Published: November 2006
Murdering the Impossible
Superhumanly determined, Reinhold Messner has pursued his uncompromising vision to reach the summits of Earth's highest peaks—and beyond.
By Caroline Alexander

Beyond the walls of the 16th-century fortress, in northern Italy, the Dolomite range rose burnished and glowing in the late afternoon light. Within the walls, Reinhold Messner, the world’s greatest mountaineer, was building a mountain. At his energetıc direction, a backhoe lumbered back and forth in the dusty courtyard, heaving slabs of rock and depositing them in an artful pyramid that by the end of the exercise had formed a small mountain.

"This is Kailas, Holy Mountain," Reinhold said, while the backhoe filled the air with golden dust. He was relishing the scene—the whole scene; not just the satisfaction of seeing Tibet's most holy mountain assembled in miniature under his supervision but also, I suspected, the roar and rumble and chaos and dust and magnificent improbability of the undertaking. The Kailas installation is only one of the many features, fanciful and inspired, that will fill his latest Messner Mountain Museum, this one dedicated to the theme of "When Men Meet Mountains."

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."

Messner's contribution to his profession is not only a list of astonishing feats but also the unrelenting philosophy that lay behind them. "I'm only interested in our experiences and not in the mountains—I'm not a naturalist," he told me. "I'm interested in what's going on in the human beings. . . . William Blake wrote a line, when men and mountains are meeting, big things are happening," he said, paraphrasing a favorite quote from the 18th-century poet, and the philosophy behind his new museum. "If you have a high-way on Everest, you don't meet the mountain. If everything is prepared, and you have a guide who is responsible for your security, you cannot meet the mountain. Meeting mountains is only possible if you . . . are out there in self-sufficiency."

In an essay he wrote when he was only 27, he decried the siege tactics that allowed even an unskilled climber to conquer a mountain bolt by bolt, issuing a plea for both the mountain that cannot "defend itself" and for the climber, who was being cheated of the opportunity to test the limits of his courage and skill. Titled "The Murder of the Impossible," the essay, now considered a minor classic, argued that the wielders of expansion bolts and pegs "thoughtlessly killed the ideal of the impossible." Messner's characteristic minimalism—he is adamant he has never put an expansion bolt in a face of rock, as he has never used bottled oxygen—was, therefore, a brash demonstration that the principles he preached could be put to spectacular practice. His landmark high-altitude alpine-style climbs liberated both the individual climber, by showing alternatives to the hugely encumbered and expensive classic expeditions, as well as the mountains themselves. The irony, of course, was that it was Messner who, by these very achievements, murdered and laid in the dust all traditional notions of what constituted "the impossible."

Thanks to the stream of books that followed his accomplishments, and aided by dark good looks that rendered him promotable, Messner achieved a celebrity status that extended far beyond subscribers to Alpinist and Gripped. In Europe, where frequent appearances on television have kept him in the public eye, as well as afforded him a platform for his often blunt outspokenness, he continues to evoke strong emotions, received by admirers with the adoration bestowed on rock stars and by his detractors with resentful charges of self-promotion. He receives both with equal enthusiasm. "Obstacles energize me," he told me. Tirelessly confrontational, he is famous for outbursts of towering rage. "I became so angry that I yelled in a way that the windows there, they were shivering," he told me with satisfaction of an encounter with a local foe. One could say fairly that Reinhold was conditioned from youth by the same phenomena that energize him now: obstacles, risk, and high-adrenaline rage.

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.

"The father was a devoted Catholic, but in a Calvinist manner," said Reinhold's former wife, Ursula Demeter, known as Uschi, who retains warm ties with Reinhold and his family. The mother was "quiet, peaceful, fatalistic—God had given her her station. But for the father, if you did not make money, if you did not succeed, God had turned from you." Josef Messner's life was further complicated by his chosen politics. "In '38, Hitler and Mussolini came together, and they decided the South Tiroleans should take a chance to vote," Reinhold told me. "Who is voting for Italy stays in South Tirol; who is voting for Germany, for the Führer, he can leave, and he will get the same amount of land somewhere in Germany. And my father was one of the organizers of this option . . . in which 86 percent"—he leaned forward for emphasis—"of the South Tiroleans decided they would leave their homeland to go somewhere with the Nazis." He shook his head. "It is incredible." The war put an end to all such options. By voluntarily becoming a Nazi, Josef Messner had staked his hopes on a German future; ironically, his wartime duties had been to serve as an Italian translator. At war's end, he returned to his wife's house in the narrow valley and set about raising his family of nine children with their resolutely Teutonic names—Werner, Reinhold, Siegfried, Waltraud—on what was now a headmaster's salary.

