Now 76 years old, explorer and mountaineer Reinhold Messner looks back on a career that’s one of the most extraordinary of the last century. With his most harrowing exploits, a political career and other accomplishments behind him, Messner now lectures and writes, having published over 80 books. Recently, he also partnered with watchmaker Montblanc on a special bronze edition of the brand’s mountaineering-themed world-time watch, the Geosphere.
He’s traversed the most challenging and remote places on earth with minimal gear, but Messner’s kit always includes a watch. When in 1980 he became the first person to complete a solo summit of Mount Everest, Messner wore a Rolex Oysterquartz — and he’s been known to wear an Omega Speedmaster and other watches throughout his adventuring. The special-edition Montblanc Geosphere not only has a world-time function with northern and southern hemisphere displays, but also marks on the dial the seven most challenging summits on each continent, known as the Messner List.
Though his resume is a catalog of firsts (9 in the Guinness Book of World Records, famously including first ascents without the use of supplementary oxygen), superlatives and generally varied and remarkable feats, it’s clear that the experiences themselves are what matter to him. He’s seen first-hand the effects of climate change on the glaciers over the decades, and has long been an environmental advocate. He also has some choice words on the difference between mountaineers and tourists.
We were lucky to have the chance to speak with one of the greatest adventurers of all time about these topics and more.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Were the greatest challenges of your career physical or mental? How did you overcome those challenges — training, willpower, a combination?
A. It’s a combination of many things. The first thing was instinct, which I gained in my youngest years when I had the opportunity to climb with my father first and afterwards with my younger brother. We did many, many simple things in the Dolomites and in the Alps. And so, the experience became like an instinct.
In my young years, I could react for the better to the deepness of certain lines which we found on the wall. Later on, organization was also important because on higher mountains you could not go hoping to find a grocery store or something. You had to start from Europe with all your equipment, it had to be measured in an exact way. The logistics were calculated quite well for knowing how long we have and how long we need to go back to safety again.
So, there’s a large necessity for mental power and physical training. These are necessary before starting a huge expedition.
Q. Is there a single piece of gear that holds special significance for you? Do you still have it?
A. I still have a few pieces in my cellar. But you know that I built six museums on the topic of the mountains, with a center and five satellite museums. There, we have not hundreds, but thousands of relics of famous climbers who lived before me. They are much more important than my relics. A relic means a hammer from a famous mountaineer, shoes of the sherpas, the shoes of 1850. But this is only possible to see when you go there.
I built this museum with the tactic to use relics, to use art to tell the stories. So there’s a picture, painting, and nearby maybe the rope of Hermann Buhl or the ice axe or Hermann Buhl, a rare one, which in combination have an emotional impact.
Q. What’s the most surprising or unusual piece of gear you make sure to bring on every trip?
A. I never look to always have the same stuff with me, though some people do this. I have a mascot [lucky item], the mascot of Bonatti. [Walter] Bonatti was the leading climber worldwide of the ’50s and ’60s and he gave me his mascot before his death. It’s a very nice thing which he had on K2 and on many, many ascents. This is in the museum. But I did not have one. I never had a mascot.
There is no single piece of gear I used in all my ascents. I changed it because the equipment changed. I am active since 1949 when I did my first ascent in the Dolomites. And afterwards, the ascents became bigger and bigger. In the beginning, we had virtually nothing. In the ’60s and ’70s, I would say I had quite a lot of material, but afterwards I learned to leave it behind. At the end, I went with virtually nothing.
Q. Over your career, how did material innovations such as lighter gear, waterproof materials, etc. help you achieve success?
A. It’s clear that I used modern equipment like Goretex jackets or new ropes. But I also climbed with the first ropes people used in the last centuries.
But my art was not to use better and better materials or more and more equipment: my art was to eliminate. Clearly I needed clothes, I needed shoes, I needed a special ice axe, whatever. But I left about 90% of what normal people use, and this was the key to my success. I did all these lightweight expeditions, I did them much quicker than others, I spent a tenth of the money others needed for doing the same thing because they brought too much gear to the mountains.
My art is reduction; Reduction, reduction, reduction.
Q. Mountaineers now have access to GPS, better gear and satellite images to plan routes — what has this done for the field? Is there a greater reliance on technology?
A. It’s logical that people today are using this technology because it exists. I was very lucky that it was not possible to phone from Everest when I climbed Everest. I was far away from civilization. A letter which I wrote at base camp to my parents reached home maybe four weeks later. And I could not get information from home.
For me, it was very important to be exposed in this way, to be far away from civilization, far away from any possibility of being saved in case of emergency. With a telephone, there is the possibility to send a picture from the summit of an 8,000 meter peak to all of the medias around the world, and this has been done.
