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with Stefan Nestler

Thomas Huber: “I’ll travel with a laughing heart”

Thomas Huber will set off again

Thomas Huber will set off again

Incredible – that describes Thomas Huber’s current life quite aptly. No wonder that the 49-year-old German top climber uses this word very often when we talk on the phone. Thomas was, as he himself says, “incredibly lucky” when he survived his 16-meter-fall from a rock face on 5 July. He recovered so “incredibly fast” that he – as initially planned before his fall – will shortly go “with incredible joy” on expedition to Pakistan. Truly incredible! The aim of the travel is the north side of the 7,145-meter-high granite giant Latok I in the Karakoram. Huber’s team includes Toni Gutsch – who, in 1997, first climbed the West Face of Latok II (7108 m) along with the Huber brothers and US climber Conrad Anker – and Sebastian Brutscher.

Legendary failure

The German trio will share their Base Camp with the Americans George Henry Lowe, Jim Donini and Thomas R. Engelbach who want to climb a bit on the six-thousanders in this area. Lowe and Donini, both now older than 70, made history on Latok I in 1978: Along with George’s cousin Jeff Lowe and Michael Kennedy, they opened the route via the Latok I North Ridge. 150 meters below the summit they had to turn back in a storm. “The most remarkable failure in alpine history”, Thomas Huber says appreciately. The four US climbers spend 26 (!) days in a row on the ridge before they returned completely exhausted, but safely to Base Camp.

Thomas during hypoxia training

Thomas during hypoxia training

Thomas, you’ll leave shortly to Pakistan, only a few weeks after your 16-meter-fall and surgery on your head? How can that work?

It was a skull fracture, which was fixed so that I could expect no permanent damage. We then made some medical tests, working with neurologists. I prepared myself for high altitude with a special program by Markus Goebel. By reducing oxygen you can thereby simulate altitudes of up to 6,000 meters. We have repeatedly measured the brainwaves and made MRIs. The result: It had no effect on my brain, no edema have developed. The doctors have given me a so-called “self-reliant release.” They said: “Thomas, in the end it’s up to you to decide it.” I have prepared step by step for this moment. Actually I haven’t been thinking of the expedition, I simply wanted to recover. With the energy that I have received from outside, from my personal environment, I recovered so incredibly fast that I now have the courage to start this expedition. I say yes to this expedition. But nobody has to worry about me. I have also the courage to say no at any moment. If I feel that it doesn’t work physically, I’ll say no.

You meanwhile did some climbs again. How did it feel?

Still a bit shaky. The three (broken) spinous processes of vertebrae have still not grown together optimally. I have to be patient. But I am already able again to carry a backpack. I climbed along with my son through the Watzmann East Face, via the “Wiederroute” up to the central summit. I also did a lot of mountain running. I can do all this without pain, without vertigo, without headache. Only the asymmetric strain of my back while climbing is still a bit painful from time to time.

Has the inner cinema started when you climbed, in the sense that you remembered your fall?

Only once for a short time. There is an automatic role in our climbing hall. After you have climbed up, you sit down in a loose strap and are moved back down to the floor. There I hesitated for a short moment. I looked down, 15 meters, exactly the height I had fallen down. First I climbed back. My daughter was with me and said: “Next time you sit down!” I did, and it was fine. If I am belayed, I have no problems. The fall happened because the rope was a non-standard one, it had been cut off. I was incredibly lucky and I gratefully accepted it. Therefore I have no nightmares or inner cinema in the sense that I would think: “Oh God, what happened?” I am grateful and happy that I am still alive and can look forward. For me this now means going to Latok I. I am still far from thinking of a summit success. Maybe I’ll reach the top, maybe not.

The North Face of Latok I

The North Face of Latok I

Actually the mountaineering season in the Karakoram is coming to an end. Why are you so late?

The Latok I North Face gets a lot of sunshine, because it also has an east component. From 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. there is constantly sun. Therefore we decided to go in fall, when the sun is much lower. Only when the wall is in the shadow, you have a chance to climb through it. Otherwise it’s impossible. I have looked at the weather information. There is also acceptable weather in fall, and it’s just colder.

You have now spoken about the North Face, earlier reports said you wanted to complete the route via the North Ridge. What exactly are you planning to do?

There is always far too much talk in advance. You have to face the wall, and then you take exactly the way that seems to you the coolest and best. Perhaps the North face is possible, maybe the North Ridge is the only possible way in this time of the year and in these conditions. You always have to be flexible. If you focus too much on a single goal on such a mountain, leaving no alternatives, you will most likely come back without summit success. On such mountains you may have a plan, but then you have to look for new ways, because the conditions are constantly changing.

Thomas at Latok I in 2015

Thomas at Latok I in 2015

Regardless of whether the North Face or the North Ridge of Latok I, both were too hard nuts to crack for dozens of expeditions. Is it possible at all to speak about a chance of success on the north side of this mountain?

No, you can’t. But in mountaineering it’s itching to go where many have failed before. That’s why I back then went to the Ogre, an incredible mountain. (In 2001, Thomas succeeded, along with Swiss climbers Urs Stoecker and Iwan Wolf, the second ascent of the 7,285 meter-high-mountain in the Karakoram). Similarly, I see the Latok I North Face. This is a very nice goal. Perhaps inspired by the fact that so many did not make it, you think you climb it first due to your experience, your skills, maybe your luck. That’s enormously attractive.

Do you think that you’ll now, after your fall, enjoy even more to be on the road, regardless of whether you’ll be successful or not?

I’ll travel there with incredible joy. It is a tremendous gift. Whether I get to the top of Latok I or not, the very fact to be under way now at that place is beyond all description. I take this joy and energy with me. Sometimes you have to leave behind the high expectations and say: “Now I no longer think of what I want to achieve, I just go on my journey and engage in the project.” I have a wonderful team. And I believe that if this energy is setting up a dynamic process you can do crazy and great things. But even if I return home without summit success, I will do it with a laughing heart, because I may be healthy again – and wild.


13. August 2016 | 9:17