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BORN TO BE WILD : Reinhold Messner--Cream of Climbers--Rises to Top

June 29, 1989|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

SNOWBIRD, Utah — Reinhold Messner has been to the mountaintops--the 14 highest in the world--and what he has seen appalls him.

Cable cars crisscross the great mountains of Europe, trash lines the routes into the Himalayas and Mt. Everest is overcrowded with expeditions. "Most of the expeditions the last five years have been less for adventure and more for show," Messner says.

That is the inspiration for Messner's "White Wilderness" concept to defend the world's remaining unexplored regions against abusive intrusion-- white in that they appear as blank areas on maps, places where only Messner and others like him care to go.

He expounded on his idea this month at the Mountain Summit, a gathering organized by Dan McConnell of Seattle of some of the world's best climbers, among whom Messner is a giant. He has made more than 3,000 climbs, including about 100 firsts and all 14 of the world's peaks that reach higher than 8,000 meters (26,000 feet), most without using oxygen, and several alone.

Climbs, he says, not conquests. Messner has paid a dear price. He has lost a brother and several friends, six toes and a fingertip, the latter because of frostbite.

"I never conquer a mountain," he said. "You cannot conquer a mountain. This (thinking) is typical of the '50s."

In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand, and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first to ascend Everest, the highest of all at 29,100 feet, according to a recent re-survey. The feat launched a new era in mountaineering and elevated the high-altitude climber into a romanticized role that few non-climbers can really understand.

"I see the mountain as a big piece of nature which excludes human beings, and should remain like this," Messner said. "You can't go and see it, and it's difficult to watch on television, especially live."

Those who have experienced it know that the mountain is not something beautiful, Messner said.

"It's something strong and destroying people," he said. "It's something for staying a few weeks, a few months, but not forever."

So Messner will leave the mountains alone for a while and alter his goals from vertical to horizontal. In October, he and Arvet Fuchs will attempt to walk across Antarctica without support or the use of sled dogs.

"I had a chance to have live television on the Antarctica expedition and I refused," Messner said. "It would not be the same thing. I would have to prepare such a big expedition that my experience, my adventure, would not be the same."

His purpose: "I go to show it is still a clean place for adventure--not to store atomic wastes or to explore for (oil)."

Messner, 44, grew up in the Sud Tirol region of northeastern Italy, a cross-culture pocket of German-speaking people whose Alpine territory has been disputed since medieval times.

It was Austrian territory until after World War I, when it became part of Italy. But at the outbreak of World War II, according to Messner, 90% of the people identified more with Hitler's Third Reich than with Mussolini--a fact, he says, that "nobody likes to speak about."

Messner, born at the end of World War II, wrote one of his 29 books on the subject.

His home, he says, is "one of the most beautiful climbing areas of the world, like Yosemite Valley. Maybe more beautiful. Now they made roads and (it's) all full of skiing areas.

"When I was 5 years old, I did my first climb with my father . . . climbed a 10,000-foot peak. And from there, a little more difficult every year."

Messner started as a rock climber, with no interest in lofty summits, but it was probably inevitable that as he exhausted the available challenges he would find his way to the Himalayas--there, to mold his ethic to climb without oxygen and to climb alone.

"On my first expedition at 8,000 meters I left my brother, and my second expedition at 8,000 meters I left two friends," he said. "After that, I said, 'In the future, I will do it alone so I am not responsible for them.'

"But the other reason is the experience: to be alone with your own fears. If you are on your own in a difficult situation, it's difficult to handle it by yourself . . . nobody to lean on. It's much more difficult to climb without a partner than without oxygen."

Reinhold Messner, the most celebrated mountaineer of modern times, afraid?

"Many times," he said. "On all big climbs, there is a moment before you start from base camp . . . knowing all the climbing history and all the things that can happen on a big mountain. Each of us is human. We make mistakes.

"If you are on top of the climbing scene, it is very difficult to stay alive on the small line between doing something foolish and doing something great. If you do one mistake in a difficult situation, you did it. Forever."

But more than fear, Messner has respect for the mountains he climbs. He speaks of approaching a mountain by "fair means."

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