Interview with mountaineer Kurt Diemberger

Published in the Himalayan Journal, April 1997

I went to boarding school in a hill station in the Indian Himalaya. From the hill above school you could see a dozen or so 6000 m and 7000 m Himalayan peaks; among them were Nanda Devi (7816 m) and Kamet (7755 m). I have spent countless silent days staring into the distance; dreaming about standing on one of those peaks that seemed so close.

In addition to this I grew up on a steady diet of Himalayan mountaineering literature. My heroes were the likes of Tilman, Joe Brown, Hermann Buhl, Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, Bonnatti and Alan Rouse. Feats like the first ascent of Broad Peak, Nanda Devi and the west wall of Changabang were what fuelled my fantasy. Incidents like Hermann Buhl’s death on Chogolisa and the Boardman/ Tasker tragedy on the North-east Ridge on Everest were what brought tears to my eyes. These characters seemed that intense, they were almost mythical. It was the occasional tragedy that reminded me that they were real. I didn’t know these people but felt their presence. I didn’t ever hope to meet them, but then, who ever actually hopes to meeting their childhood heroes?

I actually happened to meet Chris Bonington a few years ago. Well, I don’t know how you would define ‘meet’. My knees went weak as he autographed the huge pile of his books I owned. I didn’t have the guts to say anything, not even to extend my arm to shake his hand or even look him in eye. His presence was enough for me. Now, years later I had the chance to meet another mythical figure — Kurt Diemberger, in Australia.

The same Kurt Diemberger who stood on Broad Peak (8047 m) with Hermann Buhl. The first alpine style ascent of any Himalayan peak; never mind that it was an unclimbed 8000er. I can never forget that fantastic photograph of Buhl on the summit bathed in the golden light of a Himalayan sunset. The first person to stand on the summit of Dhaulagiri (8167 m). He was on K2 with A1 Rouse during infamous ‘Black Summer’ of 1986. Among the peaks he had climbed were Makalu (8481 m), Gasherbrum II (8035 m), K2 (8611 m) and Everest (8848 m) and these are only the list of 8000ers. He had made the first sine-sound film on the summit of Everest, won numerous film awards and was known as the ‘cameraman for the 8000ers’.

I was in awe of this man. He has done things no one had the guts, strength or imagination to do. He has been to places where no human has been before. He hasn’t just been over the edge, he has filmed it. He is a pioneer and adventurer in the truest sense of the word. I don’t know of many people who have even dreamt half as much as he has actually achieved.

I didn’t want to blow this meeting as I did with Christ Bonington. I had to keep myself in control. After a few hick ups I finally managed to arrange an interview between one of his lectures during his first tour of Australia. I had front row seats; wasn’t going to miss anything because of somebody’s head. I first saw Kurt Diemberger during first of his lectures centred around material covered in his book Spirits of the Air. He was bearded, heavy set and spoke in a way that displayed a genuine concern to communicate with his audience.

The images were amazing; from icebergs and fiords of Greenland, to high Himalayan peaks to the jungles of the Amazon. He had done that, much that often he would say, ‘but there is no time to go into that now’. The sheer volume of things he had done was astounding. What impressed me the most of all was his modesty. He talked about the climbs as if they were no real achievement. ‘After I climbed Makalu (8481 m) (in spring) I remembered I was invited to climb Everest (8848 m) in autumn. So I climbed Everest and then I climbed Gasherbrum II (8035 m), he states matter of factly; as if it was the most obvious course of action. He spoke of collecting mountains as he had collected crystals in his younger days. He never failed to give others credit, always naming everyone involved; climbers and Sherpas alike.

For me the crux of the show was when he was talking about the 1957 Broad Peak expedition. I felt privileged to hear the tale told by the man himself. He had my favourite mountaineering image: Hermann Buhl on the summit of Broad Peak. The unreal gold light of that Himalayan sunset seems to further mythologise the event. A little later came the stark image of Buhl’s footprints disappearing off the cornice on Chogolisa. Hermann Buhl walked off the edge of a cornice while retreating off the mountain in a storm. I noticed Diemberger hesitated while he spoke about the incident. It is obvious that even after 40 years talking about that incident still affects him. He confirmed this in the interview.

After the show I was introduced to him. He shook my hand, motioned me to sit down and start immediately. Finally a one on one with him! I was really nervous. I fumbled with my tape recorder and my list of questions. I had them researched and written down. I wasn’t going to risk stage fright this time. It was a bit ironic that I was about to interview one of mountaineering’s pioneers in an indoor climbing gym; surrounded by bolts, plastic holds and prefab walls.