"My father was an anxious man," said Hansjörg Messner, one of Reinhold's younger brothers and a psychotherapist in London. "His anxiety made him a strict man. He wasn't austere; he was a strict man in given moments, so his strictness, or even perhaps his violence at times, was, I think, a basic reaction to his anxiety." The flashes of violence took several forms—beatings, not uncommon in rural communities of that era, and verbal tirades. "My father had the ability not just to shout but to humiliate," Hansjörg said. When the young Reinhold failed his school exams because he had spent less time studying than climbing, the father had poured out the full violence of his scorn. "I remember Reinhold sitting at the wooden table in the kitchen, holding his head and just crying and crying," Hansjörg said. At that moment the father could triumph; he had been proven irrefutably right. Repeatedly, vehemently, over the years he had been telling his stubborn son that a life doing what he loved and did best—the life of a climber —was impossible.

"In the family, I told you, there was only one chance," Reinhold said. "To break, to be broken, or to be stronger than the father."

By the time Reinhold was 13 and Günther 11, they had formed an unassailable climbing partnership. Both precociously strong and talented, they differed sharply in personality. Reinhold was outspoken and confrontational—public—according to his brother Hubert Messner, head of neonatology at Bolzano Hospital, while Günther was closed. "Reinhold started to do everything he wanted to do. Günther was not this way," Hubert said. "Günther, because he was influenced more by our father—I think that was the big problem. He was not able to say, 'I don't like it, I don't do it.'"

From the rock towers of the Geislerspitzen, Reinhold and Günther moved to other Dolomite peaks, then farther afield onto classic ascents in the western Alps. In the Dolomites, they mastered freestyle rock climbing, but in the Alps they gained experience of mixed terrain and pure ice. When Reinhold was 20 and Günther 18, they were in a position to measure themselves against some of Europe's most experienced climbers. "When I had a chance to climb with them, or go on a similar route where a famous climber had been, I was only looking and learning," Reinhold said, and paused. "For a few years. And I would say at 20, 23, we understood, there is nobody who can climb what we are climbing." Although the brothers continued as partners, Reinhold had taken to lightning-strike solo dashes to the summits, traveling as light and fast as possible. "Reinhold's solo climbs in the Dolomites from '65 to after '70 count as some of his best," said Hans Kammerlander, who is also from the South Tirol. "These experiences are often overlooked."

As the brothers racked up noteworthy ascents, what Hansjörg calls Reinhold's "triumphalism" became more pronounced. "There was a place in the village where we could go to watch a television," Hansjörg said. "And we used to watch the fights of Cassius Clay. You know how Clay used to call his fights: 'I'll take him in round six!' That's when Reinhold began to call his climbs. 'The Eiger face in ten hours!'"

Much of Reinhold's style—traveling light and quickly—depended on his uncanny speed. Just how fast he was capable of moving he would dramatically demonstrate many times over in the years ahead. One example: On an expedition in 1979 to Ama Dablam in Nepal, Reinhold and his friend Oswald Oelz conducted a spectacular rescue of Peter Hillary, son of the great explorer, and two companions. "Reinhold covered that ground that the New Zealand climbers had taken two and a half days to climb in six hours," recalled Nena Holguín, a witness of the rescue. "I mean he moved like lightning speed across the snow. You know how deer are light-footed—he would seem to spring; it seemed like he hardly touched the ground."

After Reinhold and Günther completed their schooling, they began to train, grudgingly, for professions, Reinhold as an architect at Padua University, Günther to work in a bank. But their real education continued on the rocks. "I trained also to stay days out—days and days without food," Reinhold said. "We went into the mountains without taking food with us; we had to carry it, so we learned to do without it." They also learned, as Reinhold put it, "to handle situ-ations," or retain emotional equilibrium.

"I think that courage is only the other half of fear," he said. "Only because I am afraid, I need courage . . . If I am well-prepared, and if I'm living a long time in my visions, in my fantasy, with my challenge—before doing it, I'm living with it, I'm dreaming about it, planning, preparing, training. So when I start to climb—especially when I'm on a big wall, whatever difficulties—I am so concentrated that there is nothing else existing; there's only a few meters of wall where I am hanging and climbing; and in this concentration, everything seems quite logical. There is no danger anymore. The danger is gone . . . But the concentration is absolute."

By 1969, Reinhold had obtained his diploma in architecture and was teaching mathematics in a local secondary school, an occupation he had chosen solely because it allowed him to climb. Then out of the blue came an invitation to join an expedition in the Himalaya. It was to be a turning point. "I see Reinhold in two phases, you see," Hansjörg said, carefully. "I see him before Nanga Parbat and after Nanga Parbat."

