The Challenge, by Reinhold Messner, Translated by Noel Bowman and Audrey Salkeld. New York: Oxford University Press and London: Kay and Ward, 1977. 205 pages, photographs. Price: $12.50.
Nineteen seventy-five was a banner year for Himalayan mountaineering. There were classic big-expedition successes and memorable failures— and one small-expedition success that opened a whole new era. Reinhold Messner’s The Challenge recounts that success.
What Messner did was climb an 8000-meter mountain, Hidden Peak (26,470 feet) with one partner, no fixed high camps or high porters, no oxygen and only 200 kilograms of gear. The pair were only five days from Base Camp to the summit and back. They didn’t even rope up, and every step above the first bivouac required finding a new route. Possibly only Messner and Peter Habeler could have pulled off so big a success; few climbers are as gifted. They have endurance, speed and mountain sense unequalled in the world. Although Messner had done extremely difficult climbs in fast times and had gone on big expeditions, the Hidden Peak ascent sets a sort of exclamation point to the strand of Messner’s climbing—and writing—that is assuring his place in history. Virgin ground being nowhere as common as before, he seeks to get up a wall or face or ridge or peak not by heavy engineering, but by using only the most classic and basic of tools: boots, axe and crampons. He brings to the game will, training, balance, care and what genetics have endowed him with. Style becomes a new horizon.
It is no longer rare to climb the Eigerwand, once the hardest of faces. Some day two-man climbs of Himalayan giants may be common. There have already been a significant number of alpine-style climbs in Asia, but it took Messner and Habeler to push back the edge of the impossible to new horizons.
The Challenge actually encompasses two 1975 expeditions. It begins with Ricardo Cassin’s Italian team on an attempted direct route up Lhotse’s south face. The opening chapters are episodic, in a way one doesn’t expect from climbers’ books. There is no day-to-day plotting of campments or shuffling of loads, but quick sketches of standing hip- deep in a slanted snowfield, casting about for a belay stance; whiling away hours at Base Camp; the fright and will to live; being swept up in an avalanche. It begins, too, on an unwonted note of depression—a fellow-member’s disenchantment with big-expedition work, his homesickness, and dissatisfaction with being unable to climb with any style, humping loads, and never knowing whether he’ll have a chance at the summit or only be able to applaud when the expedition star comes back from the top. The Lhotse expedition tried for six weeks, couldn’t place more than three camps and was finally driven off by avalanches. Perhaps they chose an impossible objective—impossible for 1975, anyway.
The contrasts between Lhotse and Hidden Peak are obvious, deliberate, and couldn’t have been more to the point.
The Challenge takes on a drumming rhythm with Habeler and Messner on their way to Hidden Peak, a fine drive and suspense as they crossed rivers, bargained for food, visited other expeditions, set up camp, addressed the ice slopes, and finally did what no one had thought could be done, put a lie to so many truisms of big-mountain climbing and made Messner the first man to climb three 8000-meter peaks—and made Habeler a rarity, too, a summit climber on his first Himalayan expedition.
One reads The Challenge for what it recounts, not for itself; the book is curiously flat, and the translation is clunky. Messner, like many writers on climbing, is athlete first, aesthete later.
Nineteen seventy-five has provided great reading: Rowell’s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods and Bonington’s Everest: The Hard Way stand out. One wishes the book on the most historic of the year’s climbs weren’t the weakest. At least, one wants a few of Bonington’s technical notes. Messner and Habeler took not one match too few or too many, but how many matches is that?
The English version of this book is entitled The Challenge. In the Italian version (Messner speaks both German and Italian) it was entitled Two and one (eight-thousander)—a subtle play on words concerning two 8000-meter peaks and only one success, as well as two men versus one 8000-meter peak. But perhaps another hidden aspect is that of a choice offered the reader—between two styles of climbing and of writing. Messner, the well known and accomplished climber has finally emerged into his own as Messner, the writer.
A dozen photographs, both in color and black and white, are grouped through the text, some of them quite remarkable.