Everest Made Them Famous—And Destroyed Their Partnership
Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner took alpine tactics to the Himalaya, blowing minds and redefining the sport itself. Over 40 years later, they speak about the first oxygenless ascent of Everest, and the rift that broke up the greatest climbing partnership of all time.
On August 15, 1974, tourists swarmed the deck of the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes in Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland. While many hoped to glimpse the fabled Eiger Nordwand, the mountain’s north wall wasn’t the only famous face in town: Clint Eastwood milled around the hotel between shoots for his upcoming film, The Eiger Sanction. The movie’s plot was ludicrous—an assassin is tasked with killing a spy who has infiltrated his climbing team—but then again, Nixon had resigned the Presidency the week before, after a scandal tinged with similarly absurd espionage.
The mood in Kleine Scheidegg had been somber. Two days earlier, rockfall had killed a 26-year-old British mountain guide and stunt double named David Knowles as he filmed a scene on the North Face. Eastwood considered cancelling the entire shoot, but his stunt team, which included the brooding Scottish alpinist Dougal Haston, had urged him to keep filming.
Above on the Eiger, three real climbers from Poland were stranded on the Second Icefield. One had broken his leg, and a Swiss rescue helicopter was hovering above. An onlooker might have been forgiven, then, for not noticing the two men who were speeding up to the Poles on the icefield. As Eastwood and others watched with binoculars from thousands of feet below, the leader of the new party shook hands with the injured climber, made sure everything was all right, and then dashed across the icefield.
Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner were quickly gaining reputations as the world’s best mountaineers. As they swapped leads up the North Face, both men were aware that the Hollywood legend’s trademark squint was fixed firmly on them.
“He sped us up, because we knew he was watching,” Habeler says.
By 2 p.m., Messner and Habeler neared the Exit Cracks, high on the face. By 3, they sat on the summit, still drenched in alpine sunlight. Their ascent had taken an unbelievable ten hours, essentially halving the previous record.
When Ueli Steck raced up the Nordwand in 2:22, four decades later, he’d already climbed the Eiger’s North Face dozens of times, and was so familiar with the route he’d even downclimbed it as part of his preparation. For his speed runs, Steck pared his equipment to an ultrarunner’s minimum; he even wore mixed boots. Dani Arnold and Stephan Ruoss, who hold the current speed record for a roped team, of 6:10 in 2008, were similarly familiar with the face. Messner and Habeler’s ascent was onsight—they had never climbed the Heckmair route—and their rucksacks contained food supplies for “one or two nights,” as Messner remembers, and a lightweight nylon bivy sack.
Four years later, in 1978, Messner and Habeler—dubbed the “Terrible Twins” by the European press, a nickname that cemented itself while the pair preened on Everest’s Basecamp boulders in matching FILA outfits—were the first to climb Everest without oxygen, a feat that shattered the perceptions of the climbing world and scientists alike. While other 8,000-meter peaks had been climbed without oxygen, and while Messner and Habeler themselves ushered in the “alpine-style” era in the Himalaya with their ascent of Hidden Peak (8,080 meters) in 1975, Everest was the four-minute mile—the benchmark armchair alpinists had long wondered about.
But Everest would be their last serious climb together. Soon afterward, Messner and Habeler were embroiled in a feud that fueled nearly as many headlines as their record-breaking Everest climb.
But that August day on the Eiger in 1974, the two raced down the mountain in time to hang out with the film crew. “The highlight wasn’t the climb,” Habeler joked in an interview with me last year. “It was meeting Clint Eastwood!” In a photo of Messner, Habeler, and The Eiger Sanction crew, it’s hard to differentiate between the Hollywood icons and the alpine speedsters—Habeler with his film-star cheekbones and blond coif, and Messner with his beatnik haircut and glowing-white teeth.
Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler grew up fifty miles apart in the Tyrol, the peaks of the Wilder Kaiser and Dolomites yawning from their doorsteps.
Messner was born in Villnoss, on the Italian side of the Tyrol, in 1944, the second-oldest of nine brothers and sisters. His father had been a soldier on the Eastern Front—Hitler’s doomed Operation Barbarossa, the brutal campaign that cost hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers their lives. The elder Messner, who fought alongside the Germans, rarely spoke of the horrors of war. In his later memoir, The Naked Mountain, Reinhold recalls his father thrashing his brother Günther horribly—but he introduced his children to the outdoors and climbing. Just five years old, Reinhold climbed the Sass Rigais, a semi-technical peak close to his home. Later, as a teen, he climbed most often with Günther, two years his junior. Their equipment and sustenance were simple—a few pitons, a rope, a loaf of bread, and a hunk of cheese. Walking, hitchhiking, and the family’s motor scooter provided transportation to these peaks. Dispatching climbs quickly and with little equipment wasn’t ideology so much as necessity.
