Es Ist Mein Bruder!
Last summer, the headless corpse of Reinhold Messner's brother Günther emerged out of the snowmelt on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat. After 35 years of nasty arguments and accusations, would the discovery finally reveal who was to blame for his death and solve one of mountaineering's greatest mysteries?
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On July 17, 2005, as a freakish heat wave bore down on Pakistan’s western Himalayas, the 26,660-foot peak Nanga Parbat gave up its dead, laying them out on thawing patches of the Diamir Glacier, a huge expanse of shifting ice more than 12,000 feet below the summit. Over the decades, the glacier had become a catchall graveyard for at least a dozen climbers who’d died on the Diamir Face, the treacherous western wall of the world’s ninth-tallest mountain.
The first of two partially intact corpses showed up early that day, when Pakistani guides and Spanish climbers on the 12-square-mile glacier came across a broken, desiccated body. The leg bones were wrapped in brightly colored wind pants; on one skeletal foot was a sun-bleached Koflach plastic boot. Judging by the clothing’s vintage, the guides guessed the body was that of a Korean expeditioner lost in 1993.
Later, three Pakistani guides from the nearby village of Bunar Das made another grim find: a headless corpse, consisting of a rib cage, a strip of spine, shoulder bones, tufts of hair, and scraps of clothing. The remains were scattered amid gray glacial rubble, near the foot of a dirt-streaked ice cliff running with meltwater. At first the guides—Abdul Mateen, Faz al-Haq, and Abdul Manan—thought the body could have belonged to any number of men lost on the western flank in recent years. But when the talus yielded a leather boot entombing a wool-socked foot, they knew they’d probably stumbled across an older tragedy, since plastic footwear had replaced leather after 1980.
This, they realized, could be the body of Günther Messner.
Günther, the younger brother of Reinhold Messner—the 61-year-old Tyrolean climber widely considered history’s greatest mountaineer—was by far the most famous MIA on Nanga Parbat, and, a few years back, Reinhold had specifically asked the Pakistani guides to search for him. Günther, 24, had gone missing in June 1970, when he and Reinhold—then 25—made a daring first ascent on the south flank of the peak via the 14,763-foot Rupal Face, one of the tallest alpine walls on earth.
The feat was a stunning success for two young climbers on their first Himalayan expedition, but only Reinhold lived to tell about it. As he described the tragedy later, Günther was stricken with altitude sickness soon after they summited, on June 27, and was too debilitated to backtrack down the sheer ascent route, particularly since they had no rope. After a sub-zero bivouac, followed the next day by a much debated episode in which Reinhold shouted to other climbers at a distance but somehow didn’t or couldn’t convey Günther’s plight, the brothers apparently decided that their only chance of survival was to pick their way down the unfamiliar but less steep Diamir Face. If they succeeded, they would score another coup in the process: the first complete traverse of Nanga Parbat.
According to Reinhold, near the end of the descent he’d pushed an hour or so ahead of his brother, believing the worst was behind them. Then, out of view—in an area toward the bottom of the Diamir Face—Günther disappeared in what Reinhold assumed was an avalanche. He could find no trace of Günther. Grief-stricken, Reinhold staggered on for the next two days before finally making it to safety in the Diamir Valley.
In the aftermath, the damage to Reinhold’s body and soul was immense. He lost seven toes and several fingertips to frostbite. Worse, he’d lost his beloved brother and the climbing partner he once called his life’s “accomplice.”
“Günther!” he’d shouted endlessly as he searched for him on Nanga Parbat. “It was the anguished cry of a lost animal,” he wrote later. “I had suffered. I was badly frostbitten. I had died.”
IF THE TALE HAD ENDED THERE, the potential discovery of Günther’s body might not have attracted attention outside Messner’s immediate circle. But the Messner saga on Nanga Parbat has always been much more than a survival story. It’s also an enduring mystery, and the seed of a bitter conflict between Messner and several of his teammates on the 18-person German/Austrian expedition that had traveled to Pakistan to scale the mountain.
