The life of a self-determined person


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2015)

Not many people know how it feels to see the view from the peak of an eight-thousander. How it is to leave deep ice ravines, snowy slopes and murderous rocks behind them. Being at the edge of their physical and mental limits and despite this not loosing the will to get to the top – for others unattainable.

Reinhold Messner is an adventurer, author, former politician and museum founder. And – one of the most well-known extreme mountain climbers in the world. Messner has put mountain climbing, an end in itself and a physical and psychological borderline and personal experience, at the centre of his company. He climbed all 14 eight thousanders without bottled oxygen and has accomplished unbelievable sporting achievements in alpinism. Later, he crossed the Antarctic, Greenland and the Gobi desert. Messner belongs to a number of young alpinists who are rebelling against the commercialisation of the mountains, the cult of camaraderie and heroic phrases. He got pleasure out of breaking the sacred taboos of the climbing  world. He often rubbed people up the wrong way with his frequently polarised statements on mountain climbing, mass tourism and environmental questions.

For four decades, Reinhold Messner has collected experiences in the extreme corners of the world which have enabled him to create a chain of museums with a mountain theme – the ‘Messner Mountain Museum’ (MMM), which consists of six sites. Messner himself describes this project as his  ‘15th eight-thousander’. With the sixth and last building, the Messner Mountain Museum ‘Corones’, which was opened on 24th July 2015, he has now finished the project.

 “The Messner Mountain Museum is a meeting point with the mountain, with humanity, and ultimately with yourself”, Reinhold Messner explains to us at a visit to Schloss Sigmundskron, the headquarters of the museum in South Tirol. We speak to the legendary mountain climber about his borderline experiences, his personal conception of man and how he sees his life today, at 71.

How did you come across the idea of opening a museum? And then six at once?

Reinhold Messner: Essentially, everyone is capable of creating something. I happen to be a mountain climber who has created a museum. Of course I stick to my achievements. It has become a museum with a centre and five ‘satellites’. I wanted that in each museum, you feel connected to the world outside which represents the theme inside. The rock museum ‘Dolomites’ for example, is built on a rock face and around it are a thousand mountain peaks. The new museum ‘Corones’ has the theme ‘traditional alpinism’ and opens your eyes to the Dolomites and the central Alps and so on. Each ‘satellite’ of the museum has its very own theme and that’s why there are six of them.

You use the key word ‘traditional alpinism’, that is the style which you have influenced. What do you understand this to be and what is special about it?

R. m.: I didn’t invent the style; I only influenced it for a short time. Traditional alpinism is being on the move in an archaic landscape with an anarchic attitude and anarchic behavioural patterns. It’s not about sports or science or anything, but getting your bearings in the wilderness. The art of it is not dying.

You defended yourself against authority and paternalism very early on and place great value on the authority of the individual. What exactly is your conception of man?

R. m.: I insist upon autonomous decision-making and self-determination. The self-determined life is most important for me. Although all the IT technology today takes away a lot of this. In the past, religions took away people’s self-determination, and today bureaucracy does the same. The fact that we have to be politically organised in large societies and that there are rules is clear – even that we have to give away some of this self-determination as a result. When I break out of this civilisation either in small groups or alone, there is no-one who has power over me anymore. I don’t want to have anyone above me exercising power over me, nor anyone under me over whom I can exercise my power.

That means that in the wilderness only nature sets the limits?

R. m.: Yes, nature is the law-maker. Not only the nature outside, but also the nature within us. In us is a ‘human nature’ which tells us exactly how to act. The religions were just a means of power. Some people thought out a way of connecting their rules to the heavens or to a ‘higher power’ so that people would follow them.

But don’t a lot of people get their strength and perseverance from their religion?

R. m.: I don’t think so, but they can get sympathy from religion. Maybe they can increase their perseverance by believing in a higher power that controls them. I have nothing against religions, I just want to say – religions are a priori means of power, as they are all thought out by people, there is no god-made religion. All gods, whether from a cultural group, Hindu, Greek, Egyptian, they are all man-made creations. Whoever hasn’t understood this will find it difficult to live a fulfilled life because he will be caught by religion. Of course the Pope won’t have any joy with me!

Laotse said: “I observe myself and understand the others as a result.” In your book ‘Über Leben’ you describe your journey through life, the sometimes extreme action you take, and yourself in the reflection of human nature itself. How do you see yourself in contrast to our society?

R. m.: I believe that I have taken my knowledge of a world which hardly exists today – from the wilderness. As a result, I have gained ‘primary’ insight of how prehistoric man thought. Today, people still think in a similar way when they are exposed to the wilderness. I expose myself, I go in and come out again, I am not always on the move here. That’s how I experience both worlds: civilisation and wilderness.