Climbers speak of a mountain's "line," the route up its face that unlocks the summit. The line of Reinhold Messner's life, that line that unlocks and defines him, is unquestionably the 1970 Austro-German Sigi Löw Memorial Expedition to Nanga Parbat. Rising in northern Pakistan, Nanga Parbat is one of the world's eight-thousanders, the 14 mountains standing above 8,000 meters; at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet), it is the ninth highest in the world. Following numerous unsuccessful, sometimes fatal, expeditions, it was first summited in 1953, by the great Austrian climber Hermann Buhl. "In my time, the most technically demanding climb was not any one peak," Reinhold said. "It was surely, at least in the German-speaking world, the south face of Nanga Parbat, the Rupal Face." Even the victorious Buhl, who had climbed by way of the north side, had been intimidated by this massive wall, which he described with palpable amazement as "the highest mountain wall in the world, plunging 17,000 feet in one sheer sweep from the summit into the unplumbed depths."

The leader of the expedition, Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, was not himself a climber, but his half brother, Willie Merkl, had died on Nanga Parbat (his name is commemorated in several of the mountain's landmarks), and Herrligkoffer had come to cultivate the same attitude toward the mountain, vengeful and obsessive, as had Ahab to his whale. By June 26, 1970, the expedition's higher camps and ropes had been laboriously fixed, in very heavy weather, up to 7,350 meters, or as far as the Merkl Couloir, a long vertical gully that was to be the pathway to the summit. One summit attempt had been aborted, and the expedition was weeks behind schedule. Now, Reinhold, his brother Günther, and Gerhard Baur were huddled in the single three-man tent that constituted Camp Five, at the foot of the couloir, poised for a final attempt. At Reinhold's suggestion an elaborate plan of assault had been laid. On receiving the next day's weather report, Base Camp was to signal Camp Five, firing a red rocket for bad weather, a blue for good. If the rocket was red, Reinhold would make a solo strike for the summit, racing the weather. If the outlook was good, there would be a team ascent. At eight o'clock that night, a red rocket flared.

Reinhold set out in the darkness of the early morning with no equipment save crampons and an ice ax, while Günther and Baur began to prepare ropes in the first 200 meters of the couloir, to aid in the difficult descent. Until this moment, Günther had been with Reinhold every step of the way; now his elder brother—always the leader, always used to getting his way—was en route to the summit and glory, while he was left to handle a tangled mess of frozen rope. Something inside him snapped, and, dropping the ropes, he sprinted after his brother. In four hours, Günther covered the 600 vertical meters of the Merkl Icefield. "Surely," as Reinhold said, "he went at the limit of his possibilities to catch me."

The effects of Günther's extraordinary effort were soon apparent. It was five p.m., late in the day, when the brothers shook hands on the summit. An hour later—a long time—they began the descent. Sluggish and weakening, Günther balked at the difficult route they had ascended. Alarmed, Reinhold sought a quicker route to lower ground, leading them west of the summit ridge where, when darkness caught them, they huddled down for what would be the worst night of their lives. Under the hard, bright stars, the night temperature plunged to 40 degrees below zero. Without a tent, their only protection was a single space blanket. They had no food or water and had been many hours in the "death zone." Günther began to hallucinate, pawing at an imaginary blanket on the ground.

"This is very hard," Reinhold said. "In high altitude, there's no oxygen going to the blood, so you cannot burn, you are not heated. Instinctively, you stay awake as long as possible. You force yourself that the blood is circulating, by thinking. We told also each other, 'Move the toes, don't sleep.' . . . If somebody would sleep, really sleep, it could easily be that he's passing by." By daylight, Günther's condition was critical. Then suddenly, it seemed help was on the way. Below their bivouac site, the figures of Peter Scholtz and Felix Kuen appeared coming from Camp Four, laboring up the ascent route on the trail the brothers had broken. The ensuing miscommunication between the two parties, shouting back and forth across a divide roughly the length of a football field, remains one of the most unsatisfactorily explained incidents of the Nanga Parbat saga. Scholtz and Kuen are now dead, so their accounts cannot be subjected to inquiry. Somehow, the ascending climbers failed to comprehend the crisis. For their part, the Messners could not know that the red rocket for bad weather had been fired in error. The weather was in fact flawless, and Scholtz and Kuen had come for the summit, not for rescue.

