41 years ago, Reinhold Messner climbed Everest for the second time. He did it right in the middle of monsoon season, without the aid of oxygen and alone on the deserted mountain. Since this day in August 1980, where he managed the impossible, Everest was transformed. Or one could say that man transformed it. Here we talk to the passionate defender of traditional mountaineering.
Mr Messner is a hard man to get hold of, now a businessman and conference speaker. That’s why when he called at 8.30pm, it was better to pick up than miss the long awaited interview. The call is taken from one of his residences in South Tyrol – a German speaking area between Austria and Italy – and he sits to talk to us just after dinner. He answers our questions in his verbose style. His answers seem to be well rehearsed. Yet, for Reinhold, he has told his story so many times; explaining, justifying, defending, observing, analysing and criticising for 50 years.
His skill to criticise might be what he has developed the most in recent years, taking a more demanding stance on what he deems to be “traditional” alpinism in the face of other emerging styles, more sport and commercially driven – and he doesn’t beat around the bush.
Demanding or elitism ?
Yet, having a critical eye over the more commercial side of mountaineering is probably necessary, whether that be guided expeditions on Everest or even the relationship between the mountain and society; how the mountain is treated, the use of its resources, its image and how it’s represented. Reinholds most recent book, Urgence ! Il faut sauver la montagne, (Glénat), which came out in September 2020, fervently argues the need to protect nature and the environment in the mountains.
Due to the fact that Messner was standing at the top of Everest just 40 years ago, we’ve returned to this ascent and summit with him in order to know more about his historic ascents of the tallest mountain in the world, which over time have become a burden. His wealth of experience and knowledge of these recurring issues makes him the perfect person to ask: what is alpinism and who are the worthy pioneers that go with it?
What are your thoughts on your ascent of Everest on the 12th April 1980 ?
Reinhold Messner : Climbing Everest alone and without the aid of oxygen was a logical next step for me. It was the result of a serious revolution in how people approached climbing the world’s highest mountains. We often talk about the 40 years since the ascent, but it all really started 50 years ago when I climbed Nanga Parbat with my brother Gunther, then Everest without the use of oxygen in 1978 with Peter Habeler, and finally Nanga Parbat without a partner just after.
This progression allowed me to think that doing Everest alone without the aid of oxygen was actually possible. Climbing Nanga Parbat in ’78 was the final step to practice going higher, training on my own, and using less equipment and outside help. But you have to remember that Everest is not technically very difficult.
No one has ever been able to climb Everest
alone like I did
Now looking back, do you think that you opened any doors for those climbing in the Himalayas today ?
Reinhold Messner : No, I would say the opposite. I have not opened any doors as no one has ever been able to climb Everest alone like I did. A few people do happen to reach the summit on their own, but this is now among a sea of other people. No one followed me 40 years ago.
Everest, 23rd of May 2019. ©Nims Dai
No one ? What about the ascents by Marc Batard (record holder for the fastest ascent of Everest on the Nepali side, alone and without the aid of oxygen, in 1990, Ed.), or those by Hans Kammerlander (record holder for making the ascent from the Tibetan side in 16 hours, 45 minutes, alone and without the aid of oxygen, in 2006, Ed.) ?
Reinhold Messner : These ascents were done on marked out routes with fixed ropes. My ascent was a real solo climb, done without assistance or fixed ropes (Done in summer, in the middle of the monsoon period, when the mountain was deserted, Ed.). In 1980, there were no tracks to follow. I was walking into the unknown.
What about Christian Stangl’s ascent (who controversially beat the record of fastest ascent of the north face in 16 hours, 42 minutes in 2006, Ed.) ?
Reinhold Messner : I don’t ever want to say his name. His feat of doing the Seven Second Summits, or whatever it is, is of absolutely no importance. It won’t count in the history of alpinism.
And the double ascent by Killian Jornet, alone and without the aid of oxygen in May 2017 ?
Reinhold Messner : That particular discipline is called “skyrunning”. In terms of alpinism, it’s of no importance.
Then there’s the solo attempt by the young German Jost Kobusch without the aid of oxygen, that had to be aborted at 7366m (24,167ft) ?
Reinhold Messner : (laughs) He went to do that climb to get some popularity and make some money from his sponsors. He went knowing very well that he had no chance of completing the climb. He’s an actor and a fraud.
Do you think Mount Everest has lost its wow-factor ?
Reinhold Messner : I’ve always disagreed with the commercial expeditions that we see on the mountain today. If you want to understand what alpinism is today, then the most important thing to do is to watch how people climb the mountain, that is in huge crowds, on a ready-made route, with doctors, and chefs…
Those that prepare the routes to summit Everest are the Sherpas and helpers. They are the ones that have sold Everest for its money’s worth. They’re the ones that created the set route towards the summit, and invented guided mountaineering. No one goes there to open up new routes as the whole mountain is taken up by these huge commercial expeditions.
People can do as they please, but this isn’t my vision of traditional mountaineering and alpine style. The style, the exposure, the difficulty and the danger are the most important things, much more than the speed, competition or even the use of oxygen.
Alpinists ? There aren’t many, a lot fewer than a few decades ago. There are more tourists and indoor climbers
So who will carry the torch of this traditional mountaineering that you are defending ?
Reinhold Messner : Christoph Profit’s ascent of the three north faces of the Alpes (the Eiger, Matterhorn and Grandes Jorasses) is important. That was particularly difficult and he did it without aid.
That was 33 years ago. What about today ?
Reinhold Messner : Jess Roskelly, David Lama, Hansjörg Auer…
Yes, but they are all dead…
Reinhold Messner : Erhard Loretan, Jean Troillet…
Troillet is the only one still alive at 72. Who climbing now that is part of the alpinist community ?
Reinhold Messner : I don’t know their names…. But there aren’t many, a lot fewer than a few decades ago. There are more tourists and indoor climbers. Climbing on artificial holds is a sport, a beautiful sport at that, but it’s not alpinism.
Your last book to come out in France warns the reader of the urgency to protect the mountains. What do you think are the most prevalent dangers ?
Reinhold Messner : My book talks about the fact that the mountains offer humanity the best way to get closer to nature. However, we now have ever fewer mountainous areas, and even more areas for tourists.
Alpinism is a very serious thing and fewer and fewer people are following in the footsteps of the greats who established these routes over the last 250 years. One of the greatest was Lionel Terray. People should get back to reading works like Les Conquérants de l’Inutile (“The Conquistadors of the Useless“) to really understand what alpinism is all about.
Being smart and strong was part of it, but above all, I was lucky
Do you think that you have a responsibility to make people aware of the environmental dangers, including the need to protect natural areas, as well as the ethical nature of alpinism ?
Reinhold Messner : Yes. I have the responsibility because I survived. Being smart and strong was part of it, but above all, I was lucky. There were many climbers better than me that died. At my age, I feel a sense of responsibility to spread the values of traditional mountaineering.
This is why I’m going to do an expedition called “Final expedition around the world” which will take place in major cities and will have talks and speeches about this philosophy and this approach to the mountain.