email a friend iconprinter friendly iconGreatest Mountaineer
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Reinhold Messner is well into what he has designated Stage Six of his already remarkable life, without, it would seem, a backward glance for Stage One, when he was one of the world's elite rock climbers, or Stage Two, when he was unquestionably the world's greatest high-altitude mountaineer. Today, at 62, he is instantly recognizable from the multitude of publicity photographs taken over the past three decades—lean and fit and sporting an even longer mane of waving hair, now threaded with silver, than he did when younger. His features tend to alternate between two characteristic expressions: The first, a look of fierce intensity, which, combined with beetling eyebrows and flowing beard and hair, give him an air of Zeus-like authority. It was with this expression that he moved his mountain. The second is his trademark smile—a reflexive baring of his very white, even teeth behind his beard—which gleams on friend and foe without distinction, like the smile of a crocodile. It was the crocodile smile he was baring now, as he envisioned the climactic moment of opening night of the Messner museum: A violent explosion, simulating a volcanic eruption, was to rend the night from inside the castle walls. "There should be a lot of flames and smoke," he said, again with relish. "It should be at night so that the whole of Bolzano can see." He paused to savor the image of a fireworks blast that would appear to viewers as a catastrophic blowup. "Then my friends will say, 'It is a pity,' and my enemies will say, 'Good, finally, at last!'"

To non-climbers it may be difficult to convey the extent and grandeur of Reinhold Messner's accomplishments. Here's a start: His ascent, with longtime partner Peter Habeler, of Hidden Peak, the 26,470-foot (8,068-meter) summit of Gasherbrum I, one of the giants of the Himalaya, without any of the paraphernalia of traditional high-altitude climbing—porters, camps, fixed ropes, and oxygen—was hailed as forging a whole new standard of mountaineering. But that was back in 1975, before Messner and Habeler went on to climb Mount Everest without oxygen, a feat that took climbing to the absolute limit. That, in turn, was in May of 1978—three months before Messner climbed Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain on Earth, solo—a feat heralded as one of the most daring in mountaineering. That, however, was two years before he climbed Mount Everest without oxygen, equipped with a single small rucksack—and alone.

"It is very difficult to calibrate high-altitude climbing," said Hans Kammerlander, who has climbed seven of the world's fourteen 8,000-meter mountains with Messner. "There is no referee, there is no stopwatch. There were others—Buhl, Herzog, Forrer," he said, running through the names of climbing greats. "They did more solo climbs. But Reinhold had so many new ideas—he found new ways, new techniques. He imagined them, and then he put them into practice. So, all around, yes, he does deserve the title of being the greatest mountaineer in history."

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