Within months of the trip’s end, tensions between Messner and expedition leader Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, fed by their conflicting versions of what had really happened to Günther, erupted into a series of lawsuits. Messner accused Herrligkoffer of manslaughter and “neglected aid” in his brother’s death, and Herrligkoffer accused Messner of libel. The suits’ outcomes didn’t resolve the underlying acrimony, and, after a period of surface calm, the fracas restarted in 2001 when Messner harshly criticized his former teammates in public, saying they hadn’t bothered to search for the missing brothers and, in effect, had failed to render assistance during an emergency. For a mountaineer, whose loyalty to his comrades is supposed to be paramount, it was the worst insult imaginable.
In subsequent months, Messner advanced his attack both in the German media and in The Naked Mountain, his 2002 book about Nanga Parbat, in which he employs a dreamy, semi-hallucinatory style to describe his bewilderment and anguish when his teammates did not come to the rescue.
Angered by the affronts, four Nanga Parbat expedition mates came forward individually with tales of their own. Ending more than 30 years of silence, Hans Saler, Gerhard Baur, Jürgen Winkler, and Max von Kienlin pointed out what they called major discrepancies in Messner’s story. Von Kienlin and Saler theorized that Reinhold had split up with Günther near the summit in order to pursue an ambitious, premeditated solo traverse. Messner had even discussed the plan beforehand at base camp, Baur told reporters. The Naked Mountain, the teammates said, was Messner’s revisionist attempt to deflect his own guilt.
It got worse. In 2003, Saler’s explosive book Between Light and Shadow: The Messner Tragedy on Nanga Parbat offered several alternative theories about how Günther could have died—none of them compatible with Messner’s story. That same year, von Kienlin published his own broadside, The Traverse: Günther Messner’s Death on Nanga Parbat—Expedition Members Break Their Silence.
Saler, now a 58-year-old mountain guide in Pucóe;n, Chile, and von Kienlin, a 71-year-old baron based in Munich, both speculate that Messner’s historic traverse was no emergency bid to save his brother, and that Günther never accompanied Reinhold down the Diamir Glacier. Instead, they posit that Reinhold parted ways with his brother near the summit and set off down the Diamir Face solo, while Günther headed toward the ascent route. Günther might have died in a high bivouac, or in a fall, they conjecture. Perhaps he wasn’t even suffering from altitude sickness, and chose to climb back down the Rupal Face—alone.
“Behind Reinhold’s story is a big lie,” Saler told me in 2003. The team members had spoken up, von Kienlin added, “to defend the honor of comrades who can no longer defend themselves,” since at least six of the original 18 were dead.
Over time, the controversy has become the most extraordinary fight in modern-day climbing history—a blood feud that has spawned more than a dozen lawsuits, countless attacks and counterattacks, a revenge theory (stemming from a post-expedition love affair between Messner and von Kienlin’s wife), and numerous efforts by Messner to find Günther and vindicate himself.
“It may take ten years, it may take 30 years, but I must find Günther’s body,” Messner told me in 2003, by which time he’d already made several trips to Nanga Parbat to scour the terrain. “There is no other chance for me to save my reputation.”
IN JULY 2005, WITH THE HELP of the three Pakistani guides, Messner’s redemptive moment seemed at hand: The men said they had located the skeleton at about 14,110 feet, an hour’s climb above the Diamir base camp, near where Messner had believed Günther might be.
Quickly, the guides photographed the bones, boot, and clothing and relayed their news to Messner. Within days, the information reached him at Schloss Juval, his 13th-century castle home in the mountains of South Tyrol, in far northern Italy. After seeing a photo, Messner said he had little doubt: The boot and jacket appeared to be Günther’s.
As it happened, Messner had already arranged to return to Nanga Parbat in August, when he was to lead a group of trekkers around the massif and check in at a village school he was helping build. A German freelance reporter and a photographer had been invited to follow along.
By August 26, with his 14 trekkers and two journalists in tow, Messner was on the south side of Nanga Parbat, a three-day walk from the spot where the bones lay. His mood was both stoic and combative.
