Climbing Lessons from the School of Tomaz Humar

Outside Magazine
June 2002

My chakras are shot. I know because Tomaz Humar has just checked them.

We’re getting ready for a hike in Slovenia’s Kamnik-Savinja Alps, sitting in Tomaz’s Volkswagen Golf in a patch of forest below the limestone face of 6,014-foot Mount Rzenik, where Tomaz first learned to climb. He pulls a tear-shaped pendant from his pocket and swings it over a small, colorful chart shaped like a dartboard and overlaid with numbers. When he checks my chakras, the pendant hovers at the low thirties. Tomaz checks his own: sixties. He considers the results.

“We don’t have much time,” he says, “but I’ll cleanse you.”

Before embarking on any venture with Tomaz Humar, your chakras should be in overdrive. With more than 1,200 ascents to his credit and 60 solos of new routes, the 33-year-old Slovenian has earned a reputation as the best-or maybe just the craziest-high-altitude climber in the world. Tomaz takes risks no other climber would consider; he endures suffering best classified as biblical. At mountaineering conferences where he gives his slide show and lecture, you can hear the collective gasp of the world’s top alpinists when they look at what he’s done in the planet’s toughest ranges, particularly the Himalayas.

Here’s Tomaz on 26,504-foot Annapurna I in Nepal in 1995, summiting alone in a blizzard as his expedition leader yells over the radio for him to turn back. Here he is in 1997, downclimbing the west face of another Nepalese peak, 25,770-foot Nuptse, in the dark, after his partner was blown off the summit (and before Tomaz accidentally set his own tent on fire). Here he is on his American vacation in 1998, scaling Reticent Wall, one of El Capitan’s hardest routes, on his first big-wall climb. Here is the suicidal route he took up Dhaulagiri’s south face in 1999-equipped with just three camming devices, four ice screws, five pitons, and a single 148-foot rope. Here he is midclimb on Dhaulagiri, prying the filling out of an infected tooth with his Swiss Army knife.

The south face of Nepal’s 26,810-foot Dhaulagiri is among the longest and highest faces in the world, a concave nightmare of loose granite and overhanging seracs that starts at 13,123 feet and rises another 13,000 terrifying feet to the summit. Two Eastern European teams had made ascents of the face: a Yugoslavian group in 1981 and a Polish expedition in 1986. Tomaz soloed it, on a new route, climbing long stretches without any protection at all. The mountaineering world was stunned. A Slovenian kid on his eighth Himalayan expedition had pulled off the most audacious achievement in a decade.

In Slovenia, a tiny Eastern European nation whose two million citizens love adventure sports, Tomaz became a god. He wrote a popular coffee-table memoir, No Impossible Ways; was named 1999 athlete of the year; and received the Honorary Emblem of Freedom from President Milan Kucan. Today, if you send a postcard to “Tomaz Humar, Slovenia,” he’ll receive it.

Nearly a year after Dhaulagiri, however, Tomaz suffered an accident that almost killed him. On the evening of October 30, 2000, less than two weeks before he was due to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Alpine Club in Denver, the man who’d just established climbing’s new benchmark stumbled into a ten-foot construction pit.

Tomaz was building a house in Kamnik for his family-his wife, Sergeja, their ten-year-old daughter, Ursa, and six-year-old son, Tomaz. In the early-evening darkness, Tomaz was taking care of last-minute chores with the construction foreman and didn’t notice his future basement until he fell into it. When he came to, at the bottom of the pit, he felt something heavy lying on him. It was his own right leg. His left heel and right femur were shattered. He almost died from blood loss. The surgeons who operated on him thought he might never walk again. As for climbing-forget it.

Now, a year and six operations later, Tomaz stands at the base of Rzenik, his shattered bones fused by titanium rods and plates, looking not at all like a great climber. His face is not weatherbeaten; he is neither lanky nor muscular. What he mostly looks like is a Wal-Mart assistant manager. Still, there’s no mistaking his drive. He only recently traded his wheelchair for crutches, but their rubber tips are already worn down from manic and punishing use; Humar’s crutches need crutches. It is with these that he intends to hobble up the rockfall below Reznik’s face.

But first there’s my chakra problem.

“Don’t move,” Tomaz says.

He traces his right hand over my body, an inch or two above my flesh. He flicks his hand, as though shaking water from it. Then he repeats the routine with his left hand-without the flicking, because this time he’s putting good mojo in. His mojo.

He measures me again: My chakras are in the forties. “That’s better,” he says. “If we had more time I could do more, but it takes a lot of energy from me, and we should get going.”