Bypassed by his companions, Reinhold made a bold decision: He and Günther would descend by way of the Diamir Face, on the opposite side of the mountain. "When you are standing there up high, close to the summit, if you look to the Diamir side, it's a very gentle snow slope," said Steve House, an American who climbed the Rupal Face, alpine-style, with his partner, Vince Anderson, in 2005. "It's almost flat; it's easy walking," he said of the initial descent. "The Rupal Face is huge, dangerous, scary. It makes perfect sense to me why he followed that decision."

The Diamir Face had been climbed only twice before, and Reinhold was navigating by instinct. In the night, he and Günther made a second, brief bivouac at 6,500 meters. The next day, under a punishing sun, they continued downward. By 6,000 meters, Günther had partly recovered, and it seemed they were on the homestretch. "From the second bivouac, we could see more or less that there is a way down," Reinhold said. "You can overview a mountain from down, from a certain distance, but never from upwards, and this is very important to understand. . . . Coming from up, you see only abyss; you cannot know, 'I go right, or left'—and this was also the reason why I was forced on the way down to go ahead."

By his own assessment, Reinhold was at times over an hour ahead, out of sight and hearing. Although speed has always been his trademark, he may not yet have understood that his speed was preternatural. Stumbling down Nanga Parbat, moving with his instincts, he left Günther behind. Seeing a stream, he drank for the first time in four days. Relieved, he waited for Günther to catch up. But Günther was never to appear.

Hansjörg, using the clinical language of his profession, refers to Reinhold suffering a "breakdown" when he realized his brother had disappeared. Reinhold's own account is that he went insane. For a day and a night, he searched the place where Günther should have been, scrabbling with his hands in the debris of a recent avalanche. "I had always a strange feeling that he's around," Reinhold said. "I heard these steps behind me. When I looked back, he was not there. I heard sometimes his voice . . . and I went there, but he was not there. So my intelligence, my clear thinking, told me, 'Your brother's dead.' But my feelings told me, 'Your brother's here.'" At length, his most primitive survival instincts kicked in, and he staggered onward into the Diamir Valley, hallucinating. Two days later, villagers carried him out of the valley. Passed along into the hands of the police, he was on his way to the hospital when the police jeep caught up with the departing expedition, who had given the brothers up for dead. According to one member, Reinhold's first words were to sob: "Where is Günther?"

"I think Reinhold was terribly burdened by not being able to bring his brother home," Hansjörg said, "and I think my father out of his anxiety and a lack of reflection reinforced this guilt: 'Where did you leave Günther?'" He'd left his brother behind. The family's view was that Günther may have been stronger than Reinhold. "And it was, 'Why him, and why not Rein-hold?'" Hubert said. Family members speculate that one cause of Günther's desperate summit run had been his unhappiness with his conventional job: "Günther wasn't able to break the rules," as Hubert said. "That was his dilemma. All these questions arise . . . and Reinhold—after this event, Reinhold closed himself up in the family."

For Reinhold, the Nanga Parbat expedition was life-changing. He had lost his brother and closest friend. He had seven frostbitten toes and three fin-gertips amputated. And he was yet more famous, for when the dust settled, it was Reinhold Messner who had successfully conquered the most challenging wall in the world and traversed an 8,000-meter mountain. The traversing of Everest by a large American expedition in 1963 was then the only comparable feat.

To complicate matters, Reinhold had fallen in love with Ursula Demeter, the wife of Max von Kienlin, who had accompanied the expedition as a paying guest. Shortly after the expedition's return, she left her husband and moved in with Reinhold. "I was a very simple mountain valley man, a young man," Reinhold said. "She knew the big world. And we built up very quickly a successful team. She was doing the correction of my books; she did the handling with my editors." In this era before corporate sponsorship, to earn a living by climbing required ingenuity and aggressiveness. Without her, he said, "my career, if I can call it a career, would be a different one."

In the fall of 1971, Reinhold took Uschi with him back to Nanga Parbat. "I was hoping that maybe after a dry summer, hopefully a dry summer, the body could come out of an avalanche," Reinhold said. After trekking into the Diamir Valley, they set up a tent, and Reinhold left early the following morning. "The sound of avalanches was thundering around us, night and day," Uschi recalled. Reinhold left the camp at dawn. When darkness descended, she built a bonfire from old lumber, made dinner, and waited. It was long after dark when Reinhold returned. "He was crying and shaking," Uschi said. "He wouldn't eat. He went inside and cried in the night; he cried in his sleep." This was repeated the next day. At week's end, having found no trace of Günther's body, they left.

"After Nanga Parbat the innocent enthusiasm for climbing was gone," Hansjörg said. "Reinhold became"—he paused a long time, searching for the right word—"he became more professional."

