"Nature Is Pure Chaos" — Walking The Alps With Pioneering Mountaineer Reinhold Messner
At the age of 78, the Italian-born, German speaking Reinhold Messner is a climbing legend, who was the first climber to ascend all fourteen peaks over 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) above sea level — without supplementary oxygen. Today he keeps moving, and thinking.
SULDEN AM ORTLER — Is it okay to talk while walking? What is the secret of an adventure? And why have the "Last Generation" climate activists not understood nature? On a winter hike, 2248 meters up Ortler mountain, Italian mountaineer and former politician Reinhold Messner reveals his most important rule.
"These are good shoes!" Messner says in greeting, looking at my old leather boots. His remark is not praise, merely a sober observation. He also acknowledges the poles I have strapped to the side of my backpack with a nod. "Sunglasses?" I nod. Then, already on the move: "Crampons?"
I knew I would make a mistake in preparing for this winter hike, but why the most important thing, the snow chains for the shoes? I had spent a lot of money on Gore-Tex and down clothing in the outdoor store so that I could meet the most famous mountaineer in the world, the man who looked down at me from the tattered dust jacket of the book "Solo: Nanga Parbat" in my nursery. He was younger then than I am now.
Messner, now 78 years old, walks beside me through Sulden am Ortler, South Tyrol, in northern Italy. The main road stretches in a hairpin bend through the center of the village at the bottom of the valley. Ski tourists, bundled in thermal clothing, stand reverently in line. "Dress warmly!" one of them murmurs after us, although it remains unclear who he's talking to.
Messner, a minimalist in terms of equipment, wears just trekking pants, a checked shirt and a fleece jacket. The morning sky shines brightly. "Back there are veil clouds," Messner says, with narrowed eyes. If we were approaching Nanga Parbat, the sentence would be deeply unsettling. But our destination is only the Kälberalm, 2248 meters above sea level, 400 meters above us.
Recently, ZDF broadcast the documentary "Mensch Messner!" in which Messner travels with his wife, who is 35 years his junior, back to Kathmandu and the sacred mountains of the Himalayas. At a temple where corpses are burned, he says "I more or less agree that in the next few years — or decades, that would be a miracle — I will give up my life and disappear into a timeless world."
Endorphins flood throughout the body
At the end of the village is an old farm where Messner sometimes stays in winter, next to the entrance to the underground Messner Mountain Museum. Furry yaks graze here, moving their heavy bodies slowly. Messner fetches dungarees from the house. When I ask if I need any myself, he just says matter-of-factly, "I can do without." Then, tension runs through his body, and with sudden sharpness and slight impatience comes the signal to set off.
It's more of a command than an invitation, but a provocative, unspent spirit of adventure resonates in it. Henceforth, we no longer plod unconsciously from A to B. Locomotion becomes something serious, a purpose in itself. We turn off the forest road into the mountainside, where Messner climbs ahead on the narrow path. The initially barely snow-covered tobacco-colored forest floor bounces under our feet. After minutes, the valley lies below us, and endorphins flood the body.
In the rush to keep up, I run close, feel an invisible resistance, and drop back again.
Messner was the first man to climb all 14 mountains taller than 8,000 meters, the first to cross Antarctica on foot and has also traversed the Gobi Desert. He walks in a constant rhythm, like a machine, with small steps. Nervous by his continued silence, I praise the beauty of the forest. "Yes, those are larches and stone pines," Messner says. "They smell good!" Then he falls silent again, always three or four meters in front of me, so that I only see his silhouette: the broad back, already slightly bent by age, and above it the flowing ice-gray mane.
Steeply, the serpentines pull up through the forest. Now, snow mostly covers the track, and in slopes and bottlenecks, often also a layer of ice. Suddenly, this easy hike becomes exciting, and I have to make a great effort to keep up with Messner, noticing my lack of crampons at every step. My gaze hunts ahead to identify stable positions for the feet in the treacherous terrain, and my body rebalances with each step to avoid slipping.
"Walk left, in the dry," Messner recommends, without looking back or slowing down, listening to each unsteady step. In the rush to keep up, I run close, feel an invisible resistance, and drop back again. Sometimes the path forks: Messner quickly chooses, usually the route less traveled. I think of the Bible verse about the two paths, the broad one leading to perdition and the other: "The way is narrow that leads to life; and only a few find it."
A file photo of mountaineer Reinhold Messner camping, on a picture he shared on social media.
"Nature is pure chaos"
Messner walks seemingly effortlessly, without pause, at a constant pace. He takes the switchbacks on the outside, sometimes cutting a loop in the root stairs: For a daring moment, the whole body then hovers on one foot, simultaneously in the turning and climbing motion. The battle against gravity that mountaineers win when climbing to the summit is repeated with every single step.