Both brothers idolized mountaineers from what Messner now calls “classical alpinism”—figures like Paul Preuss, who in the early 1900s climbed up (and down) 5.9, onsight and solo, often making first ascents in this style.
Most Americans know Messner as the man who first climbed all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, but his specialization in high altitude came after a decade of high-level rock and ice climbing, and he is adamant that his earliest scrambles and solos forged in him an acute instinct. “When I was twelve or fourteen, we began really serious rock climbing. And in these years—between ‘49 and ‘65—my instinct was growing,” he says.
By the time he was twenty, Messner had completed a dazzling string of new routes, first winter ascents, and solos in his home mountains. When he wasn’t alone, he usually climbed with Günther or a few trusted partners like the guide Sepp Mayerl, one of the best young climbers in the Tyrol.
Messner’s European masterwork was his solo ascent of the north face of Les Droites near Chamonix, France, a climb often cited as the reinvention of ice climbing. After a fitful night in the Argentiere hut, Messner ambled toward the 5,000-foot-high wall, armed with a straight-shafted piolet and a small ice dagger. In an afternoon, he raced up the initial ice slopes and an unclimbed, difficult slab higher up. The ascent—a new route, solo, in a fraction of the time it had taken previous parties to scale the icy wall—showcased what a motivated individual with fitness and creativity could do.
Peter Habeler was born two years before Messner, in 1942, on the Austrian side of the Tyrol in Mayrhofen, where he still lives. When he was just five, his father died, and Habeler began spending more time with his grandfather, who encouraged the diminutive youth’s mountain forays. Local mountain guides soon augmented his skillset. “When I was ten or eleven years old, I met these mountain guides. They took me to the mountains. I was a little, tiny guy,” says Habeler.
As he grew older, Habeler still couldn’t tear himself away from the hills, despite his mother’s protests and his teachers’ eye-rolling: He often showed up in class on Monday mornings exhausted. “All mountaineers knew me as the lunatic boy who tackled the most difficult glacier tours solo,” Habeler wrote in his book, Everest: Impossible Victory. Like Messner, he attributes his early years with helping him develop instinct and the ability to move quickly on difficult terrain. In 1966, he climbed the Central Pillar of Freney, a spike of steep granite on the Italian side of Mont Blanc and one of the most difficult lines in the Alps at the time. It was the second ascent of the route—a significant milestone for the day.
Around the same time he met Messner, Habeler began teaching skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The experience soon introduced him to many leading American climbers, notably Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and Chuck Pratt. At the time, Americans were revolutionizing big-wall climbing, inventing techniques for El Capitan. Habeler was one of the first Europeans to travel to Yosemite. Dismissive of his own obvious talent, he insists he was in the right place at the right time: “My luck was that I was able to meet the best people in the world .… [The Americans] would show us their tricks at the base of El Cap. Royal showed me how they did all these things, and I was a quick learner.”
In 1970, Habeler and the young British alpinist Doug Scott climbed the Salathé Wall on El Capitan, at the time one of the world’s most difficult rock climbs. Habeler was also a world-class skier. In 1966, he and teammate Pepi Stiegler, an Olympic gold medalist and Jackson Hole fixture, won the area’s first Powder 8 ski competition.
In summer 1969, while Messner was in Chamonix, Habeler roped up with George Lowe, who along with his cousin Jeff would become a defining American alpinist of his generation. George remembers having a hard time keeping up with Habeler. “He could move in the mountains,” he says. Once, Habeler simply started soloing up the chossy east face of Mount Moran and expected George Lowe to follow. Recalls George, “I said, ‘Peter, I don’t want to do that without a rope.’
“I went through the crux of the pitch and ended up grabbing a flake I thought was solid, and it came off. Had we not roped up, I would have died,” says George, adding that Habeler’s ability to motor down was remarkable, too: “Peter just jumped and glissaded down to the bottom. It was really pleasant to climb with him; he wasn’t condescending or anything.”
