The only hiking I’ve ever known or half-enjoyed has involved flat terrain, a swimmable body of water as a destination and at least one parent to whine to along the way. But in September, I found myself 5,000 feet up a mountain, lost, alone, without a working cellphone, not even close to where I was supposed to be going, and completely happy. As I gnawed my way up the Dolomite peak of Kronplatz mountain, I had to stop every 100 yards and catch my breath. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the trek would be difficult or that I should bring water. But whatever panic and thirst and lung-burn I experienced was mitigated by the frosted clover and edelweiss and enzian, which I could see the sun thawing in real time as I walked. The air smelled sweetly of manure and cut grass; the tinkle of cowbells and the call of actual cuckoo birds echoed through the valleys.
I was promised, via translated emails, that waiting for me at the top of the mountain would be Reinhold Messner, who is, at least in the glaciated, barely oxygenated part of the world where he was born and still lives, extremely famous. South Tyrol, the autonomous, Austria-bordering province of Northern Italy where Messner scaled his first mountain in the mid-1940s at the age of 5, is plastered with blown-up pictures of his leathered face. In the decades that followed his first kindergarten ascent, Messner went on to climb another 3,500 peaks and in the process became one of the most celebrated and sport-advancing, and correspondingly wealthiest, mountaineers of the 20th century.
In 1978, he and his partner Peter Habeler became the first people to climb Mount Everest without using bottled oxygen; two years later he became the first to do it alone. Messner was also the first to ascend all 14 “eight-thousanders” (mountains with peaks over 8,000 meters), and has scaled the highest mountains on all seven continents. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Messner packed with extreme asceticism and maintains that he has always gone without supplemental oxygen. He has traversed both Antarctica and the Gobi Desert on foot, and spent a not insignificant amount of time searching for yetis.
Messner, who has only three remaining toes (frostbite) and does not know how to swim (‘‘It is not necessary’’), has written more than 50 books, lent his name to a line of toiletries and represented the Italian Green Party in the European Parliament. With his full beard and mass of rock-colored hair, he has the appearance of a man who might be featured on a limited-edition postage stamp. It’s Messner, and perhaps only Messner, who defies author-adventurer Jonathan Waterman’s claim that ‘‘climbing is one of the few sports in which the arena — the cliffs, the mountains and their specific routes — acquires a notoriety that outpopulates, outshines and outlives the actual athletes.’’
Now 71, Messner no longer climbs, at least not professionally. Instead, he has spent the past decade focusing on the Messner Mountain Museum, his constellation of six thematically curated, high-altitude institutions devoted to the history and culture of mountain climbing.
The first museum was opened in 1995 in Sigmundskron Castle; the entire project is estimated to have cost over $30 million. The latest museum, Corones, is a 1,000-square-meter concrete crashed-spaceship of a building designed by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Construction, which began in 2013, involved the excavation of 140,000 cubic feet of Kronplatz mountain, the nearly-7,500 foot Dolomite peak that I exuberantly and somewhat stupidly volunteered to climb.
Though more contemporary than the five museums built before it (three of which are in castles), this one, like the others, recreates, in a pleasurably primitive way, the experience of scaling a mountain. The multilevel space is cool and smells faintly of snow. A hip-high grotto houses a collection of amethyst geodes, and making your way through the galleries’ tunnels, you often find yourself disoriented, returned almost to where you began, as if having miscalculated a switchback. Staircases are mirrored with diagonal glass vitrines filled with icepicks, boots, scrapbooks and carabiners; there are semi-relevant quotes printed on the walls from the Buddha, Nietzsche, John Ruskin and, of course, Messner himself. Chamois congregate in a pen outside, as do copper-haired couples in Hogan hiking boots and Brunello Cucinelli quarter-zip sweaters.
‘‘In mountaineering, there is not only the activity, but the philosophy behind it,’’ Messner told me outside the museum at 10 a.m. When I arrived, slicked with sweat and dragging an irresponsibly empty, hotel-supplied backpack, he was already there, staring silently out a biomorphic window. And then he added, unbidden: ‘‘Some say a moral, but I am against that because all morality is dangerous. All nationalism is dangerous; all religions are dangerous.’’
As he spoke, Messner’s face became enveloped in a thin cloud of condensation.
‘‘What is this strange religion they have in America now?’’ he asked.
‘‘Oh, yes, it is very dangerous.’’
For someone who has spent his entire life climbing mountains, the appeal of which rivals only theistic rituals, Messner’s conception of religion, and even of morality, struck me as surprisingly literal.
At this point, a group of full-grown adults approached us tentatively to ask if Messner would agree to be in a few photographs and, by implication, if I would make myself scarce. He obliged, and for the next five minutes various permutations of people, all dutifully wearing the website-prescribed ‘‘stout footwear,’’ rearranged themselves in semi-symmetrical formations, always with him at the center.
After his fans retreated, Messner urged me to look north. ‘‘See?’’ he said. ‘‘Look out.’’
Below us were verdant pastures and distant outcroppings that mirrored the view behind us. We both inhaled. ‘‘You don’t see one bad situation.’’ Then, in a humble concession to reality, Messner pointed to a distant smokestack, and squinted with vague contempt. ‘‘Only there, I guess, a little bit.’’
Driving north from Venice, it’s obvious the moment you cross from Italy proper into the affluent, Everglades-size region of South Tyrol. The radio, seconds ago playing telenovela-style pop, goes static and then suddenly comes in again, this time with Mahler. There are clusters of timber farmhouses with blooming window boxes; tiny white churches with spires that, like the surrounding pine trees, cast long and elegant shadows upon vast expanses of emerald-green grass. The brooks actually babble; the sky seems always to be cloudless. It looks like a Walt Disney creation — impossibly synthetic-seeming, almost edible — what a 4-year-old girl might draw up were she encouraged to design her dream landscape. There are miniature ponies. And rainbows. And lakes so blue that the most accurate comparisons (to blue raspberry Gushers, to Smurfs, to aquarium gravel) feel sacrilegious. The only piece of litter I saw in an entire week was — honest to God — a Ritter Sport wrapper, and it was from the ‘‘whole almonds’’ flavor, meaning the plastic was forest green and all but invisible in the shrubbery.
In the centuries before the high Alps were first explored in the mid-1700s, mountains were not generally considered beautiful. Samuel Johnson called them ‘‘considerable protuberances’’ and they were often referred to as boils and warts. Well into the 18th century, cross-continental voyagers who were forced to travel through the range elected to do so blindfolded. ‘‘Natural scenery was appreciated largely for the extent to which it spoke of agricultural fecundity,’’ writes Robert Macfarlane in his elegant and often quite funny 2003 book ‘‘Mountains of the Mind.’’ ‘‘Tamed landscapes, in other words, were attractive: landscapes which had had a human order imposed upon them by the plough, the hedgerow and the ditch. ... Mountains, nature’s roughest productions, were not only agriculturally intractable, they were also aesthetically repellent.’’
But to a modern onlooker, it’s the white peaks of the Dolomites, which rise up, evil-looking, all around, that make the apparent mirth and merry of the meadow-rich valleys at all palatable. The sinister, toothy mountains both exaggerate the loveliness below and cut it with the necessary bit of harshness that is otherwise lacking from the saccharine, sentimental landscape. It’s all too easy to imagine, in a fairy tale-like way, a local child growing up with these threatening peaks forever in his peripheral vision and feeling as though his character was contingent upon a successful confrontation with them. Which is, of course, exactly Messner’s story.
‘‘I am a man who is realizing ideas,’’ he told me, looking out from the museum’s prowlike balcony. ‘‘For me, when I was a child — a boy, let’s say — I went beside this beautiful mountain there’’ — at this, he pointed west toward a pleasingly round summit — ‘‘and I looked up for a few days with binoculars, and I invented a line where I could climb up. Then, one Sunday I went up with my brother and we did it. It’s like a piece of art. The same thing with the museum. I have an idea, I do it.’’
Messner spent the entirety of our conversation orienting my gaze in different directions as he told me about his life and the history of South Tyrol. ‘‘I was born behind this first chain,’’ he said, gesturing out toward the same general area as before. ‘‘My mother came from that left-hand valley; my grandfather came from a place a bit south of the Dolomites, so my roots are here. I am a South Tyrolean. I identify with this land.’’
