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Christian Kuntner - a mountaineering legend is gone
image story

May 20, 2005 10: 56 EST
First published May 18, 2005 08: 52 EST, edited May 20, 2005.

May 18, Italians Silvio Mondinelli, Christian Gobbi, and Camandona were between CII and CIII with Australian Andrew Lock and two alpinists from Colorado (one doctor).

A second summit push party, including Christian Kuntner and Abele Blanc, followed not far behind. All of a sudden, a big serac broke off. The falling ice missed the front team and struck the rear climbers.

The front team hurried back down, to aid their mates, and returned to C2 an hour and a half later. Christian Kuntner died of inner hemorrhages in their arms.

Legend gone

Christian Kuntner, was a German-speaking Italian from South Tirol, born in Prad am Stilfserjoch, the Stelvio Meadows in 1962. Growing up in the Alps, his love for mountains was inspired by his father - a park ranger. Christian became fond of all kinds of expeditions; ski touring traverses as well as classic North Face climbs. An adventurous spirit, in 1998 Christian rode the 10,000km trail of the Silk Road, and in 2001 he made an even longer, BBT trip along the American continent, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in nine months.

Classic climber

Christian's climbing followed a classical trail: Beginning in the Alps, continuing to the Peruvian Andes, then an attempt to Broad Peak and GII, then Cho Oyu. There he enjoyed his first 8000+ summit, learning the ropes from his climbing mate, the Polish lady climber Wanda Rutkiewicz. Next year he'd climb Manaslu with Krysztof Wielicki, and at the dawn of the new Century, Everest was summited.

Perhaps due to the influence of the most powerful climbers of the time, or his alpine climbing background, Kuntner was a convicted supporter of light expeditions: small groups of friends, no high altitude Sherpas and no supplementary O2. Silvio Mondinelli, Marco Bianchi and Stephan Andres were among his climbing friends.

Perfect mate

In 1999, Christian found his perfect climbing partner: Abele Blanc. With similar climbing skills and the same attitude towards mountaineering, the 1999 season in the Karakorum, when they climbed both GI and GII, was the beginning of a long friendship. They were both pursuing Annapurna's evasive summit to finish the Fourteen Great ones. When they attempted Annapurna for the third time, they had made already four expeditions together.

Although shy, Abele Blanc has an aura of old-time chivalry about him. Mountain guide by heart and breed – he was born in Aosta Valley, at the foot of Mont Blanc – his character is similar to those described in the old, epic mountaineering novels from the first half of the twentieth century about heroic mountain guides in the Alps. His online diary is full of deep impressions and beautiful descriptions of the experiences he lives and the places he’s passed through.

Shy hearts

Kuntner had climbed all 8000ers without supplementary O2 or Sherpa support. Abele Blanc had summited all but Everest and Kangchenjunga without bottled oxygen. They attempted Annapurna south face through the south side in 2003. Kuntner had attempted it in 2002 as well. However, high Himalayan Mountains were not the pair’s only passion. In 2002, they climbed 64 of the Alp’s 84, 4000ers. Bad weather conditions prevented them from climbing them all, but Christian expected to finish the call this summer.

The accomplished climbers were not so well known among the international climbing community, or the general media. Both Kuntner and Blanc were rather shy, avoiding widely advertised expeditions and big media fuss.

Like Messner, Kuntner, 43, was born in Stelvio meadows (South Tyrol). But while Messner has become a world-wide famous mountaineering star, Kuntner rejected the notion of being a climbing celebrity (or even talking to journalists). On the rare occasion that he went on record, he used as few words as possible. He muttered to an Ansa.it journalist last month, “I climb for myself, not for anyone else. I don’t have anything to prove.”

2003 - an intense year

2003 was an intense year for Christian. During the spring, he climbed a new route on Kangchenjunga. Summiting late in the day in bad weather, there was no time to enjoy the achievement. His concern would soon turn into worry when the Spanish climber Carlos Pauner disappeared during the descent. Two days after, they declared their companion as missing. But then Carlos appeared like a ghost, alive and kicking.

Just a few months later, Christian was ready for his third attempt on Annapurna, and chose no other side that the impressive south face.

Annapurna: "How long will this Mountain want to fight me?"

At 7500m, they ran out of ropes to fix. Christian described the climb as a 60-90 degree ice wall, and rock sections of about V raising 3km from the void. "It was late, already 12:30, but I wanted to keep on climbing, and to get to the top. My friends said no, the descent in the middle of the night would have been too dangerous. Even so, it was hard to accept their arguments." Finally the decision was taken; they were too tired to stay another night in C3, they had to abort the summit bid at 7550m.

Back in BC, a desolated Kuntner would write "How long will this Mountain want to fight me? In 1997 it snowed without a break during a whole month. Last year we had more of the same. This year (2003), for two days, I thought that, at last, Annapurna was holding its hand to me in friendship. Just before starting to abseil, I raised my head and looked at the summit, muttering to myself: I'll come back, and, this time, please let me have you."

Mountain Poem

Donatella, his bike-partner on the Silk route, got to know the shy climber better than most. She wrote a poem, reproduced on Christian's web site, titled Wer bist Du? (Who are you?). Here is a (rough) translation. Who was Christian Kuntner? We'll never really know. But a mountaineering poem gives a good clue.

Wer bist du?

In the Blue of the glacier,
The color of my eyes,
In the haul of the wind,
My breathing,
In the symphony of
Thousand lights,
My voice,
In the uproar of avalanches
My unquiet heart,
In the crystal glitter of
Snow my clear mind,
In the darkness of the underground
My fear,
In its beauty
My happiness,
In its inhospitableness
The sweat of my
In its realm
My modesty,
In its silence
My peace,
In its immeasurable
Widths my liberty, in its eternity
My ecstasy.
The mountain - my life.

Christian Kuntner (South Tirol, 1962) climbed 14, 8000+ mountains: Cho Oyu in 1991, Manaslu in 1992, Broad Peak in 1993, Dhaulagiri in 1994, Everest through the North West Ridge 1995, K2 in 1996 by the Japanese route through North face, Shisha Pangma in 1998 (descent on Skies), GI and GII in 1999, Makalu in 2000, Nanga Parbat in 2001, Kangchenjunga by a new route in 2003, and Lhotse in 2004. Christian returned for his ultimate climb on Annapurna after former attempts in 1997 (north side), 2002 and 2003 (south side). In 2005, the mountain became his final climb. Christian died on Annapurna's North side May 18, in an ice avalanche.

Abele Blanc summited his 13th 8000er, Dhaulagiri, in 2001. Christian Kuntner summited his 13th, Lhotse, on the 15th of May, 2004. This spring they joined forces again to attempt Annapurna through the North Side, and thus complete the 14 8000ers’ list.

Image of Christian Kuntner, courtesy of Christiankuntner.com

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