Reinhold Messner: On top of the world

He has spent most of his life breaking climbing records. But Reinhold Messner has now set himself a new challenge: creating a network of museums dedicated to the relationship between man and mountain. Elizabeth Davies travelled to South Tyrol to meet a man at the end of an extraordinary mission
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High in the craggy, snow-capped mountains of the South Tyrol, a bearded man with streaks of grey running through a shock of wild hair is growing exasperated. He wants us to get off the grass - which seems strange coming from someone who has spent most of his life clambering up the sheer faces of the world's toughest mountains.

Walking at a ferocious clip, he leads the way through the narrow corridors and winding paths of his 10th-century castle. He bounds up ladders perched perilously on the cool stone floors and negotiates dizzying spiral staircases with light agility, and rarely pauses to look back. He waits stoically for his more earthbound guests to catch up before beginning to speak. The intense blue eyes of the world's most famous mountaineer gleam with excitement and penetrate the medieval gloom.

"Great things are done when men and mountains meet," he says in deep, earnest tones, gesturing grandly at the scene around him. "That is what William Blake once wrote. It is true. Great things do happen."

He, of all people, should know. For this man, whose straight back, broad shoulders and golden, weathered skin still exude strength and health rarely seen in people far younger than him, is Reinhold Messner, whose astonishing feats on Everest and on peaks throughout the world have earned him the status of the greatest climber in history.

In 1980, Messner became the first person to scale Everest alone without supplementary oxygen. He recently became the first to conquer all 14 of the Earth's summits over 8,000m. He has journeyed across the hostile wastes of the Antarctic, Greenland and the Tibetan plateau, not to mention the Gobi and Takla Makan deserts, which he crossed on foot.

He spent years in the glare of the world's media spotlight over the controversial death of his brother on the slopes of Everest, for which he was held responsible by his fellow climbers, but from which he claimed vindication last year. He even led a one-man hunt for the only other creature of the hills as infamous - and, as cartoonists delight in pointing out, as untameably hairy - as he: the yeti.

And yet, in recent years, Messner has been directing his seemingly limitless energies to a rather different project, far closer to home. He has taken his pioneering spirit to the peaks of his native South Tyrol and become, as he calls it, "an inventor of museums".

Over the past decade he has been working to create a network of "mountain museums", five different sites connected by their focus on the relationship between man and mountain, and by their majestic locations. One is housed in Messner's own summer home, Schloss Juval, a 13th-century castle where fading medieval frescoes adorn the walls and elaborate statues of Hindu gods are dotted around the overgrown grass. Another nestles in the foothills of South Tyrol's highest peak, the Ortler, almost within touching distance of the majestic Val Senales glacier.

But the jewel of Messner's project is his flagship museum at Castle Sigmundskron, just south of Bolzano. Its planning and construction has been delayed for years by political squabbling and practical setbacks. Messner, however, is not a man to give in. Over the weekend, after months of wrangling, Museum Firmian threw open its towering, oaken doors to the public. The final piece in his jigsaw was laid. "I am now fulfilling a dream I have had for years," Messner says.

The dream began years ago, one morning in 1968, when a letter dropped on Messner's doormat. His new correspondent was a frail, 96-year-old Austrian lady whose purpose in writing was simple: she wanted to give him a turn-of-the-century climbing hammer that had belonged to her former companion, the climber Paul Preuss. It had not been used since his death in the mountains just before the First World War. Messner and Preuss, she said, had much in common. Both were philosophers of the hills, climbers who embraced the abstract and physical challenges of the mountains with equal boldness. She believed he would be a fitting owner of Preuss's cherished possession.

"She told me the hammer should be given after my death to another like-minded person," remembers Messner, now 62. "Or that I should put it in a museum. So I was forced to make a museum. And now," he adds, a triumphant glint in his eye, "now, I have six".

Walking around Sigmundskron, it is easy to see how much, both materially and emotionally, Messner has invested in the museum. Artifacts collected from years spent travelling in some of the most remote parts of the world, from Nepal, India, Africa and, most significantly, Tibet, have been brought together in one corner of Alpine Europe. As the sun bakes down on the golden stone of the 10th-century fortress, the light catches on the sculptures strewn throughout the grounds. A giant Buddha sits on one ledge, Ganesh faces him on another. The enveloping sound of Tibetan mantra echoes throughout.

"Climbing has so much more culture than all other activities put together," Messner says. "There is no culture in tennis, just a few names, a few dates. No big culture in soccer. But we have thousands of books, great philosophers, thinkers, painters."

