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The Story of Reinhold Messner

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Radical innovation and doing what most people think is impossible are accomplished by very few. These leaders shine a light on the incredible capabilities and capacities that we humans possess. Reinhold Messner is one of these inspirational people.

Messner has accomplished extraordinary feats of mountaineering. Messner was the first man to climb:

  • Everest without extra oxygen (along with his colleague Peter Habeler)
  • Everest alone, in a solo climb
  • All 14 of the earth’s highest mountains

Messner is also the first person (along with a colleague) to walk across Antarctica via the South Pole without any animals or machines for help. His feats of endurance include walking across Greenland, Tibet, and the Gobi and Takla Makan desserts.

To understand enormity of Messner’s achievements, consider the contrast between Messner’s climb and first expedition to successfully climb Everest.

First Successful Everest Expedition 1953 Messner’s ascents in 1978 and 1980
350 porters, 20 sherpas and a dozen experienced climbers. Part of 12 member expedition but in a team of only two with Peter Habler
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used oxygen cylinders No use of oxygen. (Oxygen levels are 40% lower than normal near the summit, and it is called the “death zone”)
Expedition took a total of 3 months to complete and close to 3 weeks on the mountain On his solo climb it took Messner only three days from Base Camp to the Summit

Messner wrote about his first climb up Everest, “In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.”

The famous climber, Chris Bonington, has said about Messner: “There is a wall called ‘impossible’ that the great mass of people in any field face. Then one person who’s got a kind of extra imaginative drive jumps that wall. That’s Reinhold Messner.” Journalist Jon Krakauer describes Messner’s achievements as “a quantum leap. Like Copernicus, Messner had conceived a whole new way of seeing his world. He transformed mountaineering as we know it.”

Messner’s approach to his challenges involve disciplined and intensive training. Before each climb Messner would go on a strict diet, do practice climbs, long-distance running, and weight training. Messner’s pulse rate at rest was 42 beats per minute. (Indians have an average resting heart rate of
80 beats per minute).

While Messner has achieved so much, he cannot forget the death of his younger brother, Gunther, on Messner’s first Himalayan expedition. This was in 1970 when Gunther and Messner reached the summit of Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. On the way down Gunther was killed in an avalanche. Messner kept looking for his brother and lost six of his toes to frostbite while doing so but could not find Gunther. This tragedy may be one of the reasons behind Messner’s drive to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Messner is now a member of the European parliament representing the Green party. Messner speaks for the environment, sustainability, and the plight of Tibet.

Commenting on his achievements, Messner says, “I’m a fellow living a normal life. My mountain climbing has always been a way to put myself to the test. I’ve always gone where I met danger and [there was an] effort to test my skill. Making even little progresses is my dream. And it’s a dream that keeps me awake.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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