Reinhold Messner Free Spirit: A Climber’s Life. Reinhold Messner. Translated by JillNeate. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1991. 250 pages, illustrated. $32.00. Although he is still well under 50, perhaps Messner has already accomplished too much for an autobiography. Too much, certainly, for this autobiography: not just the fourteen 8000-meter peaks (some of them more than once), but the highest points on all the continents, a sledge crossing of Antarctica, the Kilimanjaro icicle, numberless new routes in Europe, some solo or in foul conditions. Not to mention a medieval castle converted into a private residence, a divorce, a baby, and two brothers killed in the mountains. He has only two pages, for instance, for an ascent of K2; only two paragraphs for the traverse of Gasherbrum I and II. Much of the material may be found in greater detail in his many other books.
As so often when climbers tell their stories, the personal life barely exists. Some passages are introspective, but we learn little of Messner’s wife, who meets him at the Munich airport on his return from Dhaulagiri “to say adieu to me;” Messner merely observes that “marriage was perhaps not the best way of living together; at least, not when more time was spent in the Himalayas than at home.” Later we read of the birth of his daughter by another woman, whereupon mother and child virtually vanish from the book. The omissions extend to climbing relationships: only a photo caption alludes to the end of Messner’s famous partnership with Peter Habeler.
But if a lot is slighted or left out, plenty remains. Many of the accounts, especially the early ones of the Alps and Dolomites, remain exciting despite their brevity. And Messner does leave more room (though still less than the reader wishes) for some crucial climbs, particularly on Nanga Parbat. His first ascent, with the loss of his brother Günther, was a major episode in his life, as was his remarkable solo climb eight years later. The sheer profusion of achievements is astonishing. Far from content with seizing the likeliest summits and routes, Messner has sought out truly remote places: the Tibetan plateau, the New Guinea highlands, Antarctica. And he has never settled for the obvious or become complacent about his accomplishments. One famous instance: having reached the top of Everest without oxygen, he repeats the achievement by a different route—this time, solo.
Messner has firm and, to my mind, admirable views on the mountain environment. He rejects the drilling of bolts and is particularly harsh about their use on climbs that had been established without them. “For a pure climb on extreme rock a sporting spirit is a prerequisite . . . it is not climbing ‘by fair means’ to carry on using all available aids.” He has initiated “a small agricultural project in South Tyrol” that is run on ecological principles. “It is important that we leave all areas which we visit as we find them,” he writes near the end. “Deserts and mountains are a catalyst for our humanity.” He concludes with a strongly-urged tribute to Tomo Cesan, whose solo first ascent of Lhotse’s South Face embodies what Messner most admires: a solitary achievement, accomplished with great risk and in fine style.
Adding to the book’s attraction is its excellent production by The Mountaineers. The text, like the many photographs, both black-and-white and color, is on glossy paper, and the signatures are sewn. This volume is meant to last on your shelves.