The Audacious Legacy of Tomaz Humar

The Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar was found dead on November 14 after falling while trying to solo the south face of Lantang Lirung (23,711 feet).

By Jeff Jackson | February 4th, 2010

The Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar was found dead on November 14 after falling while trying to solo the south face of Lantang Lirung (23,711 feet). He broke his leg and spine in the fall at 20,669 feet and then radioed his basecamp and asked them to arrange a rescue. Dawa Sherpa organized the effort and relayed Humar’s last words spoken to a basecamp member, “The conversation was very short. He said, ‘Jagat, this is my last.’”

Of course I’d heard of Humar. His 1995 route on the northwest face of Ama Dablam (22,349 feet) won him the Piolet d’Or, and he’d followed that success with many others: Bobaye (22,336 feet), Lobuche East (20,075 feet), Pumori (23,507 feet), Nuptse W2 (25,400 feet).

Humar often climbed alone, soloing most of the “impossible” south face of Dhaulagiri in 1999, and earning praise from Reinhold Messner, who called him “the greatest high-altitude climber in the world.” Slovenians avidly followed the climb on the Internet. Humar’s dramatic blogging about close calls and mid-climb dental self-surgery with a Swiss Army knife drew up to 2 million hits a day and brought criticism from climbers. Marko Prezelj, another fine Slovenian alpinist, commented, “It’s not alpinism, it’s show business.”

While working on his house in 2000, Humar fell off a ladder, broke his right femur and crushed his left heel. After 10 operations the diagnosis was bleak—he was never supposed to walk again. He employed unconventional therapies such as bio-energy work and breath control, however, and proved the doctors wrong.

In 2005 Humar attempted the 15,000-foot Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat (26,660 feet). He brought an astrologist to basecamp to read the aura of the mountain and to help him pick an auspicious date to begin his ascent, but miscalculated and wound up stormbound and stranded in a coffin-shaped bivouac, just out of reach of constant thundering avalanches. He spent a hellish week frozen in a sleeping bag and was finally plucked off the mountain by a Pakistani helicopter on his 10th day on the peak.

The drama had unfolded in real time on the Internet and it drew intense criticism from climbers who decried the rescue as a “murder of the impossible.” Mark Twight summarized the feelings of many in a statement to “A short haul off Nanga Parbat, a helicopter at the summit of Everest … and 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.”

To many it was ironic that Humar again called for a rescue on Lantang Lirung. One climber quipped: “Why can’t Humar just shut up and die like a real alpinist?”

And yet it is difficult to imagine a more accomplished, committed or skilled alpinist than Tomaz Humar. Climbing alone with no porters or fixed ropes, he consistently chose the most challenging objectives in the world, often first ascents, and through strength of will and with unlimited ambition he overcame the obstacles of poverty and physiological challenges to realize his dreams. Few of Humar’s critics have had the courage to undertake ascents in the same pure style and I wonder if these climbers would actually eschew a rescue when faced with a broken body at 20,000 feet?

Ed Douglas, writing an obituary in the Guardian, described Humar as “restless, expansive and charismatic, he talked about mountaineering in spiritual, even mystical terms, and saw himself on a quest for psychological healing.”

That quest is over, and Humar’s detractors must now confront the audacious legacy of his climbs.

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