I wrote a book in 2014 as if I lived 10,000 years ago. If we strip all the coats of paint from our lives, the prehistoric man can be seen – the one created by nature, changed up to a point. We will continue to change but at the high speed of the past 10,000 years and the even greater speed of the past 100 years. As a result of the development of communication, we have not been able to adapt fast enough and have completely fallen behind the times. We could just talk about how we will slay the game so that woman and child have something to eat. Essentially, we humans have not come much further.

Did you have a vision of how your life would be when you were young and how has that changed during the course of your life?

R. m.: No, I didn’t have a vision of how my life would be. I obediently followed the rules of the village community and then went to secondary school in Bozen and to university and believed I had to learn a profession. Of course you need a wide knowledge, otherwise you can’t communicate or succeed in today’s society. Above all you need enthusiasm for doing your thing. That’s how skills develop - in a completely natural way. I can even have many ‘professions’ like this in life. Particularly our next generation will need to change paths again and again and learn something new.

How often have you had to start again in life?

R. m.: I have changed paths six times to date. At 25 I was in the situation that I couldn’t do three things anymore – pursuing my passion for clothes, my job as a teacher in order to finance my studies and my degree itself. So I decided to follow my greatest passion. That’s where I stayed. Always, when I was bored or I had exhausted my skills in one field, when I noticed that I couldn’t do anymore with something, I didn’t have enough strength or energy, I ‘changed’ the job and started something new. In doing this I have lead six lives and I will start a seventh because otherwise life would be boring.

In what situation were you at such a limit, had exhausted your abilities and knew you had come to an end?

R. m.: In 1970 I couldn’t climb as well as I could in earlier days because my feet had frozen and I had had to have amputations. I had to decide what was to be done. Do I stay with my degree and become an architect or do I pursue my adventures? In the second phase I became a high-altitude climber. That is a completely different thing to climbing. I did that for 15 years intensively, climbed all eight-thousanders, wrote many books, held presentations and boxed my way through as a freelancer. That’s how I came upon my final lifestyle. At 55 I realised that I would never be able to climb so well as I had, never be able to climb so high and never have the single-mindedness to cross the Antarctic. But I had a great collection of objects of art and I had time and valuable contacts. That’s why I am putting my know-how and my collections into a museum. 

In your book ‘Über Leben’ you describe that being on the move in the wilderness and therefore being in danger was a large part of your life from early on. Did you gain any special knowledge from these situations?

R. m.: Yes, absolutely. I have gained most of my insight, which I take very seriously, from my contact with the wilderness. Or with people who partly still live in this free landscape. People who I met, who I needed, who helped or accompanied me.

How does that help you in civilisation?

R. m.: The museum is proof of this. It is a completely normal civil activity. Many people in large cities create museums. I had it fixed in my head that I would do it completely alone and it was clear to me that I had to achieve it completely financially independently. We don’t accept any subsidies, even if we had them offered to us, and are therefore completely free. Self-determination is only possible that way, like in the wilderness. Otherwise we would have a committee that would have a say on everything and the museum would be a complete compromise.

Do you have a special ritual when you go into the mountains?

R. m.: Merely packing the rucksack, imagining what I am letting myself in for is a ritual. Rituals began when people were allowed to concentrate on something. That’s what you do when you go into the wilderness. Because the possibility of injuring yourself or dying is much more intense than it is in a secured life.

Apparently crossing the desert Gobi was a turning point for you? You said that the future meant climbing uphill – at that time you were going downhill, home. What happened?

R. m.: Home to my family, home to my country, where the museum project began. Yes that’s right, I’m going home. And home to the realisation that it’s all downhill from here physically. In the Gobi desert I was at the limits of my strength. Ten years earlier I would have managed it much more easily. But at 60 I was at the limits of my strength. No matter whether the joints, the back or the endurance. But I was completely OK with this and for the first time I thought seriously a lot about the aging process. Age is one thing, for me it was more about the aging itself, the process. And the more you know that the end is getting closer, that aging will get more difficult, the easier you can accept it. It will be really difficult, not because death is the consequence but more the physical ailments, difficulties of all types – the increasingly limited ability to move, dementia and much more. 

I have only seen one picture of you without a beard. Can you remember when you were last clean-shaven? Were you ever?

R. m.: Yes, that was on the Gobi crossing. I shaved in Mongolia because the Mongolese, especially the Nomads living in the desert, see the beard as unclean like the Tibetans. They pull each beard hair out individually. If you cross their country and in some circumstances find shelter in their tents, you should face them as their culture sees acceptable.

Is it true that you couldn’t swim for a long time?

R. m.: I still can’t swim and I won’t learn how to anymore. In our valley there was quite simply no swimming pool and no lake. We left the valley for the first time in puberty. In Bozen there was a swimming pool but we were never in Bozen in the summer, we were in the mountains. Later, I went to the sea now and then, on my expeditions too. But it was always too short a time, never long enough to tackle swimming. 


Picture credits © Anton Corbijn/Getty Images

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