NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
7 Jul 1999
Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono
Show: Geographic Century
Log of DAT #: David Breshears
ng = not good
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vg = very good
There was a lot of speculating about whether or not he made it, usually by armchair mountaineers.
He¿s an explorer of the highest order if going out onto untrodden slopes and new terrain isn¿t exploring. I don¿t know what is. In terms of the topography or geography. Of high elevations.
He seems also to be an explorer of what is physically possible.
Yes, he did a lot of showing us what was physically possible in the mountains, how to prepare in a logical method, but Messner¿s the greatest contribution he made to mountaineering was what could imagine was possible. He had a vision that changed mountaineering. The vision was a number of things. He had an ethic, he showed us how one could climb one of the greatest peaks in the world. And he showed us that they could be climbed in a lightweight fashion by just 2 men, a companion who was as capable and as talented as he was. And having gotten there without on your own esteem, without bottled oxygen. Whether you could do it and survive and get back down.
How much of a quantum leap difference in style he brought.
All progress, discovery is incremental. He polished a form that already existed. Alpine style climbing is, was 2 men and a rope. That¿s how I grew up understanding it and a mountain. You go to a big mountain and instead of bringing 50 porters or climbing Sherpas and establishing umbilical cord, you approach the mountain, you acclimatize, and then you ascend the mountain with everything you need on your back. You go up and you reach the summit and you find your way back down and there is no umbilical cord. You have to get back down to the base to survive. Military approach of climbing the mountain with Sherpas or porters. On Everest, there are 4 camps. All well-stocked with tents, stoves, provisions, and connected by fixed rope, and there is a great deal of security to be found in all that gear and all that fixed rope. Messner said he doesn¿t carry his security in his rucksack. You can climb alpine style or expedition style. Messner showed us how to refine an already existing style. They were lightweight teams, but they put up a few camps, but they reduced the level of commitment by placing a few camps along the way. That¿s the whole point, you reduce the level of commitment and reduce the level of risk.
Climbing Everest solo without oxygen.
It¿s one of the great achievements. It¿s one of the great yardsticks. It can never be repeated. There is no second solo ascent. That leap of faith it took to do that, you just cant find that anymore in the mountains. In some ways we¿re better climbers and we know a lot more. You have to look at Messner. From his early days, climbing in the dolomites and becoming one of the great rock climbers of his days. One of the great 8000 meter peaks, an alpine style ascent. Hidden peak in 1975. He climbed Nanga Parbot solo, the first solo, and then in 1978, in may, he climbed Everest without bottled oxygen. With that strength, soloed Nanga Parbot. Messner would never have leapt on the slopes with Mont Blanc. He had climbed giant peak solo and Everest without oxygen. During the monsoon season, and he was above 21,300 feet completely alone. People talk about solo ascents of Everest after that on that one day going up the last 3000 feet. But he was totally alone on that mountain because no one does it in the monsoon season. We expected it of Messner and yet we were stunned and shocked to know he had done it. It was always the way you felt about, you were excited, you could be thrilled of the thought of Messner on a peak 30 miles from you. Usually he did what he said he would do.
He¿s got a great presence. He¿s not a great big bear of a man, he¿s got the build of a great middle distance runner. 6 feet. One thing you¿d notice is he didn¿t have any toes, lost most of his toes on Nanga Parbot. Shaggy, sometimes shoulder-length hair, he would have to brush away the thick hair. Very much a strong German-Austrian face and a strong German accented voice when he¿s speaking in English. Look in his eye of a very controlled sort of possession. Something burns in that man¿s mind and heart. He¿s known in places for his demanding nature and his temper, but if that¿s the path to excellence, then so be it. Messianic quality to him with the long hair and his presence. Very strong sense of purpose.
That book was written before he had done some of the climbs we knew him for, but it explained Messner to us, this very clearly thought out progression through the disciplines in climbing and a very strong, fanatical approach to training. You realized that it wasn¿t just magic. He began climbing on the walls of the Dolomites. Suddenly you realized why he was so comfortable on his solo ascents. He believed that was the ultimate test of one¿s ability. He was an immensely talented climber technically. He put his head down and slogs up. He diminished his ability to climb hard rock after he lost his toes. He went from rock climbing to mixed to steep ice routes in the Alps and then to the Himalayas. All of it was founded on his previous level of experience and intense training. His runs up the mountains, his taking long, ice cold showers to prepare him for being caught in showers in the Alps. And the water coursing down it and him hanging on, because he had endured those ice cold showers. It sounds, think back, the guy was 20 when we were. It wasn¿t as extreme as it seems.
With his firsts, are there any other feats of that nature someone could do?
There will be people that accomplish as much. It wont be as groundbreaking and it will be much less noticed. He was, as all great figures are, a person, most of his success came from the sheer force of his personality and his vision. We wouldn¿t have a lot of use for a Messner now. There are climbers technically better than Messner now. His solos in the Alps. You cant now be another first oxygenless. You cant be the first to climb all of the 14 highest peaks on this planet. You can not be the first to solo one of those 14 highest peaks. Those great moments of achievement and vision, they¿re not there anymore. Keep in mind one thing. You still go out, the best climbers of the day, doing hard, there¿s still the same level of risk. Some people will say that climbing in that fast, efficient manner is safer. But I don¿t wanna diminish the achievements of the climbers today. Insights into what¿s possible.
He was like a beacon. We were attracted to that beacon. Many people, many of our greatest climbers today are out there following the path that that beam of light called Messner.
You learn a lot of things about life on this planet and your place in this planet. You only need go up a few miles into this thin membrane of life supporting atmosphere before you¿re in a place where nothing lives and you, I guess in the end, is what do you fear most, you learn, you learn a lot about yourself. Altitude is a great equalizer. Very strong people are only climbing slightly faster. Unforgiving crucible. You¿re stripped of all our human ability to camouflage who we are and to push away the side of ourself which we dislike or fear most. You found out if you¿re a coward. You just don¿t have the energy at 26 or 27,00 feet to summon up all that artifice.
Is there anything left to discover up there?
We know a lot about being up high. That¿s not the new frontier that the modern Messners are exploring. What they want is to do technically difficult climbing on faces Messner would have said are impossible. And pushing the limits of the level of climbing that can be obtained in that thin air. Men and women can stagger to the top of the world¿s great peaks. We don¿t know the level of technical difficulty they can attain. He wanted to climb all of the 14 highest peaks in a year. Someone will do it someday. How many of these can you bag by their easiest routes? You¿ll use helicopters to get you from base camp to base camp. Winter is bitterly cold and windy in the high Himalayas. Messner got us to one point, though the golden age.
From what you described, would Reinhold Messner would be very disparaging of using all that assistance to accomplish something?
He¿s become a little bit more forgiving, but what is the point. He climbed Nanga Parbot in 1970. We¿ll just saying we¿ll do it in a year. He¿d say, why not go find a new ridge or a new face to go up. He¿s a man who¿s happy to pass the torch. He felt others had passed it to him. Another thing about Messner. All these things, the style is an ethic, a philosophy. He refused to use a bolt. Everest unmasked, by fair means. And he just felt that you have to give the mountain a chance. You come as equipped as you can with fitness and strength and ability. Drilling bolts when there is no other way of getting up a mountain eliminates failure. May ridges and faces, there¿s no hope of getting up there without bolts. Now you¿re going out there, a few bolts is acceptable.
So is there someone you see?
Not right now. There¿s so many good climbers out there. There is no one star like that in our climbing community now that we have those expectations of that we have of Messner that they would be leading the way for the next decade. No one¿s name comes mind. There are a lot of climbers