Reinhold Messner

Reinhold Mesnner interviewed by Thomas Hüetlin
Excerpted from Reinhold Messner: My Life at the Limit

"I got into high-altitude mountaineering by chance. In 1969 I was in college when I joined a Tyrolean expedition to the Andes because Kurt “Gagga” Schoisswohl, an excellent rock climber, had dropped out. It was a good year later that I returned to the University of Padua, after a tragic expedition to Nanga Parbat and the amputation of several toes and fingertips, and I found myself unable to continue my studies. So I became a high-altitude mountaineer.

My rock climbing was hampered by the amputations, and in particular by the pain in the ring finger of my right hand, so from then on I concentrated on the big mountains."

H: In what way was that trip (1969) a career-changing event?

M: It turned out to be quite a spectacular change, but that aspect of it wasn’t important for me at the time. I never really thought about careers. What’s more important is the fact that at that moment I finally gave up the idea of leading a middle-class way of life. I was totally unhappy at college. I somehow had the feeling I was missing out on life. I had been trying to finish my engineering course with the best intentions in the world, but I was just forcing myself to do something I didn’t really want to do.

And then these Innsbruck climbers called me, three days before they were due to leave for South America. They had been planning their expedition for a long time, but I didn’t know much about it, only that my climbing partner Sepp Mayerl was on it, and Peter Habeler, the brilliant Zillertal mountain guide. I knew both of them well from the routes we’d done together in the Alps. I was told that someone had dropped out, so I could come along if I wanted. Tickets, equipment, everything was sorted out, and the clothing would fit me more or less. I wouldn’t have to pay for anything. I had three days to get a visa.

The Andes expedition was the perfect thing for me. I came home fit and more experienced, having climbed two big mountains——Yerupaja Grande and Yerupaja Chico——by new routes [see Free Spirit: A Climber’s Life] and I was hungry for the Alps. I subsequently set about breaking some of the last big taboos in alpine mountaineering.
At the time, 1969, the north face of the Droites was the hardest ice climb in the Alps. It had only been climbed three times, and never without falls. The first ascent took six days; the fastest, three days. I had attempted the face with my brother in 1965. We got scared and backed off it. Since then, no one had been able to climb it.

H: Pure ice?

M: Ice lower down, mixed climbing——rock and ice——above. Back then, we just had ice axes, no modern ice tools. I set off early, at first light, with my axes and crampons, and a rope tied around my waist. Nowadays the route is no big deal, but back then it was scary. By midday I was at the top, watched by some aspiring mountain guides from Chamonix. That got me known in France and brought me my first advertising contract. It was the start of my professional climbing career.

H: Who did you thank when you got to the top? Sepp Mayerl? God?

M: Neither of them. I did feel a kind of gratitude, for my good fortune and the courage to do what I did. Then it was all over, and I just cried with joy. But there was no desire to head out the next day and push things another step further. It was okay as it was. There was no God involved, so why should I thank him? And I’d certainly pushed things much too far for my mentor to approve.

H: But you were hooked?

M: Hooked on what? I only wanted one thing: not to die.

H: You were addicted, a climbing junkie. You’d been high, you’d had your fix, you were happy, you were content, you were calm.

M: Yes, I was totally satisfied——calm and excited at the same time.

H: You went back down and thought, “I won’t be doing anything like that again in a hurry.”

M: I went down and thought, “No one is going to repeat that anytime soon, not even as a rope of two.”

H: And two days later you were off again.

M: A day later. The Freney Pillar.

© 2014 by Reinhold Messner

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