Friday, August 03, 2007

Mind Over Mountain 2

Of Mountains and of Man 2

Recently, while sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, I took to reading an article on the famous, or more correctly infamous, contemporary mountaineer Reinhold Messner (b. 1944) in the marvellous National Geographic. I had never heard of him before, but the accounts of his exploits highlighted here and there in the article drew me to read on to such an extent that I forgot that I was at the dentist and had to be called from my reveries in the high mountains when my turn came. My mountaineering, alas and alack, is very much of the virtual kind.

Messner is a colourful and fearless character. He has been an MEP (Green Party: Verdi) for his native South Tyrol (or Alto Adige in Italian) (1999-2004), that Alpine border between Italy and Austria. He is a native speaker of German. He never wore a suit and tie like his counterparts in the Parliament. He preferred black jeans, an open-necked black shirt and an orange and green Tibetan necklace. Reinhold had two younger brothers: Günther and Hansjörg. When Reinhold was age 13, he began climbing with his brother Günther, age 11. By the time Reinhold and Günther were in their early twenties they were among Europe's best climbers. He has conquered some fourteen Eight Thousanders, that is peaks which have a height of 8000 metres or more, Mount Everest three times and this last one twice without supplemental oxygen and once totally alone. What a feat – Herculean is the adjective that comes to mind.

Since the sixties he had become one of the most enthusiastic of supporters for a type of mountaineering called the “Alpine style”. This style consists of climbing with very light equipment and a minimum of external help. Messner considered the usual expedition style ("siege tactics") to be disrespectful towards nature and mountains. I have already mentioned how mountains exercise such an awesome impact on their climbers. No wonder because quite simply one can die of utter exposure on the very breast of their rocky beauty. Every mariner or sailor respects the utter and terrible beauty that is the sea. Every climber or mountaineer likewise respects the utter and terrible beauty of the mountains. I suppose it is consequently understandable that mountains (like the seas and rivers) were viewed by the ancients as sacred places and the homes of the gods.

Anyway, some of the things Messner had to say in that article struck home. I haven’t got a copy of it and cannot find one on the www so I’ll quote from my more than fallible memory. His first major Himalayan climb in 1970, Nanga Parbat, turned out to be a tragic success. Both he and his brother Günther Messner reached the summit, but Günther died two days later on the descent. Reinhold lost seven toes and three fingers, which had become badly frostbitten during the climb and required amputation.

He had much of interest to say in this article on taking risks and on man’s mortality. I will not be quoting him obviously, but the following thoughts I owe to Reinhold Messner. That’s what makes the whole mountaineering thing interesting and exhilaring for him – that very risk of almost tempting death. Let’s see what mortal man can do against the elements with all their might and all their awesome beauty. To live is to be mortal. To be mortal is to die, and more to know that you will die. And yet against all the odds we try to tame nature; we try to build great walls of defense against the might of the seas; we try to harness nature’s fearsome powers for our electricity; we try to scale ever higher peaks; we attempt to explore a miniscule part of space; then, we attempt to plumb the vast ocean depths; we attempt to build ever higher towers, some would say Babel-like! From the point of view of space we're a little anthill in the midst of infinity. In all this, we are pushed ever onward by our mortality. Likewise in the arts, I feel that it is our very own mortality that pushes us to create works of literature, great paintings, symphonies, sculptures and a host of other artistic things. In short, this whole desire to conquer and control our environment is at base a very human pursuit; the very desire to push our mortality to the brink, to see if we can create something a little more lasting than we. And yet our mortality teaches us that all will come to naught when we die. Our only consolation is that our offspring and the future generations will benefit from our sacrifices.

Above is a picture of a young Reinhold Messner.

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