We head through the forest, Tomaz leading. His lurching gait is painful to watch, a cross between Frankenstein and a penguin. This is his first walk in the mountains since his fall. He has not told his doctors or his wife, because if he slips he goes straight back into the wheelchair.

“Look,” Tomaz says. “Look at that rock!”

He points a crutch at a chunk of quartz jutting out of the ground. He bends down and places a hand on the stone.

“It has a lot of energy,” he says. “I can feel it.”

EVEN AMONG RISK-LOVING mountaineers, there are insane levels of danger that 99.9 percent of climbers won’t accept. The other 0.1 percent tend to come from Eastern Europe. They have names like Kukuczka, Wielicki, Groselj, Jeglic, or Belak. They share a fanatical and almost comical embrace of suffering.

“A huge chunk of the sickest climbers in the Himalayas are Polish, Russian, Czech, or Slovenian,” says American big-wall climber Mark Synnott, 32. “They’re hard-core. Everyone knows that. You can tell when you meet them.”

This toughness is rooted in history, of course. Eighty years of Lenin, Stalin, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, regional conflicts, and ethnic cleansing have produced durable people. For the survivors who emerged from the rubble of communism, a long and happy life is not an entitlement, but an exception. The prospect of getting killed in the mountains is simply not as tragic for a climber from Minsk as it is for a climber from Boulder.

“In the West, the art of rock climbing is growing because it has to do with less risk, good muscles,” says Reinhold Messner, 57, the first man to climb (and then to solo) 29,028-foot Mount Everest without oxygen and to summit the world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. “But the people seeking high goals in high places are in Eastern Europe, and they reach their goals because they are willing to suffer more.”

And willing to do more to escape. During the Cold War, Eastern Bloc climbers were on the same short leash as everybody else. They couldn’t travel without government permission, and so, when state-sponsored clubs mounted expeditions to the Himalayas, competition was fierce. “If you’re in a club and your ticket to an annual trip to Tian Shan is by staying on that team, you’re going to do far more to stay on that team,” notes American alpinist Carlos Buhler, 47. “In our system, anybody can go to Tian Shan who wants to bang nails for a month to earn enough money to go there.”

Some of the greatest modern climbers have come from the former Soviet Union and Poland-Russian Anatoli Boukreev and Pole Jerzy Kukuczka, both killed in the Himalayas-but starting in 1991, when Slovenia won its independence from Yugoslavia, Slovenian mountaineers came on strong, with fast-and-light ascents up dangerous faces that have astonished even the Great One himself. “The Slovenians are the very best climbers in the world,” Messner says matter-of-factly. “They are young, and they are hungry for difficult things. I like them.”

Slovenian achievements in Nepal alone include new routes up the west ridge of Everest and the south face of 27,824-foot Makalu, solo ascents of the south face of 27,923-foot Lhotse and the west face of Annapurna, and the first complete ski descents of both Annapurna and Mount Everest. Slovenian casualties have piled up as well. Among those who’ve died in the past seven years are Slavc Sveticic, who soloed Annapurna’s west face; Stane Belak, Tomaz’s first mentor; Vanja Furlan, who climbed Nepal’s Ama Dablam with Tomaz; and Janez Jeglic, Tomaz’s partner on Nuptse-until he was blown off the summit.

Tomaz, however, has managed to live through some of the riskiest climbs ever attempted. “At the moment, Humar is the greatest high-altitude climber of the world,” Messner says. “His power is in surviving in very difficult situations on huge walls. What he has done is special. I know these walls, and they are very difficult, especially Dhaulagiri.” When Tomaz flew home from Dhaulagiri, Messner was among the throng of admirers at the Ljubljana airport. He’d come to Slovenia to congratulate the young man who was leading climbing back to its essence.

“The climbs Tomaz has done in the Himalayas in the last five years have set an entirely new standard for danger combined with difficulty-and probably danger before the difficulty,” echoes Ed Webster, 46, whose 1988 four-man ascent of Everest’s east face was as audacious in its day as Dhaulagiri.

“It’s almost a shame when one person alone raises the bar so high, because people might classify him in the freaky, sci-fi category,” says American climber Mark Twight, 40, who specializes in extreme alpine ascents. “Dhaulagiri-I don’t think anyone considered going up it by himself. Climbers are not prepared for that kind of difficulty, in that length of time, in those conditions. The great evolutionary steps in climbing take place because of people expanding their psychological capacity. We can improve our gear and our training, but it doesn’t matter unless you can see with enough clarity what is possible. The rest of us just aren’t seeing what he is.”

