He is widely known as the greatest mountaineer alive, but Reinhold Messner, 70, disagrees with that epithet. “Climbing is not a competition, and you cannot talk in terms of ‘greatest’, it means nothing," he says, over a glass of water in a hotel in New Delhi. For non-climbers, even with that epithet firmly in place, it is difficult to comprehend just how superhuman his accomplishments have been in high-altitude climbing.

Back in 1975, when Messner and his climbing partner Peter Habeler decided to discard all the traditional high-altitude climbing paraphernalia—porters, a large team of climbers, bottled oxygen, mechanical aids—to summit Gasherbrum I (at 8,068m the 11th highest mountain in the world), he opened up the possibility of a whole new dimension in mountaineering. Through his climbing career, he continued to expand and define that dimension—in 1978, climbing Everest without bottled oxygen (with Habeler), and by 1986, every one of the 14 peaks in the world above 8,000m without the help of the tank, and with bare minimum equipment and no outside support.

Habeler (left) in 1975 after climbing Gasherbrum I

He was in India to film a documentary on the Himalayas and its people, travelling from the eastern-most regions of the mountain range in Bhutan, traversing Nepal and India, and finally, Pakistan. Edited excerpts:

This is the first time you are shooting across the Himalayas. What is this film about?

There is a big, beautiful history to this vast mountain range, and the idea is to talk about that, and the culture of the people living there through a “road" movie, where we traverse the Himalayas, but not on the peaks!

We are talking also about the fighting that these areas have seen for 300 years now. The British were all over the mountains, fighting wars with Nepal, looking at trade routes. (Francis) Younghusband invading Tibet in 1904, The Great Game (the fight for supremacy in Central Asia between the British and Russian empires, roughly 1813-1940)—and the Great Game still goes on, a different game, but still the mountain borders are full of armies, tension, India and Pakistan fighting over the Siachen glacier, the Taliban killing climbers in Nanga Parbat (on 22 June, 11 climbers were gunned down at the base camp).

How different are these areas from when you first came here to climb in the 1970s? Commercial climbing became really big in the last two decades...

Actually, they have not changed so much. And I’m not against tourism in the mountains. In the Alps they’ve had commercial expeditions for more than 150 years. The Alpine clubs were made to give many people the chance to go up to the mountains and, at the same time, to help the mountain people to have an income. Hiking, trekking, could be such a strong base for tourism in India, but we should have a clear divide between traditional Alpinism (self-contained climbs with minimal gear) and tourism, and we should not put infrastructure all over the mountains. Now the normal routes at almost all the 8,000m peaks are for tourists, and that’s okay. But I would not like it if Nanda Devi was also opened for tourists. Some mountains should only be for mountaineers.

Mountaineering has lost a lot of its pioneering spirit because of the commercialization...

Solo on Nanga Parbat in 1978

On the other hand, once the Himalayas and the high Alps, the Caucasus or the Hindu Kush were open only to very serious climbers, and now they are accessible to anyone—hikers, tourists. So every year, the base camps of the 8,000m peaks, especially Everest, when the season comes, they are prepared for mass assaults on the mountains. Many tourist offices will sell you passages from the base camp of Everest to the peak and back. Last year, 600 sherpas went to Everest before the season opened, and they set up the line, fixed the ropes, put up ladders, made oxygen depots, and then a huge number of people were guided up to the peak. What it used to be like to trek to Everest Base Camp before, is what it’s like to go to the summit now.

I call this kind of climbing “piste Alpinism" (a piste is a groomed ski slope). But still people go up Everest and when they go back home they speak as if they climbed like (Edmund) Hillary, or Tenzing (Norgay). And they actually feel this, that what they’ve done is the same thing as the pioneers, they do not even know the difference. The true Alpinists are not disappearing, but there are only a few, and they are getting less and less.

In 1980, you went up Everest solo without bottled oxygen, and you said, “I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits."

The 1980 climb was not the most difficult, the north face is not so hard technically, the risk of falling down was very small, but physically it was extreme, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Just at night to set up a tent all alone, to cook, to carry everything, no oxygen, my lungs burning up, my muscles burning up, and no one to share anything with. And then at 7,000m, I fell into a crevasse, it was night, and I almost gave up. But somehow I managed to climb out, and I immediately forgot about it.

The big problem with being solo is that you cannot divide fear. Doing a difficult ascent is a lot about your own fear, and if you are together with another person, or with two people, you can divide that fear, share it. But when you are alone, the fear is all on you, and it’s very difficult to learn to cope with it, to stay day by day, night by night, in that vast space where you should not be, running into bad weather, avalanches, storms.

You have to learn to cope, you have to learn it slowly, and in small steps. If you allow it to happen slowly, you will have the time to take the many, many steps you need to get where you want. But if you don’t have the time, either you will disappear somewhere in the mountains in your young years, or you would give up climbing altogether.

What are the essentials of climbing for you?

There are three elements of mountaineering—difficulty, danger, and exposure. Difficulty is the technical aspect of it. Danger, it is best to avoid, but some people like to increase danger to a point where their success is dependent only on luck. And exposure, which is what truly defines Alpinism, is what you face in wild nature. It’s the weather, the cold, the oxygen, the storms, the avalanches and rock falls, rain and snow. It’s the exposure that determines how you will move, it tells you that one wrong step means death. Exposure means no help is coming from outside, it’s you and the mountain.

The biggest help today is the telephone. Every expedition carries a satellite telephone, so there is always information, and the more information you get from outside, the less the adventure. In that way India is still an adventurous place where you are not allowed to carry GPS or satellite phones (laughs). You know, I made my own ABC of climbing. A is no artificial oxygen. B is no bolts (an artificial anchor fixed on to a rock to aid climbing). And C is no communication systems.

Are people like Alex Honnold, who practise free soloing (rock climbing without ropes or mechanical aids), the new generation of true climbers? Or do you think it’s not right to go without any safety measures?

Free soloing should be accepted like all the other styles of mountaineering. In climbing there is no question of right or wrong. Moral right or wrong, that is a religious question, they have nothing to do with anarchical activity, and classical mountaineering is a completely anarchical activity. Its only measures are possible or impossible. Otherwise, extreme Alpinism or soloing is always wrong. There is no answer why we do it. Each one has their own motivation, and all motivations are…are ok!

I was 5 when I went up my first 10,000ft mountain, with my parents, and I have been climbing ever since. Climbing is a dangerous and hard thing to do. Climbers don’t want to talk about it much, they say we climbed because we enjoyed the summit so much, and those who are not climbers accept this answer. Because it’s not possible for them to really understand why somebody is going to a place where there can be death at any moment—from lack of oxygen, falls, avalanches, storms which will blow you off the edge. But experienced mountaineers, they know that the real feeling is—after you’ve made a summit and come back—the feeling of being reborn. To have survived a place where survival is extremely difficult.

We go to the mountains to experience this feeling again and again. And also to feel how human beings must have felt a hundred thousand years ago, before civilization, governments, social structures, religions, and all the rules that you must follow to be a human.

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