“After 35 years of waiting, I can wait a little bit longer,” he told Outside contributing editor Rob Buchanan, who happened to be on assignment nearby and tracked down Messner at Tap Meadow, a grassy spot below the Rupal Face. It was tea time, and Messner was holding court in a mess tent, his fellow trekkers seated around him. He was trim and fit, sporting his trademark wild helmet of hair. “Who could possibly think that I would have abandoned my brother up there?” he scoffed. “No one would do that—that isn’t human behavior!”
On August 29, when he reached the remains, Messner was jubilant. “Es ist mein bruder!” he declared emotionally. The footwear, he said, was the clincher. A brown leather Lowa Triple Boot (named for the twin felt liners placed inside a hefty shell), it was standard equipment for the 1970 team. Moreover, a custom detail—a cord loop near the toe, used to secure crampon straps—matched the way the Messners had rigged their boots.
The next day, the trekking group’s doctor, Munich-based anesthesiologist Rudolf Hipp, harvested tissue samples for the DNA testing Messner would seek in Europe. The boot and foot bones were set aside; Messner would take them home. And then, drawing on the bravado that helped make him the first person to scale all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks—a feat he accomplished without supplemental oxygen—Messner took executive action: He cremated the rest of the remains at the group’s base camp. Whether the body was indeed Günther’s, or someone else’s, most of it was now gone forever.
Borrowing from Tibetan tradition, Messner and his team built a chorten, a square-shaped stack of stones, as a monument to Günther. He threw Günther’s ashes toward the mountain. A few days later, he took the boot and bones onto his flight home.
“When I held in my hands the remains of Günther, I had a strong feeling, like a phantom pain of an amputee,” Messner told me by phone in September, after he’d returned to Schloss Juval. Already, the bone find was taking on a life of its own, defying simple things like happy endings or peace or even logic, and his voice was urgent and angry.
“Now I have proof. It is over for me,” he said. “The story is clear and finished!”
BUT, INCREDIBLY, THE STORY IS NOT FINISHED, and it probably never will be, since its mysteries seem to defy resolution by any single piece of evidence. Though Messner’s proclamations of victory were reported all over the world—CLIMBER IS CLEARED OF ABANDONING HIS BROTHER, read the August 19 headline in The Times of London—his detractors still have plenty of questions.
“Finding Günther’s body proves nothing except that he died somewhere on the Diamir Face,” Saler said when I phoned him in Chile. “We still know nothing of how Günther died.”
Critics were outraged that Messner had assumed the right to burn an unidentified body before conducting conclusive DNA tests. The bones, they argued, could have belonged to any one of the 12 or more climbers lost on Nanga Parbat’s western face.
The DNA test results, it turned out, went Messner’s way. On October 21, Messner held a press conference at the Institute of Legal Medicine, in Innsbruck, Austria. There, molecular biologist Walther Parson and other lab officials told journalists that they’d compared DNA in a recovered toe bone with DNA from Messner and his younger brother Hubert. The bone was “beyond a reasonable doubt” from a Messner brother, he announced. The lab concluded that the bone was 17.8 million times more likely to be from Günther than not.
Still, that didn’t put an end to the wrangling. The teammates did not question the genetic tests—a wing of Innsbruck Medical University, the Innsbruck lab performs DNA analyses in civil and criminal cases, and is seemingly beyond reproach. But finding Günther’s body, they reiterated, did not by itself solve anything. Günther might have perished in a fall near the summit, or in the upper or middle part of the Diamir Face, not toward the bottom, where Messner said he’d last seen his brother. In fact, Saler asserted, if Günther had died in the lower third of the face, roughly between 14,765 feet and 16,400 feet—as Messner has described the location—Saler believes the remains would have been found much lower than 14,110 feet (where they were reportedly recovered), since glacial movement typically carries bodies a mile or more down a mountain over a period of 35 years.
On one thing, Saler and von Kienlin had to concede defeat: Their theories about Günther’s death on the Rupal Face hadn’t proved true. But their Rupal conjecture, they maintained, was only one of several possibilities they’d offered, and, in their view, Messner had seized on it in a vast oversimplification that suited his needs.
