Reinhold Messner

Reinhold Messner (born 1944) is the first people ever to climb all 14 of the world's mountain peaks over 8,000 meters high. He has written over 30 books on his adventures, and his minimalist techniques have revolutionized Himalayan mountain climbing.

Internationally known mountain climber Reinhold Messner was born in the Tyrolean Alps in 1944, the second child in a family of eight brothers and one sister. He began climbing at a very early age, ascending his first mountain at the age of four with his father.

In 1970, when he was 25, Messner climbed his first 8,000-meter peak, Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. Tragedy struck during the climb when Messner's brother Gunther was killed in an avalanche. Although Messner searched extensively for his brother, losing six toes to frostbite in the process, he never found him. Despite his great loss, he continued to climb, next summiting Manaslu in central Nepal.

For Messner these early climbs were only the beginning of an incredible achievement—eventually, he would become the first person to climb all 14 of the world's peaks over 8,000 meters (26,246 feet). Above this altitude, the air is so thin that most people would die, or at best only live for a few hours, without supplemental oxygen.

Messner's Innovations

Although Messner has become famous for climbing without the supplemental oxygen needed for the human brain to function properly at extreme elevations, his decision to climb this way was not the result of a deliberate decision. In 1972 he began dreaming of becoming the first person to climb the southwest face of Everest, but was beaten to it by another climber. Because this achievement was taken, Messner decided to become the first person to climb Everest without oxygen. Paul Deegan commented in Geographical, "In an instant … this brilliant mountaineer took the game of climbing one-upmanship to a new dimension. By doing so he would change the face of high-altitude climbing forever."

Messner was responsible for other innovations in Himalayan climbing. Prior to his climbing career, mountaineers traditionally spent a great deal of time ascending, moving in stages from one camp to another and resting in between to allow their bodies to become used to the decreased levels of oxygen available at higher altitudes. Messner realized that this slow acclimatization progress was not necessary if the climber spent a relatively short time at high altitudes. In addition, traditional climbs required a great deal of assistance, employing local people to help them carry the large amounts of gear and food they needed. Messner reasoned that if climbers moved quickly and lightly, they would not need so much assistance.

In 1975 Messner applied his ideas to a climb of the northwest face of Gasherbrum I, an 8,068-meter peak in Pakistan. He planned to become accustomed to the altitude at 5,500 meters and then go up to the summit and back in a mere three or four days. Messner and his climbing partner, Peter Habeler, trained intensively for the climb, dieting, long-distance running, and weight training. His resting pulse rate, which indicates the efficiency and strength of an endurance athlete's heart, dropped to an impressive low of 42. With the strength and endurance gained through their rigorous training, the two men were able to climb an amazing 1,000 meters in under an hour. They also defied climbing tradition by ascending near each other, but not roped together, as most climbers were. This freedom also sped their ascent, and they reached the summit in three days, the fastest climb ever of a Himalayan summit via a new route.

In Outside, Jon Krakauer quoted American climber Tom Hornbein's comment that Messner's Garsherbrum climb "was a quantum leap. Like Copernicus, Messner had conceived a whole new way of seeing his world. He transformed mountaineering as we know it."

Messner and Habeler were criticized by many for their techniques. Some climbers considered them foolhardy, risking brain damage and death from the severe oxygen restriction. Despite this, they continued with their minimalist methods, forcing some exercise physiologists to reconsider their theories about human limitations at high altitudes. Surprisingly, although Messner has been found to have a very strong physique, his respiratory ability is similar to that of "an above-average marathon runner," according to Jamie Murphy in Time, meaning that although he is genetically gifted, he is not unlike thousands of other athletes. What sets him apart, Murphy noted, is his drive to succeed.

Summited Everest without Oxygen

In 1978 Messner and Habeler climbed Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, without supplemental oxygen. They began their first attempt on April 21, but two days later Habeler became violently ill from food poisoning. Messner set off with two local men the next morning, but they were overtaken by a violent storm with temperatures of 40 degrees below zero and 125-mph winds for two days. Exhausted, Messner turned back and managed to return to base camp, where Habeler had by now recovered. Habeler was considering using oxygen, but Messner said he would not use it and in addition would not climb with anyone who did, because he wanted to set a record for climbing as high as possible without it. Habeler gave in, and on May 6 they set out again. They ascended in stages, moving to Camp II at 7,200 meters, then to the mountain's South Col at 7,986 meters. They were beginning to experience the effects of oxygen deprivation: headache, double vision, and an inability to sleep because the need to gasp for air kept them awake.

On May 8 the men began preparing for their final ascent. The air was so thin that they could not speak; they used hand signals to communicate in order to save breath. Getting dressed took them two hours, and it took them four hours to ascend to Camp V at 8,500 meters. Despite threatening weather, they moved on to the South Summit, 260 meters higher. They were so oxygen-deprived that every few steps they had to lie down to breathe and regain some strength. Sometime between one and two in the afternoon, they finally reached the summit.

