Whilst failure is an inevitable and painful part of performance for any elite athlete, what of that other uncomfortable side to the games climbers play – physical suffering? Over the past twelve months I've talked to Himalayan first ascentionists, polar record breakers, ultra marathoners and desert pioneers. A common theme that always seems to crop up is suffering. For some folks it's part of the attraction to their sport, and part of an identity. For others like Messner, it seems physical suffering is an unfortunate byproduct to be endured.
Nanga Parbat solo, 1978
© Reinhold Messner Collection
I began to wonder if this relationship with pain changed over time for Messner. Had his ability to suffer diminished?
"High-class mountaineering is a game of pain, and the older I got the less and less I was able to support these pains. In the young years I lost my power for rock climbing. In my young years I lost my agility for rock climbing, because I lost my toes, so I didn't especially do rock climbing and training for it. For a long time, I had the good physical ability to go far for big results, with only a little bit of food. I could withstand the cold, I could endure everything... It's not nice in Antarctica, going in a tent after a whole day of hiking and pulling a sledge, eating half-cold food, but anyway..."
"As I got older, the last thing I lost was my the ability to support pain, like in middle-old age. At 45 I was able to support more of the pain, better than at 20. But now I prefer to go to the bathroom like a man and not an animal."
If high altitude mountaineering involves physical struggle and high risk, why bother? Dare I ask the most cliché of questions – why? Thankfully I'm spared the need. Messner opens up with a riff on his philosophy for the mountains and their magnetism.
"I see, in my activity, a cultural expression or a cultural issue, and not a sporting issue. So, a history and a philosophy of Mummery, Mallory, Shipton... I speak about a few British adventurers, they give me the base to invent my challenges. I based my whole thing on what happened before, on their philosophy... My style in the mountains is following a certain tradition, and I think that tradition and mountaineering is nothing else, there are no rules, there is no right and wrong, it is only based on philosophy and history. Some of the history and some of the philosophy is what has given us the right direction for doing traditional alpinism, or traditional adventures."
"You know, the whole thing now is breaking away because 90% of the climbers go into the climbing hall and they do sport, this has nothing to do with alpinism. It's a great sport, they do competitions, it will be in the Olympics games, this climbing on the artificial holds and plastic holds."
"What is happening on Everest is pure tourism. The mountain is prepared for tourists and they pay a lot of money for using the infrastructure, made by the Sherpas, to be brought to the summit. This is also okay, tourism is okay, we alpine people live because there is a lot of tourism, and the Sherpas now, and the Sherpa families, they can make a living from this kind of tourism too."
In the Firmian Messner Mountain Museum
© Georg Tappeiner
This was not entirely unexpected, as Messner's views on the purity of 'traditional adventure' have been described in many of his works such as the 1971 Mountain Magazine manifesto on alpinism
. The Murder of the Impossible
Further, his keen appreciation of mountaineering and adventure history is not surprising given that he has created and funded a series of six mountain museums across northern Italy. This appreciation is something that Messner later goes on to tell me was a driving factor for all of his expeditions.
"But, if somebody likes to do some traditional activity they are out of these pistes, which they build on the 8,000 metre peaks, Mont Blanc, on Aconcagua, and so on… If you are out of it you have to base your activities on something, maybe on feeling you are the greatest, I never had this feeling, and I built it up on the ideas that were born long before me, on the philosophy, which is a sombre philosophy, which people evolved for approaching the mountains through the 17th and during the 18th century, and so on, and afterwards the whole history. I am still enthusiastic now about the whole mountaineering and adventure history."
Now well into his Seventh decade, Messner must make do with living vicariously through adventures of the past.
"I bought a book about Frank Wild, who was the right hand of Shackleton in the dramatic endurance expedition in Antarctica. What I think about this, is that for me it's quite like going on this expedition; I sit at home but in my mental pictures I am in Antarctica, speaking with Frank Wild and knowing him. I can know him because, for me, this history, the old stories, are at least as important as doing it by myself."
From a few minutes of conversation, I had learned a great deal about Messner's preparation, mental capacity, mountain instinct, ability to suffer, and reverence for the early pioneers. But it was this latter point that he spoke about with the most passion. The narratives created by those that have gone before are what drew this man towards the extreme regions of our planet to undertake serious and exploratory adventure - something that Messner conveyed a number of times.
Leo Dickinson, the director of Everest Unmasked, a documentary about the first oxygenless ascent of Everest once quipped "Messner is the most driven human being I've ever seen on the planet". Perhaps the essence of what drove Reinhold Messner to great heights and extreme latitudes was at least in part a deep appreciation for the historical context of adventure.
"All my activities, especially things I do with new routes and new styles in the high mountains, they are based on history. So, I have in me the whole narrative and out of the narrative of what happened in the centuries before my active time came my new plans, the ambitions, and the challenges that I tried to fulfil."
Messner's detractors often accuse him of unnecessary hubris, but his is a philosophy I can identify with. To stand on the Shoulders of Giants.
This article first appeared on http://www.ukclimbing.com.The original can be read here.