Famed mountain climber feared dead

July 17, 2008 5:40:32 PM PDT
A renowned Italian mountain climber is missing and believed dead after falling into a crevasse on one of the world's deadliest peaks in the western Himalayas, rescuers said Thursday. Karl Unterkircher, 37, was climbing a new route with two others on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat when a ridge of snow gave way and he plunged into a ravine.

In 2004, the expert Alpine guide clocked a world record for the fastest ascent, in 63 days, of Mount Everest and K2 without oxygen. Two years later, he was the first to conquer the 20,500-foot peak of Mount Genyen in China.

"The tragedy is now a sad reality," Herbert Mussner, Unterkircher's manager, wrote on the climber's Web site. "There is no more hope."

A rescue party was expected to leave Thursday for Pakistan from Milan, but its main goal is to help the two survivors of the expedition make their way down the mountain, said Everest-K2-CNR, an Italy-based high-altitude scientific research group that is organizing the effort.

"There is nothing to do. In that area it will be impossible to even recover (a) body," said Francesca Steffanoni, a spokeswoman for the group, with whom the missing climber had worked.

Unterkircher's fellow climbers used a satellite phone to get out word Wednesday that his body was covered with snow and there was nothing they could do to help him with the equipment they had.

The accident happened at about 21,000 feet and the two were being forced to continue to climb to find a way down the mountain, Mussner said. They have not been in contact again because their phone was running out of power.

The Italian expedition was using a never-before tried route on the 26,810-foot Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth-highest peak, widely known as "Killer Mountain" because of the many climbers who have perished there.

In Italy, the circumstances of the incident brought back memories of another victim of Nanga Parbat. In 1970, Guenther Messner, died on the mountain while climbing with his brother Reinhold Messner, the world famous Italian Alpinist.

Messner, who 10 years later became the first solo climber of Everest, was accused by other members of the expedition of abandoning his brother, while he maintained Guenther probably died after being buried by an avalanche. His body was in fact found in 2005 under an avalanche.

"For years they accused me of not doing enough to save him, but it was not so," Messner was quoted as saying in the Corriere della Sera newspaper Thursday, adding that he hoped Unterkircher's comrades will not face the same criticism.

"Karl is dead. He is buried in snow. What can his climbing partners do?" Messner was quoted as saying. "They have the right and the duty to save their own lives."

Despite the danger attached to the expedition, scores of Pakistani and foreign mountaineers try to scale Nanga Parbat every year. Some are injured or killed, mostly because of bad weather.

The summit was first conquered by German mountaineer Herman Buhl in 1953 after 31 people died attempting to climb it.

In the last entry of an expedition diary posted on his Web site, Unterkircher said he was jittery about the climb, fearing the unstable ice on the route.

"From the bottom it looks like a difficult mountain, so much that it has left me perplexed and skeptical for the whole time we've been here," Unterkircher wrote from his base camp Saturday. "It's a dangerous mission."

Unterkircher lived in Val Gardena, a valley in Italy's northern Alto Adige region, with his wife and three children.

Corriere quoted his wife, Silke, as saying she was sure his fellow climbers "did everything they could to save him."

She added: "This is what he loved to do."

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