Habeler later was quoted in Outthere.com as writing that Messner's "face was contorted in a grimace, his mouth wide open while he gasped panting for air … His face was almost without human traits. Our physical reserves were exhausted. We were so utterly spent that we scarcely had the strength to go ten paces in one go." Messner later recalled that when he stood on the summit, he felt like "nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and the summits."

Challenged More Peaks

In 1979 Messner climbed K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, and in 1980 he became the first person to make a solo climb of Everest. Kangchenjunga was next, followed by Gasherbrum II, and Broad Peak. Climbing these three mountains in one season, he told Murphy, made Messner think "it was easy, or at least it was possible, for one human being to climb all the highest mountains in the world … in a lifetime." In 1985 he climbed Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.

Each new mountain presented a new challenge for Messner, despite his previous successes. He attempted to climb Makalu three times, eventually telling a Time interviewer, "You could do twenty to twenty-five steps, and you had to stop for a while and breathe deeply ten to twenty times." In 1986 he and partner Hans Kammerlander climbed Lhotse, making Messner the first person ever to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks.

An Economist contributor commented that many climbers have since speculated that Messner's obsessive drive to conquer all the high peaks in the world was "a penance for [brother] Gunther's death," but also noted that Messner denied this. However, the contributor added, "That tragic climb undoubtedly taught him about the thin line that exists between success and failure, life and death, on the mountains—and so prepared him mentally for the remaining thirteen ascents."

Following his achievement, Messner became the third person to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents on earth. Turning away from mountains, he traveled across Greenland, made a trip across the Antarctic, and skied across the frozen Arctic Ocean to the North Pole. He also found time to write over 30 books about his exploits.

Encounters with the Yeti

Messner excited controversy in 1999 with the publication of his book My Quest for the Yeti. In it, he described his encounters with the legendary yeti, or "abominable snowman" of the Himalayas; he believes this creature is actually a rare kind of bear. He spent 15 years researching the book by traveling throughout the Himalayas, and before he saw one of the creatures for himself he considered stories about their existence to be nonsense. However, in 1986, he encountered one at night. As Messner told Ted Chamberlain in National Geographic Adventure, he did not immediately think it was a yeti. "I was only looking and thinking, What's that? But I couldn't see colors or faces. I could only see a shadow because it was very late."

The next morning he found footprints in the snow that resembled those taken by earlier adventurers who claimed they were the tracks of a yeti. The footprints appeared to be those of a two-legged animal, but Messner later learned that a certain species of Tibetan brown bear walks in snow by putting its back feet into the holes left by its front feet, so that its track looks like that left by an animal walking upright. Like most bears, it rears up on its hind legs when it meets people, as a gesture of curiosity or threat, which Messner believed led to the legendary descriptions of an animal that stands upright. When asked why the regions local people did not identify the yeti as a bear, Messner contended that the bear is a nocturnal animal, very dangerous and frightening, and the local people stay inside at night and thus rarely see it. He told Chamberlain, "In their stomachs, a few of them know this is a bear. They call it a bear with human abilities." Messner has approached within 20 meters of a sleeping Tibetan bear, with a local who identified it as a yeti.

Messner's Legacy

Messner makes his home in a medieval castle in northern Italy. A member of the European parliament, he explained to Paul Deegan in Geographical that "MEPs have no real power, only the possibility to give guidance to the commission and the council of ministers." He has used his position in the realm of politics to speak out on behalf of Tibet, which endured invasion and repression by the Chinese government beginning in the 1940s. Messner's climbing techniques inspired mountaineers worldwide. According to Murphy in Time, Everest climber Chris Bonington noted of Messner: "There is a wall called 'impossible' that the great mass of people in any field face. Then one person who's got a kind of extra imaginative drive jumps that wall. That's Reinhold Messner." Messner had a different view, telling Genovagando, "I'm a fellow living a normal life. My mountain climbing has always been a way to put myself to the test. I've always gone where I met danger and effort to test my skill. Making even little progresses is my dream. And it's a dream that keeps me awake."

Periodicals

Economist, June 25, 1994.

Geographical, December 2000.

Outside, October 1997.

Time, October 27, 1986.

Vietnam Investment Review, May 7, 2001.

Online

"Everest without Oxygen," Outthere.com, http://www.outthere.co.za/ (November 9, 2001).

"First without Oxygen," Public Broadcasting System Web site, http://www.pbs.org/ (November 9, 2001).

"Interview to Reinhold Messner," Genovagando, http://www.ulisse.it/ospiti/genovagando/ (November 9, 2001).

"Reinhold Messner: Climbing Legend, Yeti Hunter," National Geographic Adventure, http://nationalgeographic.com/adventure/ (November 9, 2001).

"Reinhold Messner: The World's Greatest Living Mountaineer," OSB, http://www.osb2000.com/ (November 9, 2001). >

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