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with Stefan Nestler

The eternal rascal

Peter Habeler

Even aged 75, he appears to be a rascal. Good-humored, always good for a joke, the laugh lines on his face – and fit as a fiddle. “Climbing is my fountain of youth,” says Peter Habeler. The Tyrolean from the Zillertal is still climbing through steep walls. Shortly before his big birthday even through the Eiger North Face, along with David Lama, in winter. “It was something very special for me,” Peter tells me as we hike below the peaks of the Geisler group in the Villnöss Valley in the South Tyrolean Dolomites. “Many years ago, I discovered David’s talent when he did his first climbing as a little boy in my alpine school in the Zillertal. I saw that he would become a great climber.” Today Lama is one of the best climbers in the world. “When I climbed behind him in the Eiger North Face and watched how easily and smoothly he mastered even the most difficult passages, I felt like I was back in time when I myself was still young,” says Peter.

“I did not want to die at Everest”

The Villnöss Valley with the Geisler group

The hike with Habeler is part of the program of the International Mountain Summit in Bressanone. The fact that we are en route in the Villnöss Valley fits: Finally Reinhold Messner grew up there, and the South Tyrolean gained his initial experiences as a climber on the peaks of the Geisler group. Along with Messner, Habeler celebrated his most famous successes. In 1975, they scaled for the first time an eigth-thousander in Alpine style – without bottled oxygen, high camps, fixed ropes and Sherpa support: Gasherbrum I in Pakistan. Three years later, in 1978, they succeeded their greatest coup, the first ascent of Mount Everest without breathing mask. Next year marks the 40th anniversary of this pioneering achievement. At that time he was temporarily doubtful, admits Habeler, especially when Messner and two Sherpas had just barely survived a heavy storm on the South Col: “I really didn’t want to die on Everest. I wanted to stay healthy and get home.” After all, his first son, Christian, had just been born.

Restlessness before the descent

Habeler (r.) and Messner (in 1975)

When he and Messner finally reached the summit at 8,850 meters on 8 May 1978, it was “a very emotional moment,” Habeler recalls, “even though I no longer know what exactly I felt at the time. I only know that I was afraid. I was very restless because I wanted to go down. I thought: Oops, how can I get down the Hillary Step, without belaying? We had noticed on the ascent that the snow was there in a bad condition. I feared a step could break off and I would fall into the depth. But somehow it worked.”

Highlight Kangchenjunga

“We were lucky”

After returning home, he was surprised by the enormous media response, says Habeler: “It was a real hype.” For him, however, Everest without breathing mask was not the highlight of his career on the eight-thousanders, due to his doubts, says Peter. “My personal highlight was definitely the ascent of Kangchenjunga in Alpine style with Carlos Buhler and Martin Zabaleta in 1988. At that time I was in my best shape. On the summit day, I climbed ahead to the highest point because I was faster than the other two and the weather was getting worse and worse.” The descent turned to be dramatic, says Habeler: “We were lucky to survive.” His success on the third-highest mountain on earth (8,586 meters) was his fifth and last on an eight-thousander.

Like a via ferrata

“We will have fun”

The 75-year-old shakes his head about what is currently happening on the highest mountains in the world. “No mountain can stand too many people. If there are a thousand people in the base camp and 540 of them want to set off during a single good weather window, I feel uneasy about it. That’s not my way of climbing mountains. Today Everest is a chained mountain – even K 2 too. It’s almost like a via ferrata.” Next spring, Habeler will return to Mount Everest, along with his companions of 1978 who are still alive. “There will be quite a hustle and bustle on Everest. But we will definitely have a lot of fun,” the eternal rascal rejoices and grins from ear to ear.


14. October 2017 | 0:41