Messner displays room after room devoted to what he calls the "spirit" of mountaineering. An underground cellar houses rocks, wall hangings and drapes taken from the Himalayas. "The Dalai Lama knows I have them," he explains, nonchalantly. "I told him that when Tibet gets autonomy from China I will give them back."

Another wing of the castle is scattered with discarded oxygen masks, drink cans and, among other things, a pair of luminous pink sunglasses, all picked up by Messner from the snows of Mt Everest. The transformation of the world's tallest peak, and scene of Messner's greatest triumph, into, as he puts it, "a highway" for all and sundry to climb is a personal bugbear for the veteran. "Human beings are destroying the mountains," he says, gesturing to the plastic garbage fixed to the ancient castle walls. "They don't know what they are doing up there, 99 per cent of them could not even climb the Matterhorn. They are not mountaineers, they are tourists. And tourism ends where mountaineering begins."

And it is, after all, mountaineering that fascinates Messner, the blood that runs through his veins. He wants his museum to be able to tell all of its stories: the people and places, sights and smells, the triumphs and the many tragedies.

"I want to look into the dark spaces in people's souls. At what happens to us when we go to the mountains," he says. "I want to tell stories - typical climbing stories. These stories, they are becoming the history of mountaineering."

There are few tales in mountaineering as compelling or as controversial as Messner's own. Born in 1944 in South Tyrol, the autonomous province in the north of Italy which until 1919 was part of Austria, Messner was one of nine children whose father was an enthusiastic Nazi and amateur climber. Reinhold, who rejected the politics with which he was brought up, climbed his first mountain at the age of five. "For years I was a rock climber and nothing else," he says. "I went to school, yes, and university, yes, but in my heart I was a rock climber."

Together with his younger brother Gunther, he made light work of the most challenging climbs in the nearby Dolomites, and by the 1960s the pair were regarded as two of the most promising mountaineers in the world. Their teamwork, however, was to end in tragedy. On their first major expedition, in 1970, up Nanga Parbat, a peak in the western Himalayas known as the "Mountain of Destiny" because of the number of climbers who have perished while attempting it, Gunther died. Messner, himself suffering from severe exhaustion and frostbite, survived, just, but has been dogged by controversy ever since. His critics have alleged that, in a fit of overweening ambition, he left his brother to die alone on the slopes.

Despite always claiming that Gunther was swept away by an avalanche while descending behind him on the same route, Messner faced accusations from climbers within his own party, Max von Kienlin and Hans Saler, that he sent Gunther down a fiendishly difficult route, and himself chose to descend a different, unknown path which he would have been the first person to have mastered. "In effect," they wrote at the time, "Messner sacrificed his brother to his own ambition."

Messner launched legal action against his detractors. Their accusations, he said, were motivated by jealousy. He had since become a far more celebrated climber than either of them, and moreover had run off with Von Kienlin's wife, Ursula, a year after the expedition.

Messner's progress was not slowed by the controversy. He went on to conquer the highest peaks of the world, and amaze fellow climbers with his abilities to go high-altitude without extra oxygen. He has written 50 books, some described as works of almost Wagnerian psychodrama. And from 1999 to 2004 he served as an MEP for the Italian Verdi, or Green Party. Those who visited him in his tiny office in Brussels say it was rather like seeing a wild bear locked up in a cage. He could have stood for another term and would surely, on account of his local popularity, have been elected. He chose not to.

Last year Messner claimed vindication from the controversy surrounding his brother's death. Brandishing DNA test results from a piece of toe which he himself had found on Nanga Parbat and smuggled out of Pakistan in a bag, he announced that the results showed the bone was almost certainly Gunther's. It had been found, Messner said, in exactly the place he had always said his brother had died.

Nowadays, he lives comfortably in his castle with his family, long-term partner Sabine and their children, and a group of yaks he brought back from Tibet. He will continue to climb, he says, for as long as he can: "I do not exclude doing another 8,000."

But, in a rare moment of humility, he admits many routes are becoming too difficult for him. And he will not return to Everest. "This is one of my definitions of mountaineering: to go where others do not. There are thousands of peaks in Tibet, and nobody is climbing them."

Even when he has stopped climbing for good, Messner will still have his museums. As well as his time, energy and passion, he claims to have poured every last penny into the Firmian Museum, and will, he says, go bankrupt if not enough people come to visit. "Many say to me that I will fail," he says, quietly. "But you will see that I will survive." With a man such as Messner, few would dare to disagree.