"I am sure that the real key for understanding climbing is the coming back," Reinhold told me. "It means if you are really in difficult places, in dangerous places, if you are in . . . thin air, and you come back, you feel that you got again a chance for life. You are reborn. And only in this moment, you understand deeply that life is the biggest gift we have." Reinhold was speaking from the perspective of a sage veteran of thirty-one 8,000-meter expeditions. There are few such veterans around. "In my generation, half of the leading climbers died in the mountains," he told me. For the 25-year-old survivor of Nanga Parbat, however, there was no question he had returned to climb again.

"During the period when I was in the clinic," Reinhold told me, "I was still thinking, I will probably, after that time of recovery . . . be able to be self-sufficient—I can go to climb anything. And only during the year '71, I understood this ability will never be like before . . . More than my feet, I lost a little bit of my finger, too, and they cut a little bit of bone, low down, and this bone is pressing on this point"—he held up the ring finger of his left hand. "So with this finger, I could not really work. If you have a little bit of pain on the fingertip, or somewhere, you're not anymore a good climber, because you're always out of concentration. I understood immediately I would never anymore be able to rock climb like in '69, my best year. And so I became a high- altitude climber." This had never been in the original plan: "High altitude was not interesting to me; it was not steep enough—it was hiking, and I would never want to hike a mountain."

Reinhold's own assessment of his most outstanding accomplishments in the high-altitude mountaineering that would define him include the double traverse with Hans Kammerlander of two 8,000-meter peaks, Gasherbrum II and Gasherbrum I, back to back, in 1984, and the solo climb of that mountain of his life, Nanga Parbat, in 1978. But the climb that captured popular imagination was the first ascent of Everest without oxygen, in the spring of 1978.

The very idea was revolutionary. In the 1970s, expeditions typically carried 50 kilos of oxygen per person, for use above 7,200 meters. According to physiologists, to attempt the biggest 8,000-meter peaks, such as Everest and K2, without oxygen was to risk permanent brain damage.

"It was based on nothing," Reinhold said of this view. He had his own experience to draw on. In 1977, while still acclimatized from an unsuccessful attempt on the formidable south face of Dhaulagiri, in Nepal, he had taken a flight over Everest in a small unpressurized plane. "I tried it, and I had a crisis at 7,800 meters," Reinhold said in his most matter-of-fact voice. The crisis was his feeling "a little bit insecure" and an inability to load new film in his Rolleiflex. "Afterwards, I felt quite well, and I was able to do photographs above the summit without a problem, without a blackout." The plane had eventually climbed to 9,000 meters.

The Austrian Alpine Club agreed to allow Reinhold and his partner, Peter Habeler, to accompany their 1978 Everest expedition as an independent two-man team. Habeler was from the North Tirol, the Austrian side of the Dolomites, and had known Reinhold for 15 years and been his partner on hundreds of expeditions in Europe as well as several in the Himalaya. Along with Günther and Friedl Mutschlechner, Habeler was one of the few partners who could keep Reinhold's pace. In 1975, they had made history by climbing Gasherbrum I, the smallest team ever to summit an 8,000-meter peak. According to Habeler, the two had toasted each other at the end of the expedition with the words, "to Everest."

The expedition to Everest without oxygen electrified the public. Reinhold summed up: "It was like going to the moon without oxygen—how is it possible? . . . And in Germany, at least five doctors on television appeared before, going and telling everyone they can prove it is not possible." He smiled his crocodile smile. "And so they prepared the field for a great success."

Physiological tests on Reinhold have revealed a strikingly efficient metabolism—possibly a result of having trained himself to go without food—but nothing unusual regarding lung or cardio capacity. On the other hand, as Reinhold noted with satisfaction, DNA markers from both the maternal and paternal line were rare. ("Yes, the Messners are special," he said.) In his prime, Reinhold trained by running hills—"a thousand meters uphill in 30 minutes," as he told me—but no longer runs much now. Apparently he does not need to. "He's experienced, his body's experienced," Hubert said. Six years ago, they made an 8,000-meter expedition together, and after ten days in the mountains, according to Hubert, Reinhold was "completely fit—but he's only good in the mountains."

Climbing Everest without oxygen confirmed Reinhold's extraordinary adaptation to high-altitude mountains. For his part, he was, as he said, "very, very happy. I was thinking—after Everest, I was feeling I could do anything."