In a statement last summer, von Kienlin wrote that Messner has “unjustly declared again and again” that “the discovery of the body on the Diamir side is proof that he is right” and that his critics “lied.” “This is an untruth intended to cause confusion and to trick the public.” Or, as he told me by phone: “Reinhold won’t give journalists straight answers.”
In crime novels, straight answers usually surface when someone is confronted with a “gotcha” piece of evidence. But no amount of sleuthing was or is likely to secure proof in this case. There were no witnesses to Günther’s death, and the last person to see him alive—an exhausted, oxygen-deprived man without food, water, sleeping bag, or shelter on a 26,660-foot Himalayan mountain—was Reinhold Messner himself.
Until the 2005 discovery of Günther’s body, the only evidence that seemed as if it might be a smoking gun was an alleged—and very controversial—handwritten note described in the 2003 book by von Kienlin, The Traverse. The one-page, penciled “confession,” recorded by von Kienlin and dated July 4, 1970, purports to document a conversation between Messner and von Kienlin in a dusty motel room in Gilgit, Pakistan, just before the anguished Messner returned home. During their talk, Messner supposedly says he was not with Günther at all after summiting.
“I lost Günther,” the note allegedly says. “For hours I was up there yelling for him. I don’t know why, but he couldn’t hear me. He was doing very badly. He didn’t make it. Maybe he fell.”
In his book, von Kienlin says he warned Messner that Herrligkoffer, the expedition leader, “won’t take very kindly to [your] decision to go down the other side. Von Kienlin tells Messner that he’ll need a “clear account” about the traverse to protect his parents and his reputation.
Immediately after the May 2003 release of von Kienlin’s and Saler’s books, Messner’s Hamburg-based law firm marched into court. Von Kienlin’s note, Messner claimed, was a fake that was created after the expedition, while Saler’s book was a “fairy story.” By July 2003, Messner won a temporary injunction against Saler’s and von Kienlin’s publishers. The two companies were ordered to make some minor revisions to the tomes: For example, reprints of von Kienlin’s book could not include a reproduction of the disputed note on its back cover. As part of the dispute, von Kienlin was also ordered to hire an independent handwriting expert to assess the note’s legitimacy and age. One expert hired by von Kienlin had concluded in 2004 that there was a 75 percent probability that the document was legitimate, but the court last summer ordered a second analysis. Those results have not yet been announced.
Meanwhile, muddying the waters even more, Messner offered this motive for von Kienlin’s attack: “He lost his wife to me.”
This last part is definitely true. Ursula Demeter and Messner had become enamored in the early seventies, when Messner, on the mend from his toe amputations, was a guest at Schloss Erolzheim, von Kienlin’s castle in southern Germany. After Demeter and von Kienlin divorced, she and Messner were married from 1972 until 1977.
But did von Kienlin still harbor a grudge? In 2004, when I asked him this question at his suburban Munich home, the baron—wearing a hand-painted silk tie and puffing a cigarillo—casually waved off Messner’s jealousy theories. “If I wanted revenge,” he said, “I would have acted on it long ago.”
When I called von Kienlin in September 2005 to ask about the recovery of Günther’s remains, he had new theories of his own, a clear indication that this battle will not end soon.
“Messner has friends in Pakistan; he’s invested in a school there; they may have helped transport the body,” von Kienlin said, rattling off a laundry list of gripes that became more arcane as he continued. “Why was only one boot recovered in Pakistan?” he asked. “Where is the other boot? Could the recovered boot actually have been Reinhold’s?
“Reinhold says that it’s a dangerous place, where he left his brother—so then why did he leave Günther there alone?” von Kienlin went on. I could almost see him shaking his head in wonderment. “Reinhold says he’s got his honor back,” he said. “But why, if he left Günther?”
THE STORY OF GÜNTHER and Reinhold’s final climb together began with great promise in 1969, when the two Tyrolean brothers were thrilled to accept invitations to join a team tackling the first ascent of the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat, a mountain known to be a killer.
