Richard Luck champions the greatest explorer of the modern age – Reinhold Messner – and explores the tragedy which has helped drive him in his achievements
King Of The Mountains
Italy’s Reinhold Messner has scaled the world’s highest peaks, crossed Antarctica and the Gobi Desert and lost six toes in the process. Richard Luck champions the greatest explorer of the modern age.
When it comes to derring-do, Reinhold Messner is in a league of his own. The first man to climb Everest solo, the first man to climb Everest without bottled Oxygen, the first man to climb all 14 of the planet’s highest peaks – the Italian’s Himalayan heroics alone are feats for the ages. Then there’s crossing Antarctica on foot, walking the breadth of the Gobi Desert, traversing Greenland without dog sleds or snow mobiles, not to mention the small matter of summiting the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. If anyone merits the title of the greatest modern-day adventurer, it’s the hirsute man with the German accent who scaled his first 3,000m peak at the ripe old age of five.
Born in 1944 in the South Tyrolean town of Brixen, Reinhold Messner took to climbing in large part because it was the only activity available to him. As he explained to filmmaker Andreas Nickel, ‘There was no football pitch; there wasn’t a swimming pool. All we had were the mountains.’ So it was that the young Reinhold, together with his father Josef and his younger brother Gunther, took to exploring the Alps and the Eastern Dolomites.
Quick to embrace the alpine approach to mountaineering – little in the way of equipment, even less in the manner of support – the brothers Messner were among the finest climbers in Europe come the late 1960s. The next logical step was to see how they’d fare when faced with the greatest challenge available to mountaineers – the Himalayas. Their 1970 expedition to the region saw them summit Nanga Parabat (8,125m). It was an extraordinary feat for men on their first visit to the roof of the world. Tragically, it would be the brothers’ last shared success. While making their descent, Josef Messner was swept down the mountains by an avalanche. Thirty-five years would pass before his remains were found on the Diamir Face of Nanga Parabat.
Fully 14 years on from the tragedy, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog asked Reinhold Messner about the death of his brother in the documentary In The Dark Glow Of The Mountains. When the Grizzly Man director enquires how Messner broke the news to his mother, the ursine Italian omits a cry like an animal. Extreme though the pain of Josef’s passing clearly was, it didn’t deter Reinhold from exploring at high altitude. On the contrary, the fact that he now felt he was living for two encouraged Messner to dedicate himself entirely to death defiance.
Not that he was in it for the thrills. When asked about his philosophy of climbing, Messner’s responses have more in common with Buddhist thinking than the adrenaline obsession of the extreme sports enthusiast: ‘One should walk on the mountains as equals… In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.’
A Zen-like approach to his craft combined with a fascination with self-expression has led some to see Reinhold Messner as both adventurer and artist. When it comes to his ‘canvasses’, however, our man is under no illusions as to their danger. Then again, as he told Andreas Nickel, ‘Mountains are not fair or unfair; they are just dangerous… [but] without the possibility of death, there is no adventure.’
This healthy respect for risk goes a long way towards explaining Messner’s success. For while his list of accomplishments is astonishing, he’s never been afraid to fail. Like his great hero Ernest Shackelton, he sees failure as but a key aspect of the adventurer’s life. So what if it took four attempts to summit the 8,495m Makalu – each aborted ascent left him better prepared for the climb to come. Likewise his three cracks at Dhaulagiri (8,091m); he conquered the mountain in 1985 thanks to – rather than in spite of – his abandoned attempts in 1977 and 1984.
Of course, spending so much time above and around 8,000 metres helped Messner gain the perfect body for climbing. In particular, it fed into his uncanny ability to function at altitudes that can kill. Indeed, climbers refer to summits over 8,000m as the ‘death zone’, such are the chances of a mountaineer succumbing to hypoxia or a pulmonary or cerebral edema. Reinhold Messner, however, isn’t built like most men, hence his remaining with us despite having once been stranded in the ‘death zone’ for 48 hours. It was this formidable constitution that also enabled Messner, together with the Austrian climber Peter Habeler, to conquer Mount Everest without supplementary Oxygen, a feat fellow climber Conrad Anker compared to mankind ‘landing on the moon’.
