This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 194 (June 2011).
It was my 19th birthday, a hot August day, and I was a spastic teen-man, having just returned from climbing and hardly studying during a yearlong exchange program to Slovenia. I felt indomitable and, in retrospect, that was a period that held a pretty lethal combination of teenage arrogance and a mean mountain fitness earned in my first year of alpinism. But, I was hungry. My heart skipped a beat when I unwrapped a new copy of Reinhold Messner’s All 14 8,000ers. The tome, in less than 300 pages, seemed a blueprint for my life. I devoured the book in a day and spent another two weeks examining each image of high summits, tiny backpacks, and miniature tents pitched on improbable peaks. I pored over the stats in the appendix: success rates on various 8,000-meter peaks by route, fatality rates by nationality, fatalities by cause, fatalities by peak. I cringed at images of frozen bodies drifted over by snow.
Messner’s book depicted his two most famous climbs: the first ascent, with Peter Habeler, of Everest without supplemental oxygen, in 1978, and the first solo of Everest, also without oxygen, in 1980. But he did not dwell on these two climbs; rather, he gave equal space to other mountains. In fact, he had summited 8,000ers a total of 18 times. I was struck by how he presented his climbs as a creative process that built on itself, one climb after another, for nearly 20 years. In this context, his did not seem at all like a quest simply to collect all 14 8,000ers.
In 1975 Messner climbed the 26,470-foot Gasherbrum I with Habeler, in perhaps the first alpine-style ascent of an 8,000-meter peak. (Cho Oyu 1954 and Broad Peak 1957 were also considered as lightweight expeditions, but the climbers still fixed camps and ropes on those ascents.) Messner and Habeler employed 12 porters to reach basecamp, a trek of over two weeks. After acclimating on a warm-up climb across the valley, the climbers rested in basecamp, and then started up the mountain’s north face. Whereas it was traditional for mountaineers to rope up, Habeler and Messner climbed unroped, allowing them to ascend 3,000 vertical feet in an hour. They did not fix caches, ropes or camps, and had never set foot on the route before. They reached the summit of Gasherbrum I in three days, the fastest climb of a new route in the Himalaya. With that ascent, Messner not only became the first person to have climbed three 8,000ers, but this ascent pushed mountaineering hugely forward. Messner and Habeler’s minimalist tactics changed both how climbers regarded large objectives, and what physiologists had previously understood to be the threshold for human tolerance to high altitude.
Nine years later, in 1984, Messner, climbing with Hans Kammerlander, enchained the summits of Gasherbrum II and I—the first time two 8,000-meter peaks had been reached on a single climb. After summiting GII, they climbed GI via a new route on the north side of the peak—without support and without having returned to basecamp.
Messner’s feats here were heralded as major physical and psychological breakthroughs in alpinism—accomplishments that were considered impossible until they came to pass. However, his extremely committing style also attracted some criticism for being too risky—that by shunning supplemental oxygen, he was needlessly risking brain damage or worse. His most scarring experience surrounded his first expedition to the Himalaya in 1970. Dr. Karl Herrligkoffer invited Reinhold and his brother Gunther Messner to join a largely German expedition to attempt the 13,500-foot Rupal Face after two other members dropped out. On the mountain Reinhold and Gunther, with a core group of four others, were often out front, putting in the route and establishing a series of five camps up the massive and dangerous wall. From a tent pitched at 7,400 meters, climbing first separately and later together, Reinhold and Gunther stood on the 26,660-foot summit late in the afternoon, in only the third ascent of the mountain. The Rupal Face, the highest rock-and-ice wall in the world, had been climbed.
[Also Read Reinhold Messner: What I’ve Learned]
But in the final stages of that climb, perhaps due to youthful enthusiasm, they had pushed themselves too hard. Gunther was exhibiting signs of altitude sickness. Reinhold, afraid that Gunther would be unable to retrace the exposed technical ice and rock they had soloed, decided to retreat down the west slopes of the summit to a notch where help could reach them the next day.
At 8,000 meters, the two brothers waited out a long and dreadful night. They had no down jackets, no oxygen, nothing to eat or drink. Later Reinhold wrote, “The night undermined us totally, physically and psychologically.”
At sunrise both were in bad shape, and by 10 a.m. they realized that their teammates were not coming to help, but were on their way to the summit themselves. In a famous, and since much-debated decision, Reinhold and Gunther began to descend the easier but unexplored western slope of Nanga Parbat. The Diamir (west) side of the mountain is much less steep than the Rupal Face, and it seemed to offer the only solution to their predicament.
Reinhold later wrote, “I was nearly out of my mind, and it was at this point that I fell down and felt my spirit leave my body. In a perfectly detached fashion I watched myself roll down the mountain. Then, summoning up one last surge of effort, I forced myself back into my body; I had to get my brother down to safety.”