So what exactly does Tomaz see? That’s a mystery to everyone. “I’ve climbed Dhaulagiri,” says Buhler. “I know the energy it takes to go up the northeast ridge. The south face-I’ve never been on it. I’ve looked down on it. I’ve climbed with people who have attempted it. My reaction is-OK, you’re standing at the bottom, and you launch yourself up that route. Where did that energy come from? Where did he get that push?”

THE ANSWER STARTS IN KAMNIK. One day Tomaz and I drive into the countryside in his Golf, a gift from a local car dealership. The car’s sides are plastered with his name and likeness, which would be like Madonna tooling around Beverly Hills with her naked body painted on a Porsche. People stare in shock as we pass.

We pull up to a house under construction. An old couple, dressed in neat, well-worn clothes, are puttering around the site-Tomaz’s mother and father, Rozalija and Max.

His father shakes my hand with an unusually strong grip for a short, wiry man in his seventies. I already know the feeling: When Tomaz shakes your hand, your knuckles crack.

The house is being built for one of Tomaz’s younger brothers (he has two, Marjan and Mataj), and the construction crew stands before us: their parents. Trained as a shoemaker, Max Humar has worked construction his entire life, and though he is retired, you wouldn’t know it. I ask him if he has trouble hoisting the 60-pound cinder blocks that the house is being built with.

“No, why would I?” the old man replies. “I get more pleasure from working than lying on a beach. I never sit around the house. That’s for people who are sick.”

Max Humar knew hunger and misery during World War II. In 1967, before he was married, he escaped the Iron Curtain by fleeing over the rugged Kamnik Alps to Austria, but changed his mind once he arrived, turned himself in to the Austrian police, and was sent home. Humar has always expected his children to work hard. When houses were built for family or friends, the boys pitched in, lugging 100-pound sacks of cement.

I’m shown photos of a boy on a scaffold.

“I was seven years old,” Tomaz says.

“You were six,” his father replies, sternly.

“Was he a good worker?” I ask.

“He never complained,” his father says.

I ask if it was odd for six-year-olds to work construction.

“It was normal,” Max says. “We didn’t have much money. We couldn’t pay for workers. That’s what children are for.”

He turns to Tomaz. “What kind of question was that?”

Tomaz shrugs.

Tomaz and his brothers slept in an unheated attic room, sharing a pull-out sofa. Their mother tells me that her sons could sleep in the living room only if the outside temperature fell below 14 degrees. “So what if they were cold?” his dad says.

These days Tomaz admires his father, but they used to be at war. “He wanted me to be a normal guy, and I wanted to be free,” Tomaz tells me later. “We didn’t talk. He would work, and when he wasn’t working we would fight. So better not to talk.”

Fury has its uses. Tomaz blew off steam in the Kamnik Alps. The angry young man joined the Kamnik Alpine Club in 1987, climbing under Bojan Pollak, a legendary instructor and a stickler for detail. In his first year, Tomaz was not permitted to wear climbing shoes; he graduated from sneakers to clunky boots weighing several pounds apiece. Pollak sent him on overnight climbs without a sleeping bag, without enough water or food, and insisted he bivouac on the most exposed ledge.

In 1989, when Tomaz was 20, his apprenticeship was interrupted by the Yugoslav National Army, which sent him to Kosovo. At the time, the province was under Serb control, though 90 percent of its inhabitants were ethnic Albanians who despised Serb rule. Tomaz served a brutal and rotten enterprise that he knew was brutal and rotten, and he tried to desert many times.

His description of those thwarted escapes is convoluted, because Tomaz is not a linear individual; he jumps back and forth from one idea to another, one time to another. He spoke of hiding in a ditch and being found out, of hiding in a latrine, of being stuck in a trench with a chronic masturbator, of threatening an officer, of his commander telling him, “You’re never going home, coward, you’re mine for the rest of your life.”

But after a year, Tomaz was given permission to go. He walked to a Kosovo train station in moldy, maggot-ridden combat gear and begged a ticket out. “When I came home I was a real animal,” he told me. “OK, I was not normal before, but after Kosovo I was a total fool.”

“What do you mean?”

“Before army, I was an unusual guy,” he said. “The army made me more unusual.”

This time, when Tomaz escaped to the hills, he climbed alone, at a blistering pace, opening new routes, stealing his father’s hammer to pound pitons. He climbed beyond the supervising gaze of wiser alpinists like Pollak.

