Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage by Hermann Buhl 2020 Edition
One of the most loved and epic books about mountaineering
Among the classics of mountaineering literature, Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage stands alongside The White Spider as a book that inspired the climbers that brought alpine style to the Himalaya, Reinhold Messner among them.
First published (in German) in 1954, it was soon after translated and brought to English-speaking readers, becoming the book you read during winter months in London or Toronto long before climbing gyms were conceived. The 2020 paperback printing includes the translator’s introduction and the preface to the 1998 edition written by the great man of mountain letters, Ken Wilson.
Pilgrimage captures Hermann Buhl at the height of his powers, having made the first and only first ascent of an 8,000m peak solo. He gives us successive accounts of increasingly difficult climbs in his native North Tyrol, and later the Dolomites, the Western Alps, and an early repeat of the North Face of the Eiger throughout the 1940s.
The equipment and techniques of the day meant that the great “grade VI” faces could be climbed for the first time. Buhl gives detailed, often pitch-by-pitch descriptions of routes while scarcely mentioning his two years as an enlisted soldier fighting in the mountains of Italy against allied troops making their way up the peninsula.
The Hermann Buhl who wrote Pilgrimage had yet to turn thirty. As readers, we know of no other; as he perished when a cornice collapsed a year later on Chogolisa (also in the Karakoram). His approach to mountains and climbing them stressed notions of devotion, purity of heart, and oath-taking, echoing the work of Soren Kierekegaard, who wrote a century earlier and who’s values clearly resonated with Austrian climbers of his generation.
There’s simply no turning back once a commitment is made to reach the summit. There’s simply no letting go of your ski pole as you spend the night sleep-standing alone on a tiny ledge without any sort of extra gear at 8,000m. (This is considered the most heroic unplanned bivi in the annals of high-altitude mountaineering).
Most enduring to a current reader is Buhl’s awareness of how our memories are shaped so distinctly and profoundly by the act of climbing. On this subject, he writes: My experiences on the mountain were so tremendous and so impressive that I find it difficult to marshal them into an orderly account. Indelible pictures keep on interposing themselves on the actual chronological sequence of events. They are pictures which obliterate mere human happenings, shining, alluring visions which sear one’s heart and wipe out all memory of distress, worry and disappointment.
However pleasurable, a day of cragging with friends is not going to reframe your mental landscape in the way that Buhl describes. To do that, you have to cast out considerably further; but perhaps not as far as he did.