Reinhold Messner's Mountain Madness
Credit: Reinhold Messner
The north face of 12,808-foot Mount Ortles was just beginning to rip loose of the clouds. Messner raised his arm toward the mountain on which he and Günther had put a new route when they were teenagers. "What you'll see when you come up is a black hill, green woods, and the mountain," he said as we entered the museum he's building in Sulden.

Museum impresario is not the second act you might imagine for a man who made his name as a visionary mountaineer, but Messner has an abiding interest in mountain cultures as well as in his own legacy. He also needs a place to put his collection of more than 3,500 artworks on mountain themes and climbing artifacts. The Sulden project was one of five mountain museums Messner was building in northern Italy. His first, housed in the tower of Castle Juval, where he lives in the summer, opened in 1993 and now draws 20,000 visitors at year.

"It's a cultural adventure for me, instead of a physical adventure," he said as he began making measurements with a folding rule in the basement of the new building. "At 30 I was not quiet enough inside myself. At 40 I was not rich enough. At 50 I was still hoping to change the world. Now I only want to tell stories. The museums are my way of telling stories, the common stories of climbing."

Around midday we found a table at the Yak & Yeti, the restaurant he opened in 1996. Waiters brought out a St. Magdalener red wine, plates of vegetables, and small delicious steaks of roasted venison and yak. Over coffee and krapfen – a Tyrolean tart – Messner reviewed the menu for a party he was throwing to celebrate his 60th birthday. Among the invited guests was Peter Habeler, with whom he had a well-known falling-out after Habeler suggested in his book about their Everest ascent that they'd agreed to fend for themselves if either of them got into trouble on the final pitches of the climb. Messner objected to the idea that he would desert someone who was in trouble in order to bag a summit. They mended their 20-year rupture when Habeler's girlfriend invited Messner to Habeler's 60th birthday party in the summer of 2002.

"I said to myself, 'Forget about the book. It's over,'" Messner recalled. "We spent a week together, doing five lectures in Zurich and Munich and Berlin and Vienna, and he will come in two weeks to my birthday party."

After lunch, while Messner conferred with an Italian landscape painter, I studied a brochure about his climbing career and his museum in Sulden. It was chockablock with quotes from Nietzsche, including one that seemed forlornly wishful in the shadow of his obsession with Nanga Parbat: "He who climbs high mountains laughs at tragic gestures." On the drive back, later that afternoon, Messner said, "I like Nietzsche. I quote him in many of my books. He was born 100 years before me." And indeed it was Nietzsche, not Freud, who was the daemon of Messner's daring life.

But Nietzsche's description of happiness that Messner had approvingly cited – "the feeling that once again strength has been increased, that once again an obstacle has been overcome" – was easier to embrace as a young tiger on a mountain than as a man growing older in a valley. The first day we met, as if it were a revelation, Messner had spoken of the delight he was taking in his two-year-old daughter Anna, appreciating her in a way he'd missed with his three older children. You couldn't help wondering if for all his will and self-sufficiency he was just as much a needy mortal creature caught up in forces he didn't understand as anyone else. There was something sad in what he had confessed to Habeler on Everest: that mountains were the only place where he felt at one with himself. Might not that alienated Catholic boy who didn't believe in God – the boy who warred with his father, and disdained authority, and was more interested in climbing the retaining wall of the village church than sitting inside at Mass – have performed the ritual mortifications of mountaineering as a kind of penance?

While we drove back to Juval I asked Messner how he found the enthusiasm to climb again after the tragic summer of 1970. He could not conceive of it for a long time, he said. "I came home in July and I was in the clinic in Innsbruck until September. I could not hike again until 1971. I was very quiet. I thought, Now I'm no longer a good rock climber. But I felt that the death of Günther gave me his energy. So for a time I had his energy and my own. In the Dolomites we had climbed the most crazy things. We had bad weather, we had problems, but we always escaped. We were lucky; we had the right instincts. All this gave us the feeling of being invulnerable. On Nanga Parbat all that changed. I understood that death is part of life, and life is finished by death. It's stayed with me forever. It's a strange feeling. I am responsible for my brother's death. I feel the guilt of having survived. People say, 'You should be happy. You survived.' But I have this feeling that it is not right that I am alive."