Published: January 2008
Tommy Heinrich
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

Had you ever summitted Nanga Parbat before this expedition?

No, not Nanga Parbat but I have been on several other 8,000 meter (26,000 feet) peaks. I am the first person from Argentina to summit Mt. Everest and Lhotse, which is the fourth highest mountain, and I've done a few other ascents up in the Himalayas. I'm very happy with that, but I'm happy when I don't get to summit a mountain too. I think you learn a lot from failure and that was probably the best thing about this expedition. I don't think we failed, we gave it our best and we did the best we could but the mountain was telling us we couldn't summit. And we listened.

How difficult was it being both a photographer and a climber?

It is obviously a great challenge when you are going up where oxygen is scarce—everything takes more effort and I was carrying a lot more weight than the others. Also, I had to run ahead of people and let them pass me then go and run ahead of them again to get good shots. Other times in order to get good photographs I had to go off the ropes and the safe places that we establish on the mountain. The good photographs, they don't happen when you're on top of people, at least in my experience. And when it's so cold out and I have to stop and compose or get ready to take the shot—it's not easy. I find it oftentimes very hard to even pull the camera out of the bag or take off my gloves. Then, when you see your teammates climbing away from you and it took you so much effort to get to them—it's challenging. But I love the challenge.

Since it was so cold, were there any technical issues with your camera equipment?

The main consideration was how the cold would effect the equipment. My first decision was not to use digital equipment. I took only one digital camera up to Base Camp because I knew the batteries wouldn't last very long and, because it was so cold, they lasted even less time than I expected. I took very little equipment, three camera bodies and four or five lenses. I used 35mm Nikon cameras and I carried lithium and AAA batteries. I replaced those every day because it was so cold. I kept the camera fairly warm by carrying it in a fanny pack and, if it was very cold, I kept it in the pockets in my down suit. I always kept the film as warm as I could especially before loading it into the camera.

Did you encounter any dangerous situations during the ascent?

Oh, there is always something going on but I remember quite clearly one day when we were going from Base Camp up towards Camp One. There were a lot of avalanches and we were climbing through the gulley where the avalanches landed. At one point, I saw an avalanche coming and I thought it was a great opportunity to take photographs—until I realized I was right in the way. I didn't have much time to react. I found a big boulder to hide behind but I didn't realize that one of my legs was sticking out from it. My leg was hit by this big piece of ice—easily one foot (thirty centimeters) in diameter. That made me a little worried. It was good I had this place to hide or I would not be here today.

How did you feel about the decision to call off reaching the summit?

It was frustrating, there is one thing that the Poles and I had very clear and that was that the summit is very important but what is much more important is the life of the team members. So when it came down to deciding whether we were going up or down, the end the decision was very clear. We had been up on the mountain for 40 days and we had done everything we could do to summit but the weather was not helping us. It was constantly windy everyday and temperatures were much lower than we expected. The highest temperature we had at base camp was 41° F (5° C). As you go higher, the temperatures are obviously lower, it got to be 14° to -4°F (-10° to -20° C) and at night -40° to -58° F (-40° to -50° C) and when the wind blew it was even colder. The only place where we could stay warm was at Base Camp in our mess tent where we had a heater. The thing is, being that cold day after day—it wears you down mentally. By the time we decided to go back we were all pretty relieved about the decision. It was the right decision.