Anchoring the western tip of the mighty Himalayas, Nanga Parbat dominates both a century’s worth of mountaineering fascination and the lush surrounding landscape.
Name: Nanga Parbat
Height: 8,125 m (26,658 ft)
Location: The western Himalayas, in the Gilgit-Baltistan region Pakistan, Asia.
First Climbed: 3 July 1953 by Herbert Buhl
Climb Time: 7-10 days.
Best Time to Climb: April-May or September-October.
Introduction of Nanga Parbat.
This deadly mountain stands amongst the world’s highest and most daunting mountains. Nanga Parbat (8,125 m (26,658 ft) is even in a club on its own with Mount Everest (8,848 m/ 29,029 ft) no less!
With a surrounding wilderness area that could easily be confused with the Swiss Alps, Nanga Parbat has a history of challenging the very best mountain climbers in the world and still holds on to a number of unconquered challenges.
As we’ll see, Nanga Parbat is the quintessential, ultimate mountain challenge.
History of Nanga Parbat.
The mountain’s name literally translates from Urdu to mean ‘the naked mountain’. The local name for the peak is Deo Mir or Diamir, meaning either ‘the huge mountain’ or ‘the abode of fairies’. We’ll let you choose which you prefer!
The local area, Gilgit-Baltistan, has its own strong cultural identity. While part of modern Pakistan, it was under colonial British rule until 1948, when they decided to join the newly formed country during annexation.
Priding themselves as a peaceful people, they are currently in conflict with the Pakistani government over their status as second-class citizens, with some calls to finally establish their own independence.
Nanga Parbat is a mountain with bite. Nicknamed the ‘man-eater’ or ‘killer mountain’, 31 people perished on its slopes before anyone stood on top of it. Since then, between up to 61 others have died on the slopes, in return for less than 300 successful ascents.
The deadliness of Annapurna, numerically (8,091m/ 26,545 ft; death rate between 27-41%), is greater than any other mountain on Earth. Yet Nanga Parbat and nearby K2 (8,611 m/ 28,251 ft) boast worryingly high death rates too. Some accounts place this mountain as high as third on the list of most deadly mountains, with a death rate of up to 22 %.
But a more recent incident overshadows the mountain’s deadly reputation, reminding us that political tensions can reach us wherever we are.
On 22 June 2013, a group of militants dressed in local paramilitary uniforms, stormed the Nanga Parbat base camp and killed eleven climbers who came from all over the world.
It later emerged that the aim was to kidnap the climbers for ransom, as a reaction to US drone attacks on al-Qaida and Taliban sites. However, for whatever reason, this was not the outcome. The event became known as the Nanga Parbat masscacre.
Geography of Nanga Parbat.
Nanga Parbat rates highly on both the lists of the world’s highest and most prominent mountains, an accolade shared with only Mount Everest. As the world’s 9th highest peak and the 14th most prominent, it rises out of the Pakistan wilderness to announce the beginning of the highest stretch of land on Earth.
To the north, the Indus river continues its long journey from western Tibet to the Arabian sea. At 3,180 km (1,980 mile), this is one of Asia’s longest rivers.
The Himalayas extend 2,410 km (1,500 miles), from the Indus river in Pakistan to south-east Tibet. Nanga Parbat is a part of the central southern range, known as the Great Himalayas. The range’s average height is approximately 6,100 m (20,000 ft). As the western tip of this great range, Nanag Parbat is also the westernmost of the eight-thousanders.
The mountain runs along a ridge-line that stretches from south-west to north-east. It is made of rock and ice and contains a number of high subsidiary peaks, including the North Peak (7,816 m/ 25,643 ft), 3 km (2 miles) to the north.
It also contains some of the youngest granite found in a mountain range, estimated at being a youthful 2 million years old.
Nanga Parbat’s south face is one of its most daunting climbing prospects, as well as a geographic wonder. The Rupal Face is argued to be the world’s tallest sheer face, stretching up 4,600 m (15,090 ft).
While the complex of terrain found on the opposite north-facing Rakhiot Face is easier to climb, it also boasts one of the top ten elevation gains in the world. It climbs 7,000 m (22,966 ft) from the Indus river valley to the summit in a little over 25 km (15.5 miles). To the west is the Diamir Face, covered for the most part by a huge glacier.
To the south of the summit is a 10 km (6-mile) ridge-line known as the Mazeno Wall, which contains eight subsidiary peaks exceeding 7,000 m (22,966 ft). This ridge-line is considered the longest of any found on the eight-thousanders.