Forging a Team
In the small coterie of climbers, Messner and Habeler were bound to run into each other. In 1965, a mutual climbing partner invited Messner to attempt a winter ascent of the Tofana pillar, one of the Dolomites’ classic walls. The third climber was Habeler, twenty-two at the time. The twenty-year-old Messner had heard plenty about his contemporary. Habeler remembers the bone-chilling cold of the ascent.
“He was, for me, the hero,” Messner says. “I had a great opportunity to go with him .… And then we grew more and more together.” Both men recognized a similar drive, and a desire to emulate alpinists like Hermann Buhl and Walter Bonatti. “I saw in Messner the same person I was in those days,” Habeler remembers. Yet because they lived on opposite sides of the border, the pair did not socialize outside of climbing. “We were not really close friends besides that: He was living in Italy in the Südtirol [the south Tyrol],” says Habeler.
In 1966, Messner, Habeler, Sepp Mayerl, and Fritz Zambra made a rapid ascent of the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses. Three years later, both men received an invitation to join an expedition to Yerupaja, a jagged, imposing peak in the Cordillera Huayhuash region of Peru. Neither had climbed outside of Europe before.
Climbing at altitude is a cocktail of euphoria and deep suffering. Stars pop in your peripheral vision. The moisture drains out of your body, and your voice becomes thin, tinted by something you can’t quite put your finger on. A fit climber with a resting heart rate of forty-five beats per minute can crumple on an easy snowslope. You assume you’re in control until you have to do something simple—say, assemble a stove you’ve put together a thousand times before. “Mountaineering at extreme altitudes has nothing whatsoever to do with normal mountaineering. Up there every step is torture; every movement becomes savagely difficult,” Habeler wrote in Everest: Impossible Victory.
Yerupaja was Messner and Habeler’s first expedition together. The rarefied air sapped their reserves—at over 6,600 meters, the peak is the second-highest in the Andes. Though there were several expedition members, Messner and Habeler were often paired together as they attempted the mountain’s east face. After weaving around and over terrifying snow mushrooms, they were stopped by dangerous snow just short of the summit. They sprinted down the mountain, now held together by night’s freezing temperatures. Though the short distance to the actual summit was left to Sepp Mayerl and Egon Wurm, who bagged the very top days after Messner and Habeler’s ascent, the two young climbers had gained valuable high-altitude experience. Yerupaja marked the beginning of the team’s remarkable trajectory.
Messner: The Himalaya
After the Andes success, Messner, Habeler, and Mayerl were invited on an expedition to Nanga Parbat. An 8,000er was a hard thing to say no to. The expedition was gunning for Nanga Parbat’s unclimbed Rupal Face, which Hermann Buhl had deemed “unclimbable” in his book, Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage: The Lonely Challenge.
Messner couldn’t resist, but Habeler opted out, heading instead to the United States to work as a ski instructor. Mayerl dropped out as well, and the expedition leaders picked Günther, at twenty-three one of the Tyrol’s strongest alpinists. Reinhold trained harder for the Nanga Parbat expedition than any other time in his life, running thousands of feet uphill, adjusting his diet. His resting heart rate dropped to forty-two beats a minute. Günther, the last-minute addition, had less time to prepare.
Over the course of the expedition, the two brothers led the charge up the Rupal Face, widely recognized as the largest mountain face in the world, at over 14,000 feet tall. In 1970, the face remained, as Buhl predicted, unclimbed. As the weather closed in, chances of summiting dwindled—Reinhold would try for the summit alone. On the morning of June 27, Reinhold arose at midnight and left with the bare minimum of supplies. Slowly, he worked his way up the Merkl Gully, a long ice chute named for Willy Merkl, who had attempted the mountain in 1934 and died there with eight others. At some point during his ascent, Reinhold realized Günther was behind him and waited. The brothers labored toward the summit together. As they reached the top, jubilation ceded to despair. They were alone on one of the most difficult mountains in the world. Neither had a rope or bivouac gear. As night crept closer, they descended as quickly as they could, but Günther was not willing to downclimb what they’d soloed up that morning. Reinhold found a small rock outcropping, and they huddled together throughout the night. The next morning, the brothers saw two fellow expedition members ascending the Merkl Gully, a football field distant yet worlds away. Reinhold shouted for a rope, but neither party could hear the other well enough to understand. Another night out high on the mountain would likely kill them. The Messner brothers decided to descend the Diamir Face, or western face of the mountain. Though the Diamir was technically easier than the Rupal, it was raked by avalanches, and it spilled into a valley that was days from basecamp. But the brothers had few options remaining.