Reinhold was a hotshot climber in the Alps, determined to make a career out of mountaineering. Günther—reticent, devoted, and deferential to his older brother—was a talent in his own right. He and Reinhold, part of a family of nine children, had grown up in the Villnöss Valley, in the Italian Dolomites, surrounded by formidable crags and walls that became their training ground—and their escape route from their authoritarian father. They’d bonded after an incident that occurred when Reinhold was 13.
“I found my younger brother Günther cowering in a dog kennel,” he writes in The Naked Mountain. “Our father, during one of his fits of rage, had thrashed Günther so badly with the dog whip that he could no longer walk.” From that day forward, the two became climbing partners and allies, united against “the injustices of this world.”
The other members of the expedition included some elite climbers: Saler, Gerhard Baur, Felix Kuen, Peter Scholz, and Jürgen Winkler, a photographer. The suave von Kienlin had offered a cash contribution in return for being included.
Their leader was the taciturn 54-year-old Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, who’d already organized six expeditions to Nanga Parbat. (He’d become obsessed with the mountain after his half brother, climber Willy Merkl, along with eight others, died on the peak in 1934.) He’d also commanded the 1953 trip in which maverick climber Hermann Buhl—defying Herrligkoffer’s demands to return to base camp—made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat, a fast-and-light solo above the high camp on the Rakhiot Face. Herrligkoffer had not been pleased at Buhl’s rebel impulse. Messner, for his part, idolized Buhl’s breakaway spirit.
But on June 26, 1970, no defiance seemed evident. High on the mountain, the Messners and Baur sat at Camp 5, watching for a signal rocket from base camp. If Herrligkoffer fired a blue rocket, it meant good weather, and the team would try to summit on the 27th. If Herrligkoffer fired a red rocket, it meant bad weather, and Reinhold would attempt a Buhl-like solo dash.
Radio Peshawar reported good weather, so Herrligkoffer fired a rocket, but it exploded red, not blue—the first glitch. Seeing this, Messner started out shortly after 2 a.m., without gear, for a quick-and-light attack, to avoid the presumed bad weather. At sunrise, as Günther and Baur were installing rope to aid Reinhold’s return, Günther did something impulsive—the second crucial twist in the tragedy.
Baur, now a 58-year-old adventure filmmaker based in Bavaria, recalls how Günther impatiently dumped a rope and sprinted into the Merkl Couloir, a nearly 2,000-foot ice ribbon, to catch up with his brother. It was the last time anyone but Reinhold saw him.
As Messner describes it, he was at first irritated but eventually glad when a breathless Günther—he had pulled off the amazing feat of climbing the steep face, at altitude, in less than four hours—appeared for the final push. The brothers reached the summit at about dusk, shook hands, then started down. Immediately, Günther began lagging, addled from his fast climb. Günther worried that reversing down the sheer Rupal Face would be dangerous. He suggested a descent via the gentler Diamir Face.
Slowly, Messner came around to the idea, he writes in The Naked Mountain. The Diamir Face looked like the only way out of desperate straits—the brothers had no stove, tents, food, or sleeping bags. (“You think I was so crazy that I would plan to traverse Nanga Parbat without a cooker?” as Messner would ask me later. “I’m not stupid!”)
In Messner’s account, they descended for about 800 feet to the Merkl Gap, a notch in the southwest ridge named in honor of Herrligkoffer’s half brother. From there, Messner could peer down into the Merkl Couloir—the route they’d used that morning. The brothers bivouacked in the gap, in temperatures as low as 40 below zero.
The next morning, Messner recalls, Günther was delirious. The older brother says he started shouting for help at 6 a.m. About three hours later, he saw Kuen and Scholz in the Merkl Couloir, heading for the summit. Messner says he shouted to Kuen for help and a rope, but it was windy, he was yelling over a cliff, and Kuen was as far as 100 yards away. Kuen and Scholz climbed higher, then Kuen and Messner tried again. Günther was out of sight; Kuen did not know where he was.
“Are you both OK?” Kuen yelled.
“Yes! Everything’s OK,” Messner replied, in what would become one of the central puzzles in the dispute. Why, Messner’s teammates would challenge later, did he not signal their distress?