One of the first things he did do was publicly alienate his entire community. At a local festival held to honor the success of the Everest expedition, Reinhold was asked why he had not carried his country's flag. "In my answer, I said I didn't go up for Italy, not for the South Tirol, not for Austria, not for Germany," Reinhold said, laughing hard enough to sputter. "I went up for myself. I took out my handkerchief: 'This is my flag.' Nobody's going up for somebody on Everest. You go by yourself, and you handle it yourself." His tone darkened. "All this nationalistic chanting makes me angry. I cannot stand it." The necessity of opposing "fascists" and "Nazis" is one of Reinhold's favorite themes; he is fond of pointing out that the German Alpine Club banned Jews from membership in 1921 and posted signs on remote mountain huts to this effect, and he credits acceptance of such actions to what he calls the German "sheeplike" reverence for authority. "My übermensch is a self-determined person who would never accept something, some rules from up high up," Reinhold said, paraphrasing Nietzsche. "He would say, This is my way, and I go this way. And this would be the great enemy of the fascist."

Extreme self-determinism, however, has drawbacks. Shortly after he and Peter Habeler made history, they fell out. They later reconciled, but the long estrangement was part of a professional pattern. "The expedition is one thing, but after the expedition is something else," Arved Fuchs said. In 1990, he and Reinhold had made the first crossing of the Antarctic continent on foot; Reinhold had moved on from mountaineering to Stage Three of his life, exploring the horizontal world. "This is something I just don't understand," Fuchs continued. "This man is known all over the world, he sets up new standards as far as mountaineering goes, he is very successful, probably very wealthy, but he has never made his peace with his success and with himself; and this I think is the tragedy of his life."

"Reinhold as an alpinist is the best, the finest in the world," Hans Kammerlander said. "But he has some weaknesses. I speak as a friend," he said in a tone of great gentleness. "He cannot take criticism, and he is quick to attack if he is criticized."

"I expose myself, I accept the natural powers as the rulers of my world," Reinhold said of being on the mountains. "There's no more human rulers if I'm out there. There's no religion which is controlling me and telling me how I have to behave. There's just pure nature, which I have to respect. The nature in myself, and the nature outside." The freedom of the mountains evidently means freedom from other people.

In 2003, Reinhold returned to Everest's Base Camp to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its conquest. "I needed more than two hours to go from one end of the base camp to the next," he said, his incredulity mixed with unconcealed contempt for what he calls the "city culture" that has infiltrated the mountains, destroying their solitude with its ubiquitous Internet connection to the world below.

For him, climbing Everest without oxygen opened the way for the ultimate feat of lonely self-determination: Climbing Everest solo, a dream inspired by heartfelt, lofty ideals—and also some down-to-earth competitiveness. What specifically galvanized Reinhold into action was an announcement by Japanese climber Naomi Uemura that he had obtained a permit for a solo attempt in 1980. In his book, Reinhold candidly records his own reaction: "How can it be true? It is my idea!"

The permit Reinhold obtained for a solo climb in 1980, by way of Everest's North Face, was one of the very first issued by the Chinese since their occupation of Tibet in 1950. He and his small party—a mandatory Chinese liaison officer, an interpreter, and one companion who also acted as a medical attendant—would be the only people on the north side of the mountain.

Reinhold's choice of companion was unconventional: Nena Holguín was a 30-year-old American who had hiked across parts of South America and islands in the Pacific before working in the Himalaya, building schools for the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation. Today the owner of a hiking tour company in the Canadian Rockies, she and Reinhold had met in 1979, following his expedition to Ama Dablam. On Everest, their single-tent advanced base camp was set up at 6,500 meters; the two Chinese escorts remained at a lower camp. "It was only Reinhold and I and a wolf, who came to the camp when I was alone and was chewing on the bones outside of my tent," Holguín said. She had the full-time duties of expedition cook and all-purpose helper. They remained between the two camps for a month before Reinhold set out on the morning of August 18.

"Reinhold had already soloed about 2,000 mountains at that point," Holguín said. This included his remarkable solo ascent of Nanga Parbat. "People don't think of it as easier, but it's easier sometimes to do things alone because there is nobody you have to cooperate with, as long as you can get past the aloneness. He likes to do things exactly at his own pace and his own style. It's easy to do things alone if you already know you can do them. He trusted himself."

The historic climb got off to an almost fatally bad start when only 500 meters from camp, in the darkness, Reinhold slipped into a crevasse. Higher up, soft snow made the climbing arduous; being alone, there was no one to share the task of breaking trail. He would spend three nights on the mountain.

