the isolation of camping below Dhaulagiri. He also had thousands of armchair mountaineers logging on to follow each twist and turn. This interest in him buoyed Humar, like hot air swells a balloon. The weather in Nepal that post-monsoon was dire. The day before he started, the British mountaineer Ginette Harrison died on the mountain. As Humar set off, a huge avalanche swept down the middle of the face.
Shouldering a heavy pack, he made slow progress on the first day, pummeled by loose ice and soaked by wet snow and running water. On technical sections he tied off his sack and ran out a 5mm Kevlar line, which he would rappel with to collect his gear. He carried a few cams, four ice screws and half a dozen pitons. He also carried one of his son’s little shoes for good luck. How he felt about the mountain, and how the mountain felt about him, seemed as important as his planning. “You need to feel and smell like a horse so you are with the mountain,” he said. “Normally, I don’t go on a wall unless I have permission from the wall.”
Despite Humar’s gnomic eloquence, Groselj says it’s a mistake to think that he didn’t pay attention to detail. “He was impulsive, yes, but when it came to climbing he was thorough and prepared very well. Stipe told me how unbelievably safe he was. He was precise about things.”
Humar would say that training and being prepared were only part of what you needed to stay safe. “You need to be like a Swiss watch,” he said about his climbing philosophy, but “also blessed from God and have a lot of luck. Luck is a gift, it is not an absolute. You should be prepared for luck. Luck likes being prepared.”
As the days passed and Humar’s little envelope of dreams floated up the face, more and more people back home logged on to check on his progress. This meant something to him. He drew strength from the impact he was having. He also found he could disassociate his mind from his body’s hardships. Battered by falling ice, exhausted after days on the face with little sleep or food, he found that his spiritual focus really did keep him going. At 6,300 meters, he developed a raging toothache, so took his penknife to the filling, releasing the infection beneath and easing the pressure in his head. The audience back home winced in sympathy.
By now, more than two-thirds of the way up the south face, Humar realized that if he stuck to his direct line, he wasn’t going to make it. And that meant he would die. There was no way off this face other than up. So he decided to follow a line traversing up toward the east ridge, first done by a Japanese team in 1978, and climb the last eight or nine hundred meters to the summit that way. As it turned out, by the ninth day, Humar was so strung out from his last bivouac at 8,000 meters that the game was up. He looked carefully at the pictures of his kids, and headed down. “My children trust me,” he would later say. “Father always comes back.” Dhaulagiri, it seemed, would let him have the face, but not the summit.
He arrived home to a tumultuous welcome. His website had received 1.7 million hits a day as the climb reached its climax, and Slovenia was agog to find out more about this voyager on the edge of life. His sponsor Mobitel sent the executive jet to Brussels to collect Reinhold Messner, then a Member of the European Parliament, who was waiting in Arrivals to endorse Humar’s achievement. (“What is he?” one Slovenian climber asked me. “The climbing pope?”)
Messner had one stipulation. No one should mention his earlier acknowledgement of Tomo Cesen. “At the moment,” Messner pontificated, “Humar is the greatest high-altitude climber in the world. What he has done is special. I know these walls, and they are very difficult, especially Dhaulagiri.”
But back home, the flak was soon bursting around Humar’s ears. Slovenian critics pointed out that he hadn’t reached the summit. Nor had he climbed the true line he’d intended, taking in the whole face, whatever the press was saying. The route was over-graded and over-hyped. Humar was little more than a reckless stunt-monkey prepared to accept odds most climbers would think insane.
Today, 10 years later, judgment on Humar’s most famous adventure is more nuanced. Marko Prezelj told me: “Dhaulagiri was a good epic, a good climb, but for me personally it was not a milestone in the development of climbing. Compare it to Slavko Sveticic soloing Annapurna’s west face by a new route, technically speaking more difficult, which joined the normal route at 7,900 meters. In 1991. Nobody’s ever heard of this, though.”
Viki Groselj is more generous. “He had the balls to start in the middle of that face and he had a plan.” For that, Groselj suggests, Humar deserves his place in the pantheon. “In my opinion, Humar’s Dhaulagiri climb was the best thing any human had done in the Himalaya.”
