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

Stephen Goodwin
Wednesday 18 November 2009 01:00 GMT

When word started to circulate late last week that Tomaz Humar was missing on a Himalayan peak and that a helicopter rescue mission was underway, there was a sense of déjà vu among mountaineers.

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 Urša, 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 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 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 Nataša 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, Aleš 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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