“I did some crazy things in those times,” Tomaz says. “Crazier than Dhaulagiri.”

TOMAZ GOT HIS FIRST SHOT at the Himalayas in 1994. He was 25, and had been married since 1991 to Sergeja Jersin, whom he’d met after Kosovo. Their daughter, Ursa, was two years old.
The expedition was to Ganesh V, a technically difficult 22,920-foot peak in Nepal, and was led by Slovenian legend Stane Belak. Only two climbers summited: Belak and Tomaz. Belak became Tomaz’s first Himalayan mentor-until the next year, when he died in an avalanche in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.

It was Tomaz’s next expedition, to Annapurna I in 1995, that made his name. He reached Camp 3, at 21,325 feet, with Mexican climber Carlos Carsolio and Davo and Drejc Karnicar, Slovenian brothers making a first descent on skis. But there wasn’t enough food for everyone, and the Karnicars, with greater seniority, preferred to summit with Carsolio. Tomaz was disgusted but followed orders and went down.

At base camp he fumed and gained permission from the expedition leader, Slovenian Tone Skarja, to make another summit bid. His climbing partner fell ill and turned around, but just before nightfall, in whiteout conditions, Tomaz and Arjun Sherpa found Camp 4 at 24,000 feet. Then a storm nearly swept the tent away. Forget about the summit, Skarja ordered. Get down.

Tomaz switched off the radio. The next morning he headed for the top. After 100 yards, Arjun turned back-another storm was bearing down. Tomaz continued, alone, plowing through waist-high snowdrifts, to the 26,504-foot summit.

The Slovenian climbing world realized a prodigy was born-a kid who could keep up with Belak on Ganesh and who could summit Annapurna on his own. But the kid had a problem. You don’t disobey Tone Skarja. Bolting for the top was like a rookie quarterback telling Vince Lombardi to go to hell.

Tomaz knew he wasn’t a team player, and he wasn’t especially worried about it. The next year, 1996, he and another Slovenian upstart, Vanja Furlan, decided to try a first ascent of the 5,400-foot northwest face of 22,493-foot Ama Dablam. Their ascent, says Ed Webster, was “outlandish.” At one point Furlan fell, but after 15 feet was saved by Tomaz’s belay. The next day the bag that held their ice gear fell away-gone. Now the only way was up. The radio didn’t work well enough for them to understand directions from base camp, so they climbed blind. Tomaz climbed without gloves; the holds were too fine to do otherwise. The two climbed much of the way unroped, because roping would have slowed them down. They made it in five days.

Tomaz had joined the elite of a very elite world, and both the risks and potential costs had escalated. While Tomaz was climbing Ama Dablam, Sergeja gave birth to a boy, on April 26. When Tomaz junior was just a few months old, Tomaz received word that Vanja Furlan had fallen to his death in the Julian Alps.
TOMAZ’S CLIMBS are so stunning that it’s hard to find a logical explanation for them. He says it’s simple-his spirituality makes the difference. “Every rock face breathes life with its lungs and emanates an energy that is proper only to itself,” he writes in No Impossible Ways. “You feel this energy in particular when you climb the face.” On Dhaulagiri, he says, he talked to the mountain and the mountain talked to him. When he put his hand on its flank he felt a pulse, and he knew, even before a serac fell, that it was going to fall. The mountain warned him.

Tomaz’s first true spiritual test came on the Nepalese peak Nuptse. After Ama Dablam, Tomaz soloed the northwest face of Nepal’s 22,336-foot Bobaye and then climbed two more Nepalese peaks: 20,075-foot Lobuche East with Carlos Carsolio, by now his favorite partner, and 23,494-foot Pumori, with Carsolio and Slovenians Marjan Kovac and Janez Jeglic. Jeglic was considered the country’s best climber, and he and Tomaz cooked up an ambitious plan to establish a new route up 25,770-foot Nuptse, straight up the 8,200-foot west face.

They left base camp on October 27, 1997, and after two days were within 3,200 feet of the summit. They hacked out a tiny ledge and pitched their tent in a storm. That night, Tomaz woke up with a headache that felt like an anvil had landed on his forehead, which was strange. He never got altitude headaches. He turned on his headlamp and discovered that the tent had collapsed under avalanched snow; his head was being crushed.