A year to the day after his decision to traverse off the south face of Dhaulagiri, Tomaz Humar lay in a broken heap, not at the bottom of a cliff but in what would be the cellar of the new home he was building for Sergeja and their children in the Kamnik Alps. When he regained consciousness, Humar felt something strange weighing down on his body. It was his right leg. He broke his femur. His left heel was shattered. Humar lost three liters of blood and suffered a pulmonary embolism, flatlining during six-hour emergency surgery.
The irony was cruel. Fêted at film festivals and lectures around the world, decorated by the president of Slovenia, hailed on the street by strangers, financially in great shape, it seemed as though the gamble he’d made with fate had paid off. Now he was reduced to a wheelchair. It looked like nemesis had finally caught up with Tomaz Humar.
But it hadn’t. Not yet. He was indefatigable in recovery. When the doctors told him not to expect too much, he just laughed. But complications and infection slowed his progress. If he hadn’t gone to Germany for further treatment, Humar would have stayed in the wheelchair he dubbed the Red Ferrari. Humar later said he recovered “with the help of God. No medicine.” He subjected himself to unorthodox cures. He meditated, getting his heart up to 200 beats per minute, then immersed himself in cold water to “temper the body.” The recovery took two years.
Looking back, several of those close to Humar agree that he was not the same force after the accident. But what he did soon after was impressive enough, considering the severity of his injuries that he said left him “30.5 percent crippled.” He climbed Shisha Pangma with a Kazakh team as part of his rehabilitation, and a new route on Aconcagua’s south face with a young lad from the Kamnik club, Ales Kozelj, earned him a third nomination for the Piolet d’Or. Humar’s route on Aconcagua, he said, was the most difficult with, “not even one ice screw or piton” for protection. That climb, he said, was under one big serac. “A one-way ticket. I like one-way tickets.”
Constantly, it seemed, he was locked in some kind of mystical internal struggle. In 2004, five years since his last significant success, Humar said that he needed to get back to hard climbing to “compete with my weakness,” and saying that he had “black holes” in his aura. “You have to follow the way,” he said, “and He will take care of you.” In 2005, he was back in Nepal climbing Cholatse with Kozelj and Janko Opresnik, from the Annapurna expedition. While they were on the mountain, Ueli Steck, a star from the next generation, still in his 20s, was soloing a new variant in 37 hours. At times, Humar must have felt his future was behind him.
Nanga Parbat, Humar must have thought, would give him his second chance. A new route, climbed alone, up the Rupal Face would outdo even his Dhaulagiri success. He arrived in Pakistan in the summer of 2005, once again with the backing of Mobitel and the eyes of the world on him. On his website he spelled out just how committing his climb would be. “If it was easy to get rescued, someone would have tried to climb this route before. All mountaineers who decide to do such a feat know there might be no way back.” Those words would come back to haunt him.
Humar was not in the right frame of mind for such a gigantic undertaking. His marriage to Sergeja had collapsed and his mind was not exclusively on the mountain. “Messner once said you must be calm, in balance with yourself, before you make an extreme climb,” says Viki Groselj. “But Tomaz in the last few years had a big problem with this.”
Soon after he started up the face, Humar became stranded, trapped in a small hole in the ice at over 6,000 meters, threatened on all sides by avalanches. He couldn’t go up or descend. His desperate position was broadcast around the world, as international efforts got under way to rescue him. It took the personal intervention of the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, to allow an unprecedented helicopter rescue, and the extraordinary skill of Pakistani air force pilot Rashid Ullah Baig to pull it off. Humar had been marooned for 10 days, and was close to the end. Slovenian television devoted 20 minutes to his lucky escape. He was photographed back at base camp, kneeling on the ground, his head pressed against the earth in gratitude. Humar returned home to the relief of his fans and the vitriol of his critics, calling his rescue a second birth.
After Nanga Parbat, everything changed. He withdrew, literally and psychologically. Tomaz Humar’s second life was lived far from the attention of the media. Viki Groselj had spoken to him via sat phone during the rescue, and was struck by the change Nanga Parbat made in him. “He was happy to be alive,” he says. “But being rescued wasn’t good for his ego. Reinhold said the same. He met him in Pakistan at the time. Tomaz came down very euphoric but he didn’t come back to his own life. At that time he started to close himself off.”
