Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Lonely Victory, by Peter Habeler

As promised, I've read Peter Habeler's The Lonely Victory, and will be bringing you Messner's companion work soon. The Lonely Victory is an enjoyable quick read. Habeler seems strangely human when compared to anything I've read so far by Messner. I get the feeling Habeler and Viesturs would have made good climbing buddies, with their focus on safety and following intuition. Habeler, along with Messner, climbs Mount Everest in the 1978 pre-monsoon season, and they become the first men to surmount Everest without supplemental oxygen. Up until this climb, these two mountaineers were closely associated, climbing harder and faster than anyone else around, including a single-day push up the Eiger North Face and an alpine, no-bottled-oxygen ascent of Hidden Peak. Afterward, their climbing relationship ended. According to both Messner and Habeler, The Lonely Victory is partly to blame.

In this book, Habeler states that he didn't mind letting Messner take the limelight in his earlier climbs. Although they climbed together, Messner often got the praise for their accomplishments, and if Messner's books are anything like real life, he is extraordinarily self-centered. Habeler lets slip a lot of details that Messner might not want people to hear if Messner is to be the world's greatest mountaineer, such as Messner's crying and begging Habeler to bring Messner with him down from the South Col after Messner goes snowblind, Messner's competitive nature with Habeler shown in the trek into base camp, or Habeler overall being more fit than Messner on this trip. Habeler writes in a matter-of-fact style, and it seems odd to hear someone portray Messner as a regular guy. Habeler's writing is so frank and unpretentious that it is hard not to take him seriously. I think if Habeler was fed up or angry at Messner, he could have made some lower punches.

I find it amazing just how fast and fit this pair is! They travel between camps in remarkable time, such as Habeler's six-mile descent from Camp II to Base Camp in an hour and fifteen minutes. They do a lot of the grunt work on the expedition (with 10 other climbers), establishing camps II, III, and IV, and setting fixed ropes up the Lhotse Face in addition to their climb. Messner spends three days in a storm on the South Col, and after his survival, they return to climb to the summit and back. Several other climbers make it to the summit and back, including two after them, who bring back a rope Habeler tied to the Chinese survey tripod as proof of their ascent.

Climbing to the top of Everest without supplemental oxygen eliminated one of the last unknowns about high-altitude mountaineering. Habeler and Messner had to face a lot of criticism both before and after their climb. It has to be quite a mind game to do something that so many experts are telling you will either kill you are harm you irreparably. Habeler cites the climb of Norton in 1924 to 28,124 feet as his inspiration to believe he was doing the possible. Habeler had both lighter and more effective gear and an intense fitness regime on his side. Overall, the pair came back with minor injuries not directly related to the altitude, and while they are both intense athletes, I would say their triumph was as much mental and psychological as it was physical. I really enjoyed this book!

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