After the two traversed the summit plateau and began their descent, Reinhold, in the lead, often had to wait for Günther. Both siblings were on the verge of collapse: out of food and water, and exhausted from their summit effort. On their third day, they staggered to the base of the Diamir Face. Reinhold went ahead to find water, waiting by a glacial moraine for his brother, but Günther never arrived. In the morning, Messner followed a path on the glacier that ended in a fresh avalanche cone and realized that one of the slides rocketing down the face the day before had buried Günther. Messner searched desperately before giving his brother up as dead. Frostbitten, he staggered down. Eventually, he was discovered by a pair of woodcutters in the forest. By the time he returned to Europe, he was physically and mentally transformed. He lost seven toes to frostbite, an injury that hobbled his technical rock and ice career.
“The death of my brother weighed heavily on me. I had to bear the responsibility for that .… Slowly, I had to learn to come to terms with it,” Messner later wrote in Free Spirit. “I had become mistrustful and my idealistic picture of the world had received some knocks.”
After the expedition, Messner and the expedition’s leader, Karl Herrligkoffer, locked horns in a public legal battle that spilled into tabloid headlines in Austria and Italy. In 2003, Hans Saler and Max von Kienlin, both members of the expedition, published tell-all books positing that Messner had abandoned his younger brother near the summit and headed down the Diamir Face alone, resolved to make the first traverse of the mountain. It’s not difficult to unearth the likely motive for these attacks, especially von Kienlin’s: After his ordeal, to recover, Messner moved in to von Kienlin’s house—where von Kienlin’s wife, Ursula Demeter, fell for the twenty-five-year-old alpinist. By 1972, Demeter had left von Kienlin and married Messner.
“When I first met Reinhold he was a sociable, likeable fellow, firm in his character and his beliefs, but not at all touchy,” Habeler wrote in Everest: Impossible Victory. “I feel that, since the great Nanga Parbat expedition of 1970, his innermost personality has undergone great change. During this expedition his brother was killed, and many of Reinhold’s critics blamed him for this tragedy. I know that this is most unjust. Nevertheless, it hurt Reinhold very deeply.”
After Nanga Parbat, Messner’s notoriety increased in Europe. If he was often attacked in print, he was also learning to use his fame: more ink equaled more time in the mountains. “He’s got a presence,” the filmmaker Leo Dickinson, who filmed Messner and Habeler’s Everest ascent for the British documentary Everest: Unmasked, said of Messner’s astounding ability to engage with reporters. “John Lennon had it. Mick Jagger has it .… It’s not a common thing, and you can’t acquire it. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.”
Even today, journalists hunt down Messner. Entire articles have been written about how hard he is to pin down; prospective interviewers make the pilgrimage to northern Italy for fifteen minutes of the guy’s time.
So I’m surprised when his longtime secretary, Ruth Ennemoser, replies back to my email: “Yes, Mr. Messner is willing to do this interview.” It’s the spring of 2020 and everyone is under quarantine. Maybe he’s just cooped up like the rest of us, I think. A week later, there he is on my computer screen, scowls of eyebrows framed by his trademark mane. Holy shit, I can’t help thinking. I’m Zooming with Reinhold Messner. I’ve spent weeks reading and rereading the tomes of available Messner lore (publicity lesson number one: create your own mythology) and am prepared to be dismissed, snubbed, or brushed aside entirely. But the Messner I talk to is cordial, polite, at times funny. He delivers a few deft jabs at Trump, and pitches his future museum projects, though adroitly changes the subject when I ask about Günther’s death.
A huge part of Messner’s lore centers on the image of an aloof baron of the hills, eking out a lonely existence in a mountain castle, Bond villain-style. But he still flares up with excitement talking about the rock climbs of his youth, and of peers like Voytek Kurtyka. And despite the decades since Nanga Parbat, it’s hard not to see a young man in unfamiliar limelight coping with a devastating loss—of his brother—and unfair assaults from his teammates.
And surely to the chagrin of his detractors, Messner’s usually correct. In 2005, a heatwave melted out a significant part of the glacier beneath the Diamir Face where Messner claimed Günther had been killed. A leg bone and a three-layer leather boot—replete with a custom cord that Günther had rigged thirty-five years earlier—were compelling evidence that Messner had been right all along. A later DNA test confirmed the body was Günther’s. Though the find didn’t completely substantiate Messner’s version of events—it is plausible that Günther was alone and fell or was avalanched down the Diamir—it did quash the staunchest criticism.
