The highly accomplished Swiss alpinist Norbert Joos, who had summited 13 of the 14 peaks in the world that are above 8,000 metres without the use of supplemental oxygen, has died in a climbing accident on the highest mountain in Switzerland’s Bernina Range. He was 55.
Joos, known affectionately as “Noppa” among his friends, worked as a professional mountain guide in Graubünden, the largest and easternmost Swiss canton known for its ruggedness and top ski resorts.
He died in a 160-metre fall on Sunday afternoon that also seriously injured two Italian companions in their late 50s who were roped together with him as they descended from the 4,049-metre Piz Bernina, near the St. Moritz ski resort, according to the Graubünden cantonal police.
The accident, which occurred at 3,900 metres, was witnessed by two others on the route. Rescue service Rega flew out the injured and the witnesses. Rescuers found Joos’ body, but the police said in an online statement (in German) on Monday that they were seeking more potential witnesses to help them clarify the precise causes of the accident.
According to initial findings, one member of the climbing party had slipped and dragged down the other two from the snowy ridge.
The climbing and skiing life
His hometown, Piz Badile, also was his favourite spot, according to a brief online profile of him as a member of the ski maker Kästle’s sponsored "Guide Team". Joos described skiing as “better than sex”, and he said his riskiest experience was traversing 8,091-metre Annapurna. His typical summer, he said, was spent “climbing, skiing, working and enjoying life with Rosa” Morotti, his partner.
Despite his success in high-altitude mountaineering and his guiding career in Switzerland, Joos was not well-known outside Switzerland’s climbing circles. He also founded a popular Chur mountain sports shop in his name.
Joos was a contemporary and climbing partner of the better-known Swiss mountain guide Erhard Loretan, who had become the third person to climb all of the 8,000-metre peaks.
Like Joos, Loretan was killed in a climbing accident while leading a client up the summit ridge of the Gruenhorn in the Bernese Alps. Loretan died on his 52nd birthday.
On the website of his shop, Norbert Joos Bergsport AG, Joos’ bio describes his early fascination with mountain light – and his accomplishment in already climbing the Matterhorn at the age of 12.
Six days before he turned 20, he managed to climb three of the Alps’ great north faces: the Eiger, the Matterhorn (solo) and the Grandes Jorasses. He then tackled the highest North American peak, 6,193-metre Denali, in Alaska, before taking on the Himalaya.
Annapurna's East Ridge
He and Loretan together climbed 8,000-metre peaks Nanga Parbat, Manaslu and Annapurna – the latter over six days in 1984 by the elegant, long and demanding East Ridge, which has never been repeated. Most had regarded that route as Loretan’s finest climbing accomplishment.
The pair bivouacked in an igloo just above 8,000 metres, Loretan recounted in the American Alpine Journal, and later descended with one 50-metre rope and one ice screw. "Our friends on the other side of the mountain had no news of us until we all met in Kathmandu", he wrote.
Joos also managed to get up the world's second-highest peak, K2, in 1985 with another legendary Swiss climber, Marcel Rüedi, but Joos lost toes due to frostbite.
One short of 14
In the 1980s, Joos topped out on six of the 8,000-metre peaks. In the 1990s, he did four more. From 2002 to 2006, he notched three more. But he suffered a stroke shortly after reaching base camp at Kangchenjunga, the 13th of the big peaks he climbed, and was evacuated by helicopter.
Two years later, in 2008 and still in his late 40s, he finally tried Mount Everest, the tallest of the 14 big peaks, which he had deliberately left to be the last one. But it was not to be. He did not feel well on the ascent, he said, and after that he abandoned high altitude climbing – and his dream of attaining the summits of all 14 without bottled oxygen.
In later years Joos became a big wall climber on US trips to Yosemite Valley, and he also climbed in the Andes of South America.