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Decades-Long ‘Conspiracy’ Resolved: Reinhold Messner Vindicated in Brother’s Death

A simple pair of boots have brought the final vindication for Messner, long accused of abandoning his brother on a Himalayan mountain in 1970.

reinhold messnerLegendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner at a book fair in 2017; (photo/Shutterstock)
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The original version of this article was published on ExplorersWeb.

Reinhold Messner has finally received the second boot of his younger brother Gunther, who died in 1970 on Nanga Parbat.

For many mountaineers, it serves as a reminder of the inherent dangers of the so-called “Killer Mountain.” For Reinhold, it’s a message Gunther sent from beyond the grave to confirm his brother’s innocence.

For decades, Reinhold was accused of abandoning his brother to reach Nanga Parbat’s summit. The legendary climber always said they were separated by an avalanche during their descent.

When one of Gunther’s boots was finally found in June 2022 — 52 years after Gunther Messner’s death — its location corroborated Reinhold’s version of events. Last week, Pakistani climber Liver Khan traveled to Italy to give Gunther’s second boot to Reinhold. The aging mountaineer published the touching moment on Instagram, “finally disproving the conspiracy theories,” he wrote.

The 1970 Tragedy

In 1970, the Messner brothers, part of a big expedition led by Karl Herrligkoffer, launched a summit push on the still-unclimbed Rupal side of Nanga Parbat. (Check the last videos of the two brothers on Messner’s Instagram below.) Only the elder brother returned days later, badly frostbitten and almost dead from exhaustion, on the Diamir side of the mountain.

Reinhold explained that after the two of them had summited at 5 p.m., Gunther was too exhausted to retrace his steps down the difficult sections of the Rupal face without a rope. They then decided to go down the milder Diamir side. Reinhold went first. At one point, on the lower part of the mountain, he lost sight of his brother. He looked for him but only found the signs of a recent avalanche.

Decades of Accusations

However, some of the expedition members didn’t believe him. Hans Saler and Max von Kienlin deemed Reinhold an overambitious climber who didn’t want the weaker, less experienced Gunther along.

According to Herligkoffer’s orders, Gunther was not supposed to go with Reinhold on the summit push. But when Reinhold set off from the high camp, Gunther followed him. Saler and Kienlin openly accused Messner of abandoning his brother to his death during the ascent before reaching the summit.

The controversy pursued Messner for 34 years. In 2004, the first boot and some bones surfaced on the Diamir Glacier. A climber looking for minerals for his children stumbled upon the remains.

Hearing word of the find, Messner traveled to Nanga Parbat’s Base Camp and burned the remains at a small ceremony at the site. However, he also took a few samples for genetic identification. The remains were indeed Gunther’s. The controversy was settled, and the boot was exhibited in one of Messner’s museums.

The second boot was not required for additional proof, but it offered a measure of closure for Reinhold.

“Gunther, thank you, and I am thinking of you,” he wrote.

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