The Elusive Habeler
If flash bulbs didn’t go off wherever Habeler went, it wasn’t for lack of alpine prowess.
He was arguably the better, more well-rounded climber. “I am in better physical shape than Reinhold,” Habeler wrote home to his father-in-law from Everest in 1978. Unlike Messner, who increasingly relied on lectures and book deals to fund his trips, Habeler made his living as a guide, though he supplemented this income with his own talks and, after Everest, a book deal. By most accounts, Messner’s personality is larger-than-life. “It’s quite an experience going around with Reinhold,” Dickinson says. Even Habeler agrees: “Reinhold was a special type of person,” he says.
“I related to Peter more, because he was more normal,” Dickinson told me this past year. “It’s a horrible word, but Peter was just a nice guy.” And it’s true. Because of his books, museums, and controversies, Messner has always been in the spotlight. Habeler’s life has taken a separate tack. When I email him throughout the summer for an interview, I get crickets: radio silence. When I bug the main office of the ski school, I get a response or two, but each time, Habeler’s in the mountains. I assume he doesn’t want to answer the same questions from a pesky journalist about Everest and his partnership with Messner, especially when that time can be used skiing or climbing.
When I’ve finally badgered Habeler enough that he assents to an interview, his demeanor puts me immediately at ease. Talking to the guy is like talking to an old friend. This feeling of warmth—you forget you’re grilling one of the best mountain climbers in the history of the sport—has probably signified Habeler’s career as a guide, where putting people at ease in an intimidating environment is half the profession.
Now, at seventy-eight, Habeler is as active as a man half his age. He still lives in Mayrhofen, where he can ski-tour from his doorstep or sport climb. If Messner’s life has taken him in a different direction than hard climbing, Habeler’s remains laser-focused on alpinism and the mountains. “Reinhold has seven lives,” Habeler jokes, referring to Messner’s careers as rock climber, alpinist, high-altitude specialist, museum curator, and so on. “I only have one life—as a climber. I still climb, or I am out skiing every day.” Habeler maintains that there is elegance in the simplicity of being in the mountains. “I felt close to [them],” he says. “It sounds stupid and bad, but I did and still do. The mountain was always my friend, never my enemy.”
Fair Means in the Himalaya
After the Eiger, Habeler and Messner hoped to import their lightweight strategy to the Himalaya. By 1976, all of the 8,000-meter peaks had been climbed, but many faces and features had not. Chris Bonington’s big expeditions attacked the most difficult—Annapurna’s South Face and Everest’s Southwest Face—and it would be another fifteen years before such challenges fell to lightweight teams. A few climbers, like Buhl and the exploratory duo of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman in the 1930s, had realized that lightweight tactics could work on the Himalayan giants, although their implementation would wait four decades.
“I was a very lucky man to be in the right period a rock climber and altitude climber. The 8,000-meter peaks were all climbed, but they left everything,” Messner says, referring to the huge faces and unclimbed ridgelines in the Himalaya. Partly true: in the early 1970s, any imaginative climber could have drawn myriad lines on photographs, but actually going was another matter. The most artful strokes in exploration often appear straightforward in hindsight: therein lies the elegance. “Make things simple,” Habeler says, describing the philosophy of the pair.
Messner set his sights on Gasherbrum I, or Hidden Peak. The Northeast Face provided a direct line; it was technical but moderate enough to allow for fast moving after acclimatization. The trip was Habeler’s first in the Himalaya, and during the expedition he was plagued by crippling altitude headaches. Messner cooked for him, a simple-sounding act that resonates with Habeler still: “He took such good care of me. Besides the success on the mountain, it was always important to have a good partnership,” says Habeler.
For their ascent, the pair sieved equipment to a minimum. They carried a small bivouac tent and stove, but no technical gear or rope. They would solo together, making their own decisions, linked by an amplified version of the psychological bonds that had propelled them up the Eiger. The pair’s connection was vital: each had the other’s mental reserves to plumb.
“[Gasherbrum] was not such a hard thing,” Habeler says. “The hardest thing was to believe.”
The pair encountered perfect névé, just enough to kick and swing into. “Hard, frozen snow, which was fantastic for moving,” Habeler remembers, adding cheerfully, “If you fall off, you’re dead, but everything was to our advantage.”
