Reinhold Messner: What I’ve Learned

Messner was the first to climb Everest without oxygen. He has established upwards of 500 rock routes, made extreme desert crossings, polar expeditions and has written over 50 books. This is his ecstatic wisdom of a life spent on the edge.

By Reinhold Messner | March 11th, 2014

Messner was the first to climb all 8,000 meter peaks (four of them twice). Photo: Keith Ladzinski.


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 194 (June 2011).


 

I’m still a traditional climber. So for me climbing must contain three elements: difficulty, danger and, most important, exposure. Exposure means there is no possibility for outside help. Exposure increases the higher up you are, the more remote your location, and the greater the difficulties encountered higher up. Steve House and Vince Anderson’s ascent of Nanga Parbat is so important because they were by themselves with absolute exposure. If they had made one mistake, they would have had no chance to be saved. I think only a few climbers understand how and why exposure is the most important ingredient.

***

Climbing evolves as each generation tries to change the notion of what was considered impossible, and make it possible. But if you use all the technology available, you can do anything, even without being a rock climber. The impossible is not there. We should accept the idea that some things should always remain impossible, even one million years from now.

***

I would like to remove all competitions in outdoor sports. The competition is not the important thing. The important thing is to learn to behave with wild nature.

***

The most beautiful mountain in the world is not the highest, or the most difficult. It is personal. It is always the one I am currently dreaming about. At the moment, it is one in Nepal.  But I won’t tell you the name.

***

My father was a teacher and a rock climber in the interim between the two World Wars. He taught me how to behave in the mountains. Simple but important lessons about respect and survival. We were a large family with nine children. We grew up in the mountains, and it was logical that we wanted to climb them.

***

Messner established the grade of 5.11d, and was the first to solo Les Droites North Face. Photo by Keith Ladzinski.
Messner established the grade of 5.11d, and was the first to solo Les Droites North Face. Photo: Keith Ladzinski.

Without failures I would not be here. I learned most of what I know today through them. Maybe it was my partner, or the equipment was not proper, or the training—especially the mental training, which is the most important thing—were not good enough. With success, you don’t always know why you succeed, but when you fail, it’s clear what you did wrong. Then you can make changes and learn.

***

I didn’t become successful in my field because I’m bigger or more intelligent than others. No, I became successful because I had the willpower to fail, and to try it again, again and again.

Dying is the simplest thing. I’ve been close to death before, very near death, and in those moments I never had the feeling that the afterlife was important.

***

Each generation has the opportunity to define its highest goals, and the climbers who achieve them are the leading climbers. Climbing history is nothing more than naming the key climb of the time. Mont Blanc in 1786. The Matterhorn in 1865. Eiger North Face in 1938. Direct Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in 2005. But it’s impossible to compare climbs of the 1930s to the 1970s to today. Each climber is only a key figure in his own time, and not out of his time. There is no such thing as the “single greatest climbing achievement” or “greatest climber” of all time. That’s bullshit.

***

Today it’s difficult to say who are the leading climbers because there are so many disciplines. In rock climbing it may be Chris Sharma, but perhaps it could also be Adam Ondra. In classical alpinism for at least 15 years it has been Alexander Huber. The leading, most creative figure in high-altitude climbing in recent years is Steve House.

***

When people tell me they consider me the “greatest,” that tells me that they have no idea about history. There was a time period, between 1975 and the early 1980s, when I had the leadership, and I contributed to climbing together with Peter Habeler. We had forged a new approach to mountaineering, and for a few years we were the only ones to behave this way because no one else had the experience to climb mountains “by fair means.” But Slovenian and Polish climbers surpassed our achievements quite quickly.

***

I was a great admirer of Tomaz Humar. He was surely the leading high-altitude climber in the 1990s. He was very risky. I still do not understand what happened to him on Langtang Lirung. I later learned he was interested in becoming a politician. I don’t think his focus was on the mountain where he died.

***

I know David Lama very well, and I will not speak ill of him.

***

Politics is the opposite of mountaineering. On a mountain you are on your own, in a world of anarchy, with a chance to experience what it was like a hundred thousand years ago when humans were wild animals and not dependent on the social world. The strongest figure of the climbing team decides what to do, how to go forward.

 

[VIDEO: Reinhold Messner Interview – Part 1: There Can Never Be a Greatest Climber]

 

As climbers, we are inventors of our own goals, and must decide on our own how to achieve them. There is nobody else there. Nobody to control. We do extreme, dangerous things, and nobody else can say what is right or wrong. There is no moral loathing. We have only our instincts about human behavior, and in the end we are our own judges.

***

The art of politics is compromising, and if you are compromising every minute on a mountain, you won’t go far.

***

Responsibility is learned in the mountains, not here in society. Here we put most of our responsibilities on others. We have insurance. In the mountains, your behavior is directly linked to your responsibility.

***

Success is based on finding the right partners. A partner must be willing to do the climb. You don’t necessarily need a friend, though that’s preferred. You don’t even need your partner to be of equal skill level. What’s most important is mutual identification with the goal. If you take someone who is not willing to go, who is perhaps skeptical, the risk is very great because your responsibility is so great. The responsibility is imbalanced. Responsibility must be divided between you and your partner.

***

Maybe I was lucky, but I had very good partners. I relied on my instincts, however, when choosing them. I had to find different partners for different objectives: rock climbs to high-altitude mountains to desert crossings.

***

The afterlife is something we have no instruments for. We cannot understand it with our intelligence, nor can we see it with our eyes, or sense it with our nose. Our instruments are designed to comprehend this world. What is beyond is beyond. I don’t think about it.

***

Dying is the simplest thing. I’ve been close to death before, very near death, and in those moments I never had the feeling that the afterlife was important. You will do everything you can to live, but if you are really at the end, it’s like, “OK. I’m happy it’s over.”

***

The most intelligent article ever written by a climber is “Artificial Aids on Alpine Routes,” by Paul Preuss [bold Austrian alpinist, 1886-1913]. Preuss was one of the original climbers to adopt and push this view of fair means. One of the things he wrote was that you should never place a piton, ever.

***

When I wrote “Murder of the Impossible,” in 1971 I received a letter from a 96-year-old lady, who said she was once Preuss’s girlfriend. She sent me his piton hammer. Yes, he had a piton hammer, just in case of an emergency! She said I should one day pass on the hammer to a climber who thought like Preuss and myself. I’ve had this piton hammer in my cellar for all these years, always knowing that I would have to do something with it.

***

This piton hammer was the impetus for building the Messner Mountain Museum, a collection of five different buildings all dedicated to different aspects of mountains, climbing and culture. I consider building this museum to be my “sixth life” and when it is completed this summer, I will be free again, and a new life will begin. I would like to find a way to tell mountain stories through big-screen film.

***

Have you seen Vertical Limit? I find it terrible.

***

Our instincts as humans are slowly dimming the less time we spend in wild nature: rainstorms, cold, whiteouts, loose rocks, adventure. Climbing is an important and sacred opportunity for us to exist in situations that we faced a hundred thousand years ago. The animalistic side of human beings. Our instincts are an important element of our intelligence.

***

When I was 20, I did not believe that the life I’ve lived could be possible. I didn’t think it was possible to become a professional climber. I became a professional climber. I became a high-altitude climber, an adventurer. Becoming a politician was easiest, and I did it for only five years; after that, it became boring.

***

What I tell young people is if you identify your goals, and have the willpower to overcome difficulties—there will always be certain difficulties—and you find the right people to help you, you will be successful.


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