What next for Reinhold Messner?In Nepal visit, mountaineering legend ponders life after all the legendary climbs are done
At age 77, after having pushed the limits of what a human being can physically achieve, Reinhold Messner looks back at a life lived at the edge of life and death, and turns philosophical about the art of mountaineering.
Messner started climbing in the Dolomites when he was five. On his first Himalayan climb in 1970, he lost his brother and seven of his toes on Nanga Parbat. In 1978 he climbed the mountain again solo, and became the first person with Peter Habeler to summit Mt Everest without bottled oxygen. In 1980, he came back to Everest and solo-ed it too. He went on to climb all of the world’s fourteen 8,000m peaks in 1986.
“We go to places we could die, but not die. Traditional mountaineering is the art of not dying,” says Messner, who has just got off a flight from Europe on yet another trip to Nepal that was delayed by the pandemic.
People used to fear mountains, they did not approach dangerous places. It was only after the industrial revolution that early British climbers started exploring the Alps and ‘alpinism’ was born to test the limits of human skill and endurance.
“Mountains are infinite in comparison to our lives,” the Tyrolean climber says. “Up on a mountain we are forced to contemplate eternity. Climbing is a useless activity, as absurd as life itself.”
Messner has nothing but praise for Nirmal (Nims) Purja, the Nepali climber whose ascents of all 14 of the world’s eight-thousanders within seven months was featured in a popular Netflix documentary this month.
“I needed 16 years to climb all 14 peaks without oxygen,” says Messner, repeating what he said in the Netflix film. “For this, I give Nirmal great respect, he did it in such a short time. And after this, he went back to K2 and became the first to climb it in winter. He is not just chatting, he is doing.”
Messner worked with Purja to finish his latest book which is out in German, and defends the Nepali climber’s use of helicopters and oxygen for his climbs saying technology had made it possible to fly from one base camp to the other. And Purja’s team was also fixing ropes for others, carrying its own oxygen.
Messner is also glad that Nepalis are finally getting credit for helping western climbers attain the world’s highest peaks – starting with Gurkha porters on Nanga Parbat in 1895, and later with Sherpa guides.
“Now, Sherpas and Gurkhas are no longer support staff, they organise expeditions around the world,” says Messner. “I am very happy that after 100 years the Sherpa have the economic possibility to organise their own expeditions.”https://youtu.be/EZBvVMaNYAI
Messner then turns to his pet peeve: how alpinism has turned into tourism as hundreds of clients jumar up on fixed ropes to the top of Mt Everest. Indoor climbing walls in gyms also do not cut it for him.
“Traditional mountaineering is the art of surviving where you can die, if you take away the possibility of danger, then it is not alpinism,” says Messner with messianic zeal during an interview in Kathmandu with Nepali Times. “Organising a safe infrastructure where someone takes you up and down a mountain is tourism.”
Nepal’s economy has now come to be dependent on these large expeditions, aside from the revenue that Nepal collects every year from hefty climbing royalty. A switch to alpine style climbing would mean fewer jobs for expedition support staff.
But Messner is a purist when it comes to mountaineering, and besides smaller lighter teams scaling peaks would be less damaging to the environment. He takes the message of pure alpine style climbing around the world through lectures, setting up a string of museums, as well as more films, including the latest semi-autobiographical White Out.
Messner faced criticism for abandoning his brother on Nanga Parbat in 1970, but has often defended himself saying people at sea level should not be passing judgement about decisions of survival at 8,000m. He has made 31 expeditions in his lifetime to eight-thousand metre peaks, 18 of them successful. He dabbled in politics and was a member of the European Parliament for five years before deciding that he did not want to be a professional politician.
During this visit to Nepal, Messner will inspect the new Sherpa Himal Museum that he helped build near Namche, adding to other mountain museums he has set up around the world.
We ask Messner why he is so impressed with Nims Purja, when he has been scathing about the young German climber Jost Kolbach who is attempting Mt Everest solo in winter up the west ridge this season.
“It is all PR. He has said he has only has 1% chance, if that is so he should stay in the Alps, do smaller things successfully, or climb the challenging six or seven thousanders first.”
About this year’s controversy about climbers on the fore-summit of Manaslu, Messner says it is clear which is the true peak, and remembers bringing down a piton in 1972 from an earlier Japanese expedition to the 8,163m summit as proof. But it is less clear which is the true peak on long ridges like Annapurna I, he adds.
Messner has also been ridiculed about his belief in the yeti. He clarified: “The yeti is logically a bear. It is a legend that is 1,000 years old that came with the migration of Sherpas, and describes a partly-white bear, and early British journalists 120 years ago spread rumours about the snowman.”
Messner says the climate crisis is changing monsoon patterns and the jet stream which is making climbing in the Himalaya more dangerous. He says the whole system is out of balance due to industrialisation, cars and fossil fuels and consumerism.
Messner is now helping to give back to the people of the mountains around the world where has climbed all his life, rebuilding hospitals and schools, and supporting students.
He says, “After climbing the mountains, I came later to also understand the people, and I am thankful that I can give back to this country with tourism promotion. I owe my climbing success to Nepal."
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).