After three days of climbing, Messner and Habeler reached the summit; two days later, they sprinted down to basecamp. A neighboring Polish expedition plied the giddy pair with vodka and traditional rum-cake. In one sense, Gasherbrum was just an extension of the kind of climbing both had done since they were kids—an exercise in freedom. But the effort was a milestone. No one had climbed an 8,000-meter peak in alpine style before: simply starting at the bottom and going up.
“Gasherbrum I was the start of something which we did not know, in 1975, how far it would lead us,” Habeler says. The climb bolstered his and Messner’s belief in lightweight tactics, and on the flight back from Gasherbrum in 1975, their faces still windburnt from the mountain, the two clinked glasses and toasted to their dream of an ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen.
The Oxygen Barrier
The use of oxygen on Everest has always been contentious. During the early British forays in the 1920s, skeptics argued that summiting without oxygen was not humanly possible, and that thought still prevailed in the 1970s. “We had doctors around that were telling us we would get brain damage; that when we came home we wouldn’t recognize our wives anymore, or our own homes, and so on,” Habeler told Steve House in 2012. The feat was like mountaineering’s four-minute mile. At best, skeptics surmised, it was impossible. At worst, it was fatally dangerous. But Messner and Habeler believed it could be done with the right fitness and their own considerable experience at altitude. In 1978, they got their opportunity.
To assuage the trip’s cost, Habeler and Messner joined a large Austrian expedition led by Wolfgang Nairz. The team wanted to make the first Austrian ascent of the mountain, using the South Col route Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed in 1953. Though Messner and Habeler would operate as a unit, their Austrian teammates weren’t neophytes. Robert Schauer, who later climbed Gasherbrum IV’s Shining Wall with Voytek Kurtyka, was twenty-four at the time and already a promising young alpinist. Oswald “Bulle” Olz, the team’s doctor, was one of Messner’s regular climbing partners. And Leo Dickinson and Eric Jones, the British camera crew, would film as much of Messner and Habeler’s ascent as possible. Jones was a talented soloist and high-altitude climber, and Dickinson’s documentary films—one of which would follow Jones’s solo of the Eiger in 1980—were the precursors to modern movies like Free Solo.
But the external pressure and team dynamics meant the harmony the duo had experienced on Gasherbrum wasn’t guaranteed. And, by 1978, the personal lives of both men couldn’t have been more different. While Habeler had just had a son with his wife, Messner was emerging from the throes of his divorce from Ursula Demeter. Messner was chomping at the bit; Habeler was uncertain.
“On Everest, I felt quite wired,” recalls Messner. “[But] Peter was always nervous, because he knew he had a responsibility for his family.” In his tent at basecamp, Habeler hung up a photo of his wife and son.
Rolling the Dice
While making acclimatization forays and bringing loads up the mountain, Habeler became ill after eating a tin of sardines and remained in Camp III, retching his guts out. Messner continued in good weather. But that night, as he was camped in a tiny tent on the South Col, at 7,900 meters, a vicious storm rolled over Messner and two of the Sherpas, Mingma and Ang Dorje. They were trapped for two days in howling wind. Messner labored to keep the Sherpas alive, shoring up the tents, shoveling snow, and keeping the stove going as much as possible, listening to the wind battering the tentpoles, praying they’d hold. “I have aged years in these hours,” Messner wrote.
If anything, the harrowing nights on the South Col steeled Messner’s resolve, but Habeler’s nerves began to get the better of him. After the storm and the stomach bug, he doubted his chances of summiting, afraid of what climbing so high without supplemental oxygen would do to his brain. Messner remained focused, flexible. “We went there with the view that we would try it,” Messner remembers.
“I was like a passenger,” Habeler tells me. “If Reinhold had not kicked me in my ass, I probably would not have been able to go up. I was always a little bit afraid.”
Habeler radioed down to basecamp to see if any of the other team members—who were considering completing the climb with oxygen—wanted to add him to their summit party. But everyone had partnered up. Messner and Habeler had been the superstars of the trip, intent on operating as their own unit. Now Habeler wanted to use oxygen and piggyback on their hard-earned labor? The answer was no. The prick of rejection was the jab Habeler needed.
“I was gripped by a burning anger,” Habeler recounts in his book. “I wanted to go up with Reinhold as planned, just to prove myself to the others. And all my other reservations were completely swept away. I didn’t care a damn even about the possible physical or mental damage which might result. I was governed only by a blind anger which drove me on.”
“He was almost like a horse before a race,” says Messner.
