Tomaz Humar

This past week saw the death of Tomaz Humar on one of the great alpine faces of the world.  As of yet, no one even knows how he died.  From radio communications, it seems that he might have broken his leg, but it has yet to be confirmed.  More tragic still are his last haggard words to the world: “Jagat, this is my last!”.

I think that every alpinist has those bad nights when we dream of falling.  The worst part about the dream is not the impact– I rarely land in my dreams, and when I do, it’s strangely soft.  What is really terrible is the moment when your hold pops off or you’re struck by a rock and you fall silently backwards and realize that life is done for.  The imagined cry of “No!” is haunting, encapsulating a hundred dreams forsaken in a single word.   More haunting still is the though of Tomaz, with hours of pain and loneliness during which to comprehend his fate.  I hope that in his last hours he found peace, or at least a liberating delirium.

I’ve yet to spend much of my time on the sharp end in dangerous terrain, as school and fear have kept me moving more slowly in that direction than I would like.  But what challenges me most when trying to decide what level of risk is acceptable is the question of whether my apprehension and holding-back is out of good reason, or whether it is my fear preventing me from realizing what I would like to.

It is often said that the best climber is the one who has the most fun.  I also wonder whether this line is spoken by the wise, or by fools who shy from suffering and want to justify their cowardice.  From the outside it is difficult to distinguish between a climber pushing his edge, and one looking for suffering because he thinks that he deserves it, but a world of difference lies between the two.  One man may find a richness in his life that come from expanding his sense of the possible, while the other crushes himself forever, wondering what his life lacks and punishing himself for not having it.

The questions may be very difficult, but more difficult still is coming to realize that in fact one has all the answers already.  That’s what separates the man pushing his edge from madman– the former knows what he needs and readily prescribes it.  I can’t tell you yet if I really know the answers for my own path.  Fear is a nebulous enemy that sometimes poses as an ally, an enemy, or something completely intangible.  Even the man who asks, “Is this fear?” may not be able to know.  What I do know is that I need to find out my path; I need to find out if the voice that offers me answers is a guide or a demon, and the only way to know is to take the leap and to risk failure.  I hope that I survive the learning curve.

“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 mid-twenties. 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.”

(From Outside Magazine June 2002)