Reinhold Messner, the world’s greatest mountaineer, turned 70 this week. To mark the occasion, I visited him at the Firmian Messner Mountain Museum in Bolzano, Italy. The castle there is one part of a six-museum complex Messner has built to link humans with nature, particularly the mountains.
Over the years Messner, first to climb Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978 then later to complete all 14 of the world’s peaks above 8,000 meters without oxygen, may have lost a few toes to frostbite, but he has lost none of his acumen. He is quick and, for such a fierce persona, surprisingly gentle one-on-one.
JC: Your views on the commercialization of Everest over the last few decades?
RM: Traditional alpinism is slowly disappearing. It is becoming sport, indoors on small walls with holds where you cannot really fall. Every year they prepare a piste [route] to the summit of Everest. It’s business and tourism, and it has nothing to do with alpinism. Alpinism means you go by yourself with your own responsibility, knowing that you could die. But Everest now is more like ski tourism: preparing the piste, helping people go up, setting oxygen bottles near the summit. Five hundred sherpas ready the ropes, the bridges over crevasses and the ladders at steep points. The second camp on Everest is more than a kilometer long, with cooks and kitchen boys and helpers. When you reach camp, they take your rucksack off, tell you to sit down, take off your boots and put you into a sleeping bag. Then, in the morning, the guides come and tell you it’s time to get up and give you nice soup. You wear these shoes, put on those crampons. Like in kindergarten, they go on Everest now. It’s okay, it’s tourism [laughs]. I never did that, but it’s a fact. You can be sure that in a few years all of the 8,000-meter peaks will be prepared like that.