Before starting off on their summit bid, the pair had made a pact that each was on his own if anything went wrong. “Reinhold and I had often spoken together about the fact that, in this last phase, it would be impossible to help each other should anything untoward occur. Although we were incredibly close to each other, and formed an indivisible unit, we were agreed on one thing. If one of us should get into difficulty, the other would have to try at all costs to find safety for himself alone,” Habeler wrote in Everest: Impossible Victory.
The duo took only what they needed: custom down suits (Habeler wore blue, Messner red), several pairs of heavy, wool Dachstein mittens, a short length of yellow rope, and spare goggles. Each of them wore prototype plastic mountaineering boots—far lighter than the traditional double-leather boots of the era—covered in thick neoprene overboots. Messner brought a tiny video camera and a tape recorder that Dickinson gave him, intent on documenting the climb when possible.
On May 8, the two left Jones sleeping in Camp IV and crept toward Camp V in a heavy fog. After four hours, the men reached Camp V at 8,500 meters, abandoned and covered in snow. They had less than a thousand meters to travel upward, but without oxygen each step would be torture. Messner brewed a cup of tea. “It’s practically certain we won’t reach the summit,” he recorded as they waited for the water to boil. The weather was unstable; a cloud bank moved over the mountain from the southwest—a sign things were getting worse. The footprints of their teammates were still just visible, however, and they decided to continue.
Above the South Col they climbed together, each adrift in a sea of his own thoughts. To conserve energy, they hardly spoke. Habeler would occasionally scratch an arrow pointing downward in the snow, Messner countering with an arrow pointing up. The thin air played with their senses; the straight-laced Habeler began hallucinating, and had the sensation that he was outside himself, watching an automaton plunge-stepping toward the summit. Later, Habeler swore much of their conversations took place without words, and the pair could understand each other perfectly.
Suddenly they were on the summit. In Messner’s shaky footage, Habeler vibrates with joy, his beard and mittens coated in ice. Euphoria was short-lived. A few of Habeler’s fingers had been tingling, and he worried it was the precursor to something more serious—a Sherpa had been evacuated off Everest after suffering a severe stroke earlier in the expedition.
Amid the ghostly sensations of altitude, the urge to descend gripped both men, their instinct clawing in their oxygen-starved brains. After descending about 300 feet to Everest’s South Summit, Habeler simply sat down and began one of his trademark glissades, as he would back home in the Alps or in the Tetons. Jones, now following the team’s progress with his camera, was certain Habeler was about to lose control on the slope and die. But an hour after reaching the summit, Habeler was back in Camp IV, Messner behind him, returning just forty-five minutes later.
That night, Messner lay doubled over in pain. He was going snowblind, a result of yanking his goggles off to squint into the camera throughout the day.
“I keep sitting up and pressing my fists into my eyes, weeping and crying out,” Messner wrote in Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate. “The tears help to soothe the pain and Peter comforts me as if I were a small child.” Habeler recounts his partner’s cries in his own book: “‘Don’t leave me alone, Peter. Please, you must stay with me. Don’t go; don’t climb down alone without me!’”
The next morning, Habeler guided his partner—and Jones, who was by now suffering himself from the altitude—down. It would be the last time Habeler and Messner shared a rope.
As the expedition returned home, a few prominent mountaineers expressed their doubts about the ascent, including Norgay. Some contended the two had allowed a few furtive gasps of oxygen when the cameras were off. But the pair offered a unified, staunch defense. A parade welcomed Habeler back to Mayrhofen. Their feat was mountaineering’s equivalent of landing on the moon.
But when the climbers wrote their respective books about the expedition, the unity proved as fleeting as their time on the summit. Habeler’s book, Everest: Impossible Victory, which was released first, was a collaboration with the Austrian ghostwriter Eberhard Fuchs, and one passage in particular infuriated Messner.
Wrote Habeler, “I don’t need to go any further into the numerous expeditions we have undertaken together … Reinhold has set this all out in detail in his books, even if the reader may gain the impression from these that he was the leader and I was simply a passenger .… The applause of the general public is not as important to me. But Reinhold needs their recognition. He likes to appear on television; he needs the interviews in the newspapers … he likes to shine … I don’t like any heroic poses.”