Tomaz and Jeglic also made the unfortunate discovery that their stove had a gas leak. With that vital piece of equipment falling apart, they decided to make a lunge for the summit-3,200 feet up the wall, 3,200 feet down, in one quick push. They began their assault at four in the morning, climbing unroped on separate paths-simultaneous solos. By mid-morning, at 24,600 feet, they were together again. Base camp radioed that storm clouds were approaching from Everest in the west; a strong gale was already flailing the ridge.

“Let’s climb until two,” Tomaz told Jeglic. “If we make it to the top, we take pictures and then step on it and get down.”

Jeglic reached the summit first and waved his ice ax. Thirty minutes later, Tomaz arrived. The winds were huge, and Jeglic (whom Humar often referred to by his nickname, Johan) was nowhere in sight.

“I’m met by the gale and footprints leading toward the south side of the ridge,” Tomaz recalled, “but no Johan. Maybe he’s gone to have a look around. I follow his tracks, cursing and grumbling: Where does he think he’s going in this weather? The gale is blowing in gusts when I reach the last footprints. I collapse on the ground. No trace of him anywhere. He just disappeared. I start bellowing into the hurricane force wind: Johan! Johan!”

There was no answer: Jeglic had been blown off the top.

Tomaz was distraught and disoriented. His mates in base camp pleaded with him to get off the summit. But he’d lost his goggles. The cold had destroyed the batteries in his headlamp. He was alone, in the dark, without his partner, lost in a maze of ice and rocks. His throat filled with phlegm and blood.

Base camp blared music over the radio-anything to keep Tomaz awake as he hacked blindly down the 3,000 vertical feet with ice ax and crampons, craning into the void for the tiny spot that might be his tent. Eleven hours later, he found it and collapsed. He tried to light the stove, but couldn’t. He dozed off, and woke surrounded by flames-the stove had worked after all. His tent and sleeping bag were half gone.

Two days later, Tomaz struggled off the face. But the ordeal wasn’t over. In Slovenia, he was seen as a villain in the eyes of many climbers, who blamed him for Jeglic’s death. The beloved hero had died; the dangerous upstart had lived.

Tomaz is still controversial among many of Slovenia’s climbing elite, who regard him as too interested in publicity and not as skilled as he would have people believe. He does not attend meetings at the Kamnik Alpine Club, nor does he sit on its governing board.

“Tomaz presents himself like a kind of god, or a person who has personal contact with some spirits who are preserving him,” says Marko Prezelj, 36, a top Slovenian climber who heads the club. “If you think like that and climb like that, either you really have contact with ghosts or you have a lot of luck.”

Beyond a curt hello, Tomaz is not on speaking terms with Prezelj. He thinks the falling-out he’s had with other Slovenian climbers began the moment Jeglic was swept off Nuptse.
“His death was like cutting off my arm,” Tomaz told me. “We talked a lot about our climb. We knew how dangerous it was. I said, ‘Janez, if I die on Nuptse don’t think about being guilty for me, and I will do the same.'”

Tomaz pauses.

“Janez was the god of climbing.”

Another pause.

“They think the wrong man came back from Nuptse.”

I’VE BEEN HANGING OUT with Tomaz for nearly two weeks, and he has not stopped talking. He talks about his father, Kamnik, George Bush, environmentalism, abortion, Dhaulagiri, meditation, war, food, wine, Yosemite, hang-gliding, paragliding, Slobodan Milosevic, country music, the Internet, pitons, and prosciutto. If we are in the car and I happen to fall asleep, he nudges me awake to tell me more.

I’ve come to realize that being with Tomaz is not unlike hanging out with a hyperactive child. One day we watch an unemployed electrician demonstrate a new sport he has created-“stone skiing”-on a slope of cast-off pebbles from a cement factory. Another afternoon we set off on a bike ride and end up at the home of Tomaz’s reflexologist, Jana Prezelj, a plump and jolly woman he calls his “spiritual mother.” The evening that ensues involves prodigious quantities of wine and schnapps, a guy singing and playing a tuba, the reflexologist standing on her head and clapping with her feet, and her husband playing a didgeridoo, the wooden horn used by the Australian aborigines, as Tomaz throws open his arms, tilts his head back, and lets the vibes seep into his heart chakra.

But there are times when the solitary Tomaz emerges. One afternoon he leads me to a lookout tower in the Kamnik Alps. It’s a rickety wooden thing, but it soars above the trees and gives us a clear, 360-degree view of the rock faces around us. Wind shakes the tower, but Tomaz stands with his hands on his hips, like a commander in a barrage.

“The higher I am, the more comfortable I feel,” he says, his voice echoing. “I don’t really start breathing until 5,000 meters. I need the air. I’m an Aquarius-a man who needs to be free.”

