An interview with Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner,
conducted in November 2010.
This article appeared in the March 2011 edition of Trail Magazine.
Against a rickshaw-clogged square in Kathmandu is the Rum Doodle Bar. On returning from Everest, this is where people come.
More sober organisations may hold the statistics of who has made it to the top of the Earth, but it's the walls of Rum Doodle that hold their souls. Here rest thousands of signatures, caricatures and unintelligible scrawls from adventurers who have exhaled their boozy relief under this roof, and allowed their eyes to absently slide over its graffitied walls.
Above the bar, on a piece of wood, is the largest collection of Everest autographs in the world. Among the chaotic scribble, dead centre, is the looped signature of the late Ed Hillary; beneath it the date 23/5/53. Just above it lies a choppier signature, astride the dates 3/5/78 and 20/8/80. Among all the rest, these mark the three most significant ascents of Everest: first; first without oxygen; and first solo without oxygen.
The author of the first, sadly, is no longer with us. But the man who made those second and third dates is currently sat 4,552 miles from it, in the storied bowels of London's Royal Geographical Society, fixing Trail with a steady expression of bemusement. Moments before, amid the throng of Community Action Nepal's First on Everest event, I had nervously requested an autograph, then pushed my luck and asked for an interview. Unexpectedly, Reinhold Messner - the world's most prolific, outspoken and enigmatic adventurer - shrugged and said "sure."
Spend a few minutes digesting the life of Reinhold Messner and try to come up with a definition of exactly what this man is. Rock-climber, mountaineer, adventurer, politician, yeti hunter, museum curator, author, yak farmer, restaurateur. He's even got his own line of natural cosmetics. So possibly asking the man himself would be a good place to start.
"I like to invent challenges. It is not important what challenges. The bigger the obstacles are, the bigger my energy to overcome them. And I like to change activity totally every 10 to 15 years. Up to 1969 I was a rock-climber. The next activity was high-altitude mountaineering. Then I went to the deserts. I was a politician for a while. I think that this is one of the keys to my success." He smiles. "If it is a success."
Let's consider that last bit. While climbing alone in the Alps, Messner tackled the death-plagued north face of Les Droites - then regarded as the hardest ice wall on Earth. The fastest previous attempt had taken a team three days; Messner's took eight hours. He was joint first to climb Everest without oxygen, with Peter Habeler, in 1978. First to climb Everest, solo, in 1980. First to climb all 14 8000m peaks, many by new routes, some alone, all without oxygen. He was the second to climb the highest summits of all seven continents, but we'll let him off, seeing as it was Messner who pointed out Oceania's Carstenz Pyramid belonged in the Seven, thus effectively finalising the list still in use today. He's crossed Antarctica on foot. He's walked across the Gobi Desert. He claims to have not only met a yeti, but to have owned a chunk of one (though he also asserts the creature is a particularly clever offshoot of the Himalayan Brown Bear). Perhaps 'success' isn't the right word. 'Miracle' is more appropriate.
Which is how the mountaineering community reacted after Messner and Habeler's oxygenless ascent of Everest. Before it, the word was 'lunatic'.
"We were lucky we could handle it," Messner remembers. "The biggest problem was that most of the people - physicians, the medical staff - didn't think it was possible, so we were doubting." Aside from Messner's insistence that placing technology between himself and the mountain prevented him from truly 'knowing himself', he and his Austrian partner wanted to climb the mountain 'Alpine style' - lightweight, in a single push - from the South Col. Even if they wanted it, 50kg of supplementary oxygen simply wasn't an option.
"We had to invent a new approach. We knew we couldn't spend the night at 8500m, as we'd lose our willpower in the night. Climbing isn't about logistics - it's to do with understanding how humans are, and the will to try. Do not try, and you're guaranteed to fail."
They completed an ascent in record time. By the summit ridge, things were desperate. Habeler climbed the Hillary Step with anoxia-numbed arms. Blizzard winds hammered the summit. Messner removed his goggles to film, and was forced to descend almost completely blind. In Everest UnMasked, Leo Dickinson's film of the ascent, Messner's summit footage is as hallucinogenic a mix of desperation and jubilation you're likely to see - two men absolutely consumed by exhaustion and confused joy. But, as Messner remembers, this was only the first part of his Everest challenge.
"The next step for me was to try it without anything - no partner, no oxygen, anything. To do this, I had to have learned two things: climb it first without oxygen, and to be for days, for weeks alone on a mountain."
What followed would be the ultimate demonstration of Messner's dogged self-reliance. This was learned the hard way.
"In 1970 I climbed Nanga Parbat. My brother died on the way down. Two years later, I climbed the south face of Manaslu, and two members of the team died, in a big storm. After these two tragedies, I understood: I can carry the responsibility for myself, but not for others. Climbing with people, it is the best thing you can do - you can divide the joy, you can divide the fear. But it is not easy to carry down responsibility after losing a partner."
Nanga Parbat - the mountain that killed Günther Messner, and where Reinhold lost seven of his toes to frostbite - would be a lifelong nemesis. "After this I was thinking maybe it was all over. I was forced back to university. But after a while I decided to keep on. I realised it wasn't possible to bring my brother back to life, or just become an architect, or whatever."
He returned to the mountain five times during the 1970s in search of Günther, finally completing a solo climb without oxygen by new routes in both ascent and descent in 1978. It would be the first solo ascent of an 8000m peak. The mountain finally gave up the remains of his brother in 2005, vindicating Messner's account that he had been swept away by avalanche, and laying to rest claims made by fellow climbers that Messner had abandoned his brother for his own glory. Messner keeps Gunther's recovered boot in his mountain museum (more of which later) underscored with a quote from author Ernst Jünger: 'In history, truth always wins.'