If Dhaulagiri had made Tomaz Humar a star, then the expectations for his attempt on Nanga Parbat were colossal. His failure was dramatic and horribly public. His philosophical musings now rang hollow. After such a public rescue, involving risk to others, having your own bio- therapist on hand to read the mountain’s aura made him seem not so much colorful as bonk- ers. More hurtful were the brickbats tossed in by other alpinists. Mark Twight was aghast at what had turned into a circus: “Now every ill- prepared sad sack whose ability falls short of his Himalayan ambition can get on the radio, call for help, and expect the cavalry to save the day,” he said in a December, 2005 National Geographic Adventure article.
The failure hit Humar hard. When he did emerge—to climb on Annapurna’s south face, or attempt a last-ditch rescue for compatriot Pavle Kozjek, lost on Muztagh Tower—inter- est in the fading star was mixed with jeers. Only those closest to him knew how sensi- tive he was. In public, Bernadette McDonald says, he could seem brash and only concerned about his own ambitions. “My impression, however, was that he was an emotionally frag- ile person, and those things hurt him a lot, the kind of things people were saying. That he should have been a man and died up there.”
Last fall, the Italian alpinist Simone Moro found himself unexpectedly in Kathmandu. He’d been acclimatizing in Nepal, before going to Cho Oyu inside Tibet, but the Chinese authorities suddenly revoked his team’s visas and permit on political grounds. It was the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, and they weren’t taking any chances. One morn- ing, Moro ran into an old friend walking down the street—Tomaz Humar. The two had dinner together, and Humar showed Moro an old pho- tocopied image of Langtang Lirung’s south face.
“Tomaz said the face had been attempted two or three times before and that everybody failed,” Moro told me. He agreed to give Humar some ice screws, made by their shared sponsor, CAMP. “The line he showed me looked to be the only one possible on that face, with less risk than other lines. But it still looked quite dangerous. Tomaz told me also that alpinism had become for him a hobby and no more his job or main activity. He was different from the other times I met him. He also phoned me while he was going by bus to the last village, where he intended to start trekking.” It was, as it turned out, a final greeting.
Apart from Moro, almost no one knew that Humar was in Nepal. Certainly not anyone at the PZS, or even Viki Groselj who had, he says, tried to keep his relationship with Humar on an even keel. Separated and then divorced from Sergeja several years before, Humar had fought a long battle to maintain contact with his children. When Humar died, Sergeja didn’t attend the funeral, or allow the children to go, and she declined to comment for this article. A long relationship with Slovenian journalist Maja Ros, begun on Nanga Parbat, broke down in 2008. His business, running a rope-access company, allowed him a decent enough living, thanks to a government contract. But Groselj adds that he wasn’t as well off as he had been—or as many of his critics believed him to be.
What was in Tomaz Humar’s mind as he left base camp for the last time? At 3,300 meters, the south face of Langtang Lirung is one of the biggest in the Himalaya, and its reputation is sobering. Mike Searle, leader of the British attempt on Langtang’s southwest face in 1980, recalled avalanches down the face taking four minutes to reach the bottom. That group had started from Langtang village, down the valley from Kyanjin Gompa at 3,500 meters. It took them weeks of effort to climb thousands of feet up a steep wall and talus to the midway point, a huge bowl in the center of the face. Then they ran out of steam.
Humar hit on an alternative approach that gave his bold solo attempt a real chance. At the end of the first week in November, he left base camp on the Langtang glacier and climbed up to the col on the south ridge. Here, on November 8, he called Jagat, his friend and base camp manager. What happened next isn’t clear. Either he traversed, or more likely abseiled down to easier ground at the foot of the col and then traversed into the heart of the southwest face. Mike Searle recalls, “None of us were particularly keen to dodge the avalanches on the ice slopes above.” The route was climbable, he says, “but the objective dangers were too great.” It’s easy to imagine Humar being struck by ice or rock, and falling the next day, November 9.
Nobody I spoke to was surprised that Tomaz Humar died this way. “Hopefully, I’ll have a long life,” he said before Nanga Parbat. “But I probably won’t see 50. I don’t think much about retirement.” Dead at 40, Humar didn’t get close to even his pessimistic prediction.
Bernadette McDonald last saw him a year before his death at a film festival in Scotland. “He wasn’t well. He had some kind of lead poisoning and was seeing a doctor in Germany. He was goofing around like he always did in public, but in private he was worried.” McDonald speculates that his years painting as a young man, raising cash for expeditions, may have come back to haunt him. His poor health was undermining future climbing plans. “He seemed to me a smaller version of his former self,” she adds.
