SummitAn Interview with Reinhold Messner
"Climbing is all about freedom, the freedom to go beyond all the rules and take a chance, to experience something new, to gain insight into human nature."
Walking anywhere with Reinhold Messner is to invite a crowd. We meet outside the Messner Mountain Museum on the summit plateau of Kronplatz — Corones in Italian — at 2,275 m on an icy January morning. We take just a handful of steps before two gentlemen approach, and begin talking animatedly in German. Inside, Messner shakes hands with three starstruck fans at the information desk before guiding me through the space. As he shows me his prized collection of mountain art, another man grabs him to ask about a pair of climbing shoes. Eventually, we pull up two chairs by an enormous window overlooking the Puster Valley, and, at one point during our interview, when I glance over my shoulder, I see a small crowd has gathered, hanging on his every word. None of this fazes Messner, who at 74, is thoughtful, reserved, and surprisingly humble for a man regularly described as the greatest mountaineer of all time. When I tell him I had read an article on my way to the Dolomites calling him ‘the world’s greatest living man’ he looks genuinely horrified. “Oh no! That is bullshit,” he says, without a hint of humour. “I was just lucky to stay alive. Most of the climbers my age who had the same experience and activity in the mountains didn’t survive.
I am not special, I just didn’t die.”
Messner’s achievements are legendary: he completed not only the first solo ascent of Mount Everest in 1980, but also the first ascent of the world’s highest peak without supplemental oxygen with fellow mountaineer Peter Habeler. Messner was also the first to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 m plus high peaks — the so-called Eight Thousanders. He was the first to traverse Antarctica and Greenland without snowmobiles and dogsleds, and crossed the Gobi Desert alone. He’s overcome injury and amputation (six toes to frostbite in the Himalayas), as well as countless setbacks and close calls. He faced the death of his brother Günther, who was lost on the descent of the Diamer two days after both brothers had reached the summit. More recently, Messner had a five year stint in politics, working as an MEP for the Italian Green Party. He has also, somehow, found the time to write more than 80 books, and has founded the Messner Mountain Museums: a collection of six European museums devoted to exploring different mountain themes.
One of nine children, Messner grew up in the picturesque commune of Villnöß in South Tyrol, northern Italy. The province was part of Austria until 1919, and today, Italian, German, and Ladin are spoken here. His father, Josef, was a stern man, a devoted Nazi, and an amateur climber. Reinhold, who rejected his father’s politics early on, started climbing as a child. By age five, he had climbed his first mountain. By his 20s, he was one of the best climbers in Europe. He learned the ropes, he says, by taking his time. “I had many years to learn. Between my fifth and my 20th birthday, it became an instinct to behave in the right way. Knowledge becomes instinct.”
Messner was always obsessed with the immovability and majesty of mountains, and climbing gave him a sense of freedom. “Mountaineering was not only an obsession because it enabled me to be active. It also meant I could be out of the narrow-minded household,” Messner says. In his 2014 book My Life at the Limit, he wrote: ‘Climbing is all about freedom, the freedom to go beyond all the rules and take a chance, to experience something new, to gain insight into human nature.’ Stories form the backbone of the Messner Mountain Museums. “And there is always more than one answer to a question, more than one story behind every experience,” Messner tells me. The Corones outpost was the last of his museums to be completed, opening in 2015. It was designed by the architectural icon Dame Zaha Hadid. Messner, who harbours a great passion for architecture, worked closely with Hadid to create the space, which was described by writer Richard Whistler as resembling ‘a spaceship that has crashed into the peak and fused with the rock.’ Messner stressed the importance of exploiting the views during the initial design phases, and insisted on traditional walls, rather than the curves Hadid originally envisioned, in order to showcase his art collection. “When the building was finished,” Messner recalls with a chuckle, “she said to me: ‘Congratulations on being able to hang things on these flat, grey walls’.” Inside the spectacular structure, framed with panoramic views, MMM Corones tells the story of Alpinism through relics, personal items, books, and art. “I would like people to leave here and look with different eyes at the mountains. People and mountains can meet, but we are not able to change the mountains, and that is a good thing.”
Though his legacy may be awe inspiring, Messner still has more to do. He holds regular lectures, and has plans to make films in the next few years. “I am lucky to have had many different lives, and to have changed direction at the right moments,” he says. “But I am no different from a normal man. I just see the world from a different angle.”