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with Stefan Nestler

40 years ago: The first German on top of Everest

Reinhard Karl (1946-1982)

This coming weekend, the first summit successes of the spring season on Mount Everest are expected. So Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, expedition leader and head of the operator “Imagine”, who is known as an early starter, is aiming for Sunday as summit day with his five Chinese clients. The group wanted to climb to Camp 3 at 7,200 meters today. Exactly 40 years ago, the first German climber stood on the 8,850 meter-high summit of Mount Everest. “Oswald and I overcome the last steps arm in arm. We are on the top. We fling our arms around our necks. It’s twelve noon. Our wishes have come true, just below the sky,” Reinhard Karl later wrote about the moment on 11 May 1978, when he reached the highest point together with the Austrian Oswald Oelz. The two belonged to an Austrian expedition led by Wolfgang Nairz. Three days earlier Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler had succeeded their historic first ascent without bottled oxygen. Karl and Oelz used breathing masks.

A 68er as a climber

Mountaineering is not something Reinhard Karl is born with – in 1946 in the town of Heidelberg, far away from high mountains. Aged 14, Reinhard begins an apprenticeship as a car mechanic, the “dirtiest and lousiest of all dream jobs,” as he writes later. At the age of 17, he makes his first climb. Mountaineering on the weekend becomes his escape from the unloved job. When the owner of the garage dismisses him, Reinhard begins to study in Frankfurt and is caught up in the 1968 student movement in Germany. As a climber, his trips become more extreme. Reinhard climbs the Eiger North Face, the granite walls of Yosemite. In 1977 he opens with Helmut Kiene the route “Pumprisse” on the Southeast Pillar of Fleischbank in the Kaiser Mountains in Austria, a pioneering climbing route, the first one in the seventh UIAA grade.

Dream fulfilled

South side of Mount Everest

Reinhard has also made a name for himself as a mountain photographer. For a German magazine, he is to take pictures of the Everest Expedition in spring 1978. That’s why the then 31-year-old is invited. Karl’s highest peak so far was the 4,810-meter-high Mont Blanc. Now, he has for the first time the opportunity to tackle an eight-thousander, even the highest of all mountains. “For me, the chance to reach the summit in the beginning was 1,000 to one,” writes Reinhard. “I was not even a real expedition member. I was a Prussian run here by chance who should take pictures.” But Karl has a “standard daydream”, as he calls it: “To stand on top of Everest. Like I entered dozens of summits before. Alone, with others, exhausted, happy, during storm and in sunshine. The pictures I saw from other summit climbs have multiplied becoming my climbing dream movie.”

Reinhard and Oswald set off up from the South Col in light snowfall. The thermometer shows minus 35 degrees Celsius, the wind blows at 50 kilometers per hour. After six hours, the two climbers reach the summit. Back in Germany, Karl receives the “Silbernes Lorbeerblatt” (Silver Laurel Leaf), the highest honor of the Federal Republic for athletes. At the subsequent banquet, Reinhard says to former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum: “I tell you, if I had not become a mountaineer, I might have become a terrorist.”

Death in an ice avalanche

The Nepalese side of Cho Oyu

In 1979, Karl scales Gasherbrum II in the Karakoram, his second eight-thousander. Then his winning streak ends. Reinhard fails on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, has to give up on Nanga Parbat and K2. On 19 May 1982, while attempting to climb via the South Face of Cho Oyu, Karl dies in a tent at 6,700 meters in an ice avalanche. A chunk of ice has hit the 35-year-old in the face.

You are never really on the top

To date, Reinhard Karl’s writings and pictures enjoy cult status among the climbing scene in Germany – as do his words about the moment on the roof of the world: “We’re taking summit pictures 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, the joy is followed by sadness, a feeling of emptiness: An utopia has become reality. I feel that even Everest is just a pre-summit. I will never reach the real summit.”


11. May 2018 | 11:01