Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Mountain King


Growing up in Portland, I experienced “the freedom of the hills” at a young age: first, through my involvement in our parish Boy Scout troop, and then with my Dad (below, taking a break before the summit push), who led climbs locally for students at John Marshall High School, where he taught physics, chemistry and general science.

By age 12, I had summited Mt. Hood, the highest point in Oregon. By age 13, I had conquered South Sister. At that point, I was hooked. My interest in exploring the wilds of the Northwest led to a seasonal job as a tour guide and boat operator at Crater Lake, then nine more years as a trail dog and wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

In those days, my mountain role models included a number of legendary climbers from the Northwest: Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, his twin brother Lou Whittaker, Willi Unsoeld and Fred Beckey, who has made hundreds of first ascents, more than any other North American climber.

But for me, the true king of the mountains was Reinhold Messner (below), a mountaineer, adventurer and author from South Tyrol, an autonomous province in northern Italy. Reading about his exploits in Outside Magazine in the 70s as I lay in the USFS bunkhouse at Lake Wenatchee, I was fascinated with his daring accomplishments.

And they were considerable: first solo ascent of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen, the first climber to ascend all 14 “eight-thousanders” (peaks over 8,000 meters, or 26,000 feet, above sea level), and the fastest-to-that-point ascent of the north face of The Eiger (below, left, with Monck on the right) in the Swiss Alps.

Messner championed the “alpine style” of mountaineering, which consists of climbing with very light equipment and a minimum of outside help or assistance. Messner viewed the “expedition style” of climbing as “siege tactics” that were disrespectful of the mountains and the natural environment.

Having just finished Reinhold Messner: My Life at the Limit, written by Thomas Heutlin in interview style punctuated with narrative, what struck me is how closely Messner’s philosophy of wilderness, adventure and climbing aligns with my own views and that of many of my mates from The Aldo Leopold Society (below).

On adventure: “I wanted to be an adventurer, but not an explorer in the established sense. I always wanted to visit the last great wildernesses, places where others couldn’t get so easily. I just wanted to head off into the wilderness, to climb cliffs, to roam the countryside; that’s all I wanted to do.”

On feelings of immortality: “Yes, there was a kind of na├»ve ‘it won’t get us’ feeling. It wasn’t that we were better than the others, but we’d just been through hell together; it couldn’t get any worse than that. You operate in a world where humans do not belong, a place where it seems totally irrational to go.”

On failure to summit: “What is forgotten is that we failed on a lot of things. In 60 percent of cases, we’d manage to get up the route; the other 40 percent we’d have to retreat. There were a lot of failed attempts, when we weren’t in good form or when we got scared. Or because the weather wasn’t good. Or because of something else.”

“Failure itself is not important. It’s what happens after that counts, the inner feelings, the turmoil and self-doubt, and how you deal with it. It can mean a new start, an opportunity to experience your limitations and to grow as a result. My attitudes have changed over the years, and this is largely due to my frequent failures.”

On climbing as sport: “Climbing mountains is not a sport, it’s not a game and it’s definitely not a religion. It is through resisting death that we humans experience what it is to be human. And it is in this seeming paradox that the most fundamental reasons for climbing mountains or seeking out extreme situations are to be found.”

“Gottfried Benn put it well when he said that mountaineering is about challenging death and then resisting it. Death has to be a possibility. The art of mountaineering lies in resisting it, in surviving. The symptom of my disorder is defined as a lust for life that comes from putting my life at risk.”

On being lucky: “It was a crazy time. And I was lucky enough to survive it; lucky that I didn’t make that one big mistake; lucky that, from 1972 onward, I was able to follow my dreams; lucky that I was able to get back down the mountain in time before things got too desperate. I’ve had more luck than any man deserves.”

On his biggest regret: “The death of my brother on Nanga Parbat. I came to the conclusion that life is limited and only worth something if you exploit its full potential, if you savor it to the fullest. After that tragedy, which nearly killed me, I lived life much more intensely. It challenged me to keep living with double the effort.”

Today, after serving a term as a member of the European Parliament, Messner now devotes much of his time to his Messner Mountain Museum project and to his philanthropy, the Messner Mountain Foundation, which aims to support mountain people worldwide.

On his museum projects: (It’s) “primarily concerned with what happens inside of a person when they encounter the mountains. When you climb a mountain, you come back down a different person. We don’t change the mountain by climbing it; we ourselves change. But plenty happens to the person. Up there all the masks fall.”

And future adventures? “Lower mountains and smaller deserts, and plenty of fun to be had.” When hiking, “I see myself and the world more clearly; I feel at one with the world. Walking also clears my head. It cleanses my mind and my spirit.” I concur. Walking is key to a sound mind and body. Glad I have a golden retriever for company.