On the way home, Tomaz and I stop off at a nearby pub, where we find two of his climbing buddies, Robert Policnik and Damjan Kochar, both in their midtwenties. Beers are ordered, and after a few rounds Tomaz and Damjan drift off to the men’s room and I hear loud voices. Damjan is one of the best sport climbers in Kamnik-better than Tomaz, though he doesn’t have Tomaz’s intensity or his spirituality. Apparently that’s what they’re discussing in the men’s room-more precisely, it’s what Tomaz is lecturing loudly about while Damjan listens.

Damjan’s flaw, if it can be described that way, is that he prefers to be attached to a rope and to climb with a partner. Policnik-Poli, as he’s known-has the long arms of a spider, and it’s easy to imagine him scaling a Himalayan face. I ask why Tomaz climbed Dhaulagiri and he didn’t.

Poli stares at his beer for a long time.

“Tomaz is…” He stares deeper at his beer.

“I can’t find the word.” He smiles. “Tomaz is vicious.”

“Aren’t you vicious?” I ask.

“Small vicious,” he replies.

“Would you like to be vicious like Tomaz?”

The beer stare again. “It’s suicide, almost.”

When Tomaz decided to solo the south face of Dhaulagiri, even Bojan Pollak worried. One afternoon, Tomaz and I idle away a few hours with his old instructor, drinking homemade blueberry schnapps outside a mountaintop cabin. A bee has just dive-bombed into Tomaz’s glass, and he downs the contents in a single gulp, leaving the drunken bee. It’s classic Tomaz-pulling off something only he could do, and finishing with a loud laugh, as if to say, “And you doubted me?”

Tomaz reveres Pollak’s judgment, because Pollak, now 58, is steady and thoughtful. “Tomaz knows himself better than we do,” Pollak says. “We can’t tell him not to go. If we told him not to go, he might lose confidence, and that could be dangerous.”

He looks at Tomaz and smiles.

“But Tomaz did not ask if we thought he should go. He said he would go. We gave him only a 50-50 chance to survive Dhaulagiri. We trusted him, but not nature.”

Later, I ask Tomaz if he was surprised by Pollak’s odds.

“I think it was less,” he replies. “Maybe 20 percent.”

And once more, the laugh.

THE CALL FROM DHAULAGIRI came in spring 1999. Tomaz was hanging around Kamnik, enjoying his life, and then it hit him.
“I could not believe it at first, but the call grew stronger with every passing day,” he recalls in No Impossible Ways. “It was at the same time the most terrifying and the most blissful moment of my mountaineering career, a moment I had been waiting for these last five years. Dhaula had finally called, and I knew I had to mount the expedition that same fall.”

For Tomaz, it would be a one-way ticket: He’d either make it to the top and down an easier route, or perish. It would be impossible to downclimb over the face’s ice seracs. Three doctors refused to join his support team; they didn’t want to watch a suicide by climbing. Tomaz himself cried as he left his kids.

The trip seemed more farce than expedition. A feud with the Alpine Association of Slovenia had frozen Tomaz out of funding, so his main sponsor, the Slovenian cell-phone company Mobitel, picked up the tab. Most of his gear got stuck in the Vienna airport; when he got to Dhaulagiri to begin his acclimatization on September 26, he realized he had not brought enough food. The weather was atrocious; storm after storm hit the area, costing two of the world’s best climbers their lives-Alex Lowe, on 26,291-foot Shishapangma on October 5, and Briton Ginette Harrison on Dhaulagiri itself on October 24.

Tomaz started climbing on October 25. He went to a shrine to pray, then walked to the bottom of the south face with his old friend Stipe Bozic, 51, Croatia’s top climber, who would stay at base camp to film the ascent. As the two parted ways, an avalanche roared down the main couloir of the face.

His pack weighed more than 110 pounds-food, stove, fuel, pitons, carabiners, sleeping bag, slings, and a five-millimeter rope, just 148 feet long, which would be used not for self-belay but to move his gear. The only luxury he allowed himself was one of his son’s sneakers, clipped with a carabiner to his pack.

Progress was slow the first 24 hours, despite a full moon. Icicles broke from seracs, pummeling him; cold water flowed down cracks, soaking him; avalanches forced him to squeeze against the face. He named the seracs that hung like daggers above him-Guillotine, Praying Mantis. On the second day he heard Guillotine crack and flattened himself on the wall as niagaras of ice, rock, and snow hurtled past.