There is the danger that many young people who are not very well prepared go just to show something, but in reality they don’t do these adventures. They only go for a picture, to send a picture and go home. They can go to certain places with helicopters that do these pictures, and so the storytelling about this achievement is very vague and not real.
There are other risks and mistakes made, especially in the Alps. Many young people, but also older people, they go into the mountains with no good equipment, they are not prepared. And when they are stuck, because they see night coming in and they didn’t look at their watch before starting, they call the helicopter, the rescue people, and they bring them home.
And if you know that in case of emergency the helicopter is immediately there, it changes your view of the mountain, it changes your mind.
Q. What role have watches played in your adventures? Are they necessary?
A. I never used artificial oxygen in my life but I always used a watch, different watches, and now I have the Montblanc watch. But the watch is important for adventurers for logistics: you have to know how much time it takes to reach the summit because it’s also important to know how much time is necessary to return to safety.
I would say that it’s also possible to go into the wilderness without a watch and to see when the weather is changing, when the sun is coming up so I can start, when sun is setting and I can lie down… And people a thousand years ago, they lived in this way. But we are much more sophisticated in our expeditions.
We have to calculate in grams and in centimeters what we are handling before we start, so we need the watch to know where we are and the time we have at our disposal. Especially as a rock climber, as a traverser of Antartica, you will quite quickly lose the feeling for time. If you are only concentrating you don’t know that a minute has passed. So we use a watch to be orientated time-wise.
Q. What aspect of the Montblanc Geosphere resonates most with your personality or career?
A. On this watch, I see the Seven Summits. I see the northern hemisphere where I spent a long time. I see the southern hemisphere, where I also spent a long time. In my life, I tried to reach the most remote areas of the world: less in the jungle, but also in the jungle, the biggest deserts, the big ice fields, Greenland, the South Pole, North Pole and the high mountains. And in all these points which I could reach, I used the minimum equipment, only what I needed. But a watch was always [among] this equipment.
Q. Are mountaineers, by nature, environmentalists? How is climate change affecting mountaineering and exploring?
A. The tragic thing is that in the mountains all over the world, we see and we suffer from climate change more than in the big cities — but the problems are coming from the big cities: from industry, from overpopulation, from traffic and so on. Mountaineers are not destructive if they make a fire somewhere, and tourism in the mountains is not the problem.
The problem is that we are too many in this world. The problem is that in a hundred years we used more than half of all the fuel, the fossil energy, and we produce a lot of CO2. And now we see the consequences in the mountains: big pieces, like a small city, falling down; there are storms, very strong storms; in America there’s a big problem of fires coming from the dry woods. And these are the consequences of global warming.
I try to be accurate in my lectures and my films and tell about these changes in the mountains because I see them. I don’t need the scientists to tell me there is a problem: I see it in the mountains, in the woods, in high places in the glaciers. The glaciers are slowly disappearing, in Antarctica less, but in Greenland huge pieces are collapsing and falling in the Arctic Ocean.
Two hundred years ago in the Alps, some farmers were very afraid because the glaciers were growing — and now most of the glaciers will be gone. It will be a big problem for the people living in the Alps because they will miss the sweet water, they will also lack water for irrigation. And we produce a lot of energy with the glacier water, but if the glaciers are gone, there is no more equilibrium.
I tell this story, the effects which I see, but I have no clear answer. Okay, we could change, we could reduce our consumption, but if somebody were to run for president in any nation, and tell us that all of us have to reduce consumption, you will not get the votes to be a politician.
I think we need a long time, not only decades, we need much more time to reach equilibrium in our habitat again. We will not survive in a habitat which is out of control, out of equilibrium.
Q. How do you see the future of adventuring? Which mountaineers are now leading examples for the field?
A. Now, we have great mountaineers. I’ll tell you two names: John Roskelley, who was maybe the bravest high-altitude climber in the ’80s and ’90s, a genius high-altitude climber. And now we have [Alex] Honnold who did this solo ascent in Yosemite Valley which showed that he is beyond any dimension which was thinkable before him.
And there will be more great alpinists around the world because alpinism began in the alps 250 years ago, and now it’s growing as a global activity.
But most of the climbers are only going into climbing. It’s a beautiful sport, but this is not alpinism, it has nothing to do with the encounter between man and nature. This kind of sport will be an Olympic game next year, and you will see these young girls and young boys running 20 meters up an artificial wall on artificial holds and doing it in different ways.
We have another fact that many people are going to the Himalayas, also to Mount Everest. The local people, by the hundreds, go first and prepare a piste. You know, a piste where you can ski, but in this case, it’s a piste that’s for hiking. So they hike on a piste, on a prepared way, with doctors, with extra helpers, guides, oxygen, and there’s a huge infrastructure for the summit — this is tourism.
The tourists are going where there is infrastructure available. Alpinists go where there are no other people and no infrastructure, none at all.