Messner the myth maker

Reinhold Messner has marketed the concept of the Himalaya as a "dream factory" only too well. He is better-known throughout Europe than any Asian politician. Whether or not he is a good ambassador of the people of the Himalaya is for the people of the Himalaya to decide.

If you ask school children in Austria or Germany about the Himalayan region, the first world that they will eagerly mention is "Messner", and follow it up with a cliche from the late 1980s: "He´s there looking for the Yeti." On the subject of Nepal, they know that it is "the country of Everest", the highest mountain in the world, and that there is a lot of garbage lying around there. With regard to the people of Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Tibet, they have very little idea. Ask any adult, and you do not get much more satisfaction. How did discovering the Yeti and the rubbish dumps on Chomolongma Base Camp come to be regarded by Europeans as among South Asia´s most urgent problems? Part of the answer, perhaps a major part of it, is Reinhold Messner, a story teller with a mass audience.

The Himalaya had existed for 120 million years …then along came Reinhold Messner. He did manage to be the first person to make it to the top of all the world´s 14 peaks that are above 8000m. But, even more significantly, he has managed to implant his ideas of the Himalaya on the minds of hundreds of thousands of people in a way that few other adventurers have. His books were read like the Holy Scriptures. Many Europeans gain their secondhand knowledge of the Himalaya through them.

Reinhold´s Ascent

Messner is now 48. He was born in the South Tyrol mountains of northern Italy bordering Austria in 1944, when the star of the Axis powers was on the wane and this region, like the rest of Europe, was about to undergo massive reorganisation.

Messner grew into adulthood in the 1960s, when university students were rising up in revolt against militarism, and against those of the older generation who had thrived under the National Socialists and had yet to come to terms with the present. The youth of the 1960s, Messner included, had had enough of the rigid and inflexible ways of the older generation of politicians. In one interview Messner even conceded that had tilings turned out differently, he might well have become a terrorist. But in die end, he chose the gentler path —- rock climbing in his native Dolomites. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the military and the nationalists had dominated mountaineering in Europe and climbers spoke their language. Like the adventurers of the British Raj, German climbers in the 1930s littered their language with words such as fight, conquest, battle, victory and defeat as they thrust their ice-axes into the heart of Asia in the name of Adolf Hitler. Even after World War II, the expedition reports in Germany, England, Italy, France and Switzerland continued to read like battle campaigns. National flags were among His most important icons to be carried on expeditions.

Only in the United Stales, it seemed, was climbing regarded as a non-military sport and as a symbol of free and liberal thinking. A product of the 1960s university culture, Messner similarly rejected the regimen ted ideology of the European expeditions. As he gained experience in the Dolomites, he discarded the traditional method of rock-climbing ´by force´, where the climbers of the day used as many technical aids as possible to reach the top. In the new thinking that was taking hold, one´s own body. one´s own thoughts, strength and perserverance were more important.

These days, Messner likes to call himself the "inventor" of that new thinking. He certainly was one of the pioneering world-class climbers who succeeded ill communicating the new idea of the climb to the masses. He is also among those who later started a revolution in the Himalaya with their top performance — which made large seige-style expeditions, rivalry in equipment and nationalism all passe. Sadly, every revolution consumes its leaders, and Messner proved no exception.

Most of Messner´s earlier mountaineering colleagues are no longer friends of his. Many claim to have suffered under his egoistic behaviour and lack of consideration. Messner defends himself by maintaining that these are but individuals envious of his achievements. Hans Kammerlander and Friedl Mutschlechner (who died two years ago), both from South Tyrol, were the only ones to have maintained a long term friendship with Messner.

In 1989, Messner and the German explorer Arved Fuchs crossed Antarctica on foot, but their great achievement was soon forgotten in a flurry of accusations and recrimination. Messner had given a German magazine the exclusive rights to his diaries in which his partner, Fuchs, clearly came across as a weakling. The reporter never bothered lo check with Fuchs. The words of

Waller Bonatti, the Italian who was one of the world´s best climbers of the 1950s, sums up what many erstwhile colleagues feel of Messner: "All the success could have been more enjoyable and of greater significance and could have been more convincing, were it not for the publicity surrounding Messner."
The ace climber still sports long hair, and sometimes he wears colourful 1960s clothing. But he has long been a willing part of the establishment of Western consumer society. He advises businessmen on surviving under hard conditions and sells him self as well as the products of multinational companies by appearing in their advertisements. It is fashionable in the West to compare hard business with survival in the wilderness — Darwinism in marketing, whose best proponent is Messner.

Tyrolian Yak-Herder
On television, this world traveller and image-builder describes himself as a semi-nomad or, sometimes, as a mountain-farmer. You could take it as a joke, but he is dead serious. On closer examination, the only thing that would justify´ this master of a castle in the Tyrol calling himself a mountain-farmer is the fact that he keeps a few yaks (imported from Nepal) on his estate.

Among scholars of contemporary European culture, Messner is considered one of the founders of an industry which has moulded popular images of Asia since the 1970s. If Europeans regard the mountains of Asia as mystical adventure playgrounds in which they can act out their ego-trips, it is because of the en tire tourism industry´s message and its use of Messner as prophet. Contemporary writers present a rather idealistic view of the Himalaya to their Western readers.

Messner, despite his self-appointed role as the region´s ambassador to the West, has done nothing to counter the stereotypical image of Himalayan peoples as sturdy primitives who are always religious and/or friendly, making a meagre living in harmony with their surroundings. Even in today´s Himalayan climbing literature, there is glorification of the ´good Sherpa´ — a concept which in the view of Viennese anthropologist, Christian Schicklgruber, contains elements of "positive racism".

