The Seventh Grade, by Reinhold Messner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 160 pages, 30 photos, 1 map. $8.50.
Messner’s book seems to have improved a lot since it was published a year or so ago (“Pass the crow, please, George.” “Certainly, Marshall: like some more of these delicious feathers?” “Certainly, I’d love some.”). A couple of mountaineering eons have passed since then, marked by Messner and Habeler s recent ascent of Hidden Peak in unbelievable style; insult to the injury of their earlier Eigerwand jaunt, which was, by comparison, merely amazing. How should we read these omens? This little book will, perhaps, explain it all.
It’s an impressionistic piece, a haughty sandwich of interior monolog with old-fashioned climbing narrative. The climbs described here live mostly in Messner’s own stomping-ground, the Dolomites. Messner alternates classics with exotic-sounding obscures, and one might as well be another, to any ear but Messner’s. Taking turns with these passages are darker studies, strangely borne in italics, which offer us enigmatic musing, incomprehensible chest-thumping and physical-fitness advice.
So built, the book is a peculiar species of tale—more explanation than narrative—with no calibration of text-weight to magnitude of route. Bouldering on a sawmill wall is treated in detail, while the northeast face of Yerupajá is polished off in a clause, with, apparently, total disregard for dramatic effect. Mountaineering literature traditionally goes all out for the chills and chuckles, but this is very strange. Bold or inept? Psychological? Mystical? One hardly knows.
On the nuts-and-bolts level, the prose—a translation—belongs to no recognizable idiom of English. Rather, it might have been collated from the output of a room full of teletypes, then filtered vigorously through a thesaurus. What are we to think of a sentence like this: “While I was climbing, I kept thinking of extravagant expressions’ such as overhang, straddling, prussik knots and the like.”? Is this enigmatic? If not, what? But, while rooting through this strange fuzz, we occasionally turn up an improbable pearl: recalling climbing up the summit waterfall of the Punta Tissi (topping off his solo ascent of the Philipp Flamm) the Messner mask speaks a familiar tongue: “There are many such ravines in the Dolomites, but for me there is only one like a strangler’s hand.” Yes, indeed.
We miss here the humane wit and self-mockery of a Tilman, or the love and malapropulous comedy of Mazeaud (who sees his hungover companions “happily chatting and vomiting” on a ledge below,) but we also miss a certain amount of point at the same time. This book is, apparently by design, an illustrated argument about the role of style and the role of difficulty in the concoction of grandeur; about what it may mean to be the world’s best living mountaineer. One who expects a good climbing yarn might well look elsewhere, for The Seventh Grade, as yarn, is barely readable. It’s quite another story; possibly a useful set of program notes for astounding climbs to come. As the man fares, so fares the mask. We plan to be listening when the mask elects to speak again, in however private a voice. Consider this: Messner reflects on the Nanga Parbat ordeal, that “Accompanied by a man like Peter Habeier, I would risk trying an 8000-metre peak, having an equal chance and less risk than when attached to a great expedition with all its customary ballyhoo.” Promised then; and now performed. Messner is a practical prophet, as good as his word. Not a bad yarn, at that.
George Lowe and Marshall Ralph