Seeing each expedition as a chance to discover more about himself, Messner wasn’t done with Everest just yet. No, it wasn’t until he became the first man to scale the mountain solo that his appetite was sated. Yet again, it wasn’t a case of first time lucky; rather an initial failure spurred on Messner to scale a number of the region’s 7,000m peaks before returning to Everest to stand alone on top of the world.
And still there was more he wanted to explore. Possessing an appetite for life that puts Ernest Hemingway’s to shame, he headed to Antarctica to climb Mount Vinson, so becoming the first person to conquer the highest mountain on each continent without supplementary Oxygen.Then there was an attempt to traverse the Arctic with his brother Hubert; the aforementioned 2,000-mile trek through the Gobi Desert; and a journey across South Georgia following in the footsteps of Shackelton who had to traverse the island following his escape from the South Pole.
Oh yes, and he accomplished all of the above after losing SIX TOES on the tragic Nanga Parabat climb of 1974! Six toes and a couple of fingertips; more than enough to convince most mountaineers to find another hobby. Reinhold Messner, though, he simply swapped the rocky slopes of Europe for the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, the latter apparently being easier to scale when one is missing a digit or six.
So what role does ego play in all of this? Certainly, Messner has a reputation and he has no time for those who undermine it. When Peter Habeler wrote that his climbing partner had come apart after succumbing to snow blindness during their historic summitting of Everest, our man not only denied the claim but vowed never to speak to Habeler again. For the most part, however, Messner remains impressively modest. He is the first to point out that he isn’t the world’s greatest climber and is quick to champion British mountaineering legend Chris Bonnington when asked to evaluate his contemporaries. What’s more, he has nothing but praise for the Polish mountaineers of the 1980s of whom he is certain they’d have eclipsed his achievements had they not been kept behind the Iron Curtain; a notion borne out by climbers from that country becoming the first to summit Everest during the winter.
The other admirable thing about the former MEP (another story for another day) in that he doesn’t take himself too seriously; for if he did, he’d have never dedicated so much time and effort to trying to find the Yeti. His commitment to this cryptozooloical cause was inspired by his encounter with a mystery beast while hiking in the Himalayas in 1986. As he writes in his self-explanatory book Quest For The Yeti, ‘Sometime between dusk and midnight… I heard an eerie sound – a whistling noise, similar to the warning call mountain goats make. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the outline of an upright figure dart between the trees to the edge of the clearing, where low-growing thickets covered the steep slope. The figure hurried on, silent and hunched forward, disappearing behind a tree only to reappear again against the moonlight. It stopped for a moment and turned to look straight at me.’ Messner contends that the Abominable Snowman is in fact a species of bear unknown to science; which is uncanny given that ‘Yeti’ is the Tibetan for ‘bear’.
With all he has gone through and all he has overcome, Reinhold Messner ought to be spoken about in the same breath as Roald Amudsen, even Neil Armstrong. That he isn’t might bother the greater climbing community but it seems to matter little to the man himself. As he said to Werner Herzog when asked why he climbs mountains, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never asked myself why I do it. That goes for the other crazy things I’ve done in my life. I wouldn’t know the answer. I have the feeling every now and than that I can write on those large rock faces that are three or four thousand metres high, like a teacher writes on a blackboard with chalk. But I don’t just write lines, imaginary lines, I live those lines. I also have the feeling that afterwards, those lines are still there even if I’m the only one who can see them because I lived them and nobody else will be able to see them. But they’re there and they’ll be there for all time.
‘What matters in life isn’t what you have, it’s what you’ve done.’ More accurately than anyone else on the planet, Reinhold Messner can claim to have done it all.