Pushing on until past midnight, Reinhold had to keep waiting for Gunther and guide him through the seracs and rocks. They descended for three more days, enduring a succession of food-less, water-less open bivouacs. When they were well down, near the toe of the glacier, Reinhold turned back to guide his brother through one last obstacle. When he got there he saw that a huge avalanche had come down and he knew Gunther was buried beneath it.
For a whole day and a night Reinhold searched for Gunther, with frozen hands vainly prying apart fallen blocks of ice, searching for any clue. After five nights out, he could barely walk, and was dangerously dehydrated and frostbitten. Abandoning his search he stumbled into the valley below, eventually being found by woodcutters who shepherded him back to their village, and safety.
The climb, and the ensuing tragedy that had followed it, rocked the mountaineering world. Messner returned to Europe, and lost six toes and the tips of several fingers. The traumatic experience altered the direction of Messner’s formidable talent, drive and creativity. With the loss of his toes and fingertips, technical climbing, such as he’d excelled at in while growing up in the Dolomites, was necessarily a part of the past.
The year before Nanga Parbat, in 1969, Messner had had what may still stand as his most successful year of climbing, when he literally walked up to the 4,000-foot north face of Les Droites, a sweeping ice-covered granite face that, despite being just a couple of hours from Chamonix, had seen only three prior ascents. Messner climbed a new route, solo, onsight, in a single afternoon. Also that year he established the now-classic Messner Route on the Dolomites’ proudest big wall, the south face of the Marmolada.
A little-known but significant ascent came in the late 1960s, on a day when Reinhold—the second child in a family of eight brothers and one sister—was supposed to be watching his youngest sibling. The brothers had spent the night at one of the many mountain huts found throughout the Dolomites, and that morning Reinhold told his brother he was going climbing and to meet him on the other side of the Civetta in the east Dolomites. Reinhold started soloing the notoriously steep Phillip-Flamm (5.10c/d)—one of the hardest routes in the world when it was established in 1957—but soon found himself caught in an afternoon rainstorm. As his brother was waiting, Reinhold pressed on, climbing a variation of 5.9 limestone slabs running with water.
In my opinion, the greatest ascent in the Messner omnibus occurred in July 1968, when he was 24 years old. He and the 22-year-old Gunther had been training all winter, crimping back and forth along the stone walls of their university until their fingers gave out. The two had already authored over 300 of what would eventually be 700-plus new routes in the Dolomites, and then they noticed the Pilastro di Mezzo, the steepest wall of the Sass d’la Crusc, an obscure lower peak.
They chose a line on the Pilastro di Mezzo that became progressively harder as they ascended a loose pillar for 1,000 feet of 5.6 to 5.8 climbing. Atop the pillar, they reached a ledge and bivied. The next morning the pair made a short rappel to a ledge on the right of the prow, where Gunther set up a belay.
Reinhold, in the rigid-soled climbing boots of the day, edged a few meters above Gunther, and moved around the corner, until, just above a small ledge, he faced a smooth slab of perfect limestone.
Young Reinhold was as determined as he was strong. He studied the slab for an hour, climbing up and down the first moves several times searching for a solution to the cryptic, blank stone. He had placed a solid piton, but above that it would be 15 feet before he could get another piece of protection. At last he committed to the crux, gripping the first crimps precisely, his last pro soon well below his feet. He was out of the view of Gunther and in danger of hitting the ledge if he fell. But he did not look down; rather, he climbed those 15 feet, establishing the world’s first alpine 5.11d, and onsight, to boot.
In November 2009 I attended the International Mountain Summit, held at Messner’s birthplace, Brixen, Italy. I gave a presentation about my own climbing career, focusing not on the climbs themselves, but the partnerships, the personal losses, the great days. In the audience sat Messner. The next day, I stood alongside Messner at the final press conference. When asked about my presentation, Messner spoke in German, the syllables running fast and heavy, then slowing and finally stopping. The man who reinvented the act of climbing innumerable times, who had written over 50 books about climbing, was at a loss for words. The interviewer, a middle-aged man of stocky build, surely a mountaineer, turned to me and asked if I understood how Messner felt.
Over the years, I have come to understand alpinism through my own experience with freezing bivouacs, summit sunsets, post-climb naps in the rarified meadows of the Himalaya. Despite the language barrier, I felt as though I understood some part of Messner’s deep feelings for high mountains and a life as an alpinist. Yet as many times as I’ve tried, I haven’t found the language to express them. I tried to explain this to the interviewer, saying, “To understand for yourself what Messner is saying, for anyone to understand, you have to live as an alpinist. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you, it’s that I can’t tell you. It’s that words aren’t enough.”
And it’s true, even words backed up by 700 new routes in the Dolomites,
the world’s first alpine 5.11d, the first one-day ascent of an alpine north face, the first route up the Rupal Face, the loss of a brother, the first alpine-style ascent of an 8,000-meter peak, the first solo of Mount Everest, the first enchainment of two 8,000-meter peaks, 18 8,000-meter summits. Even when those words ring with truth they are not enough.