by Roderick Conway Morris

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Othmar Seehauser
Reinhold Messner at his museum at Schloss Juval in the South Tyrol

An Adventurer's Life: Always New Heights

By Roderick Conway Morris
SULDEN, Italy 2 February 1995


Reinhold Messner spent his 26th birthday lying in a Munich clinic. Several weeks before, he and his brother Günther, having been invited to join a German expedition, had reached the summit of Nanga Parbat in Kashmir. During the descent, amid continual avalanches, Messner lost contact with Günther, who was never seen again.

The South Tirolese climber combed the mountain for two days and nights searching for Günther. By the time Messner literally crawled, and was finally carried by mountain farmers, back to civilization, he was so badly frost-bitten that he lost half a dozen toes, and was lucky not to lose several fingers. When he emerged from the clinic he was penniless and, in his own words, 'a cripple.'

'It was clear that I would never be able to climb again,' said Messner. 'For practical reasons, because of the amputations I had undergone, but also for psychological reasons. But after a while I realized that by staying at home and continuing to try to study for a profession - I was doing architecture at Padua University at the time - I could not bring my brother back to life again. He was dead.

'So I went back to what was my real life before, my life as an adventurer. Because, by then, it was too late - that was my life. I could have become an unhappy and unsuccessful architect - but there were already plenty of unhappy and unsuccessful architects.'

Within a decade, Messner was the first (with Peter Habeler) to climb Everest without oxygen and, soon after, the first to scale the mountain solo. By the mid-'80s he had become the first to scale all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter (26,250-foot) peaks - all without oxygen. Having crossed Antarctica and Greenland, unsupported, Messner, who last September celebrated his 50th birthday (perhaps, when one studies the history of his hair-raising exploits, his most improbable achievement of all), is due to set off at the beginning of March on what he reckons will be the biggest challenge of his career - crossing the pack ice and ice barriers of the Arctic Ocean (with his doctor-brother Hubert) from the New Siberian Islands to Cape Columbia in Canada via the North Pole, 'by fair means,' without any air support, food depots or external assistance.

By the time Messner came on the scene, the world's highest peaks had been conquered, but no climber of previous generations could have conceived that a single individual would be able to scale every one of them in a lifetime. But then nobody before Messner - who was born into a family of nine children in a tiny mountain village in the Italian South Tirol, and had no prospect of raising the massive sums required by earlier Himalayan expeditions - imagined that it might be possible to tackle these giants in what Messner has called 'alpine- style' ascents.

'Everest was climbed, so it was not important to go there any more, to climb it again and again,' he said. 'What was interesting was to see whether it was possible to climb it without oxygen. Because, as I came to realize, if you could, expeditions would be far less expensive. Doing Everest solo, or in a two-man or three- man team would cost peanuts.

'Before you needed a lot of money, a lot of time and faced huge logistical problems, with dozens of porters, moving tons of material. The good weather time is very short, and the more material you have, the more people on the expedition, the chances of reaching the summit get less and less.'

The medical establishment, however, was unanimous in arguing that spending extended periods at high altitude without oxygen would lead to permanent brain damage. 'I could not be sure, but I did not believe that this was true,' Messner said. 'I knew that a British climber, Colonel Norton, had gone up to nearly 29,000 feet in 1924. He approached the summit of Everest, though he didn't reach it, without suffering any ill effects - and lived to be an old man. And I personally had done three 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen. I did not feel perfect, but I knew that I could go higher.'

Although triumphantly proving conventional medical wisdom incorrect, Messner has nonetheless had some extraordinary experiences along the way: 'On Nanga Parbat in 1970, I had a clear out-of-body experience. I had the feeling that I could see my own body rolling down the mountain. I was flying above myself - maybe six or seven meters above - and I could observe every move I was making. And it was a very painful moment when I came into my own body again.'

'Yet I think these hallucinations are logical things,' he said. 'If you go for days and days at high altitude, exposed to the limits of your endurance, you begin to seek out other human beings. The main difficulty is not the lack of oxygen, not the climbing, the cold, the storms - but to be so far away from other human beings. And, in reality, human beings should not be up there, and we know it when we are up there. So we create others, or even see ourselves, so that for an hour or two we are not entirely alone. And these visions help us to survive.'

The chances of being alone in some places in the Alps, Himalayas and other ranges where once Messner wandered alone or in the company of one or two fellow climbers have, alas, seriously diminished. Peaks that could be climbed 50 years ago by fewer than 20 mountaineers, he said, are now accessible to several thousand. The result has been the despoilation of once virgin wilds - on the slopes of Everest alone there are thousands of tons of discarded oxygen bottles and other refuse.

In response, Messner has set up an international organization Mountain Wilderness, aimed at preserving remote landscapes and encouraging climbers to leave the places they visit as they found them. He hopes too to set an example by his own practices.

Messner now combines his life as adventurer with that of a farmer (he is particularly proud of a new breed of cattle he is developing, by crossing yaks and Scottish Highland cattle, able to live outside all year round, which could make very high alpine farms economically viable). He has also bought and restored, in the village of Sulden, an old building where local mountain guides used to wait to take well-heeled amateur climbers on excursions in the surrounding peaks, and turned it into a singular and amusing museum, illustrated by more than 100 pieces from his own collection.

The museum's central theme is 'the gulf between thought and deed to be found in even the best mountaineers.' Now considering himself 'a walker rather than a climber,' Messner said: 'I'm not an ambitious climber any more - and anyway, I'm too old to compete. But I am not running out of possible adventures, only running out of time.'

He does not pretend to be without apprehensions about his 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) polar trek. 'I often feel afraid before I go,' he said. 'But once I am out there I feel quite well, and I go step by step to see if I can reach the goal. I'm still quite strong, and still feel the necessity to do it. But I don't suppose I will ever know, deep down inside myself, why I do it.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023