Amar Dev: What was the initial reaction of the climbing community in the 50’s when Hermann Buhl first proposed climbing Himalayan giants in what has come to be known as alpine style?

Kurt Diemberger: Many people thought he was mad. It was a crazy idea to do that. But well he just followed his feelings and he said, why shall we not be just three or four friends and climb it without the help of altitude porters, without using oxygen gear and as a matter of fact we succeeded in doing it. Even if this first term of alpine style was much more heavy than what today we call alpine style. We didn’t think much of putting here and there some meters of fixed line. Nowadays if you put a fixed line you say it isn’t alpine style anymore. Anyway, the right change was we did use neither high altitude porters nor oxygen gear. Because without oxygen gear other 8000 meter peaks had already been climbed (by) Fritz Moravec and Herbert Tichy but not without the use of high altitude porters. Now already in this same year we used what today is called pure alpine style on Chogolisa and Skilbrum. We only moved with one tent and without the help of altitude porters, without oxygen and without putting any piece of fixed rope.

AD: What was the reaction when you managed to do a first ascent of an 8000er in alpine style ?

KD : When we had succeed, I think, many people thought ‘we would do that too’, and from that moment many, what we call light weight expeditions, followed this example. Some used pure alpine style but you can only use pure alpine style say without any return to base camp and just do it in one go if you have already been acclimatised on another mountain before. While what we did on Broad Peak it can be used by any small group of mountaineers which was acclimatised on the mountain for three weeks you can calmly go to the summit of an 8000 meter peak. But it takes about three weeks.

AD : The experience on Chogolisa with Hermann Buhl… I noticed during the slide show you hesitated when you came to that part.

KD : Sure. I mean it was a terrible experience because all of a sudden my friend had disappeared…..and …I…I…I…I could never believe that something like this could ever happen to Hermann Buhl. He had just climbed Nanga Parbat solo and ….. It was a very, very hard way down Chogolisa.

AD: Do you think your ascent of Broad Peak was like the breaking down of Kafka’s Castle?

KD: As I said it was a pioneering action and after this many people used this style.

AD: Do you find it strange that now traditional siege tactics are frowned upon?

KD: No they are still on. They still use them because it is a habit. However I think there can be climbs where using pure alpine style is just too dangerous….so…in some cases siege tactics may be right but we should generally try to get away from it and to use small expeditions.

AD: What do you think of modern speed climbing in the Himalaya?

KD: Well I consider it a sort of sport. While for me mountaineering is more than a sport. Speed climbing is…I don’t see the difference between speed running in the plains and speed running high up. So its in some way doing sport on a field which should be mountaineering. I think those people, they have their pleasure and they have their fun and everybody has the right to find his fun and pleasure. But I don’t think….If they really think its mountaineering that’s not really true because mountaineering is more than sport.

AD: Do you think there is a lot of ego involved. You talk about listening to the spirit of the mountain…..

KD: There is so much more in mountaineering than just in sport. Its finding your limits, its finding yourself, its finding a sense of life, and really finding the mountain. Because if you run too fast you have no time to think about all that. Nevertheless, I think just from a pure view of sport, a speed runner, he can have his pleasure doing it but….hummm…Its not really in my mind, in my eyes its not mountaineering its just speed running.

AD: Could you tell me something about the experience of filming above 8000 meters?

KD: It is certainly a hard job. Because everything that weighs, weighs double or three times at that altitude. So you need a lot of resistance. You need very good acclimatisation. You also need batteries that last. So I use lithium batteries.

AD: What are clockwork cameras?

KD: They have a spring. But the problem then is that you do not get any synchronised sound. These are details, maybe they are not very interesting for you. One of the difficulties with high altitude filming….I have written an article in the Alpine Journal you can read it. Its called ‘Filming in High Places….’ one of the difficulties with high altitude filming is you need the collaboration of several people to get a good film, and the mountaineers are mainly interested in the climbing and not in the filming. So you must be lucky and sometimes you are, to find people who are also interested in filming. Because just being alone as a cameraman you cannot do a good film.

AD: To what extent has modern technology changed high altitude filming ?

