In 1953, the boldness of Edmund Hillary led to the first summit of Mt. Everest. But today, anyone who’s climbed a 4,000 meter peak in the Alps can also conquer Everest, says mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner.
DW: Reinhold Messner, let's first look back on the May 29, 1953, when the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Would you say that this was an outstanding achievement of two courageous mountaineers or rather a team performance?
Reinhold Messner: It was primarily a British team performance because the British brought the know-how and the money and made did the preparatory work. From 1921 to 1953 many expeditions had failed on Everest. However, one must also attribute a part of the success to the Swiss man who in 1952 had made two attempts with Raymond Lambert and had climbed up very high. Tenzing Norgay belonged to this team, too. I think without these experiences the British wouldn't have reached the top in 1953. But we must also say that the summit success was due to Hillary's ability to be daring. The British had tried it themselves but had failed to reach the summit. But then this young lanky New Zealander proved his desire and courage to take a chance, and he and Tenzing were successful. It remains a magic moment of mountaineering. Hillary wasn't an extreme mountaineer, but a traditional climber doing things as a matter of course. Typical New Zealand.
The first ascent was followed by a phase that I want to call the 'sporting phase' in the 1960s, and even more in the 70s and 80s: new, more difficult routes, and the first winter ascent. In 1978 you and Peter Habeler were the first to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen. And in 1980 you did a solo – again without oxygen – during a monsoon. Was Everest the ultimate challenge for you at that time?
After the ascent via the Southwest Face by Doug Scott and Dougal Haston in 1975 I realized that only one option remained: to climb Everest with less and less equipment. For me the Everest solo was the icing on the cake of my climbs: the highest mountain in the world, during a monsoon, and as far as possible even on a new route, of course without oxygen. Afterwards I was close to saying I'd finish the 8000ers and go to Antarctica. But there were still a few of my old ideas like climbing three 8000ers in a row or a double traverse. Young guys like Friedl Mutschlechner or Hans Kammerlander pushed me: 'Let's do these things now!' Then I organized it and we succeeded. Later, I got the chance to climb all fourteen 8000ers. Until 1980, some of them had not been accessible.
Traffic on the normal route
In the 90s commercial mountaineering started on Everest and has characterized climbing on the world's highest mountain ever since. What kind of mountain is Everest for you, 60 years after the first ascent? How do you think about what's going on there just now?
It is still the same mountain. The partial oxygen pressure is still the same. And Everest is still relatively dangerous. I call the current phase 'piste alpinism.' That makes a big difference. Before any clients of the tour operators start climbing, not just dozens but one hundred Sherpas move up and prepare a via ferrata. It's better prepared than any via ferrata in the Alps. Then the clients take this piste, any difficulty is excluded, and the dangers are minimized – not to zero, that isn't possible.
Now it's discussed whether a ladder – like at the Second Step on the north side since 1975 – should be put up at the Hillary Step, the only a bit difficult passage in the upper part of the route. I have suggested installing a traffic light like in the city, so that everybody knows who is allowed to climb up and who to descend. In this case the climbers would have to observe the road traffic regulations and there would be fewer accidents. The accidents have been mainly caused by the chaos, by waiting and standing around in the cold. The people got hypothermic and some of them died of it.
Due to the development that you have described the type of climber who tries to scale Everest has changed significantly, hasn't it?
Yes, today you find many people on Everest who aren't climbers, or at least not experienced climbers. They know that many people have reached the summit, it is possible. Basically, Everest is possible for everybody who has climbed any easy 4000-meter-peak in the Alps – if the route is prepared. I guarantee you that no three of the thousand clients who are on Everest just now would start climbing if the route was not prepared beforehand. The mountain has been enchained, with ropes and ladders. Thus it's accessible to all. I don't care whether it's right or wrong. That has nothing to do with classic alpinism. People don't climb Hillary's Everest or my Everest. They climb another mountain, even if it is geologically the same.
What it your wish for Mount Everest on occasion of the 60th anniversary of the first ascent?
I think it's too late. Everest has already become a banal mountain. This is a shame. There are still new routes to be climbed and the possibility to traverse Everest and Lhotse. Just now two very good climbers (Denis Urubko and Alexei Bolotov) are trying to climb a new route in the southwest face, to the right of the line of Scott and Haston. This is very difficult in the upper part. If they are successful in Alpine style, I'll be the first to congratulate then – although they'll reach a crowded summit of Everest.
I don' think we ever can return the atmosphere of the past to Everest. The best climbers no longer go to the 8000ers, but to the most difficult mountains in the world which are 6000- or 7000-meter-peaks. There they find any kind of playground. But it is a pity that the really good climbers have fewer opportunities to finance their expeditions because so much attention is taken away by the Everest tourists.
Do you give Everest a wide berth or are you still attracted by the mountain where you experienced so much?
I'm not hungry for Everest every year. But this year I'll be there because I want to make a documentary for European television. I will not only visit the base camp, but look on it from above. Not by climbing up, but by watching these crowds of climbers.
I would also like to give drug tests. I am curious if anyone is willing to give a urine sample. It's said that doping on Everest is at 'university level' compared to the 'kindergarten' of the Tour de France. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's a fact that there are no drug tests on Everest. We know that in sports, amateurs dope themselves in particular to be a bit faster than last year or to climb Everest faster than their secretary.
I'm interested in the psychological point of view: What makes us climb Everest? Also for me the summit of Everest was a 'vanishing point of vanity.' There are so many images and clichés connected with Everest. I can understand everybody who wants to scale Mount Everest. But they should have the courage to describe their ascent exactly as it was and not try to distort the facts afterwards, by being photographed standing alone at the summit, for example, after 50 other climbers have been put out of the picture – just to tell the world, look, I was alone on top.
Or climbers who are talking about Alpine style although they are climbing up on the prepared piste. It's impossible. Even if someone is not touching the ropes, it isn't Alpine style because the ropes are there. This has mainly to do with the psychological side. I have a very different fear if I'm all alone in the summit area of Mount Everest and if I know that there is nothing below me, no Sherpa, no tent, no rope. And if a serac [column of ice] collapses I will not find my way down. If I know that the piste is prepared and under supervision of Sherpa specialists, I'm far less exposed. And the exposure is the key that makes sports an adventure.