His mother was unusually well educated and his father a strict, proudly Teutonic schoolteacher. Messner grew up a German-speaking Italian citizen (the signage in South Tyrol is still in both languages) charged with chopping wood, slaughtering chickens and exploring the nearby mountains with his eight siblings, each of whom was unofficially responsible for the one just younger than themselves. For Reinhold, this was Günther, his shy brother two years his junior. By the time they were 13 and 11, Reinhold and Günther were devoted amateur climbers known for their agility and speed. Forced by their father to pursue traditional professions, Reinhold trained as an architect and Günther worked in finance, but the brothers took every possible opportunity to climb together and toughen up, often staying out for days at a time without food. By 1969 they had gained a reputation as local semi-celebrities and were invited on a Himalayan expedition.
In 1970, the two brothers traveled to Pakistan as part of a group trek up Nanga Parbat. As they reached the summit, Günther grew ill from the altitude. They made their way to lower ground but, as night fell, were forced to pitch and sleep in an emergency bivouac shelter. In the morning, they continued their descent, Reinhold in the long lead. At one point he waited for Günther to catch up and when he didn’t, Reinhold turned back to find him; instead he found the remnants of an avalanche. He searched for a day and a night to no avail. He even returned the following year. Günther’s remains were not recovered for another 34 years.
A week after we met, not far from where the two grew up, Messner left for Africa to direct his first movie: a re-creation of a near fatal climb (also taken in 1970) by two Austrian mountain climbers up Mount Kenya.
No sport encourages the ostensibly paradoxical impulses of meditative, in-the-moment focus and past-tense memorializing quite like mountain climbing. It seems that everyone who has even dabbled in the endeavor has gone on to document it. A mountain presents not just an invitation to climb it but also a provocation to represent that climb. How to do it in a way that begins to approximate the scale of even a small hill?
For Messner, the answer has been interdisciplinary. He told me that he learned how to open and organize a museum by doing it himself, ‘‘not by going to museums.’’ His autodidacticism is apparent in the Mountain Museums, which are at once charming and confounding and weirdly ambitious. Ripa, the northernmost museum, in the quaint and mostly cobblestoned town of Brunico, holds the most interesting collection. Housed in a crenelated castle carpeted with lichen and strung with Tibetan prayer flags is an extensive collection of fascinating, bewildering cultural artifacts often presented without context. There is a room filled with dollhouses made to look like the kind of traditional mountain homes found in places like Patagonia, Peru and Kandahar. (They are remarkably similar.) There is a gallery devoted to international water vessels, another stocked with Tibetan musical instruments and another for Incan weapons. There are beautiful, cowry-shell-laced articles of clothing from the Hindu Kush and a few human skulls (unlabeled) thrown in for good measure.
Seventy-five miles southwest is Juval, the 13th-century castle where Messner lives with his family for a part of the year, and which he opens to visitors. It sits atop a modest mountain covered in both apple orchards and terraced Riesling vineyards. There is a small zoo on the premises, along with a sprawling collection of Asian masks and effigies. (The theme is holy mountains.) Messner’s personal library, consisting mostly of books about Alpinism, is kept here in an ornately carved room, complete with catwalk, flokati rugs, Lucite chairs and a custom porcelain stove painted with some of the more impressive mountains he has climbed.
If the concept of a museum about mountain climbing seems odd in a dancing-about-architecture-type of way, consider this: just two months ago, Ralph Nader opened the American Museum of Tort Law in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. There are also museums devoted to, among other topics: dialysis (Seattle), ventriloquism (Kentucky), ramen (Osaka), tap water (Beijing) and dog collars (England). In the grand scheme of things, the premise of the Messner Mountain Museums isn’t so far-fetched.
Positioned at what was the highest place of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ortles museum is ‘‘devoted to the world of ice.’’ What this mostly means for the visitor is that it is bone-chillingly cold inside. There are some walking sticks, some ice picks, some skis, reportedly 200 years’ worth of mountaineering boots, a rescue sled from 1940 and Shackleton’s binoculars. But these items are the outliers. The ratio of artifacts to art seems particularly miscalculated at this location: Most of the museum’s contents are paintings, dozens from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a not insignificant number of contemporary works, all of which depict ice, a creative goal that Messner considers to be supremely difficult. ‘‘I don’t want to draw a line between kitsch and art,’’ he explains in the wall text.
