Sale, Richard (2004). Broad Peak. Hildersley: Carreg Ltd.
This is an account of the 1957 Austrian expedition that made the first ascent of Broad Peak. The expedition, made up of made up of Marcus Schmuck, Hermann Buhl [1, 2], Fritz Wintersteller, and Kurt Diemberger, was quite significant since it was the first 8,000 metre peak to be climbed without the aid of porters on the mountain - the climbing team did all of their own carries. Furthermore, they did so without the aid of supplemental oxygen. It was also the first time that an 8,000 metre peak where the whole team made the summit on the same day.
While the accomplishments of the expedition were outstanding, there was also a down side. First, there were interpersonal problems amongst the team. Second, this was the expedition on which Hermann Buhl lost his life.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is that it is the first book in English (or any other language) to draw on all three diaries kept by team members, (Buhl, Schmuck and Wintersteller). It also draws on interviews with Schmuck, Wintersteller, and the liaison officer, Qader Saeed. As well, Sale makes use of the book that Schmuck published after the expedition (which has only been published in German).
The best known English account of the climb, which appeared in Diemberger's Summits and Secrets, is more of a personal reminiscence. Sale's book is an attempt at writing a history of the expedition as a whole. One of the most welcome consequences of his having done so is the emergence of Marcus Schmuck and Fritz Wintersteller, who had remained in the background of Diemberger's account. Neither is well known in the English world, and given the role that they played in this ground-breaking expedition, Sale is to be thanked for making them better known to us.
So what of Buhl and Diemberger, the two characters in the foreground in Summits and Secrets? The characterization of Buhl is very consistent with that found in the Bonington account: a man who is struggling with frustrations due to sickness, fatigue, the aftermath of frostbite from his time on Nanga Parbat, and ultimately, the difficulty of being one of the worlds' most famous climbers, and yet not being able to keep up with the younger Wintersteller. But the portrayal is not disrespectful. To the contrary. Rather, it highlights the strength of character that got Buhl to the summit, despite these problems - problems that would have caused almost anyone else to turn back. Buhl appears exceptional, but human. If anyone is going to level criticism at Sale for Buhl's portrayal in this book, my view is that they must direct their criticism at Bonington's as well. And, in so doing, I think that they would be wrong.
The person who comes out the least well in this account is Diemberger. In many ways, how could he not? Given that the most read previous account in English is his own, it is not surprising that it is not self-critical. But to be fair to him, nor was it critical of anyone else. First, his tale was the reminiscence of a young star-struck climber on his first major expedition, where things go wrong and his hero is killed when the two of them are of on a climb together. Second, the expedition members had been instructed by the Chancellor of Austria to write a unified positive account. Diemberger is an exceptional writer, and much of his text reads almost like poetry. His approach and purpose could not be further from that of Sale. Sale set himself the not enviable task of trying to bring the history of the climb out from the shadow cast by Diemberger's compelling story. In so doing, Diemberger is brought down from his stance as poet to the grunt and sweat of expedition climbing, where people are tired, grumpy, critical, often unreasonable, and sometimes justified in being so. And in this world, in Sale's telling and supported by the diaries of the others, Diemberger was not the famous climber of 8,000 metre peaks that he was later to became known for. Rather he was an outsider, the only one on the team who had not previously climbed with any of the others. He was a beginner at expedition climbing who did not always pull his weight, and who still needed to get some experience under his belt in order to a mature. In short, Diemberger is portrayed as being human and fallible, rather than the poetic young climber who shared Buhl's last minutes.
On the question of interpersonal discord, the problems began before the expedition even left Austria. The issue that first started to interfere with the relationship between Buhl and Schmuck had to do with leadership. Buhl, who was certainly the best known of the team, felt that he should be leader. However, given the controversial aftermath of the Nanga Parbat expedition, this was not acceptable to the Austrian climbing federation. The eventual compromise was that Schmuck was the leader, but Buhl was to be the climbing leader.
On the mountain, this didn’t work out. As Sale tells it, Buhl was weak (due to a combination of sickness and the aftermath of frostbite on his foot on Nanga Parbat). Likewise, Diemberger is characterized as being weak, sandbagging, and not very competent (his lack of performance in handling a crevasse is one example). Wintersteller was the strongest, and did much/most of the leading, and he was generally paired up with, and out front with, Schmuck. Diemberger generally paired up with Buhl.