It’s impossible to get elaboration from Kuen or Scholz, because both have died, Kuen in 1974 and Scholz in 1972. But according to Messner, the brothers were OK, relatively speaking: They were alive, just badly in need of a rope.
Messner says he then tried to coax Kuen and Scholz to climb up to him, but Kuen judged the steep, corniced wall between them to be suicidal. So, thinking the brothers were indeed OK, Kuen and Scholz continued toward the summit, leaving Messner, by his own account, in utter despair.
WHATEVER HAPPENED, from a climber’s perspective it’s hard to grasp why the Messners, with Günther so ill, would leave the security of a known route, fixed ropes, camps, and the pending arrival of two teammates on the Rupal Face.
“It’s illogical,” argues Saler. “If you’ve climbed a tall building by the stairs, and you’re exhausted on the roof, you don’t climb down the outside of the building.”
But as Messner puts it, his teammates have been motivated to “invent” stories about him because they’re jealous of his success. They have no right to judge his decisions on Nanga Parbat, he adds, because they weren’t there with him and they have no idea what he was going through. “How can they know the truth?” he asked me in September.
In Messner’s version, he and Günther bivied on their second night at about 19,685 feet, in a section known as the Mummery Rib. By the next morning, June 29—their third day without shelter or water—Günther could only stumble slowly along. Messner walked ahead, through the seracs of an avalanche-prone flank. He was more than an hour ahead of Günther when he reached a spot where glacier water flowed. He sat down to drink and wait for his brother.
Messner says that when Günther failed to appear, he backtracked up the mountain. Despite a frantic day and night of searching and calling, he found only avalanche debris. Over the next few days, Messner would falter downward until he came across villagers, who helped carry him to a road. On July 3, six days after summiting, he encountered the vehicles of the departing team and was rescued.
Günther’s death was “where everything ended and everything begins,” Messner writes in The Naked Mountain. For many days after, “I still experienced that feeling of increasing remoteness as a feeling of having been abandoned; as a kind of dissociation. Perhaps this was because one can neither cope with, nor indeed survive, such loneliness without suffering lasting damage.”
THE FEUD STARTED almost at once. In July 1970, Messner was still in an Austrian hospital, with a jar of seven amputated toes on his bedside table, when he complained in a local newspaper article that Herrligkoffer, a doctor, had not properly treated his frostbite.
Herrligkoffer retaliated in an account in a German weekly, in which he described Günther as “too weak for a summit bid” and lionized Felix Kuen and Peter Scholz, who reached the top the day after the Messners.
As the argument intensified, Messner accused Herrligkoffer of abandoning the two brothers and leaving them for dead; Herrligkoffer said at a public lecture that Messner had “sacrificed his brother to his mountaineering ambition”; and Messner, in 1971, filed the manslaughter and “neglected aid” suit, the first of at least a dozen legal actions that he and his former leader would file against one another.
Messner lost the first case—and all the others. Herrligkoffer, meanwhile, won a libel and breach-of-contract suit against Messner, who’d violated a publishing rights agreement by writing a book about the 1970 expedition, The Red Rocket on Nanga Parbat. As to the libel matter, Messner was forbidden from making claims that Herrligkoffer had failed him and Günther.
After Herrligkoffer died, in 1991, the battle momentarily quieted, but it roared back to life again on October 4, 2001, when Messner was invited to speak at a gathering to honor the publication of a biography of his old nemesis, Herrligkoffer. In the middle of his remarks, he threw a grenade.
“I am saying today that not going into the Diamir Valley, back then, wasn’t Herrligkoffer’s mistake—it was more a mistake of the other expedition members,” he announced as TV cameras rolled. “Some of them, older than I, didn’t mind one bit that the two Messners never reappeared,” he said. “And that is the tragedy!”
Gerhard Baur and Jürgen Winkler stood in the audience, flabbergasted. Was Reinhold suggesting that the team should have hotfooted it nearly 100 miles to search for the brothers, whose whereabouts were unknown?
