OBITUARY: Tomaž Humarby Stephen Goodwin Nov/2009
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The 1999 Dhaula' climb, hailed by Rheinhold Messner as marking “a new watershed in extreme mountaineering”, was an early example of rolling internet coverage, with Humar naming the route after his main sponsor, the communication company Mobitel. This 'alpinism-as-entertainment' reached its apotheosis in 2005 when Humar became pinned down by avalanches while attempting the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat.
Countless numbers followed the nine-day drama on the Rupal Face as it was broadcast from base camp by his support team, a compulsive reality show where the subject faced not humiliation but death. Humar survived thanks to an extraordinary act of daring by two Pakistan army pilots. Colonel Rashid Ullah Baig and Major Khalid Amir Rana, pushed their Lama SA-315 helicopter to its very limits, rotors almost brushing the face as they plucked Humar from his snowhole.
Barely a month later, two Americans, Steve House and Vince Anderson, climbed the Rupal Face in exemplary lightweight alpine-style and without advertisement. It seemed like a rebuke to the brash Slovenian.
Humar dismissed his purist critics with a “let those who are without sin cast the first stone” type quote. Indeed his biographer Bernadette McDonald (Tomaž Humar 2008, pictured above) says Humar regarded the public attention and media circus as a bit of a joke. “Tomaž just loved to climb,” she says. “He loved to climb fast and he had an enormous amount of self-confidence in his abilities and in that mystical connection that he felt to the mountains. His life in Slovenia was jam-packed with people, responsibilities, business, family, deadlines, etc. He loved to get to the mountains for weeks on end to be alone, or with just one or two people, and climb. That's not the image that people have of him, but it was a huge part of his personality.”
Whatever his deeper thoughts, Humar's follow-up to Nanga Parbat was a very different affair. Without any prior disclosure, he made the first solo ascent of Annapurna's south face, finishing at the east summit (8,047m). And the world knew nothing of it until Humar put in a satellite call to the Nepal Mountaineering Association after summiting.
Nor were cameras trained on Humar for his final climb when he fell and seriously injured himself on the south face of Langtang Lirung, a difficult 7,234-metre peak in northern Nepal. Humar had gone to the mountain without fanfare and was climbing alone, so the exact circumstance of his accident may never be known. His base camp manager, Jagat Limbu, reportedly raised the alarm on 9 November. In a satellite phone call Humar told Jagat he had broken his back and one leg and feared he was going to die. He was also afraid a helicopter would find him difficult to locate. Final contact was next morning when, in a weak voice, Humar said, “Jagat, this is my last...” before the line was broken.
It was believed Humar was stranded at about 6,300m but a helicopter sweep on the 10th failed to spot him, nor did a team of Sherpas who next morning climbed up almost 500m to the presumed location. Humar's body was eventually found on 14 November lower down the face at 5,600m by an Air Zermatt rescue team, which had been waiting for three days for permission to operate in Nepal. Guide and alpinist Simon Anthamatten was lowered on a 25m static line from a helicopter piloted by Robert Andenmatten and recovered Humar's body.
Humar started climbing aged 18 and joined the Kamnik mountain club, run on structured, soviet lines with entrants first having to prove they could hike the hills before going on to climb. At 20 he was conscripted into the Yugoslavia army and drafted to Kosovo where he served alongside Serbs “guarding” ethnic Albanians. The brutal experience horrified Humar; he tried to desert, raged against his officers and according to McDonald, returned home “less a person than an animal”. He took to soloing extremely risky routes on local crags. Other climbers were at first impressed but soon irritated by his arrogance.
In December 1991, Humar married Sergeja Jersin, formerly the girlfriend of a climbing partner, Danilo Golob, who had died soloing a short ice climb in the Kamnik Alps. Tomaž and Sergeja had been captivated by each other from first meeting, when Jersin was living with Golob. They had two children, Tomi and Urša, but after 10 years Sergeja had finally had enough of her husband's rollercoaster life, the long absences and the financial insecurity. Though Humar gave many lectures, a lot of his money came from painting electricity pylons – later running his own team at this work.
Entry into Himalayan climbing came in 1994 with an ascent of Ganesh V (6,986m) in Nepal under the leadership of the Stane Belak, known as Šrauf, a bullish giant of Slovenian mountaineering. The ascent had that element of explosive drama that came to be associated with Humar. A first summit bid failed, Šrauf fell into a crevasse and a third climber damaged his ribs; but when Šrauf decided to call off the expedition Humar screamed for one more shot. Šrauf accompanied his headstrong protégé to the summit, but then had to coax and shepherd the severely dehydrated Humar down the mountain. Without Šrauf's care, Humar's career could have ended on Ganesh V. A year later, on a Mountaineering Association of Slovenia expedition, it was Sherpa Arjun who hauled the Slovene into a tent high on Annapurna I and revived him with liquids after Humar had reached the 8,091m summit alone in the dark – his first eight thousander.
Humar was motoring: May 1996 saw him and Vanja Furlan make the first ascent of the north-west face of Ama Dablam (6,812m); November the same year he made the first ascent of Bobaye (6,808m) in western Nepal, solo in alpine-style; returning with friends to the Khumbu in 1997 he achieved a trilogy, a first ascent of the north-east face of Lobuche East (6,119m), an ascent of Pumori (7,165m) and the previously unattempted 2,500m south face of Nuptse W2(7,742m); and in 1998 a 15-day solo assent of Reticent Wall on the vertical granite of El Capitan, Yosemite.
Humar, though, had a knack of answering his detractors with the audacity of his climbs, and in autumn 1999 came his nine-day solo of Dhaulagiri's south face. Messner, who had attempted the route in 1977 and had deemed it impossible, greeted Humar on his hero's return to Ljubliana and anointed him as the (then) “greatest high-altitude climber in the world”, a title Messner had once guarded. The next year Humar had his first serious accident, falling between the ceiling joists of a house he was building for his family near Kamnik and smashing his left heel and right femur on hitting the concrete floor. Recovery was slow and he endured a series of operations, deriving strength from the teaching of Nataša Pergar, his biotherapist and clairvoyant.
In 2002, anxious to test himself against a big mountain, Humar headed for Tibet and joined a team from Kazakhstan for a successful, wind-battered ascent of Shishapangma (8,046m) by the standard route. The next year, he joined another Kamnik climber, Aleš Koželj, for an attempt on the south face of Aconcagua (6,962m) in Argentina. After five days of steep ice, crumbling rock and severe cold, they completed a route that won wide acclaim among alpinists. It was nominated for the Piolet d'Or but didn't win, prompting Humar to turn on the system he had once fed off with a savage: “Awards are like haemorrhoids; at some point every asshole gets them.” Ascents of the east face of Jannu (east summit 7,468m) and the north face of Cholatse (6,440m) followed – both peaks are in Nepal – after which, in 2005, came the great media event on Nanga Parbat. Humar's approach may not have appealed to all, but it is an impressive record.
He lives near the Lake District where he enjoys rare dry days on the crag and more usual damp days on his mountain bike.