Reinhold Messner: towering achievements and ego

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Reinhold Messner at his castle in the South Tyrol region of Italy, where he grew up (2012)

When my father was a small boy, his father, a Norwegian engineer, took him to see Roald Amundsen and his ship, the Maud, when it was docked in Seattle for repairs and supply for a polar expedition in 1921-2. Amundsen, the first to reach the South Pole, was a hero in the age of Antarctic and Arctic exploration, and the fact that he was a fellow Norwegian made my grandfather proud, and the visit impressed my father.

I thought of this when Reinhold Messner was in town recently. I had the chance to hear him speak at Town Hall, and didn’t want to miss the 20th century’s greatest mountaineer. Not only is he deserving of Amundsen-like status — he was the first climber to summit Mount Everest without using oxygen, and later the first to climb it solo. But he also exemplified an aspect of what Amundsen achieved over Robert Falcon Scott and others in the race to the South Pole: a kind of brutal, lean efficiency in getting the job done.

Messner was speaking at an event sponsored by Mountaineers Books on the occasion of their publishing his new book, My Life at the Limit, as part of the Legends & Lore series of mountaineering classics. Born in South Tyrol, Messner spoke in English with a heavy German accent — South Tyrol was once part of Austria and the Italian region is German-speaking. He is leonine with a large mass of brown hair and a graying beard. He looks like an adventurer should look: lean, large and built for the outdoors. His presence and ego are palpable.

Messner grew up climbing in the Dolomites, but in the 1960s and ’70s brought alpine climbing to Himalayan mountaineering, where the predominant approach had been the so-called “siege” mountaineering of big, heavily equipped, expensive expeditions. We know major expeditions well here in the Northwest, which has produced so many legendary mountaineers — some of whom were in attendance. Messner was introduced by Seattle’s Jim Wickwire, first American to summit K2, and interviewed on stage by Spokane’s John Roskelley. Jim and Dianne Whittaker and Northwest climbing legend Fred Beckey were in attendance. Old-school mountaineering was exemplified by the accomplishments just over 50 years ago by Jim Whittaker, REI employee No. 1, who led the first successful American climb of Everest in the spring of 1963. Such climbs resembled assaults — large teams of climbers, porters and sherpas — and featured lots of gear and supplies, especially bottles of oxygen.

I well remember when Whittaker returned from Everest, a national hero on the cover of National Geographic magazine, and recounted his adventures to the hometown public. My family went to hear him live at the old Palomar Theater. It was thrilling, like getting a firsthand account of a trip into space, in part because the climbers needed special breathing apparatuses. The scientific and medical consensus seemed to be that humans could not survive on mountaintops over 8,000 meters without supplemental oxygen carried in heavy steel tanks. Whittaker was like Alan Shepard and John Glenn — a Space Age adventurer whose accomplishments were the result of a combination of the right stuff and technology.

Messner pushed the envelope in a different way. He proved that climbers could undertake high-altitude climbing with well-honed and innovative skills, less gear, smaller teams and budgets, and no oxygen tanks. He successfully tackled all of the world’s 8,000 meter-plus peaks — including three in one year. He became a kind of lean, mean climbing machine and utterly transformed our perception of a mountaineer — from expedition leaders orchestrating an invasion with the help of Third World bearers to someone who was more of a loner, a maverick, a physical phenom. A near baby boomer (Messner was born in 1944), he exemplified a kind of long-haired, individualistic spirit that would rock the mountaineering establishment — combined with Germanic focus. Big mountaineering was no longer an endeavor that had to be run like NASA, but was open to the skilled individual — at least the supremely skilled and gifted individual.