The mountain sits on the Leacher Thrust, a 3 km (2-mile) wide fault zone that continues to lift the mountain up to 7 mm per year, as the Indian plate subducts under the Eurasian plate. This ongoing uplift is common throughout the Himalayas, as this relatively young chain of mountains continues to push skywards.
However, the sheer faces of this mountain are caused primarily by its isolation from other peaks. This causes it to bear the brunt of formerly extensive glaciation, wild weather and ongoing erosion, which keeps pace with the pace of uplift. As such, as the mountain grows, the action of the Indus river, among other natural features, continues to chip away at the lower reaches.
Glaciers run down most of the slopes around the mountain. The largest are the Rakhiot and the Rupal glaciers to the north-east and south-west respectively. The Diamir glacier, to the north-west is wider and shorter than these two, still covering a significant area in the shadow of Ganalo Peak (6,608 m/ 21,680 ft).
In total, the massif hosts nine glaciers of notable size. They feed either the Indus river to the north or the Rupal river to the south. Latbo glacial lake is another noteworthy natural feature, found at the foot of the Rupal Face to the south, near the village of Rupal.
Meanwhile, to the north-east of the mountain, you’ll find an area known as the Fairy Meadows, cited as “one of the most beautiful places on Earth” (see below).
Wildlife of Nanga Parbat.
Much of the area around the mountain is now a dedicated and protected national park, so the wildlife has the chance to thrive.
In the valleys below Nanga Parbat, wide meadows, such as the Fairy Meadows in the north-east, are covered in lush grasses and wildflowers. Beyond and around them are dense alpine forests, giving the area a distinctly Swiss appearance.
At higher altitudes, coniferous forests take over, though in the shaded areas birch and willow dwarf shrubs thrive. Species endemic to the area also often carry a geographical reference: West Himalayan fir (or pindrow fir) and West Himalayan spruce (or Morinda spruce).
This area is a transitory and breeding area for many migratory birds, protected as they are by the surrounding mountain ranges. Around 230 species of birds are found in the area annually, though the exact populations are hard to confirm due to the temporary nature of many of the aerial visitors.
Two notable birds that breed and inhabit the lower elevations and valleys are the golden eagle and the lammergeier or bearded vulture. This latter bird of prey has a surprised face and bright orange beard, and belongs to a genus all on its own!
Down below are notable endangered mammals, such as the snow leopard, Himalayan brown bear, musk deer, Himalayan lynx, and the Marco Polo and blue sheep. These cover a diverse range of habitats but also require large, predictable habitats to thrive in, something that human presence has worryingly constricted.
Two animals found in the mountain area are some of the last remaining examples of their species on Earth.
The Ladakh urial is a wild sheep with short hair and unusually long legs. Its large horns curve backwards like the American bighorn sheep. The markhor is an extraordinary looking wild goat, with spiralling horns and an enormous beard.
First Ascent of Nanga Parbat.
The first ascent of Nanga Parbat was a long time in coming.
When Hermann Buhl stood on top of the mountain on 3 July 1953, he did so after 31 others had tried, failed and consequently lost their lives on the slopes of the ‘man-eater’ mountain.
The first attempt was made by the pioneering mountaineer Albert F. Mummery in 1895, who Buhl later described as “one of the greatest mountaineers of all time”. He had become famous for leading many early climbs and opening route on mountains in the Alps.
But, after failing to reach the summit, Mummery and the two accompanying Gurkha climbers were killed by a fall or an avalanche while reconnoitering the northern Rakhiot Face. Their bodies have never been found.
Nanga Parbat became a focus of German explorations in the 1930s. With Everest accessible only to the British through Tibet, K2’s very base a monumental trek to reach and Kanchenjunga believed to be simply too much of a challenge, Nanga Parbat became the focus of the nation’s great climbers.
Their unsuccessful attempts included one in 1934, from which only one Sherpa returned, and a 1937 expedition, in which all sixteen men died in a devastating avalanche.
The final unsuccessful attempt became famous for featuring Heinrich Harrer, whose book, Seven Years in Tibet, told the story of his epic escape at the beginning of World War II. In 1939, after managing to reach no higher than 7,895 m (25,902 ft) during the previous decade of attempts, the German challenge was put on hold until 1953.
And the successful ascent of 1953 was certainly not without its own drama.
The Austrian-German expedition turned round 1,300 m (around 4,300 ft) from the summit – all except for Buhl. After his colleague failed to rise for the 2.30 am start from High Camp, Buhl carried on solo, without oxygen, fuelled by pervition, a methamphetamine used in World War II.