“I still cannot accept this,” Messner says. The title of the American version of Habeler’s book—The Lonely Victory: Mount Everest ‘78—irked Messner, too, the implication of “lonely victory” being that Habeler had somehow conquered Everest by himself. The gloves were off. Even the amiable Habeler took public swipes at his counterpart:
“We never had any problems as long as I was not making anything of myself,” Habeler said in an interview with the author David Roberts in 1982. “It seems to me that Reinhold simply wants to be number one, and he doesn’t want anybody to be beside him.”
The falling out over the book is perhaps only part of the story. The climbers’ lives had always been different. Messner’s obsession sent him back to the Himalaya. “Reinhold was focused on finishing the 8,000ers,” Habeler says. “I was never a collector of peaks …. My route was different from his. I still have to congratulate Reinhold on doing all the 8,000ers.” Habeler returned to Mayrhofen, where he built a house and bolstered his career as a guide and ski instructor. “We were always short of money. I had a family. We were living in a tiny flat,” he says.
Messner did indeed finish all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, narrowly beating Jerzy Kukuczka, who completed the project before being killed on Lhotse in 1987. Afterward, Messner turned toward adventuring in a broader sense of the word. “Having explored the vertical world and the great heights,” Messner wrote in Free Spirit, “I turned now to the wild, untouched horizontal expanses—Greenland, Antarctica, the deserts and plateaus.”
In 1989, he and the polar explorer Arved Fuchs completed the first Trans-Antarctic journey on foot. The feat—an odyssey of remoteness and extreme cold—had been Shackleton’s objective before his ship, Endurance, infamously became embedded in sea ice. Messner’s Trans-Antarctic success inspired other, later journeys—a massive traverse of Greenland with his brother Hubert, an attempt to walk the length of the Gobi Desert alone in 2004.
In recent years, Messner’s energy has been spent developing a series of museums devoted to mountaineering and mountain cultures around the world, exploring the link between infrastructure, history, and the current threats facing mountain environments. He remains adamant that alpinism—“traditional mountaineering,” as he calls it—still requires risk to be worth anything. Though Messner’s passion has taken him away from climbing itself, it has certainly not taken him away from his beloved mountains.
Habeler did return to 8,000-meter peaks throughout the 1980s when opportunity and drive aligned. In 1988, at age forty-five, he climbed the North Face of Kangchenjunga with the American Carlos Buhler and the Basque climber Martín Zabaleta. He felt more physically fit for high altitude than at any other time in his life. On the day the team summited, Habeler set off at a blistering pace, reaching the top before his companions. A storm blew in. “I waited; there was no sound,” says Habeler. “And I knew they are gone. It was snowing heavily—you couldn’t see a thing.” Finally, he heard shouting. Buhler and Zabaleta were exhausted, but alive. Buhler had frostbitten his feet, and Zabaleta was coughing blood. The next day, Habeler struggled to find the fixed rope that would allow the trio to escape from the upper mountain. Finally, he located the line, buried beneath meters of snow. An avalanche had destroyed their third and second camps. They returned to safety by the skin of their teeth. The climb sticks out in Habeler’s mind as one of the highlights of his career.
Habeler’s legacy has been quieter though no less influential. At seventy-eight, he is still extremely fit. As a guide and instructor, he has mentored climbers like David Lama, whom Habeler met when Lama was just five. Early on, Lama’s talent stood out among his peers. “He was the smallest one, but he was brilliant,” Habeler says. In 2017, the two climbed the Eigerwand together, also in a day. Habeler was seventy-four.
In recent years, Habeler and Messner have reconciled their differences. If there is more to the story, neither is willing to speak publicly about it.
When I ask Messner about his falling out with Habeler, he responds brusquely. “Now we have a perfect relationship,” he points out. “It’s forgotten.” It is clear he still has admiration for his most famous partner. “Peter is more active than me. He is still guiding, still rock climbing,” Messner says. For his part, Habeler is proud of Messner’s films and museums.
I wonder if the two men’s differences propelled them up the mountain—if each was spurred on by the other, yin and yang firing against each other to create something greater than the sum of its parts. No high-altitude-mountaineering partnership has been as prolific or produced as much as Messner and Habeler did during the decade they climbed together. Both men climbed with many others, and both stress that Everest, especially, was more of a stepping stone in the arc of progression than a career highlight. But both seem to accept, four decades after their partnership ended, the important role they played in each other’s lives.
“Without Peter,” Messner tells me before retreating back into the bowels of his castle, “I would not have become what I became.”
Michael Wejchert is a climber, writer, and guide from Madison, New Hampshire. He is working on his first book.
From Spring 2021