Reinhold Messner's Mountain Madness
Credit: Reinhold Messner

A bright morning during the last week in August, Reinhold Messner left his summer home, a spectacular 13th-century castle in the German-speaking part of northern Italy, and headed by car for the town of Sulden, about an hour west. The Adige River flashed through groves of apple trees, while high above the valley dairy farms sent their milk to market on cable cars.

In three weeks the greatest mountaineer of his generation, maybe the greatest of all time, would be 60. Messner seemed in fine shape: trimmed beard, cloudless blue eyes, only a dusting of gray in his dark, shoulder-length hair. Climbing had cost him the tips of several fingers, along with seven of his toes, but his hairless hands looked eerily smooth and unscathed, as if he had worked all his life at a cosmetics counter. "My knees are going," he conceded when I asked about the ravages of age. "But I still have the same energy I had at 22. Three weeks ago with my brother Hubert and a guide I climbed a new route on the west face of Mount Ortles. I was nervous at first, but I calmed down. It was good to discover the instinct was still functioning."

Messner's career spans a hundred expeditions and 3,500 rock climbs. He was the first to top all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter summits, and the first, with partner Peter Habeler, to scale Everest without the use of bottled oxygen. In 1980 he again climbed Everest without bottled oxygen, but that time he did it solo, taking a never-before-climbed route and finishing in only four days – arguably the most astounding feat in mountaineering history. He set new technical standards, pioneering fast solo ascents – often on new routes – of Himalayan giants that had previously been climbed only by huge teams using slow siege tactics and armies of porters. And he disdained supplemental oxygen in an era when it was considered suicidal to climb without it.

But despite the famous mountains he's conquered, Messner has been haunted for the last 35 years by a relatively obscure Pakistani peak called Nanga Parbat – not because it was his first 8,000-meter summit, but because his younger brother Günther died during the climb. Questions and accusations about Günther's disappearance have plagued Messner ever since. Did he abandon his brother just below the top of the mountain, as some have charged? Or was Günther caught in an avalanche closer to the base, as Messner claims?

Since the 1970 tragedy, Messner has returned to the mountain five times, as to a wound that wouldn't heal. And he's revisited the incident repeatedly in the dozens of books he's written about climbing. But the controversy still remains unsettled; in fact, it has intensified in recent years. So once again Messner is planning to go back. Later this year he will return to Nanga Parbat to hunt for Günther's remains, hoping to set the record straight.

Driving to Sulden, Messner described a very different journey, a traverse of the Gobi desert he completed in July. "Crossing the Gobi was a real milestone for me," he said. During the trip the past was clearly on his mind, and he found himself thinking about his childhood. "Before my mother died in 1995 she was always telling us not what she did in the last three weeks but what had happened in her childhood. I remembered a time my parents brought me and my older brother Helmut into the woods. He was six and I was three or four. We became tired, and Mother and Father had to go higher. They said, 'You wait here under this tree.' My brother began to cry. I asked him, 'Do you know the way home if Mother and Father don't come back?' He said, 'No.'"

Messner falls silent, as if lost in the idea that the primal loneliness he felt on expeditions might be linked to a small boy who didn't know if Mother and Father were coming back. He was the second of nine children born to Josef and Maria Messner – a Roman Catholic family, eight boys and a girl. They lived on a farm in the sheltered village of Villnöss, northeast of Bolzano. Josef, who died in 1985, was a school headmaster and an enthusiastic climber. He introduced Reinhold to the area's cliffs, belaying him up the Geisler peaks on a hemp rope when Messner was only five years old.

But Reinhold was much closer to his mother, and relations with his father were often tense.

"He was a soldier in the army when he was 20," Messner says. "They all saw brutality they could not imagine, and it was not allowed for them to speak about it. They kept it inside, and part of them became aggressive."

In The Naked Mountain, his latest and most detailed account of that fateful summer on Nanga Parbat 35 years ago, Messner described coming home as a teenager to discover 12-year-old Günther cowering in a dog kennel: "Our father, during one of his fits of rage, had thrashed Günther so badly with the dog whip that he could no longer walk. On that day we not only became friends, Günther also became my climbing partner and soon he was climbing just as well as I was. We began to talk about trips out together and started to view our climbs as little escapes. We wanted to get away, away from our authoritarian father and away from the injustices of this world."

Around a bend Sulden appeared, a cluster of chalets, cropped pastures, and stone walls under a lowering sky. The only hint of its wild setting was a rock-covered glacier descending from the clouds.