“For years the enemy had been Herrligkoffer,” Winkler told me later. “But on that day Messner turned 180 degrees against the team.”
By now, Messner was a celebrity who had parlayed his feats into an empire, becoming a TV personality, corporate endorser, author of some 40 books, and Green Party member of the European Parliament. So when the first major retaliatory salvo came in May 2002—an open letter from Saler excoriating Messner for “truth distorting”—the scrap became big news, recounted everywhere from German newspapers to the Web. “Especially you, Reinhold, are indebted to this team,” for its “absolute loyalty over the last 32 years, but for which you do not have a single good word,” Saler wrote. “I am convinced that your brother would have reached base camp alive if you would have asked for help.”
A year later, Saler and von Kienlin would publish their books and Messner would sue them. Meanwhile, Messner was preparing a retaliatory salvo of his own: In April 2004 he held a press conference in Innsbruck to announce that Günther’s fibula had been found during a 2000 journey he’d made to the Diamir Glacier. As Messner described it, Hans Peter Eisendle, a friend of his, had discovered the bone not far from where the three Pakistani men would find Günther’s remains five years later. Messner had taken the fibula home and squirreled it away.
Then, in the autumn of 2003, he suddenly brought it to the Austrian Central DNA Laboratory, in Innsbruck, for testing. “There is no reasonable doubt” that the bone belonged to a Messner brother, biologist Walther Parson told the 2004 press conference as Messner—the epitome of feral elegance—looked on.
“This shows everything I said to be the truth, and I consider the case closed,” Messner told me after the event.
But his critics had not been convinced. They didn’t believe the DNA test results were conclusive. The bone, they added, could have come from anywhere and been dropped on the mountain where Messner claimed to have found it.
Oddly enough, I’d heard the same wild accusation, in reverse, from Messner, who told me he feared that his teammates were combing the Diamir Glacier for bones and offering to pay locals to do the job, too. His detractors’ goal, he said, was to plant them on the Rupal Face.
Hearing this, I imagined an alpine version of Groundhog Day, in which Günther reemerges from the ice year in and year out, and the accusations of treachery and calumny go on and on.
IN GERMANY, the fight continues. Messner, enraged at the “character assassination campaign” against him, recently announced to German newspaper Der Spiegel that he is teaming up with award-winning Munich film director Joseph Vilsmaier to make a documentary about the “crime” committed against him.
What will his teammates do now?
“We will find this man who is making this film and say, ‘If you really want to make a documentary, you have to show both sides,’ ” says Saler. “And we will show him our side of the story.”
Von Kienlin, for his part, says he refuses to overreact the way he believes Messner has. “He puts himself in such a ridiculous position, he hurts himself,” he said. “Silence is better than to speak such idiocies. Everything is so totally overdone. He wants people to always be sad for him.”
Then von Kienlin paused for a moment. “Maybe I’ll write another book about the things that have happened since The Traverse was written,” he said. “But maybe not. To talk is silver, but silence is gold.”
Meanwhile, at press conferences in Islamabad, Pakistan, on September 4, and at his castle on September 8, Messner held the leather boot aloft, claimed vindication, and referred to his expedition mates as schafsköpfe (literally, “sheep heads”) who were “miserable cheaters, liars, and criminals.”
“What they’ve done to me is just like what the Germans did to the Jews—no difference!” he told Austria’s News magazine this summer. When I called him later, he was still furious. “They took my reputation and spat on it!” he shouted.
Will the discovery of Günther’s body end your anguish? I asked. Will the feud be over?
“It will never be over,” he replied angrily. Then, in a fast-paced, 40-minute monologue, he railed against journalists for believing the “lies” of his teammates, against von Kienlin’s cunning, and against the German Alpine Club for letting von Kienlin and Saler hold a press conference in their “holy house.”
So why did he burn the remains?
“So nobody can go there and bring these bones over to the other side of the mountain!” he yelled. “That’s why we cremated everything! The crime energy is so strong in these people!”
Messner was midstream when I thought I heard a voice calling in the background. “Ah, I must go now,” he said abruptly. “Bye-bye.” He sounded suddenly convival, then hung up.