Tomaz Humar: Mountaineer idolised in his home country but resented by many in the climbing community

Author: By Stephen Goodwin

In 2005, the controversial Slovenian alpinist was plucked from an icy cave at
an altitude of more than 6,000 metres on the massive the Rupal Face of Nanga
Parbat in Kashmir.

Thousands followed Humar’s nine-day ordeal on the Rupal Face as it was relayed
over the internet from base camp by his support team; Slovenians, by
sentiment a nation of mountaineers, were transfixed by the drama. Humar
survived thanks to an extraordinary act of daring by two Pakistani pilots
pushing their Lama SA-315 helicopter to its limits, but the whole brouhaha
caused much unease among Humar’s contemporaries in high-end alpinism, some
of whom regarded the Slovenian as a reckless showman.

However, there were no cameras trained on Humar when he fell and seriously
injured himself last week 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.

According to reports, Humar’s base camp manager, Jagat Limbu, raised the alarm
on Monday 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. The guide and alpinist Simon Anthamatten was lowered on a 25m static
line from a helicopter piloted by Robert Andenmatten and recovered Humar’s
body.

Climbing had been the one great constant for Tomaz Humar. It had made him a
national hero in Slovenia, but the style and obsessive way he pursued his
passion cost him friends, his marriage and, at the age of 40, his life.
Among mountaineers, news of Humar’s death was greeted with sadness but
little surprise.

Humar was born in 1969 in Kamnik, Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia. He was
the eldest of three brothers; their father was a builder and the family
devoutly religious. Tomaz would remain a spiritual person, though it took on
a complex mysticism that ranged from “Buddh-ish” to bizarre. A key
member of Humar’s base camp entourage on two climbs, including, Nanga
Parbat, was a biotherapist whose duty was to observe propitious signs and
mountain moods.

Aged 18, Humar joined the Kamnik mountain club and began the Soviet-style
regime of instruction imposed at the time. But a year later he was
conscripted into the Yugoslavia army and drafted to Kosovo where he served
alongside Serbs “guarding” ethnic Albanians. The grisly experience
horrified the young Slovene; he tried to desert, raged against his officers,
and according to his biographer, Bernadette McDonald (Tomaz Humar, 2008),
returned home “less a person than an animal”. He took to soloing
extremely risky routes on local crags ? that is, climbing without a rope or
any protection in the event of a fall. 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. Tomaz and Sergeja had been captivated by each other from
their first meeting, when Jersin was living with Golob. They would have two
children, Tomi and Ur?a, but after 10 years Sergeja finally had enough of
her husband’s rollercoaster life, the long absences and the financial
insecurity. Though Humar gave countless lectures, a lot of his money came
from painting electricity pylons ? by himself for many years and then
running his own firm.

Humar broke into Himalayan climbing in 1994 with an ascent of Ganesh V
(6,986m) in Nepal under the leadership of Stane Belak, known as ?rauf, 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, ?rauf fell into a crevasse and a third climber damaged his ribs; but
when ?rauf decided to call off the expedition Humar screamed for one more
shot. ?rauf accompanied his headstrong protégé to the summit, but then had
to coax and shepherd the severely dehydrated Humar down the mountain.
Without ?rauf’s fatherly 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 entering his storm years: May 1996 saw him and Vanja Furlan make the
first ascent of the north-west face of Ama Dablam, at 6,812m the Matterhorn
of the Nepal Khumbu; November the same year he made the first ascent of
Bobaye (6,808m) in western Nepal, solo in alpine-style ? the purest form, no
Sherpas, no fixed camps and no fixed ropes; 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 in
California’s Yosemite Valley ? a very different type of climbing to the snow
and ice of the Himalaya.

Most noteworthy of the above are the Ama Dablam climb, for which Humar and
Furlan were awarded what is, for some, alpinism’s highest accolade, the
French Piolet d’Or (Furlan fell to his death in Slovenia’s Julian Alps
before the ceremony) and the south face of Nuptse W2. Without a rope, Humar
and Janez Jeglic fought their way up ice as steep as 80 degrees in ferocious
weather, reaching Nuptse’s summit ridge in five days. There, Jeglic
disappeared, blown from the ridge. Humar had to down-climb the 2,500m face
alone, an extraordinary feat but one that became tainted by ugly murmurings
back home, where Jeglic was a popular figure. Had the wrong man returned?
Humar was idolised by Slovenians in general but within the climbing
community there was growing resentment and cynicism.

Humar, though, had a knack of answering his detractors with the audacity of
his climbs. In autumn 1999 he climbed the 4,000m south face of Dhaulagiri I
(8,167m) solo in nine days. Rheinhold Messner, who had attempted the route
in 1977 and had deemed it impossible, greeted Humar on his hero’s return to
Ljubljana and anointed him as the “greatest high-altitude climber in
the world”, a title Messner had once guarded. Humar’s progress up what
he would call the Mobitel route, after his main sponsor, could be followed
all the way on the internet ? neither the name nor the self-promotion
endearing him to those who believe that alpinism is best practised out of
the limelight. Humar was decorated by the Slovenian president with the
country’s highest honour, the Honorary Emblem of Freedom, and there were
awards for the film Dhaulagiri Express, made by Humar’s loyal companion, the
Croat Stipe Bozic.

Humar’s first serious accident, the following year, was both prosaic and
ironic. He fell between the ceiling joists of a house he was building for
his family near Kamnik, landing on the concrete floor and smashing his left
heel and right femur. Recovery was slow and he endured a series of
operations, deriving strength from the teaching of Nata?a Pergar, the
biotherapist who would accompany him to Jannu and Nanga Parbat.

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, at 8,046m the lowest and arguably the “easiest”
of the eight-thousanders. The following year, he switched continents to join
another Kamnik climber, Ale? Kozelj, for an attempt on the south face of
Aconcagua (6,962m) in Argentina, the highest peak in the Americas. 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
benefited from 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 Humar’s great media event on Nanga Parbat. His ordeal on the Rupal
Face, hunkered in a snowhole and raked by avalanches, took on the aura of a
reality show or the Roman coliseum. However the heroes this time were not
western climbers but two Pakistan army pilots, Colonel Rashid Ullah Baig and
Major Khalid Amir Rana, despatched on the orders of then President
Musharraf. With their helicopter rotors almost brushing the face, creating a
maelstrom of snow, the pilots managed to get a line to Humar and lift him to
safety.

A few weeks later, two Americans, Steve House and Vince Anderson, climbed the
Rupal Face in exemplary lightweight fashion and without advertisement. It
seemed like a rebuke to the brash Slovenian.

Whether the criticism was simply shrugged off Humar’s strong shoulders or
touched a nerve, no one really knows; however, his follow-up to Nanga Parbat
was very different. Without any prior disclosure, he made the first solo
ascent of Annapurna’s south face, finishing at the east summit (8,047m). The
first the world knew of it followed a satellite call by Humar to the Nepal
Mountaineering Association disclosing what was to prove his last big
success. Once again Humar’s name was in the climbing news, but by a reverse
process. As one Slovenian mountaineer put it: “Sometimes ‘no media’ can
mean ‘more media’.”

However Bernadette McDonald, Humar’s biographer, isn’t among the cynics. “I
think Tomaz 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. Again, that’s not the
image that people have of him, but it was a huge part of his personality.”

Tomaz Humar, mountaineer: born, Kamnik, Slovenia 18 February 1969; married
1991 Sergeja Jersin (separated; one daughter, one son); died Langtang Himal,
Nepal, shortly before or on 14 November 2009.

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