STEPS OF COURAGE Excerpt

Chapter 6: LOVING KATE

By 1934, my father had conquered some of the world’s highest mountains, crossed its two most famous canals, chanced upon the birth of revolutions in India and Peru, and risked the wrath of the Nazis by his political stances. However, none of this prepared him for Kate. As he later expressed, “You are totally different from any other women… I have ever known.” They first met on July 18th in Munich, the day after Hoerlin had received the urgent telegram beckoning him there. Since July 3, when Kate Schmid learned of her husband’s murder by the Nazis, the young widow had somehow continued press liaison responsibilities for the Nanga Parbat Expedition. However, when ominous telegrams were sent from the Himalayan base camp, it was more than she could deal with. The climbers, within reach of the world’s ninth tallest summit, had been hit by a horrific storm that entrapped them on the mountain’s steep and icy slopes. Kate tried desperately to sort out conflicting reports and asked the German Alpine Club for help. They sent an expert climber, Hoerlin, who was studying for his doctoral degree in Stuttgart. Hoerlin immediately set out for Munich and by the time he arrived, everyone’s worst fears were confirmed: ten mountaineers, four elite German alpinists and six experienced sherpas, had perished. They had died agonizing deaths, one by one, over a six-day period. It was the largest mountain climbing catastrophe that had ever occurred.

Ordinarily Hoerlin, fit and athletic, would have bounded up steps to Kate’s apartment. But there was nothing ordinary about this visit. The gravitas of the situation slowed his pace. When he reached the third floor landing, Hoerlin made sure his tie was straight and his suit jacket buttoned before pressing the doorbell. Instinctively, he withdrew his hand, realizing that a few weeks beforehand members of Hitler’s specialized police force must have —without warning – rung the same bell before they seized and assassinated Willi Schmid. But this time, Kate was expecting someone. She swung the door wide open, revealing a stunning woman fashionably dressed in a simple blouse and straight skirt, her proud posture making her seem taller than average. Raven black hair was pulled back from a finely featured face and her large brown eyes, radiating warmth and intelligence, locked onto his kind grayish green ones. Their reciprocal gaze was interrupted when he shyly glanced down and expressed his condolences. In an environment charged with emotional turmoil, the two people who would become my parents met. The rawness of the tragedies undoubtedly pulled them together quickly but on a simpler level, each of them was enormously attractive. My father, tall and handsome, had just turned thirty-one; my mother, a real beauty, was thirty-five.

Kate ushered him through the spacious apartment. He noticed her walk — nimble and flowing — as he followed her past rooms graced with Biedermeier furniture and scattered Oriental rugs, typical for current bourgeois sensibilities. But a void was evident in one of the rooms, a book-lined library with a cello leaning against the corner. It was Willi Schmid’s study, where he had been playing Bach sonatas before the Gestapo had taken him away. When Kate and Hoerlin reached the far end of the apartment, they entered a neatly organized office with piles of correspondence displaying the letterhead of the 1934 German Expedition to the Himalayas. Pinned to the walls were spectacular photos with small black dots against a background of enormous white peaks. Wondering whom among those dots had died, his thoughts were interrupted by his hostess beckoning him to be seated. “So you are Hermann Hoerlin,” she said, looking intently at him. She had corresponded with the famous mountaineer, but never laid eyes on him. Admittedly, he was very good looking but she fixated on his hands, strongly sculpted, large and generous, open to the world. Hoerlin had been invited to be on the Nanga Parbat team, but declined for personal and political reasons. The nationalistic tone of the quest unsettled him. Hitler had prematurely touted the expedition as a shining example of Aryan superiority, a tribute to the glory of the Third Reich. No other country had ever summitted an eight thousand meter peak, although many attempts had been made. The competition to be the first nation to do so was fierce, particularly in Germany, where reverence toward climbing was akin to American veneration of baseball. Newspapers across the globe covered the progress of the expedition and readers were transfixed by accounts of the climber’s harrowing route towards the top. And then the mountain claimed its first victim. The misfortune of a pulmonary embolism in one of the climbers caused the party to retreat to base camp for his burial. A chilling photograph of the corpse, ceremoniously wrapped in a Nazi flag, was circulated worldwide and became a lasting symbol of the nazification of mountaineering. On its second attempt, the expedition met even greater disaster, the mountain living up to its reputation as the German “Schicksals Berg.” “Schicksal” translates either into “fate” or “destiny” and for Kate and Hoerlin, the mountain was both.

My father mused in those first days after the tragedy, “what if he had gone on the expedition…?” “what if he had brought his skills to bear…?”, “what if he had tempered the overzealous desire to please the Fuehrer?”, “what if he had died…?” The one “what if” he could answer concerned meeting Kate. If there had been no Nanga, it is dubious there would have been Kate and Hoerlin. The two of them came from different worlds. Hoerlin was the embodiment of an Ayran poster boy, although his looks belied his strong anti-fascist sentiments. A physicist, he had chosen an asocial and solitary profession, much like the mountain climbing he loved. In contrast, Kate frequented the inner circles of Munich’s musical and intellectual elite. The Schmid apartment was always lively: friends coming and going amidst the three exuberant Schmid children. But now the apartment was muted by grief, friends trying to console Kate for the loss of her husband and families of the Nanga Parbat victims seeking relief from their heartache. What few of them realized was that Kate was beginning to sense another peril. With the spread of anti-Semitism, Kate was at risk because of her Jewish roots.