"We've lost the trail," Messner suddenly states, and my heart skips a beat. The snow has unexpectedly become deeper. My legs sink into it, and icy crystals trickle into my mountaineering boots. Messner probes the terrain. I trudge enthusiastically after him, feeling the adrenaline and already seeing us in the emergency bivouac, snow melting into drinking water. But almost immediately, we find the hidden path again. In two final ramps, it pierces the tree line, and on the snow-covered Kälberalm stands an abandoned hut with the most beautiful wooden veranda.
"So, now we can sit!" Again, the announcement changes everything. With our backs to the hut, we enjoy the reward of the ascent: the view, undisturbed by any obstacle, of the mighty rock pyramid of the Ortler, at 3905 meters the highest mountain in South Tyrol. "The best mountaineers have come here," says Messner. He himself has made four or five first ascents here. "When I look over there, I immediately see the lines that have been climbed and also when."
This is how spirit meets matter in the high mountains, he says: "Nature is pure chaos. Everything there is trial and error." Messner is silent. The high altitude winds rush, and then he says quietly, as if to himself, "There have been 50 deaths on the Ortler's North face alone. Traditional mountaineering is beyond reason."
What makes the Ortler dangerous, he says, is the glacier's breakaway edge, from which chunks tumble down. "This glacier will still be there in a hundred years," he says.
These were dropouts and poor lads who had no work and made something positive out of it.
Messner sat in the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004 for the Italian Green Party. What bothers him about the climate protest is its catastrophic nature. At the time of "Ötzi," the iceman found frozen in the Alps who lived 5300 years ago, it was warmer than it is today. If there had been glaciers at the site of the find at that time, the corpse would have been carried down into the valley and crumbled.
"Climate is changing," Messner says. "Climate protection doesn't exist at all." Of course, he says, we need to talk about climate change, but the idea of nature taking revenge on man doesn't help. It bothers him about the "Last Generation" in the same way that it bothered him about the "heroic" generation of mountaineers of the World Wars, who waged rhetorical wars against the peaks: "The mountain doesn't avenge. Nature doesn't punish."
Messner drinking water from a river, on a picture he shared on social media.
Cell phones and helicopters
The wail of the midday siren rises from the silence of the valley, almost like a lament. Mountaineering itself, Messner says, is a product of industrialization, originating around 1800 with the use of fossil fuels: "Before that, nature was seen as something evil," he says. "It was only the Enlightenment that recognized the sublime in it, the beautiful and at the same time dangerous."
Rich Englishmen invented alpinism "as a counterweight to industrial existence," he says. It was only with the world economic crisis of 1929 that the "mountain vagabonds" appeared: "These were dropouts and poor lads who had no work and made something positive out of it. They didn't go out on the streets to cling on, but made the craziest mountain tours."
Willo Welzenbach and Willy Merkel: Messner names the men who first climbed the Ortler's North face in 1931. Both perished on Nanga Parbat in 1934, "in the first great catastrophe," as Messner calls the failed expedition. There, on the "mountain of fate for the Germans," he lost his own brother Günther, who died in an avalanche in 1970.
The phone rings: Messner's wife Diane. "I'll call back briefly," Messner says dryly, "so that she knows if I'm still alive." Last year, they both climbed a five-thousand-meter peak in Africa. The essence of adventure, he explains, is uncertainty: "It's only palpable when I go on my own responsibility. I'm in a world where humans don't belong." Cell phones and helicopters have "shrunk" that exposure, Messner says, "by how much exactly, I can't say."
Mountaineer Reinhold Messener climbing a snowy mountain on a picture he shared on social media.
The myth of Sisyphus
Throughout his life, Messner has tried to find a language for mountaineering — in his diaries, but also his books. "I set up a third camp, stowed so-and-so kilos of food — all that is relatively unimportant," he says. What matters, he says, are the "images that emerge when we are in the midst of the experience." Thus, walking in the death zone becomes "snail-like," and the movements slow down until an outsider can no longer perceive that one is moving at all. "And that's what makes the mountain a mountain."
Does he read philosophical mountain literature? "Nietzsche's Zarathustra is already a strong story," Messner says succinctly. "And then there's the one by Camus with Sisyphus. He rolls the stone up again and again and comes to the idea: Life is absurd. Which is true. And in the face of death, mountain climbing is absurd to the power of two."
Time for the descent. Last question: is it possible to hike and have a conversation at the same time? "You can hike only in silence," Messner exclaims. "Then only you can think, liberated." And so we descend silently into the valley, always against gravity, falling a little with each step.
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