When it comes to mountains however, Messner wins. In 1980, galvanised by his solo triumph on Nanga Parbat and 'natural' ascent of Everest, Messner was set for the climb of his life: a feat mountaineer Thomas Hornbein considers "Everest's landmark - a clean, aesthetically pure tour de force."
"I learned to be alone on Nanga Parbat in 1978," he says. "Combining this experience with Everest without oxygen the same year, I started out in 1980 to climb Everest, without oxygen, alone."
He spent an hour on the summit. "I was very tired. It was technically not so difficult, what I did. Everest is a hike. But it's a very heavy hike - lack of oxygen is breaking down your willpower, your energy, your ability to decide. Physically, it was very hard."
As he sat on the summit of the world, Messner experienced - for the second time - a notorious phenomenon now known as the 'third man'.
"It was very strange. I was sitting there, feeling a little like there was someone sitting beside me. To feel that there is somebody there but not being able to talk with them… I have experienced this a few times, this 'third man'. On Nanga Parbat, when I was climbing down, I felt there was someone who almost told me where to go. Same on Everest. It was a feeling that, if I turned round, I would see someone sitting nearby."
Was it comforting? He pauses. "It was helpful."
Is fear, then, even a factor?
"Yes, I feel fear. And alone, you cannot divide it - you are forced to keep the fear by yourself. And do not believe there is someone sitting alone on Everest who isn't afraid. Going down is not easy."
It is his return to humanity Messner describes as his most concentrated memory of the mountain. "Everest is not made for human beings. It is dangerous. Cold. There is little oxygen. There are avalanches. The wind can pull you from a ridge. You cannot live there. And coming back from this danger, you are reborn. When the ice turns to water, and you can drink again. Reaching the first humans, the first animals. This is a strong emotion. The summit, is nothing - a point where you stop, and turn. We go up, for coming down." He smiles. "It's very schizophrenic."
Everest solo was a watermark for Messner. "After soloing Everest in 1980, I was on the edge of being finished. I sensed that in this field I could not explore new worlds." Despite this he went on to become the first to climb all of the 8000m peaks, including K2 and Annapurna, though on all he was accompanied. Impressive feats in Antarctica followed, before a gear change yet again saw Messner become an MEP for the Italian Greens in 1999. In recent years he has established a yak farm, set up a charity to cleaning the Himalayas, and embarked on occasional 'moderate' expeditions - such as walking 1200 miles across the Gobi Desert, alone, in 2004.
Today he lives in a castle in his native Italian South Tyrol behind 13th century walls. His latest challenge concerns the castle itself - and four more across the Italian Dolomites - which he has carefully accessorised into museums. This challenge he set himself ten years ago and has overcome, as usual, with a singular will. The Messner Mountain Museum project is completed this year, and examines the relationship between mountains and people.
"Mountaineering has a lot to do with culture and has a deep, very interesting philosophy. Today I am much less interested in the summits than the people living around them. Now, at the end of my life, I've decided to bring my whole heritage into a system." His museums house the largest collection of Tibetan artefacts in the world and a bristling art collection, as well as a few gems from historical expeditions. Though Messner insists he gives most of his own kit away - including his Everest Rolex - he is a collector of mountaineering relics of particular resonance. He mentions he recently acquired Shackleton's stove - unsurprising given that Messner himself crossed the Antarctica on foot, following Shackleton's idea.
I ask him his thoughts on the Mallory and Irvine mystery, and when he responds with a sage: "I don't think - I know," he does so which such gravitas that I lean in wide-eyed, half expecting him to produce some crumbling piece of evidence from his pocket. "I don't know what happened," he corrects. "But I believe they reached the base of the second step, then turned back. You can avoid the second step entirely by going below, but it is a very long way. They didn't have time. There is no chance - not a millionth of a chance - they made the summit." Messner actually wrote a book on this subject - The Second Death of George Mallory - in which he laments the death of the mountaineering spirit that Mallory, and he himself, found.
"We were very lucky - [Chris] Bonington, Doug Scott, myself - in the 1970s, we found an empty Himalaya. Today, Everest is payable. It is still hard, still dangerous - but you can consume it. It is not mountaineering anymore. Mountaineering ends where tourism begins. I'm not criticising: mountaineering is one thing, tourism another. And today, tourism ends at the summit of Everest."
Reinhold Messner is now 66 years old. Unmistakeable beneath thick coils of hair and beard, he looks like a cross between a maturing rock god and Moses, his face a biography telling the hardships of a life of almost inconceivable physicality. Some have levelled theories he has sustained altitude-induced brain damage: I find him incredibly sharp and uncommonly articulate, with an extraordinary memory for names, years, events and the minutiae of routes.
As we wrap up, he strolls slowly out into the halls of the RGS. In its Victorian glory, this was the nerve centre for the Empire's neckier overseas forays; today it's a trove of history, its eaves hung heavy with portraits of Shackleton, Livingstone, Burton, Stanley. As Messner wanders through the halls, absently studying the walls, people stop and stare at him: perhaps the most comparable breathing equivalent of the men forever defined as 'explorers' who stare blankly from the walls.
Could you define Messner as such? Given his life, it's not even close. There's only one definition for him: he's a Reinhold Messner. And you suspect he might be rather satisfied in knowing he's the only one there will ever be.
This article appeared in the March 2011 edition of Trail Magazine. To order a back issue please call 0845 601 1356.