email a friend iconprinter friendly iconGreatest Mountaineer
Page [ 4 ] of 19

Reinhold was born and raised in St. Peter's, a hamlet in the Villnöss Valley, in northern Italy's South Tirol, a place he still claims is the "most beautiful in the world." Wholly defining the valley, the ethereal Geislerspitzen range rises above the Alpine meadows in bare rock pinnacles and spires, as improbably striking as the turrets of a distant fairy-tale kingdom. "The climbing had to do with two facts," Reinhold said. "My father was a climber—but not an extreme climber—so as children we heard about this. Secondly, we had no football place in the valley . . . we had no swimming pool—I'm still not able to swim. And the only possibility to do something to express ourselves was to go on the rocks. So we learned very early." Reinhold was five years old when, led by his father, he made his first summit, toiling some 3,000 feet up a peak in the Geislerspitzen; by 13 he had overtaken his father and claimed the sport as his own.

South Tirol has a vexed political history, its identity split between Italy and Austria. Even today its valleys and towns carry both Italian and German names, and most families grow up as the Messners did, Italian citizens but German speaking. Reinhold's mother, Maria Troi, was better educated than was then traditional for girls. "My mother would give us the freedom to do what we had the feeling we had to do," said Reinhold, an attitude unusual in the postwar valleys, where lives were directed by practical concerns of earning a living. Repeatedly, people described her as a calming, gentle force in a turbulent family. Josef Messner, the family patriarch, was a complicated man, and his relationship with his sons was similarly complicated. As a boy, Josef had been a promising student, but family circumstances prevented him from pursuing higher education. He became a schoolteacher and married Reinhold's mother, moving into an upper-story flat in a house her father owned. The growing family lived here, with a new child born almost every other year. Their flat, where the only heat came from the kitchen's woodstove, was above a butcher's shop, and the animals were slaughtered in a shed beside the house. As did many in the valley, the Messners grew vegetables and kept chickens, which the young boys were taught to kill. While the single sister, Waltraud, helped the mother in the house, the boys were kept busy with outside chores, hauling wood and stones, each looking after his immediately younger brother. Reinhold's special charge was his brother Günther. In the Messner home, as in the rugged Tirol in general, self-sufficiency was a paramount virtue.

Page [ 4 ] of 19
- ADVERTISEMENT -