"In the Alps, it was easy," Reinhold said. "I started in the morning, and in the evening I was back. Being alone is becoming difficult in the nights. Climbing, there's no problem—you are climbing. Staying alone in dangerous places, icy, cold places for nights and nights and nights is much more difficult." Reaching the summit, Reinhold registered only dull emotions. Mist came in, and light snow blurred his footprints. He turned mechanically for the descent, conscious of deteriorating mental keenness, a dangerous indifference to his condition.

"I finally spotted him on the third day coming down," Holguín said. "I was watching him, and I was watching him, and I was watching him—and I blinked, and he was gone. And he had actually fallen down—he slipped almost the last 400 feet, but he self-arrested with his ice ax." Meeting her, he cried on her shoulder. "When I got him back to the tent, he said, 'Well, I'll never do that again; I'll never solo another mountain like that—I was at my limit.'"

In 1986, Reinhold climbed Lhotse, and in doing so became the first man to attain all 14 of the 8,000-meter mountains. "When I finished the 8,000-meter peaks, I understood, now I could only repeat myself. What I did is boring now," Reinhold said. "But I like to go somewhere where everything is new, and to begin again an activity."

Reinhold's silver Mercedes SLK sped out of Bolzano, toward the mountains and Schloss Juval, his castle home. A striking key chain dangled from the car's ignition: an animal's talon attached to a lump of sand-colored fur. "It is a yeti claw," said Reinhold, and laughed. Stage Four of the Messner itinerary through life was devoted to holy mountains and myths, and included stalking the legendary yeti, the Himalayan equivalent of Bigfoot. This pursuit of what he eventually identified as the Himalayan brown bear earned Reinhold great ill will in German climbing circles. "The yeti story undermined him in elite alpine culture," Hans Kammerlander said. It seems that German climbers, stumbling back from their own mountain epics, had been greeted not with the acclaim, respect, and book offers of which they had dreamed but—thanks to Reinhold Messner—with the facetious question, "So, did you see a yeti?"

Like a brigand's retreat, Juval stands sternly on a 3,000-foot-high cliff, guarded by soaring, snow-streaked mountains and commanding a view over lesser mortals in the Senales Valley. Reinhold's acquisition of the 13th-century schloss in 1983 fulfilled several dreams. Here, with his impeccably managed organic fields, animals, and vineyards, he could be a farmer, something he claims he has always wanted to be: Mountain farming is Stage Five. More important, Juval offers "self-sufficiency," one of Reinhold's favorite terms, a place where he could, if necessary, hunker down and live well, keeping the rest of the world at bay.

Juval was also the site, in 1998, of a climbing tragedy. Locked out of his castle one rainy night, the world's greatest mountaineer scaled its walls and, dropping 20 feet into the darkness, landed badly and fractured his heel. The injury was severe enough to curtail him and still gives pain. The realization that he would not be in top form for many years partly prompted his decision to become a member of the European Parliament. The ability—as after Nanga Parbat—not merely to regroup but to turn his back on something he had long loved, seems the secret of his constant reinventions. Asked the issues on which he had made the most difference during this five-year tenure, Reinhold looked amused. "Nobody made any difference," he said. The political career, from 1999 to 2004, did not even warrant a life stage designation. In celebration of its conclusion he fulfilled an old dream, at the age of 60, of crossing the Gobi desert.

Most of the year, Reinhold and his family live not in the mountains at Juval but in the attractive nearby town of Merano. On returning to his apartment there, Reinhold opened the door to a low, rumbling sound coming from the kitchen. "I don't know what is that noise," he said, perplexed. A baby dragon? Tibetan prayer flags whispering over a chorten? "I think it's a vacuum cleaner," I offered cautiously, and was reminded of an earlier statement he had made regarding his domesticity. "I would not know even where to go if the light is off or the heating does not function," he had said. "I'm really living like in my mother's house. That's very nice." The Messner household seemed well-run and happy. "Our system is much stronger than a marriage," Reinhold said of his 19-year relationship with Sabine Stehle, describing it as a partnership in which specific spheres of authority are clearly defined. (In the interest of her family's privacy, Stehle preferred not to participate in this story.) "We live in a matriarchy here, so we will see what happens," he remarked on another occasion, concerning some issue with his teenage daughter.

Later, Reinhold's younger brother Hubert dropped by. Hubert had accompanied his famous brother on a number of the horizontal ventures, including the crossing of the Greenland ice cap, and in the summer of 2000, he had joined Reinhold and two friends on an expedition to Nanga Parbat; it was the 30th anniversary of Günther's death.

