This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of our print edition.
For a man who’s been called the greatest mountaineer of all time, Reinhold Messner is surprisingly reserved and humble as he looks back on his 70 years on the planet.
He’s explored and survived some of the most challenging and unforgiving terrain on Earth. Most famously, he completed the first solo ascent of Mount Everest as well as summiting all 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, often choosing routes that were more challenging. He’s crossed deserts, including the Gobi, and traversed the Arctic and Antarctica. His exploits are legendary and well-known.
Messner followed his climbing career with five years (1999 to 2004) in politics, serving as an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for the Italian Green Party, while also working on the Messner Mountain Museum project, a series of museums in various mountain locations, including the Dolomites. The sixth museum, Corones, will open this year in Kronplatz, Italy, on his birthday, September 17th.
But Messner is more likely to talk up the achievements of contemporary climbers than his own. He especially admires Ueli Steck’s solo ascent of Annapurna’s South Face and British couple Sandy and Rick Allen’s Mazeno Ridge traverse of Nanga Parbat. People who, like Messner, didn’t choose the easy route.
“I would never have been able to climb Cerro Torre in Patagonia free, without using bolts, like David Lama did,” Messner says. “I am very impressed and interested in seeing what’s happening today because mountaineering is in a period of great change. Ninety percent of the people going to the mountains today are tourists or sporty people. They climb in the gym, and they do some very difficult climbing, but this is not what I’d call alpinism. Traditional adventure alpinism is a very limited activity in these times. I have the greatest respect for these young climbers who go back to tradition and true alpinism.”
Like any septuagenarian, Messner thinks often about death and loss. He feels fortunate to have made it this far. Messner lost his brother, Günther, and many friends on early expeditions. “There are thousands and thousands of people who’ve died in the mountains,” Messner says, solemnly. “I can’t defend an idea that has had so many deaths as a consequence. We cannot defend it, but we still go to the mountains. We must be aware that danger is everywhere and in every second. Going to the mountains is not conquering something. It’s so we can feel like we’re being reborn when we’re back in civilization.”
Secrets to an Adventurous Life
I always made a testament before I went on an expedition: I knew I could die, but I would fight like a lion to not die. If I were to stay at home forever because it’s dangerous to go to the mountains, I would not be who I am anymore. I need this activity. And if the fears are too bleak before going because I’m not perfectly prepared or my equipment isn’t just right, I adjust it. I only go if I feel like I’m fully prepared.
2. Booking a round-trip ticket
When I was a young climber, I looked for the most difficult routes, especially rock climbing in the Dolomites and the Alps. Later on, when I climbed the highest peaks, I tried to do it with minimum equipment. That ethic was more important than the actual summit or the route. Before and during the activity, I strive to be awake and aware of dangers. The real art of climbing is to come home safely.
3. Pushing limits
Testing your own limits is only a synonym for knowing about human nature. If we expose ourselves to the maximum—cold, lack of oxygen, exposure, being high up on the mountain, far away from security—then we know about our fear and limitations. Going for that limit means, oddly, that we acknowledge our limitations. But I would not accept being limited in my possibilities and capabilities.
4. Going solo
I did solo trips because I needed to know if I was capable of making it alone. To be alone means not only to have responsibility, but also to be removed from the world. Now if I have a personal or work problem, I go into the wilderness alone. It’s also a way of meditating. I listen to myself. In this special moment, having my ears and all my senses open to nature, I understand what I have to do and what my path ahead is.
5. Embracing danger
Most European alpine clubs behave in a way that they would like to make the mountains more secure. They build roads or rails so you can’t fall down anymore. They build metal structures to avoid avalanches. This is not a mountain anymore; a mountain is danger. You could die there. Because of this, mountaineering is a very interesting activity. It’s not a sport. It’s serious interaction with nature. The danger is an essential part of it.
—As told to Graeme Green of curiousanimal.com