Summitting very late in the day, around 7pm, he was forced to bivouac overnight standing up using a single small handhold to stay on the mountain. After also losing a crampon on his way down, he finally limped into High Camp, exhausted at 7pm, after nearly 40 hours of climbing.
He had made the only solo first ascent of an eight-thousander, and the German hex on Nanga Parbat was finally broken.
The first ascent of the more demanding Rupal Face was made by the famous Messner brothers in 1970, who also completed the first traverse on this attempt. However, Günther was killed on the descent. This tragic adventure was made into a movie in 2010, called Nanga Parbat.
Lillian Barrard was the first woman to reach the summit, in 1984. The first winter ascent has only just occurred, completed on 26 February 2016. The first attempts at this were made in 1988.
Climbing guide to Nanga Parbat.
There are no easy routes up Nanga Parbat. With a significant vertical relief in all directions, you have to be prepared for a very difficult climb, wherever you approach the mountain from.
There are 12 different routes up the mountain. These vary between the Diamir Face (6), the Rupal Face (4) and the Rakhiot Face (2).
The Diamir Face routes.
The Standard or Kinshofer route follows the line of the second ascent of the mountain (1962), and heads up the Diamir Face. This route avoids the avalanche danger of the centre of face, where massive hanging glaciers threaten overhead.
Instead, it climbs the buttress to the left of the face to reach the Kinshofer icefield. This means the majority of elevation is gained early in the climb, meaning a longer period at high altitude. The Bazhin Gap is then traversed before climbing around the North Shoulder to reach the summit climb.
There are three other routes that have been attempted.
The Messner route was set in 1978 during his solo ascent and takes the right-hand side of the face. While this involves a steadier climb, most of it is over glacial terrain, with a looming avalanche risk a constant threat to the south. This route joins Mummery’s intended route (below) via the Bazhin Basin for the final climb to the summit.
The most recent route was opened in 2009, known as the Austro-Canadian North-west Buttress route. This detours to the east of the Standard route for more than 2,000 m of the climb. It uses a previously unknown couloir, now known as the Göschl Couloir, to access the north-west buttress.
The route Mummery took in 1895, known as the Mummery Rib, has never again been attempted as an ascent.
This routes heads more or less up the centre of the face. But the terrain of an unpredictable glacier has always proven too difficult to be successful. It was used by Reinhold Messner, however, to descend the mountain following his successful climb of the Rupal Face (see below).
The Rakhiot Face.
The Rakhiot Face has two routes: the Buhl route and the Japanese route.
The Buhl route was the one opened on the Hermann Buhl’s first ascent of Nanga Parbat. This route begins on the Rakhiot glacier and climbs towards Rakhiot Peak (7,070 m/ 23,196 ft), east of the true summit.
From here it traverses to the north of the peak, gains the ridge-line and passes to the south of the East Peak (7,597 m/ 24,925 ft) through a bottleneck known as the silver saddle. The final section climbs the north ridge to shoulder of the summit, and requires technical climbing of a very high order.
It is for this reason, attempting such climbing around and above 8,000 m, that the route is no longer in use.
The Japanese route stays much closer to the North and East Peaks, climbing directly up the Rakhiot Face below the East Peak, traversing to the north ridge, gained near the North Peak.
To avoid the technical climb of the Buhl route, the Japanese route descends onto the Diamir Face to reach the summit via the Bahzin Gap (west).
The Rupal Face
On the south-facing Rupal Face, six different routes have been attempted, though two are yet to be successfully completed. The routes are as follows:
• The Messner route, via the south South-east Spur. First completed in 1970.
• The Schell route, via the upper South-west Ridge. First completed in 1976.
• The South-east Pillar route. First completed in 1982.
• The Direct South-East face route, via the Central Pillar. First completed in 2005.
• The South Face Direct route, as yet unclimbed.
• Another Direct South-east face route, as yet unclimbed.
Information on trekking around Nanga Parbat.
Avoiding the dangers of the technical ascent, there is one multi-day trek that is commonly taken and well-worth considering as an adventure option to experience this mountain.
The Around Nanga Parbat trek is a 14-day half circuit. It starts in the village of Rupal to the south-west of the massif and ends at the Fairy Meadows to the north-east. This anti-clockwise circuit takes you over the Mazeno Pass (5,399 m/ 17,713 ft), which is the high point of the trip.
It also involves at least three nights camped above 4,000 m (13,120 ft); an experience for anyone unfamiliar with camping at such altitudes!
Many excursions are planned from Islamabad in Pakistan. This takes the total trip time to between 20-22 days.