"We decided to climb Nanga Parbat on a completely new route, a very beautiful route," Hubert said. "I didn't go to the summit. I stopped on 7,300 meters. I stopped there because I felt not mentally strong." They ascended by way of the Diamir Face, and Reinhold pointed out the place where he thought Günther had died. "We had perhaps all these strong feelings, and it's diffi-cult," Hubert lowered his voice, his words suddenly stumbling. "In the tent, he was calling me every time Günther."

The 2000 expedition to Nanga Parbat may have been the catalyst for Reinhold's decision, in October 2001, to reopen old wounds from the 1970 expedition. The public occasion he chose was a press conference hosted by the German Alpine Club to celebrate the publication of a biography of Karl Maria Herrligkoffer. Instead of making expected words of polite praise, Reinhold lashed out at the expedition members: "Some of them, older than me, wouldn't have minded if the two Messners hadn't returned."

The backlash against Reinhold was extreme. Two expedition members, Hans Saler and Max von Kienlin, the paying guest, published books making serious claims: Not only had the young Reinhold Messner always intended to make the historic traverse of Nanga Parbat, but he had also left Günther to die on the Rupal Face, while he crossed over and descended the Diamir Face. Several team members reported memories of Reinhold studying maps of both sides of the mountain: "He told me about the traverse in the evening by the fire in base camp," Jürgen Winkler recalled. A distinguished alpine photographer, he was one of the two 1970 expedition members present at the press conference when Reinhold shocked his audience. But would the young Reinhold Messner, ambitious as he was, really have been so reckless as to set out, on his first Himalayan expedition, to traverse an 8,000-meter mountain without a rope or bivvy bag and supplied with only a handful of nuts and raisins and a bottle of water?

"Reinhold Messner is un homme extraordinaire," Winkler said, by way of answer. "There is no second person in the world like Reinhold Messner."

Of his search for Günther's body, Reinhold told me, "I was hoping like a dream—maybe late in the year, when the sun has taken away part of the avalanche cone . . . maybe he would appear." In the warm summer of 2005, out of the fog of libel suits and acrimony, this dream materialized. As if relenting of all the damage it had wrought, Nanga Parbat gave up its dead. On July 17, at 4,300 meters in the Diamir Valley, three Paki-stani climbers came upon the remains of Günther Messner, identified by a detail on his old, pre-1980 leather climbing boot. The identification was later confirmed by elaborate tests of both mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA of that rare Messner genome, conducted by the Institute of Legal Medicine, Innsbruck Medical University.

Back on Nanga Parbat, Reinhold, knowing that a member of the 1970 expedition had been on the Diamir Face making a docudrama about the mountain's tragic history, feared that his brother's body could be exploited or even relocated. After consultation with his family, Reinhold cremated Günther's remains on the mountain.

Speaking to Uschi, I asked if the discovery of Günther's body on the Diamir Face had at last lifted a burden from Reinhold. She stared at me: "No. He always knew Günther was there."

"I give all of myself, all of my energy, my time, my money, my enthusiasm," Reinhold said. He was not speaking about 8,000-meter expeditions but about his latest museum. Family and friends had remarked on the pressure he had put himself under, and the new intensity and frequency of his rages. As opening day drew closer, the undertaking seemed to strike him as increasingly epic, and he was reaching for metaphors to compare it to extreme climbing. It involved all the elements he had identified as essential to the "strong experiences" that test one's limits—difficulties, strenuous effort, exposure. But not the risk of death, as I reminded him. "I can do like Hemingway," he replied, glumly.

When complete, the chain of five Messner Mountain Museums will form a neat circuit in the South Tirol; eventually, they will run themselves. "This is a dream of mine, that they should go without me—like how it is in the family," he mused. When total self-sufficiency in all aspects of his life has been attained, he will be free to follow another long-discussed, never actualized dream, and retreat to a cave. "I would prefer somewhere in the Dolomites," he said. "There are so many good places . . . I would stay maybe a month there and write, or think, or enjoy the morning light, climb a mountain. That is a very strong daydream, that I am a free person." He paused. "I am not a free person anymore."

Why not just retire? "Reinhold doesn't really relax," Hansjörg said. "Do you know this saying he has on his website? 'I am what I do.' But I think he may also believe the opposite: 'If I cease to do, I will not be.'"

How far Reinhold has traveled, from Stage One to Stage Six, is demonstrated in a film taken when he was in his late 20s, showing him climbing a sheer rock face in the Geislerspitzen. Like water flowing upward, he ascends the tower; his fingertips scarcely press the surface. His expression is of otherworldly reverence. "There are moments in difficult situations, far away, that there is no more doubt," he told me. "There, the questions are gone. And I think these are the important moments. If the question is gone, I have not to answer. Myself living—I am the answer."