Weekend Warm-Up: Messner

Messner is the mountaineer. His Everest solo was number one on our top 10 expeditions of the past 50 years. Now in his twilight years, he remains an almost a mythological figure and arguably the greatest climber of all time, or so says fellow pantheon member Chris Bonington.

Messner, a documentary by Les Guthman, premiered in 2004. The 45-minute feature covers a lot of ground. From Messner’s childhood to the tragic loss of his brother on Nanga Parbat and ultimately his iconic Everest climbs, first with Peter Habeler (and importantly, without oxygen), and then his solo effort in 1980.

Principally, the film focuses on Messner’s mind. Physiologically, he does not seem to have been abnormally gifted but he achieved feats thought impossible. Messner describes the thing that separates him as instinct, honed from the age of five in the Dolomites and then tested on the highest mountains in the toughest conditions.

Messner’s desire to challenge himself is central to this concept of a mental edge. Solo expeditions are no more challenging physically, he says. However, on early solo trips, whether rock-climbing or mountaineering, he found that he was afraid. “With partners, you divide the danger…and double the joy,” he explains. For Messner, this fear was just another challenge to be overcome, a reason to climb solo.

Unsurprisingly, as an early proponent of alpine style, Messner’s climbing ethos insists that “The evolution of climbing depends on the mental approach to the impossible. If we kill the impossible with technical equipment, climbing will be gone forever.”

Through most of the film, Messner’s edge, and famous ego, are notably absent. He comes across as a warm, personable man, content in his castle(!). We see only one flash of fire when he is asked about Habeler’s characterization of their Everest descent. In Habeler’s telling, Messner was helplessly snowblind and completely reliant on him while descending. Here, Messner is at his most blunt: Habeler shit on him. The two never climbed together again.

Because of the film’s privacy settings, we can’t embed it, but you can watch it here: