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Mountaineer Reinhold Messner: Insights after fourteen eight-thousanders

May 4, 2021

reading time: 8 minutes

by Franziska Zydek, guest author

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The first to climb Mount Everest without oxygen, the first to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders – what drives Reinhold Messner, world-famous mountaineer and adventurer?

We’re in the Villnöss valley in South Tyrol. Just after the highway exit the road winds up through a ravine, and below us the stream roars its way down to meet the Eisack River. Then come farms, meadows, a hamlet. Wooden planks lie in front of a sawmill, piled up tidily. The village of St. Peter clings to the southern slopes. After a few curves towards the Würzjoch pass, we can see down to the end of the valley. There, surrounded by neatly mown alpine meadows, stands a little church illuminated by the sun’s rays. Behind it – to our surprise, and seemingly quite unreal, there looms the giant rock face of the mountains that form the Geisler ridge. Today, storm clouds the color of dark blue ink hover behind the peaks of the Dolomites. In this light, the crests look like gray, bony fingers pointing up towards the heavens. What a panorama: here beneath us lies the ordered, bourgeois world of the valley dwellers, and there above us are the mountains, promising freedom and adventure. 

The dream of freedom

Josef Messner, a teacher from St. Peter in the Villnöss valley, taught all his sons how to climb. The second-eldest, Reinhold, proved to be particularly skillful and tenacious. He reached his first summit at the age of just five.

Reinhold Messner is meanwhile 76 years old. He sits in the courtyard of the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian at Sigmundskron Castle, on a hill above Bolzano. This is the heart of his museum empire comprising six different locations, each of them dedicated to a different aspect of the topic of “mountains.” It took him 15 years to realize this project.

Messner is a man of economical movement and of slender build, but with big hands – and his hair is as wild as it ever was. “Morality is the sum of all philistine thought.” This is how he initiates our conversation about identity. He’s making himself clear right from the start. Messner wants to be sure we know what he’s about: his is a life not limited by the notions of those who claim they know how we ought to live.

He knew such people back in his youth in the Villnöss valley, where his strict father laid down the law and the local priest decided what was good or bad. “It was so constricted. Everything was regulated – your work, your free time, going to church. Everything was either right or wrong, forbidden or not forbidden,” recalls Messner. But out in the mountains there was a sense of vastness, a feeling of independence. “In every free moment we had, my brothers and I were drawn up to the Geisler mountains. We left behind all civilization with its rules and its constraints, its villages and its churches. Our place was out in the void, above the summits and on the cliff faces that belonged to no man.”

Is that where his love of the mountains started? He shakes his head. “It wasn’t the mountains we loved. We loved our anarchic life. And by anarchy I mean: no one had power. Everyone took his own decisions and acted according to his abilities. Since then I’ve known that freedom is also what we make of our own possibilities.”

Feeling the power of the self

Reinhold Messner has made a lot of his opportunities. In his day, no other mountain climber or adventurer was as successful as he. He was the first man to stand on the summits of all fourteen eight-thousanders of the world (that’s the peaks standing taller than 26,247 feet). He was the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest on his own, and before that he was the first to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat on his own – and he achieved both feats without the help of bottled oxygen. He has crossed the Antarctic, Greenland and the Gobi Desert. “I have walked round the globe twice on foot and have been as far and as high as I could, when there was nothing farther or higher for me to accomplish.”

What drove him on? First there was a feeling of invincibility that made the talented young mountaineer Reinhold clamber effortlessly up cliff faces, usually together with his brother Günther. “Just like water flowing upstream” is how a contemporary describes his climbing technique. “I was intrigued by the supposedly impossible,” says Messner. He even climbed mountains in his sleep, dreaming of pushing the limits of what was feasible until no one would ever be able to follow him. 

But there was something else, too. Reinhold Messner could feel how his physical and mental strength grew, allowing him to focus ever more clearly and to concentrate his energies: “The awareness of having a drop of almost 3300 feet beneath you – the danger of death, the fear of falling – it all disappears,” he says. “You are only conscious of your next move on the path to the top, and of an absolute awareness of being in that moment.”

You could hardly imagine a life more intensely in the here and now – and it’s an intensity that can last for unfathomable lengths of time. Because under such extreme conditions, time can stretch unendingly or shrink into nothing. “If you’re wholly within yourself, when you become one with the cliff face, time flies away. It can pass excruciatingly slowly in situations of hopelessness, and in moments of horror it stands still. Your perception of time depends on the intensity of your experience in any one moment.”

How are we to comprehend this powerful, unadulterated feeling of self-consciousness under life-threatening danger, relying solely on one’s own strength and skill, abandoned to the elements in a timeless space? “It’s something highly archaic.” Reinhold Messner hesitates for a moment before adding: “In such situations you feel the power of the self. You feel connected with your own primeval nature.”

Tracking down primeval nature

Reinhold Messner has probed this primeval nature – first unconsciously, then with ever greater curiosity. Today he is convinced that we bear within us more of Stone Age man than we would think possible. He believes that the human nature of our ancestors is anchored in our genes – their survival instinct, slumbering deep in our subconscious but ready to awaken at times of the greatest danger. 

One of Messner’s recent books is “Über Leben” (literally “About life,” though also a play on the German for “survival”). It is a personal look back on his life on the occasion of his 70th birthday, and in its preface Messner writes the following: “Adventurous travels, extreme sports and active vacations are more in demand today than ever before. I think that perhaps they conceal within them an unconscious desire to look back through a window onto our earlier human existence. To experience how we once were, with all our potential.”

Time and again, Messner has climbed out through this “window” into extreme landscapes to push the boundaries of what he can achieve. “In archaic spaces, danger is the most important teacher,” he says. “In life-threatening situations, we quite naturally acquire skills of leadership and risk management and strategies for success. It’s like a natural law.” Without even realizing it at the time, his innumerable expeditions made him test how the act of survival functions – essentially just like primeval man did.

Finding identity in moments of danger

Reinhold Messner has written some four dozen books and countless articles about his adventures. In them he also describes the character traits that you need to survive: effectiveness, perseverance, discipline, ingenuity, patience and swiftness. When pushing himself to the limits, he trained his body to cope without food or water for long periods of time. When on a mountain face he would look straight up at a rockfall so as to know when and where to duck out of the way. And if he heard an avalanche coming he’d be on his feet and out of his tent in a fraction of a second. 

These are abilities that you can more or less train in yourself. But what about one’s thoughts and feelings? What does one think of at night in a tent, when an avalanche could sweep you away at any moment? “Nothing,” says Reinhold Messner. Does he meditate? “No!” He’d never want people to think him esoteric. “I think of nothing because thinking uses up energy.” Messner has learned to halt the thoughts whirling in his head in order to attain inner relaxation. He does not panic in moments of danger. He remains calm and can formulate his thoughts clearly. “Dangers have enriched my life,” he says. “It’s through dealing with them that I have learned who I am.”

Reinhold Messner prepared his expeditions meticulously, often for years in advance. They only became journeys into the unknown when he was exposed to unforeseeable circumstances. But when there was an earthquake when he was climbing Nanga Parbat on his own, or when the pack ice broke up in the Artic, what did he trust more: his head or his gut?

“I would never dare to mistrust my instincts,” he says spontaneously. After pondering for a moment, he goes on to explain more precisely: “In critical situations, it’s your own experience that is your first source of help. It’s complemented by the handed-down experiences of those before us who have already been in similar situations. It’s a kind of knowledge bubbling up from your deepest memories – something that could go all the way back to the Stone Age.”

But “instinct” is more than the sum of these experiences: “When you’re in danger, your instinct breaks through all barriers of thought and compels us to act. Often it can’t be controlled by the intellect anymore. Instinct is not just quicker than your rational mind, it’s also more enduring – perhaps because it was part of being human from prehistoric times onwards.”

What were his most profound encounters with his own nature? Messner admits that, when he was quite alone, under immense pressure, he was sometimes on the brink of losing his sanity. He has seen his own form walking alongside himself, he has spoken with people who weren’t really there – who couldn’t have been there. His trek through the drifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert seemed to him at times to be “like fumbling around between frenzied will-o’-the-wisps.” “It is hopelessly quiet when you’re utterly cast back onto yourself, and well-known voices echo in your ears.”

The storyteller

When he's among people, it doesn’t take long for them to start nudging each other and looking across. Their smartphone cameras are at the ready, and you can sense their collective excitement: seated over here is the great mountaineer and adventurer in person! Reinhold Messner remains unperturbed, and a slight smile crosses his lips. He’s well aware of the effect he has.

He has a magnetic presence. Although not a big man, you can’t miss him. That could be because of his lion’s mane of hair – that would be the simplest explanation. But it’s also possible that what he calls his “primeval nature” is tangible to others, surrounding him like a force field. Men like him have become rare in our times. Perhaps also because the breathing room they need to prosper is becoming ever smaller. 

Reinhold Messner knows that too. There is no place for someone like him anymore, he says. Not in our no-holds-barred society, where the quick adrenalin fix is paramount, and where the wild and untamed is often just for show. Messner always wanted to be exposed to untouched natural landscapes where he had to survive with a minimum of equipment. That’s why he rejected climbing bolts, oxygen masks and satellite phones. In one of his books he described himself self-mockingly as a mountaineering Neanderthal. It’s an image that fits really well with another side of his personality, for Messner is also a gifted storyteller. 

Reinhold Messner
In 2015, the sixth and final Messner Mountain Museum opened: Corones, situated on the Kronplatz mountain. © Gerhard Hagen/Poolima/laif

Even more than in his books and articles, Messner reaches people best when he tells them about his experiences in person. He fills whole halls on his lecture tours around the world. Once, he even spoke to a capacity audience in the Arena di Verona. “I actually don’t give lectures at all,” he says: “I perform.” Yet that isn’t quite right either. Because unlike a rock star who has all his paraphernalia with him on stage to ensure he’s seen in the best light, Reinhold Messner refuses any props. He just stands there and talks.

It’s authentic, vibrant and exciting. And sometimes he gets so immersed in a story that he bursts into tears. He hasn’t written down his stories, and there’s no recording of them. Just like in our distant past, they’re an oral testimony of events and heroic deeds, captured in the memory of his listeners and preserved there only thanks to the compelling art of the storyteller.

The fifteenth “eight-thousander”

Remembering things, preserving them and handing them down – making his life’s work accessible to other people, leaving tracks behind that will still be visible in the future. All these are the ideas behind Reinhold Messner’s museum project. He had long been a passionate collector, and he set about this new task after an accident put an end to his expeditions. In 2015, the sixth and final Messner Mountain Museum opened: Corones, situated on the Kronplatz mountain. It’s a bold, breathtaking building designed by the architect Zaha Hadid.

Realizing his museum project made Reinhold Messner aware of the limits of his archaic lifestyle. Because now, for the first-ever time, he wasn’t confronted with a wilderness, but with public spaces subject to official rules and regulations. Here the laws of nature had no bearing – instead, he was beholden to statute books, laws, administrative offices, public authorities, politicians and the media.

A local newspaper took potshots at him, offering a platform for the opponents of his project. A lot of bad blood surged up. This was a man-made “cliff face” different from those he was used to scaling. Messner admits that he found it extremely difficult to cope at first. But over time he learned to think and act strategically, and that helped him to remove the obstacles in his way. In the end, he says, he can be thankful to his opponents because their resistance helped him to grow. In retrospect, 
Reinhold Messner calls the museum project his “fifteenth eight-thousander.”

Images: Christian Breitler

This article was first published in LGT's client journal CREDO.

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