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Thriving on Mountainous Challenges

July 31, 2002

Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner has conquered some of the world's highest summits. He now finds the biggest challenge in his work as a politician.

Rugged man of the mountains - Reinhold MessnerImage: AP

When Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner was 25, he lost six of his toes. What may sound shocking to some, was only a minor detail for the mountaineering world. It was the story that accompanied the accident that shocked, and both angered, Messner's colleagues.

"Key" life event

In 1970 Messner took off for the top of the Nanga Parbat ("Naked Mountain"), a 8,125 metre (26,657 feet) western peak of the Himalayas. Among mountaineers, the Nanga Parbat is known for its steep southern face, a 'holy grail' only the best climbers can master.

Messner would later refer to this tour as a key event, a trauma that changed his life forever.

Although Messner and his team had agreed that he would try to reach the summit by himself, his brother Günther followed him. Both Reinhold Messner and his brother reached the top. However, only Reinhold made it back to base camp that night - a broken man.

That day, his brother died in an avalanche, a loss that weighed so much heavier than his own, personal loss - the loss of six toes.

Maybe it was this experience which has since prompted him to continually push forward and transgress the limits of what human beings can still achieve.


Now, more than thirty years after the incident, Messner has written a book about the Nanga Parbat, his brother, death and loneliness. "All my life people have reproached me for being responsible for my brother – and I am," says Messner. "This accusation is unnecessary, because I bear the responsibility anyway."

"But the accusation, which I discuss in the book is that I abandoned my brother or sacrificed him to my ambition. I don't want to disprove of it, but just to tell as precisely as possible what happened, so that every reader can draw his own conclusions."

Perseverance and stamina

While Messner had a hard time coming to terms with the loss of his brother under these tragic circumstances, it did not deter him from seeking new challenges in the vertical world. By now he has climbed virtually all of the world's highest peaks.

Yet it is not being on the top of the world that gives him the thrill, Messner has repeatedly said. It's the returning which he describes as more moving. "Standing on the highest peaks, I often felt as if there was only cotton in my head," he recently told the German paper Bild am Sonntag.

"But coming back and meeting other human beings again is very emotional. It feels like being reborn."

Mount Everest

Together with colleague Peter Habeler, Messner received world-wide attention in 1978 when he managed to conquer Mount Everest, the first mountain climbers to get to the top without an oxygen mask.

But despite this remarkable achievement, Messner finds challenges wherever he goes. Since that dramatic climb, he has been on a 2,800 kilometre trip (1,740 miles) across Antarctica, and a 2,200 kilometre (1,367 miles) trip across Greenland.

King of the peaks

In his native South Tyrol in Italy, the "Re degli Ottomila" ('King of the 8,000 metre peaks' - those peaks above 26,000 feet -), as the Italians lovingly call their mountain hero, lives today amidst the snow-capped hills of the Dolomites in an ancient medieval fortres, Castle Juval. When Messner took over the fortress, it was falling to pieces. A few years ago Messner began restoring it at great expense.

He has now turned the castle into a mixture of alpine theme park, castle museum, organic farm, vineyard, and organic restaurant - the realisation of his idea of bringing agriculture in harmony with nature and soft mountain tourism.

His devotion to mountain culture also prompted him to open "a museum in the clouds", the Messner Mountain Museum DOLOMITES on the Italian Monte Rito in June this year.

Apart from art works that capture the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding alpine scenery, the museum also features exhibits on the area's history, geology and geography, and alpine 'curiosa' such as the bones of a legendary bear that once lived in Messner's vicinity.

In addition, Messner's tireless efforts to protect mountain environment have earned him the position of United Nations' goodwill ambassador during the current UN Year of the Mountains.

A sobering experience

It is Messner's tireless call for the sustainable use of the environment that eventually led to his role as Italy's green party parliamentarian to the European Union (EU).

For Messner, his years as a politician have been a sobering experience.

"After working as an EU politican for three years, I know that -- all over the world only those can be saved who save themselves. Politicians have never rescued a region, a city, or a country," says Messner.

"Politicians are afloat in crisis management, catastrophe management, from one term to the next, promising the moon, which they can't deliver."

Messner admits that he has turned into the biggest critic of politicians after becoming one himself. But he plans to keep his mandate only another two years, when he will embark on yet another expedition.

Any challenges left?

Reinhold Messner recently told the German Bild am Sonntag that his next challenge would be the desert. A tour is planned for 2004, the year Messner turns 60.

Before embarking on this trip he said there was one thing he would have to get rid of before he left - his beard, Messner's trademark for the last 30 years.

But that should be the smallest challenge.