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Culture

Finding Utopia On Mount Everest

Twenty five years ago Reinhard Karl became the first German to scale the world's tallest peak. On the 50th anniversary of the first-ever ascent of Everest, Deutsche Welle recounts a trek that followed 25 years later.

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Reinhard Karl's moments on the world's highest mountain became etched in his memory forever.

In the spring of 1982, the telephone rang in Reinhard Karl’s Heidelberg apartment.

The famous Tyrolean mountain climber Reinhold Messner was planning an expedition to be the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest without oxygen, and a German magazine was looking for someone to photograph the feat. The German climber and photographer Karl didn’t think twice about accepting the offer.

But Karl faced a difficult task. According to Messner, he wasn’t welcomed by the Austrian-led expedition with open arms. "Some said, what are we supposed to do with that German? As good as he may be, he doesn’t fit in here," Messner recalls.

Karl had participated in the 1968 student revolution in Germany and had a reputation for sharp and sometimes unwanted words. "Here was this left-wing German student who stirred things up, provoked and aimed his little pointed remarks precisely where someone was really sensitive," said expedition member Oswald Oelz.

A utopia becomes reality

After Messner and his partner Peter Habeler’s ascent, Karl and Oelz were also given the chance to climb to the famous 8,850-meter summit with oxygen masks. Later, Karl wrote about this experience: "After the joy comes slowly the sadness, a feeling of emptiness. A utopia has become reality. I sense that Everest is just a foresummit. I will never reach the real summit."

For Karl, the hour he spent on top of the world’s highest mountain was one of the most significant hours in his life. "I can actually remember every minute of it precisely," he said later. "It is etched in my memory forever."

Karl died on May 19, 1982 in an avalanche in an attempt to climb the 8,201-meter Cho Oyu, located on the border between Nepal and Tibet. He was 35-years-old.

From the garage to the mountaintop

Mountain climbing was not a passion Karl was born with. He grew up in Heidelberg, hundreds of miles from any high mountains. He started an apprenticeship as a mechanic when he was 14, which he later called the "dirtiest and most wretched" job there is.

Mount Everest

The southern face of Mount Everest.

He loved to read about the mountains, though, and joined the local chapter of the German Alps Association. When he was 17, he went on his first mountain tour. Karl said climbing on the weekends helped him to forget his unloved job, where he called himself "a prisoner of dust and oil."

"Instinctively I wanted to get out of there. So it was a dream for me to be up there, in the light, a dream of freedom, of cleanness, of light, of my own life."

Living his stories

Karl was different from his contemporaries. Not only did he climb mountains, he also photographed and wrote about his experiences. In his books, the protagonists are driven individuals, torn between mortal fear and enthusiasm.

"He was one of the very few who actually did what they wrote about," says Reinhold Messner. "His books contain some of the best passages ever written about mountain climbing."

According to Messner, Karl’s writing was very special because he was such an emotional person. "He couldn’t find a real distance to the mountains and experienced and felt everything directly. This benefited his writing."

If Karl were still alive today, he would probably still travel around the world and write books, Messner says. "I think he was on the right path to becoming a very good author."

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