After the first failed attempt that got them to the fore-summit, they went again, with all of them reaching the summit. However, by this time, the group was climbing as two separate teams of two. Diemberger and Buhl were significantly later reaching the summit than the other two (it being very questionable if Buhl – who was eventually climbing alone, behind - would make it). Diemberger was descending from the summit when he met Buhl, and turned back around to accompany him back up to the top.
While the relationship between the two teams was bad after the first summit attempt, after reaching the summit for real, they got even worse. On descending to base camp, Diemberger and Buhl had to go back up to retrieve their personal effects and clear off their share of the tentage, etc. (Schmuck and Wintersteller brought down their share while descending from the summit. Hence, Diemberger and Buhl were not done with their chores until well after the other two.) When they got back, they were both stunned and furious to find that Wintersteller and Schmuck had gone off and bagged another peak, Skilbrum. This was done with the permission of their liaison officer, Qader Saeed. (Qader explained to me that he was able to give permission since the mountain did not appear on the map and was therefore not a recognized mountain. By exploring it, Schmuck and Wintersteller would be doing the Pakistani Government a service. And, in fact, they were congratulated for having done so on their return.)
As a consequence, Diemberger went off on his own, ostensibly to take photographs. Then, in the middle of that night, Buhl went off to meet him. What is clear is that Buhl and Diemberger had planned this in advance. They did not tell the others their intention, and they most definitely did not have permission to climb Chogolisa. (According to Qader, Diemberger was consequently banned from Pakistan as a result of this illegal ascent.)
So what about the book? On the one hand, the expedition deserves a book dedicated to it – something that did not previously exist - so this volume by Sale is a welcome addition to the literature. This is especially true, given the amount of new and fascinating details that it presents. On the other hand, the book is not without its flaws. I am going to spend some time on them for a couple of reasons. First and most obvious, because they are there. But secondly, because this book has raised a fair bit of controversy, and my perspective is those (often legitimate) attacks on its weaknesses have overshadowed any reasonable discussion or appreciation of its strengths.
Yes, the book has weaknesses, and someday, in a second edition or some other book, they will be fixed. But in the meantime, as the dictum goes, "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." In my opinion, the book is important despite its flaws. But that does not mean that one should not be aware of them, and at least take them into account. So here is what I found wrong with the book:
• The writing is sometimes unclear and in need of a good editor.
• There are mistakes of fact that should have been caught before publication.
• There are a number of cases where the author shows a lack of objectivity that detracts from, rather than helps, his narrative.
• There is no index, making it extremely hard to find things in the text and no maps.
An example of what I mean by unclear writing can be found on pages 72-75 which describe carrying gear up to base camp from where it was dropped by the porters. I defy anyone to make sense of this in terms of reconciling distances, times and locations. A map would have helped greatly, but the writing is a mess.
Another example is found on page 14, where Charles Bruce's joining Conway is being discussed. The text here is misleading at best, and wrong at worst. By not presenting things in chronological order, the reader will almost certainly assume that Bruce was with Mummary before he was with Conway, which is not correct.
While seemingly small points, these are things that a competent editor should of caught. Furthermore, it is through clarity and accuracy on such things that an author gains the confidence of the reader.
As for mistakes of fact, here are a few glaring examples:
On page 30, Sale has Schmuck in Spitsbergen in 1955 saying, “The Austrian successes on Cho Oyu and Gasherbrum II had pointed the way.” While Cho Oyu was first climbed in 1954, the Austrians did not make their successful first ascent of Gasherbrum II until 1956, the year after Schmuck was in Spitsbergen. This kind of mistake, while trivial on the one hand, serves to discredit the quality of the research elsewhere in the book.
Likewise, on page190, Sale describes Dee Molenaar as “another member of the successful American Gasherbrum I expedition.” This is simply not accurate. Yet again, the details are wrong, and therefore the reliability of the rest of the research is undermined, even when it is accurate.
I have singled out these two errors because Sale and Cleare have written a recent book on the history of the 8,000 metre peaks, and checking facts with his own book would have avoided these two errors.