He had, however, started a new relationship. It was his girlfriend who alerted Groselj to Humar’s predicament. He had called her, and not Jagat, after being badly injured on Langtang Lirung, on November 9. She asked if Groselj could help organize a rescue. Groselj contacted Gerold Biner, who had overseen the Pakistani rescue, and since Biner was recovering from surgery, he put the task in the hands of Bruno Jelk. He also contacted Humar’s Nepali agent, Ang Tshering.
On Wednesday, November 10, Humar called Jagat: “I have broken my back and leg,” he said. “I am afraid it will be difficult for a helicopter to locate me. My pulse is weak and I think I am going to die. This is my last …”
Ang Tshering was already organizing a flight by Fishtail to Langtang to drop a search team. The next morning, they reached the south ridge from where Humar had called Jagat on November 8, but could see no sign of him. Bad weather on Thursday and Friday, when the Swiss arrived in Kathmandu, prevented any further search.
How Tomaz Humar spent his final days is a mystery that may never be explained. But among the speculation are some clues. Anthamatten wondered what Humar’s climbing plans were. Why cross the south ridge and go down? Humar had studied the face and previous attempts. Perhaps, by coming in from the other side of the south ridge and dropping down to the glacier above this section, Humar thought he could save himself over 1,500 meters of hard climbing—an ingenious solution to the problem that had bogged down the British in 1980.
Why did he call his girlfriend first, a day before calling his base camp manager? Groselj says Tomaz didn’t ask her to get help. Utterly alone and expecting to die, he just wanted some human contact. Did he really not want a rescue effort made? It seems unlikely. A lodge owner in Kyanjin Gompa told British trekkers he had Humar’s sat phone number and called him. Humar, the lodge owner said, was desperate for help to come. He wanted to live. Could more have been done to rescue him?
Close friends feel that if the Swiss had been called sooner, then perhaps he might have lived. But Humar was vague about his plans, and climbing in a totally committed style. No one knew better the consequences of an accident—and how unlikely a rescue would be—than Humar himself. Finally, where was his gear? His sleeping bag and stove? Viki Groselj speculates that he fell from a bivouac site where his gear was stashed.
On his last climb, Tomaz Humar turned his back on the media. He seemed driven only by an inner compulsion to climb what he excelled at—a big, serious Himalayan face. Whether he was looking for redemption, or a return to the limelight, at some level Langtang Lirung was the kind of stage where he could most fully act out his life’s dramas. Yet even in death, Humar still divides opinion like almost no one else.
“It was a shock,” says Tone Skarja, without appearing at all shocked. “He was a national hero. For non-climbers he was the greatest climber in Slovenia. But time moves on. The public forgets.”
Skarja is already looking to the next generation of Slovenian masters. “The direction of Marko Prezelj is the best way—safe and technical climbing.” Prezelj was in the Garhwal Himal last year, climbing with two young hot-shots, Rok Blagus and Luka Lindic. “This was excellent,” Skarja says.
Journalists often ask him if Tomaz Humar was Slovenia’s most influential climber, but he tells them no. The name he offers is that of Nejc Zaplotnik, who reached the summit of Everest in 1979 via the west ridge, wrote a book called My Way, then died in an avalanche on Manaslu in 1983. “Zaplotnik really opened new horizons for young climbers. Tomaz’s life was very different from the way he told it. Tomaz became rich, much more than any other climber. Everything Zaplotnik did was for alpinism.”
Bernadette McDonald is more forgiving. “When I was writing my book, I had the sense that Tomaz was a kind of tragic character, not just in the life and death sense, but in his everyday life. He was so conflicted about every- thing and it kind of tore at him. When I talked with him about it, he laughed that I could be so misguided about his character. But I think I was right.”
Ed Douglas is a traveller, writer and mountaineer. His first book, about Everest, Chomolungma Sings The Blues, was published in 1997. Other books include Regions of the Heart, a biography of mountaineer Alison Hargreaves, who disappeared on K2, and the first full-length biography of Tenzing Norgay, published by National Geographic. A former editor of the Alpine Journal, he lives in Sheffield, England.
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