Nanga Parbat (8,126 metres) is the 9th-highest mountain in the world, and the 2nd-highest in Pakistan. Its name means Naked Mountain in Urdu - "Parbat" being derived from the Sanksrit Parvata, meaning mountain. Early in the 20th century it acquired a new name - "Killer Mountain" - due to the number of lives it claimed in early expeditions. It almost marks the westernmost end of the Himalayas, and is the most western eight-thousander, lying in the district of Astore in Pakistan's Northern Areas. Views of Nanga Parbat are among the most spectacular anywhere in the world, due to its level of vertical relief from the surrounding area. Its slopes rise incredibly quickly from the surrounding terrain, including at one point over the Indus Valley where the mountain rises 7000 metres in 27 km of distance. In terms of prominence, a topographical term measuring a mountain's independence from surrounding geological features, Nanga Parbat is ranked 14th in the world. Its shape is that of a long, broad ridge of rock and ice running in a southwest to northeast direction, with three main faces - Raikot (north face), Rupal (south/southeast face) and Diamir (west face). The Rupal face is the highest mountain face in the world, rising 4,608 metres from its base.
Like the rest of the Himalayas, it was formed by the collision of the Indian and Asian tectonic plates, but this collision has special significance for Nanga Parbat, as it is at the leading edge of the Indian plate and is still being thrust deep into the surrounding geology of an entirely different type of rock; it is the fastest-growing mountain in the world, at about seven millimeters per year, as the Indian plate continues to drive into Asia at the geological equivalent of warp speed (five centimetres a year). In fact, Nanga Parbat is very young, only 1-2 million years old, grows remarkably quickly, and at the same time erodes at a spectacular rate due to the combination of huge amounts of glaciation, massive rainfall, and the erosion of the Indus river. Geological theory had to be revised 30 years ago to accomodate the paradoxes presented by Nanga Parbat.
It is much easier to reach than many of the other highest mountains in the world, with its base camps only 2 days travel away from the nearby town of Gilgit. In part, this factor has been responsible for the unusual amount of early attempts at climbing it, and therefore for the disproportionately high number of deaths on the mountain in the early and middle 20th century. The first attempt was by Albert Mummery in 1895, who climbed the Diamir face and reached a high altitude (Wikipedia gives the height as 7000 metres, while SummitPost gives 6100 metres); he and two of his expedition later died on the Raikot face.
The 1930s saw a number of disasterous attempts on Nanga Parbat, all German. At that time, Germany did not have access to Tibet, which was controlled by the British, so the only 8000-metre peaks accessible to German mountaineers were the more dangerous peaks of Pakistan and Nepal. Kangchenjunga and K2 were considered to be too remote and dangerous, and Nanga Parbat was thought (wrongly) to be a less dangerous mountain which they would have less trouble ascending. An expedition in 1934 led by Willy Merkl, who had also led a failed attempt in 1932, met disaster when sixteen of the climbers were trapped at an altitude of 7,480 metres by a terrible storm. In the descent and escape from the storm, 9 people died (three Germans, including Merkl, and six Sherpas) and most of the others suffered severe frostbite. A subsequent expedition in 1937, led by Karl Wien, was engulfed by an avalanche at Camp IV underneath the Raikot Peak - sixteen people, seven Germans and nine Sherpas, died instantly in the worst single disaster in the history of 8000-metre peak climbing.