In describing the Sherpas as the content denizens of Shangri La, Messner omits any description of social conflicts—the mechanisms of exploitation, poverty and oppression that pervade Himalayan society. The impression derived from Messner´s books is that the Sherpa world is still intact. Like other mountaineering writers, he has failed to describe the severe cultural strain from the very expeditions and climbers that have brought the rest of the world into the lives of the inhabitants of the high Khumbu.

The real internal turmoil in the Khumbu docs not fit with Messner´s vision of a seemingly intact Sherpa world. Numerous young Sherpas today think only of making quick money from tourism and fail to pursue studies. Quite a few are fleeing the country and immigrating to the United Stales, Canada or Japan. One young university graduate confessed that the social climate in the Khumbu was becoming unbearable. "Many of us no longer understand the world we live in. We have forgotten our traditions, customs and crafts."

None of this, of course, makes its way into the climbing magazines, even though it is mountaineering (with trekking riding its coat-tails) that wrought the dislocation of Sherpa life in the Khumbu. Even while they ignore the complicated issues of cultural inundation and conflict, however, it is fashionable for contemporary climbers and authors to draw attention to environmental problems in the Himalaya, And in this Messner has been no laggard. While continuing to paint beatific pictures of Himalayan culture and society, he has been peddling the old wine of environmental degradation on the lecture circuits of Europe and North America. But he talks not of the deforestation and top-soil loss of the lower, populated hillsides, where you would perforce have to talk about. Instead, for the past few years, Messner has been selling the idea of´ White Wilderness" (his term), the snowy ranges of the world which needs preservation.

In his multivision shows, Messner often speaks of the need to protect nature. His photographs are always great, but his narration is simplistic. In addition, Messner always tends to project his own personality and has no activist words — unlike the 65-year-old mountain man Karl Partsch, who works in forestry projects, fights for the Alps at ground level, and is in contact with international movements and Native Americans in various crusades. Messner only talks in banalities about the White Wilderness.

Messner the Myth Maker
Messner illustrates one of his books with drawings by the Sherpa painter,. Kapa Gyalzen, from Khumjung village. "However, the artist is not even mentioned on the cover of the book. In this very place, Khumjung, and its sister-village, Khunde, one hears of polite dissatisfaction when the subject turns to Messner. Some men who worked in his earlier expeditions make no secret of the fact that they are greatly disappointed by him. There was some talk in the beginning that Messner would be involved in development projects, much as Edmund Hillary is. "Messner makes promises which he does not keep…No good man," says one Sherpa elder.

Messner, however, gives the impression to his European reader that the Sherpas consider him one of their best friends. "Many thought of Messner as one of them," we learn from his wonderfully illustrated 1987 book The Way to Cho Oyu, The Sherpas are thus dragged in to be part of the cult following of the mountaineer. Incidentally, he opens the book with the rather immodest use of a quote taken from Tibetan Buddhism: "Lhagyelo — the Gods have won victory." Only two pages of the 240-page book deal with the natives of Nepal and Pakistan, on whose 8000m mountains much of Messner´s fame rests.

It speaks volumes about Messner´s public relations acumen that he continues to be regarded as a world champion when other, younger climbers, have set standards that have far bettered Messner´s own. None of younger European mountaineers, such as the Slovene Tomo Cesen, on the Lhotse South Face, have been able to snatch even a small portion of aura that continues to surround Messner. In fact. Messner´s decades-long publicity blitz has so saturated the sponsorship market that newcomers are facing great difficulty finding companies to support expeditions to the Himalaya.

Last summer, in a castle called Goldegg in the province of Salzburg, Messner took it upon himself to publicly criticise the increasingly rapid destruction of the Alps. To some, this smacked of hypocrisy, coming from a person who had done the most with his commercial endorsements and publicity of his dramatic exploits to drive the masses to the mountains. Harald Krcmser, manager of Austria´s national nature reserve Hohe Tauern, pointed out from the audience thai Messner was actually both a beneficiary and proponent of mass tourism in ecologically sensitive areas such as the Alps and the Himalaya. He wondered if it was possible for Messner to take a back seat and do without all the publicity. Messner´s answer to Kremser was telling of the man and his ego. "You want me to commit suicide? I am not responsible for those who imitate me. If I did what you ask of me to, it would mean my death. I can´t help it. I have to fight my own way through the wilderness."

Messner is not even shy of providing impromptu political analysis of the Himalayan region when required. In early 1990, with Nepal in the midst of the JanaAndolon, the newsroom producers at Austrian television could think of no other than Messner to provide a review of the Pane hay at politics. By character, Messner is not one to t>3ck out when the TV cameras beckon. "You are thought of as a friend of the King of Nepal. Please tell us about what has happened in Kathmandu," said the newsman. Messner, who would hardly deny imputation of friendship in high places, made a valiant effort but in the end, understandably, his commentary lacked depth and understanding of Nepali politics.

Jerzy Kukuczka was no friend of the King´s. For a long time, this dedicated mountaineer from Poland was   given   the   run-around   by officialdom — in Nepal and in his own country. Kukuczka worked in factories and tortuously saved precious hard currency in order to finance his expeditions to the Himalaya. He had no rich sponsors,  no outreach to the Western media, and no friends to call  on in Nepal, where he came and went  with little fanfare. But lack of publicity  did not stop this best of the new breed  of climbers from climbing all the 5OOO m  peaks the year after Messner completed the feat. And many of Kukuczka´s climbs were winter climbs, unlike Messner´s, and most of the routes more daring. His modest first and only book, My Vertical World,    had not yet been published when Kukuczka fell to his death on the South Face of Lhotse on 24 October 1989. Messner honoured him by writing, "You are not second. You are great."

Lehner, from Austria, is a mechanical engineer and journalist. He is studying Communications Theory at the University of Salzburg.

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