Messner’s new book is essentially a long interview with the climber, and on stage he was engaging, showing slides and summarizing the phases of his career before sitting down to chat with Roskelley. Messner divided his career into four phases. The first, his beginnings climbing in the Alps; next, his conquest of the world’s tallest mountains; third, a post-climbing career of other expeditions, such as crossing Antarctica, the Gobi desert and Greenland on foot — and his current career building a series of mountaineering museums and serving a stint in the European Parliament. Messner lives in a South Tyrolean castle, and for all the risk he’s faced, his most serious climbing accident occurred in the 1990s when he fell off his castle wall and shattered his right heel. The extraordinary surgical repair of his foot did not end his adventuring, but he chose flatter terrain thereafter.

Messner mentioned some of his heroes, George Mallory, for one, the Brit who sought to be the first to climb Everest with partner Andrew Irvine in the 1920s — the two disappeared, though Mallory’s corpse was finally discovered 1999. This was the type of climbing Messner embraced, man against mountain. Messner also mentioned his admiration for Ernest Shackleton, the explorer most famous for surviving disaster in the Antarctic.

Messner says that climbers do not spend time enjoying nature or the views. Climbing requires intense concentration — endurance and focus on achieving the goal. He says he has always been driven to attempt the impossible, a goal much more than Mallory’s flippant answer to why he climbed a mountain, “Because it’s there.” For Messner, it’s an exercise in doing something that hasn’t been done before, and reaffirming his own life. National Geographic has described him as a man who made a career of “murdering the impossible.”

It’s when he comes down from the mountains, he says, that he feels most alive. To see wild flowers, to walk into a village, those are, he says, moments of “rebirth.”

The costs of climbing can be high. Messner’s brother, Gunther, died on a climb with him on Nanga Parabat, and Messner himself lost toes and multiple fingertips to frostbite. There have been failures along the way — not every Messner expedition has been a success — and inevitable clashes of wills and egos. Messner had a falling out, for example, with his companion on his trans-Antarctic trip, Arved Fuchs. His partner had horrible blisters and cracked feet from hauling his sled over ice. Messner wanted to go at a faster pace. His partner, he says, wanted to quit at the South Pole, but Messner said he knew that he himself wouldn’t make it without his partner, who was a better navigator and helped carry the expedition’s supplies, and so he pressed him on. They made it, but they no longer speak to one another and have clashed over who deserved credit for the success of the ordeal. Fuchs is not the first partner Messner has fallen out with, and even his friends have said the climber is thin-skinned about criticism. But his success also lies in a single-minded, selfish determination, and in his skill at being able to promote himself.

Mountaineering, like any specialized activity that puts life at risk and involves big egos, is rife with controversy and feuds. In the Q&A, John Roskelley brought some of these up — the Antarctic crossing, whether the claimed first Chinese ascent of Everest in 1960 ever took place (Messner says no), and whether Mallory and Irvine ever made it to the summit (they were last seen within about 1,000 feet, but Messner insists they didn’t have the gear to make the final stretch). The arguments are often detailed and personal, and involve those few who know the most because they’ve been there.

Roskelley teased Messner about his opinions on domestic life, asking him who wore the pants in his family (his wife, Sabine) and whether he mows the lawn (he didn’t seem to know what a lawn mower was). He leaves the running of the domestic front to his wife, including the child rearing. As to chores, “I suppose I’m more talented as a mountaineer,” he says. Messner has lived a big life and while he can tell you in great detail about how many kilometers per day are possible pulling a sled across an icepack, he won’t stoop to make a cup of coffee at home. “I can’t be bothered,” he says in his book. Roskelley, whose own mountaineering achievements have gained him world renown, seemed to want to poke the great man’s bubble, much like the interviewer in My Life at the Limit who doesn’t shy away from questioning Messner’s sometimes arrogant attitudes.

But the audience did not come to Town Hall to hear about Messner’s domestic life. I went to get a sense of the man, a historic figure. Messner, better than most mountaineers, is great at describing climbs, willing to dig a little deeper into himself, is not shy telling you what he thinks, and shows flashes of self-deprecating humor. I went to hear him speak because he “was there” in places I never will be. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.