German teams returned again in 1938 and 1939, in the first year turning back due to bad weather, and in the second being interrupted in their ascent of an easier route on the Diamir face by the outbreak of the Second World War. This 4-man team, which was arrested and interned in India, included a man called Heinrich Harrer, who wrote a book called Seven Years In Tibet about his experiences on the mountain, his arrest, escape, and travels in Tibet, including his unusual friendship with the young Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
The first successful climb was by Hermann Buhl, an Austrian climber, in 1953, who had a very close brush with death due to the risks he took in reaching the summit. 31 people had already died trying to climb the mountain, and well aware of this, the leaders of a 1953 joint German-Austrian expedition had just decided to abort their attempt to scale Nanga Parbat due to a change in the weather; Buhl and three other companions were further up the peak, and argued the case for continuing the ascent, refusing to come down. In the end two of them, including Buhl, continued up to 6,900 metres, establishing Camp V, while the other two went back down. The next morning Buhl, who was famous for his solo, risky, alpine style climbs, started a solo climb to the summit while his companion, who realized quickly he would never keep up with him, turned back to wait at Camp V. The last stretch of the climb was very difficult, taking 3 hours to ascend 300 metres of sheer rock, and evening had fallen by the time Buhl reached the summit. His descent of the rock face surrounding the summit ran straight into darkness, making further progress impossible, and he was forced to spend the entire night standing upright on a narrow rock ledge, gripping a single handhold, trying desperately not to fall asleep, in which case he would lose his grip and his balance and fall to his death. If it had been windy at all he would either have been blown off the ledge or he would probably have died of exposure due to wind chill. However, he made it through the night, continued his descent and made it back to his camp exhausted and dehydrated but alive, with only a bit of frostbite in his toes. His ascent, the 3rd ever of an 8000-metre mountain, was all the more remarkable for being solo and without oxygen; the fact that he overnighted in the Death Zone in those conditions, and without even his warm clothes, which had been left on the plateau in a bag, makes it almost unbelievable.
Since then, the "standard" route up the mountain has been via the Diamir face, named the Kinshofer route after Toni Kinshofer who made the 2nd ascent in 1962 by climbing a buttress to the side of the face; the direct route up the middle of the Diamir face is perilous, since it is covered by massive hanging glaciers and is in constant danger of avalanches.
Nanga Parbat was a massive milestone and a source of great personal tragedy for arguably the greatest ever mountaineer, Reinhold Messner. He and his brother Gunther Messner completed the 3rd ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1970, and the first ever ascent via the difficult, massive Rupal face. Unable to descend the way they came up, they had to traverse the mountain and descend via the Diamir Face, by a route they did not plan. On the way down Gunther was killed in an avalanche, leaving Reinhold to travel the rest of the way alone, an epic journey that he barely survived. Making his personal tragedy even worse was the fact that he had to face constant accusations over the coming decades that his story was a fabrication, and that he had in fact abandoned his brother further down the mountain so that he could reach the summit alone, effectively leaving him to die.
An exceptionally strong-minded person, Reinhold continued to climb, and returned to Nanga Parbat 8 years later to complete the first ever solo ascent of an 8000-metre mountain, on his way to becoming the first ever person to climb all 14 peaks over 8000m. 34 years after the tragedy in which Gunther died, Reinhold's story was finally vindicated when, amazingly, human skeletal remains were found at the base of the Diamir Face by a man looking for pretty minerals for his children, and conclusively proven to be those of Gunther Messner.
Since the early years, Nanga Parbat has claimed fewer lives, but it remains one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, with a total of 263 successful ascents as compared to 61 deaths; although the 31 deaths that occurred in the German expeditions of the 1930s skew that figure upwards perhaps a little more than the mountain deserves. The Germans all attempted the mountain by what looked to be an easier route, the long, slow ascent via Raikot Peak from the North; however, this route was plagued by avalanches and the more "difficult" ascents via the precipitous Diamir and Rupal faces turned out to be less dangerous. There are only a few remaining major unclimbed routes, including along Mazeno Ridge, the "south face direct" route on the Rupal Face, the Mummery Rib (the route attempted by the 1895 expedition) and the Pilar Val Fiemme on the Rakhiot Face. Nanga Parbat has also never been summited in winter.
Hermann Buhl's Ascent: http://jerberyd.com/climbing/stories/nangaparbat/
Reinhold and Gunther Messner: http://www.planetmountain.com/english/News/shownews.lasso?l=2&keyid=34455
Geology and History: http://www.the-south-asian.com/Jan%202004/nanga_parbat.htm