“How are you? Are you OK?” Bozic yelled over the radio.

“You need some adrenaline?” Tomaz replied. “I’ve got a serious surplus here.”

Tomaz’s back and arms became covered in welts and bruises. An ice block crashed into his leg, and he thought it was broken. Blood soaked through his gloves, staining the snow.

On the fifth night, after covering two vertical miles, Tomaz got a toothache. He lay awake most of the night. In the morning, he went to work with his Swiss Army knife, prying a filling from the infected tooth-this, after some minutes spent laboring on the wrong one.

Things became, if possible, worse. A shelf at 23,000 feet forced him to traverse 3,200 feet to the Japanese Ridge (the southeast ridge); he spent a night there at 24,000 feet and in the morning left most of his gear behind and traversed back. At 25,400 feet he actually dry-tooled, unroped, up 600 feet of loose granite, using his ice-ax and crampons to climb the bare rock. He was now within a few hundred meters of the summit. He bivouacked in the open, exposed, at 25,600 feet, on a ledge cut from the ice. For the second night his stove didn’t work; he had no water, little food. He had been on the face for eight days.

Try to imagine that bivouac. You are alone, breathing air so thin that it’s slowly killing you; you’re without tent or stove; your body is a frostbitten and dehydrated bruise; you’re beyond rescue. How do you survive, not just physically, but mentally?

Tomaz’s answer: “We can control our heartbeat, which in cold, drawn-out bivouacs is preferably as slow as possible,” he writes in his book. “It is necessary to disconnect the arms and the legs and draw most of one’s blood into the core of the body and the head. We switch to other dimensions. We become insensitive to pain, cold, wind, homesickness, thirst, hunger. Instead of having dinner we separate from the physical world. But the further you go into the world where there are no reasons or consequences, points of the compass, time points like yesterday or today, where you only are-the harder it is to return. The reentry into the body is usually accompanied by pain.”

On the ninth day, November 2, waking up at 25,600 feet, he struggled toward the summit. He took off his pack and filled his pockets with essentials-radio, camera, energy bars, one ice screw, one sling, the map of his descent route, family photos, a picture of the Virgin Mary, and his son’s little shoe.

The weather worsened. Over the radio, base camp read messages of encouragement that Slovenians were sending to his Web site,, which was getting nearly two million hits a day. But then Bozic, who knew that even Tomaz has limits, got on the radio. “No one has ever done that before,” he said, referring to Tomaz’s solo route. “It’s time to start thinking about descending.”

Tomaz looked up at the summit, where a gale was gathering force. He took out a photograph of his son and, in his exhausted, depleted state, clearly saw young Tomaz crooking his finger out of the picture, saying, “Come home, Daddy.”

“At that moment,” he writes, “I realize in a flash: You’re going to die! If you go on, you’re going to die.” He turned around.

“For the first time in my life, I realize that if I’m pig-headed, the end is waiting for me at the top,” Tomaz recalls in his book. “Dhaula had let me have the face but not the summit.”

TOMAZ’S ASCENT OF DHAULAGIRI WAS, as mountaineers say, not a climb for a married man. One day I sat with Tomaz and Sergeja in the family living room, surrounded by the spiritual tokens of their lives-crystals, Buddhist sculptures, figurines of the Virgin Mary, a picture of Indian guru Sai Baba. Tomaz interpreted when Sergeja had trouble finding the right word in English, and, being Tomaz, he jumped in with questions of his own.

Sergeja is, if anything, more spiritual than Tomaz. She has walked on burning coals, which Tomaz won’t do. She speaks in a dreamy, Sissy Spacek way, and when I asked what seemed a natural question-isn’t it rather difficult to be married to Tomaz?-she replied that it was hard in the first few years but now it’s different.

“I need this,” she said. “He’s my therapy. Hard therapy. I chose him as Jesus chose the cross. By carrying this cross, I grow spiritually. I can’t grow without it.”

Surely life would be easier with a normal guy?

“I would die,” she replied. “I would rather not be married.”

Sergeja sees things before Tomaz does. She knew, after Dhaulagiri, that a disaster was in the offing. Tomaz was a hero: The phone rang constantly, and Tomaz, who sees life as a big candy store, could never say no. Everyone wanted to know what he would climb next. Sergeja feared for his life, knowing he would push harder on the next climb. There is a law of nature in the climbing world-no individual or nation can remain the best forever, because the more you try to accomplish, the more likely it is that you will die. Sergeja knows this. The man she lived with before Tomaz, Danilo Golob, was killed climbing.

