Mount Everest: “Me, Reinhard on a pile of snow”

Reinhard Karl
Reinhard Karl (1946-1982)

The first good weather window of the season suitable for summit successes on Mount Everest is shaping up for this weekend. Expedition operator Imagine Nepal, responsible for rope-fixing from Camp 2 at 6,400 meters to the summit at 8,849 meters this season, announced that its Sherpa team will attempt to secure the last remaining section from the South Col at nearly 8,000 meters to the highest point with fixed ropes this weekend. Some commercial teams are in the starting blocks, the first summit wave is emerging.

Forty-five years ago, Everest was still a lonely mountain. A single team led by Austrian Wolfgang Nairz had received permission to climb the highest mountain on earth. The expedition made history: On 8 May 1978, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first humans to reach the summit without bottled oxygen. Three days later – exactly 45 years ago today – Reinhard Karl also stood at the top. He was the first German on the summit of Mount Everest.

Engaged as a photographer

Mount Everest (before sunrise, seen from Gokyo Ri in spring 2016)
Mount Everest (before sunrise, seen from Gokyo Ri in spring 2016)

Karl and his rope partner, Austrian Oswald Oelz, used bottled oxygen, so their ascent did not go down in the history books of alpinism. German climber Reinhard Karl, who had made a name for himself as a photographer, had actually only been invited to document the expedition for a German illustrated magazine. Only three weeks before the start to Nepal he had found out that he would be part of it. He was not a member of the expedition, Karl later wrote, “I was a Prussian who had come here by chance to take pictures.” And who took his chance to climb Everest. Previously, the 4,810-meter-high Mont Blanc had been the highest mountain Karl had scaled. Reinhard died in 1982 from an icefall on the eight-thousander Cho Oyu; he lived to be only 35 years old.

Reflected and humble

His impressive photos and texts survived him, including Karl’s account of the minutes on the summit of Mount Everest: “Oswald and I manage the last steps arm in arm. We are at the top. We hug each other. It is twelve o’clock noon. We are at the destination of our wishes, just below the sky. Oswald is totally euphoric. ‘We are at the top. We are at the top,’ he shouts stunned behind his breathing mask. I am happy because the summit means the end of the agonizing climb. The summit means not having to take another step up. I can’t quite grasp it myself yet. My knowledge tells me ‘this is the highest point on earth’. We take summit photos for the family album: Me the summit winner. Me, the superman. Me, the breathless being. Me, Reinhard on a pile of snow. Slowly I become aware of the cold, the wind and my exhaustion. Slowly, after the joy comes sadness, a feeling of emptiness: a utopia has become reality. I suspect that even Everest is only a pre-peak, I will never reach the real summit.”

A reflected and humble attitude, like Reinhard Karl had 45 years ago, would also do good to many of today’s Everest aspirants, who let themselves be celebrated even before they take the first step into the Khumbu Icefall.

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