To his obvious delight, Marcus Schmuck last April found himself the subject of a warm standing ovation at the annual International Mountaineering Literature Festival at Bretton Hall, near Wakefield. It was a novel occasion. The climbing community is loath to bestow celebrity treatment on anyone, yet here was a fleece-jacketed crowd cheering an octogenarian Austrian unknown to many of them just an hour earlier.
Always a handsome man, Schmuck looked dapper dressed in the trachten of his native Salzburgerland. Alongside him, similarly attired, was Fritz Wintersteller, his partner in one of the outstanding events in post-war mountaineering - the first ascent of Broad Peak in the Pakistan Karakoram.
Broad Peak is the 12th highest of the world's 14 8,000-metre peaks. Of the four young Austrians who reached the 8,047m summit on 9 June 1957, Schmuck and Wintersteller were the first to the top by a country mile. However their achievement was eclipsed by the subsequent death of their better-known companion Hermann Buhl - hero of Nanga Parbat - and the literary and photographic skills of the other, Kurt Diemberger.
The Broad Peak expedition was of a modest, self-denying style 20 years ahead of its time. While most Himalayan expeditions were large-scale affairs with columns of porters and Sherpas stocking high camps, Schmuck's idea was for a small team - initially, he thought, only Buhl and himself - to climb without the aid of porters above base camp and without bottled oxygen. Buhl was thinking on similar lines.
This approach also had the virtue of being relatively cheap, an important consideration for Schmuck who was, in a sense, a "holiday climber", a working electrician with a young family to support. He learnt his trade following the Second World War, when he was captured in Normandy.
Schmuck cut his teeth on the limestone walls of the Dachstein, not far from his birthplace at Maria Alm, and in the Wilder Kaiser, testing ground for all ambitious climbers in German-speaking Europe. In this vertical rock arena, Schmuck was probably Buhl's equal, but he did not have the latter's experience on north faces elsewhere in the Alps. Nor did he have the kind of hero status Buhl had gained with his audacious solo ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953.
When the two men first met at the Gaudeamus hut in the heart of the Wilder Kaiser it was, said one observer, "like a summer thunderstorm" as the pair sounded each other out. In 1949, on the formidable Fleischbank, not far from the hut, Schmuck had led the way up an overhanging chimney that had repulsed Buhl, creating a route that still bears his name - the Schmuckkamin. Mutual respect led to a successful climbing partnership and eventually the design on Broad Peak.
As funds accrued, two other climbers were invited on the team, first another Salzburger, Wintersteller, and then the youthful Diemberger. More contentious than money was the issue of leadership, with the Austrian Alpenverein backing Schmuck, rather than Buhl who was regarded by the establishment as a troublemaker. Buhl took this ill and therein lay a seed that soured the whole enterprise.
The first summit bid ended with Wintersteller and Diemberger reaching the mountain's forepeak, struggling in the thin air - six breaths for each step - and an icy wind. Diaries revealed increasing acrimony. When they returned to the fray, Schmuck climbed with Wintersteller, the pair forging ahead along a corniced ridge to reach the summit at 5.05pm. "A wordless handshake was all we were capable of," wrote Schmuck.
Buhl was moving very slowly, pained by frostbite wounds sustained on Nanga Parbat. But he continued doggedly on, getting to the top a full two hours behind Schmuck and Wintersteller. He was accompanied by Diemberger who had already summited, and for whom the re-ascent was rewarded by a sunset photograph of Buhl that was to become iconic.
Success did not heal the divisions. While Buhl and Diemberger were clearing high camps, Schmuck and Wintersteller made a first ascent of Skil Brum (7,360m), unnamed at the time. Diemberger and Buhl then set off amid secrecy to attempt Chogolisa. But a storm blew up high on the mountain and in the maelstrom Buhl fell to his death when a cornice collapsed.
Schmuck's 1958 book Broad Peak 8047m was never translated into English and gradually the accepted version of the expedition became that told in translation by Buhl, who had written copiously while on Broad Peak, and by Diemberger, an engaging lecturer as well as accomplished writer. The names of Schmuck and Wintersteller were largely forgotten, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, until last year when the writer Richard Sale brought out Broad Peak, reassessing the expedition and bringing the first summit pair back centre stage. It was to hear Sale read from and discuss the book that Schmuck and Wintersteller had journeyed to Bretton Hall last April.
Post Broad Peak, Schmuck picked up life more or less as before, working as an electrician, raising his family and getting away climbing at weekends or on holidays. He had always been interested as much in exploration as pure climbing and before Broad Peak journeyed in the Sahara and, unusually for the time, on Spitsbergen in the Arctic.
Later, he led expeditions to Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro, the Andes, Hindu Kush and Himalaya, making first ascents and enabling others to reach such notable summits as Shisha Pangma and Cho Oyu - both above the 8,000m threshold. He never reached such heady heights again himself, and was advised against high altitude after a trip to Nanga Parbat as recently as 2000, but had the pleasure of being able to ski and walk in the mountains almost to his final days.
Stephen GoodwinReuse content