KD: It has changed now very much because now the video system has come into use. For a while it wasn’t used at high altitude because the video cameras are very delicate but it turns out that they are getting better and better, and, with the digital cameras, also you can keep video for an unlimited time. Because earlier I did 16 mm and it lasted 30 years and video lasts seven years and then you have to make duplicate. But now with the digital system it can last forever, you can say. But personally I always film only with 16 mm and only used video as a hobby. But I think video has the future even on the high altitude.

AD: I read the chapter in Spirits of the Air called ‘Take One on Everest’. And it sounds like you had a lot of trouble filming. It almost seems that you took the climbing part for granted. Like you had to film a stunt and the cameraman had to do the stunt and film it.

KD: At the same time it was fun to do it I must say. But even then I must say some of the guys were collaborative and otherwise we couldn’t have got to the summit and filmed on top.

Of course they didn’t want to take their gloves off because of doing the clap. Well we found a solution — just yelling ‘chak!’.

Which wasn’t very synchronised but playing around in Paris they made it.

AD: How do you manage to balance your energies between climbing and filming. Climbing a mountain is hard enough…..

KD: You can film only once you are very well acclimatised and you must know where is your priority. If you go up and down a mountain many times then it is not so difficult because you say today we don’t film, tomorrow we film or we have already filmed that. But the difficulty comes when one goes for the summit. Then your must decide whether you take the camera up or not. It depends on the moment. It depends on the mood. It depends on many things whether you take the film camera to the summit or not. Sometimes its too heavy, sometimes its not. I mean, if you don’t take the film camera up you can still take a photo camera up and after that you have to film the colour slides.

AD: Have you ever felt you’ve had to compromise a summit because of filming?

KD: Yes sure. When I was filming on Everest in 1980, I probably could have climbed Lhotse and I didn’t climb it because I had to film. Certainly if I think it over there are more such examples.

AD: Do you ever feel bad about that?

KD: No well, I’m happy when the film got OK. On the other hand I would have liked to climb Lhotse. I mean….you must say, you can’t have it all.

AD: Mountaineering often demands quick decision making. Has filming ever put you in a dangerous position?

KD: I don’t know one now but I’m really sure in several situations the filming took away important time and the consequence whenever you loose time is that you make it into a dangerous situation. Filming is never without sacrifice.

AD: What do you consider to be the highlight of your mountain filming career?

KD: Oh well….that’s a bit difficult to say because if I think about the people of Tashigang, of the Tibetan village below Makalu. Then I think from this human point of view that’s the highlight. On the other hand if you speak of mountain climbing then probably the film on K2 1986 was the one which had greatest success.

On the other hand the film I did with Julie before this one, there was no tragedy. But I personally think this film is better which we did. It was called ‘K2, The Elusive Summit’. Well, its a bit hard to say.

AD: At the end of Spirits of the Air you describe an incident high in the Dolomites where you see a butterfly and you wonder: ‘What brings me here? Because I want to know something too’.

KD: I want to know. I want to find. I want to discover.

AD: What do you think that ‘something’ is?

KD: Its the feeling of discovery. Its that…its that sense to find something unknown. And so that also has nothing to do with speed, you understand. Because what you find with speed is all known, you only have to look to the watch. And really that ‘something’ is which you can’t measure and what you cannot see on a watch. That’s what you find if you try and discover the unknown. And that’s why I told the story about the butterfly.

AD: In recent years you’ve climbed and filmed with your daughter. What are your feelings about that?

KD: I’m very happy that she is also a discoverer and she also thinks not only to discover for herself but also to pass it on to others. She usually doesn’t film. She’s a scientist but she writes and she speaks about it. There are many ways of delivering what you feel and what you discover to the others and filming is only one way. The other is writing and giving lectures like I do and may be only just telling it.

AD: Over the years its been the Alps, the Amazon, the Himalaya, Greenland….What do you think is left:

KD: You ask where I still have to go? I must tell you that it is not likely if you get to one place once that you have discovered everything and you know it all. For instance, to the Shaksgam (China) I have been six times now to this valley with its glaciers and mountains, and I’m thinking to go back there again because every time you go to a new place you cannot really learn to know enough what you may be have seen only once.

AD: Do you have any plans to climb high mountains in the future?

KD: No, I’m more into exploration now. Well I think it is not so important for me to climb them myself. I’m very happy to record the climbing. That means to be a cameraman with such an expedition and to go to a certain height. But I mean, I think the summit is better for the young climbers and I don’t want to bother the young climbers. I always went very slow and now at 65 I may be even slower.






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