Moving on, as I have stated, there is also an unnecessary lack of objectivity in many places, and this lack of discipline does further damage to its positive contribution. Again, let me give some specific examples.
On page 27, for example, Sale is describing a fall by Buhl on the east face of the Fleischbank in the Wilder Kaiser. He states that Buhl “claimed” a hold had broken, and that “There were (and are) those who dispute the broken hold claim.” In my estimation, this comes across as relying on unsubstantiated and anonymous climber’s gossip. Rather than establishing any foundation for objectivity, the impression given is that Sale is using innuendo to build up Schmuck’s ability at the expense of Buhl’s. This is simply not necessary. Schmuck’s accomplishments are enough on their own, and do not need such help. It just detracts from the book and should have been left out.
On the next page, Sale does his case additional damage by stating, without any substantive documentation or discussion, “It is difficult not at least to consider the idea that on Nanga Parbat Hermann Buhl was secretly pleased when Otto Kempter, who was to have been his climbing partner on the summit attempt, failed to get past the Silver Saddle and so left the summit to Buhl alone.” From my perspective, as this stands, this statement is completely without merit or justification.
Yet there is more. On page 39 Sale calls into question the veracity of Diemberger having made his ascent of the mushroom on the Königsspitze. In the absence of any documented evidence that this ascent was disputed prior to Diemberger’s joining the Broad Peak expedition, it should not be included. Again, unsubstantiated climber’s gossip has no place in a serious book. Furthermore, given that none of Buhl , Schmuck or Wintersteller had ever climbed with Diemberger prior to the expedition, it is inconceivable that they would have accepted him onto the team, sight unseen, no matter how much money came with him, if his having done this climb was in doubt. This section just sounds petty and, once again, damages Sale’s legitimate and substantiated issues.
Having pointed out some of the weaknesses of the book, I feel equally compelled to address some of the unfair criticisms that have been levelled at it. First, Sale does not accuse Diemberger of stealing Buhl’s diaries. What he does is state that that is what Schmuck wrote in his diary at the time. Likewise, he does not suggest that Diemberger was in some way responsible for Buhl’s death. Again, Sale simply reported that this is what Schmuck felt at the time, in the heat of the moment, and what he wrote in his diaries. Criticizing Sale on these counts is tantamount to shooting the messenger. What is strange about these particular criticisms is that there is nothing here that Bonington didn't mention in his account 24 years earlier.
There is one more criticism that has been levelled at Sale: that he suggests that, having stolen Buhl’s diaries, Diemberger may in some way changed them. This is equally inaccurate. What Sale says is that the version of the diaries that he or Horst Höfler has seen is a typewritten transcript, rather than the hand written originals. He simply states that the accuracy of these typescripts cannot be verified until their provenance is known and they are compared with the originals. That is simply good scholarship. Far from accusing Diemberger of any misdeeds in this matter, Sale actually makes an argument as to why there would be nothing in the diaries that Diemberger would want to change.
From the previous few paragraphs, it should be clear that this book has stirred up a fair bit of controversy. The reason that this is so disappointing is that much of this could have been avoided if Sale had been a bit more careful in his research, and appeared a bit more objective in his writing. Nevertheless, Sale has done a lot of valuable research, and he has a lot of interest to say. Furthermore, the contributions of Schmuck and Wintersteller do deserve being told in English, and Sale is to be congratulated for bringing their story to us. It is just a real shame that the noise around the book is resulting in attention being distracted from the expedition's very real accomplishments. As Barry Blanchard said, with his eyes full of admiration after hearing Wintersteller speak at the 2005 Banff Book Festival, “They climbed Broad Peak! They Climbed Broad Peak! In beautiful style! What else do you want?”
Regardless of the problems with the team, Barry is right. That is the story: they climbed Broad Peak beautifully, and in so doing, led the way to a new style of alpinism. Sale's book has made an important contribution to our appreciation of the full significance of their feat. For that I welcome its appearance, and was glad to read it. I just wish that it had been written in a more objective way, a way that was accurate about the history, but side-stepped some of the unnecessary controversy. In the meantime, despite its problems, this book is an important contribution to the literature, and worth reading. But I would also suggest reading the Bonington account as well.
Autor: Bill Buxton, firstname.lastname@example.org
Further information at: http://www.billbuxton.com