When Tomaz fell into the construction pit, he didn’t imagine any good would come of it. Sergeja knew better. It forced him to stop and think. Among the surprising things that have happened, his bond with his father has changed from spite to admiration, because Tomaz realized that the salt-of-the-earth stubbornness he despised in his father is the same thing that gets him up a mountain face.

“The fall was a gift for Tomaz,” Sergeja said. “On the third day when he was in the hospital, I told him that it was a gift. He didn’t understand. But we both knew it would happen. He had to fall into darkness to see the light again.”

“Yes, yes,” Tomaz said.

He turned to her.

“What do you think? Will I climb again?”

“Certainly,” Sergeja replied.

She looked at me.

“He must go. He must live for this. If you really love something, you must be ready to die for it.”

WE ARE A FEW HUNDRED YARDS from the base of Rzenik. Tomaz turns left, off the rockfall, and crutches up a small hill. The last 50 yards is steep and covered with loose grass, and the crutches are useless, so Tomaz throws them aside. He pulls himself forward, crawling now.

He is grunting like an angry bull. As clods of earth dislodge in his hands, he throws them away, wildly; one hits me in the face. I don’t know what’s fueling him, whether it’s the pain in his legs or the frustration of being reduced to crawling up a little hill, but the mental switch has been flipped.

We reach the top, which offers a clear view of Rzenik. It is not a classically beautiful mountain, with a well-defined peak, but it has a multitude of cracks and crevasses and ledges, a lifetime of problems for a young climber.

Tomaz is quiet. The silence lasts ten minutes, an eternity.

“This is my starting point, my meditation place,” he finally says. “Here I get all the answers. Here the Himalayan voices called me. Here I taught myself everything. And when I come back here after the Himalayas, I see nothing has changed. I am still like this”-he places his forefinger next to his thumb-“small. And this place is still huge. When you ask where I get my power, that’s it.” He points at the mountain.

He talks a bit more, but the day is ending and the wind is picking up. It is time to head down. Tomaz grimaces as he stands, and he is unsteady. Everyone wants to know if he will climb again. At the moment, he is learning to walk.

The lure of the Himalayas is still with Tomaz Humar. There are so many faces out there, and who knows which one will call out to him at night. Two months after our Rzenik climb, Tomaz headlined at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, North America’s premiere showcase of adventure documentaries. He’d thrown away his crutches, defying doctor’s orders, and was hobbling around with his old friend Carlos Carsolio. Ed Webster was there, too; it was the first time he’d met Tomaz, and so he showed him his Everest memoir, Snow in the Kingdom, which included pictures of the north face of Lhotse, a 10,000-foot vertical that’s never been climbed, never even been attempted. Tomaz called Carsolio over. “Carlos, look at this,” he said. “I told you this would go, I told you this could be climbed.”

Webster was amazed. “Tomaz immediately began picking out the weaknesses of the route and the exact time of day that you’d need to go through each area,” Webster says. “He was ecstatic that here was one of the great walls that hadn’t been climbed and that he could do it. I was just shaking my head that here was a climber who had a scary combination of the vision and the technical ability to pull it off. That was when he looked over at me and gave me one of those piercing looks and said, ‘This is a one-way-ticket climb.'”

For now, one-way-tickets are a long way off. This spring I caught up with Tomaz on the phone, and he was with his best childhood friend, Tomo Drolec. They had just finished a climb and were laughing about it, and Tomaz said that it was time for a beer or two. He had started ice climbing a few months earlier, he explained, and now he was rock climbing, too. He said that he would climb a 1,000-foot wall in a few days.

“It’s great,” he said. “Nobody expected that I would recover so quickly…and I am surprised, honestly I am. I was really scared, especially with ice, about what would happen. The first few times when I tried climbing it was quite painful for me, in the bones and tendons. But after a few times the progress was really quick. Now it’s perfect.”

So Tomaz is back. Not back where he was after Dhaulagiri, but back where he started-climbing outside Kamnik with his best friend, having fun, drinking beer, the future unknown. Will he become strong enough to climb in the Himalayas? Will he want to? Should he want to? Should we want him to?

“Actually,” Tomaz says, “I am preparing for something, but even my wife, she doesn’t know. Right now I am in very good shape. On ice I feel great, and once again on rock.” Soon he and Bozic would be heading to Mexico to visit Carsolio.

“That will be a new beginning,” he says. “We’ll drink tequila and wear sombreros. We will take some shots for a movie and climb, and we will talk about the future. I’m alive again.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.