Sadly, my trip did not coincide with Almabtrieb, an annual South Tyrolean festival held each fall in which, per Messner’s description, local farmers ‘‘bring the young cows down to valleys with coronas of flowers and big bells and boom, boom, boom, it is beautiful.’’ Though he finds the tradition lovely, Messner does not participate. ‘‘I personally have yaks,’’ he said solemnly. ‘‘My yaks are going home alone. In fall with the first cold days they go. They go alone.’’
I saw no sign of yaks outside the museum, though in front of a roaring fire in the on-site restaurant I ate some. The dish was cooked in red wine and served with mushroom dumplings. Like everything else I ate on the trip — homemade yolk noodles with raspberry-laced ragu, elk medallions garnished with violets and pansies — it looked and tasted like something a besotted hunter might prepare for a lost princess.
Bolzano, the largest city in South Tyrol, is also the site of the largest museum, Firmian. The castle it is housed in, dating back to A.D. 945, was far more treacherous to navigate than any hike I’d been on. Focused, however vaguely, on ‘‘man’s encounter with the mountain,’’ the place was packed with people on a weekday morning.
In part organized by mountain range, the curatorial plan seemed to have been often abandoned; in the gallery supposedly about the Matterhorn, for instance, there was a bronze statue of Krishna and also looped audio of Bob Dylan’s ‘‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’’ Artifacts collected here include, but are not limited to: ancient and wildly inaccurate maps; a first edition of Edward Whymper’s famous 1871 book, ‘‘Scrambles Amongst the Alps’’; old hiking ‘‘boots’’ that were really just wooden paddles with hand-forged iron cleats hammered into footbeds made of straw; Nepalese crystals; an intricately constructed proto-French-press intended to be used over an open flame; vintage postcards; a model heart in a case playing an audio track of its beating and a German voiceover explaining, presumably, the altitude’s effect on the pulmonary system; a contemporary, Joseph Beuys-inspired sculpture consisting of 12 cots made up in gray felt; leather-strapped goggles; and a plexiglass chamber filled with ‘‘Everest refuses,’’ i.e., garbage (rusty cans, discarded clothing, tarps, candy wrappers, a teapot).
‘‘In the museum, I’m telling stories about mountains. This is not a classical museum; it’s not an art museum or a museum of natural science. It’s a museum where I tell stories about the mountains,’’ Messner said. ‘‘We are a touristic destination for mountain aficionados who come to climb or hike or be in the mountains in a nice hotel with a nice bottle of wine in the evenings and sit on the balconies enjoying the sun. I give to this country, which is based on mountain tourism, the cultural aspect.’’
This seemed like the proud, self-assured mission statement of someone convinced that his time is being well spent. But Messner has sworn that the Hadid-designed Corones will be the last of the museums and tells me that the plan is for his 27-year-old daughter Magdalena, who has studied both art history and economics and whom he charmingly referred to as a ‘‘young head,’’ to take over the project.
Standing atop Kronplatz, I asked Messner why this should be, why this museum will be the last, and his answer was comically unsatisfying. ‘‘There is no other issue,’’ he said in a throaty German accent.
‘‘One museum is for the ice, one is for the rocks, one is on mountain people, one is on holy mountains and this one is on the traditional Alpinism,’’ he says impatiently. ‘‘There is no other issue.’’
‘‘Mountains are not fair or unfair — they are dangerous,’’ Messner has written. Maybe that’s the real appeal of climbing one, something that books and films and museums — all so safe — can’t ever quite recreate. In a world that can so often feel rigged, there is an undeniable relief to experiencing so impersonal a struggle, a challenge so absolutely free of conspiracy.
It was embarrassing how quickly I came to feel as though it were an absolute necessity I climb to the rest of Messner’s museums, all of which are accessible by car. Messner’s feats were to my ‘‘climbing’’ what a professional swimmer’s are to taking a bath, but I still found myself grinning with unseemly pride every time I made it to the top. If there’s one thing missing from the lives of people I know — and from my own — it’s the self-generated feeling of achievement that comes from choosing to start, and then being able to finish, an arbitrarily chosen task. Ideally, this task is difficult, though incrementally surmountable, and unrelated to everything else that comprises a coherent sense of self-worth. A graduate student doing a jigsaw puzzle. A hedge-fund manager reading ‘‘Clarissa.’’ A writer climbing a mountain.