AUTHOR: Reinhold Messner
Winter mountaineering wasn't always fashionable. Although we have been climbing mountains using snowshoes or skis since the dawn of modern alpinism, it wasn't until the 1960s when the world's best mountaineers started climbing in the Alps in winter too. In 1961, the North Face of the Eiger was climbed for the first time in winter. A sensational achievement! Even more difficult, according to Toni Hiebeler, was the first winter ascent of the Civetta Northwest Wall: 1,200 vertical metres of rock, frozen waterfalls and lots of snow.
In the winter of 1966, after many weeks of preparation, an international team climbed in expedition style a new, direct route straight up the middle of the Eiger, an achievement comparable in terms of length, temperature and danger to climbing in the Himalaya. Some Italians also worked their way up the northeast wall of Piz Badile in a similar style. Of course I wanted to join in on the winter hype, too: first winter ascent of the Agner north ridge; first winter ascent of the Furchetta north wall; followed by the first winter ascent of the Agner north wall, which, at 1,500 metres high, covered in thick snow and -25° C all the way, was a really tough undertaking. With numb fingertips, frozen trousers and stiff ropes, Sepp Mayerl, Heindl Messner and I stood on top of the summit after three days. Ideal training for the Himalaya! I knew that the Himalayan cold, even during the warmest seasons, would still be worse than winter in the Alps. Plus, there are the oxygen deficit and storms to reckon with.
However, the 8,000ers were not of interest at that time. They had already been climbed (between 1950 and 1964) and nobody thought it was possible to reach their summits in winter. The 1970s saw the start of a second wave of expedition climbing: conquering the last mountains in the world by any means necessary, and also attempting new routes on the steepest 8,000-metre walls. In May 1970, climbers from England and the USA managed to climb the 3,500-metre South Face of Annapurna. In June of the same year, my brother Günther and I made it to the summit of Nanga Parbat via the 4,500-metre Rupal Face, the biggest face in the world. My brother died on the descent and I barely escaped the tragic experience with my life. The conditions in the Himalaya were indeed much harsher than in the Alps during winter.
In 1973, the Italian Guido Monzino — a multimillionaire with a penchant for exorbitant displays of daring — led an expedition to Mount Everest. Following his expedition to the North Pole in 1970, all that was left to add to his radiance was an ascent of the highest mountain in the world. Helicopters flew payloads right into the Western Cwm. In the same way that the Italians had danced to the North Pole from one base camp to the next across the frozen sea (in planes or squatting on dog sleds), Monzino now followed a line stamped into the snow by Sherpas that snaked its way up to the summit of Mount Everest. Foregoing training and skill, Monzino et al. We're paying good money to flirt with the dangers of the cold and altitude, thereby romanticising the wilderness as "stormy, bathed in sunlight, cloaked in mist", and also degrading the true mountaineers with it. These summit fetishists were subsequently celebrated as indomitable endurance athletes and nature lovers. However, these "conquerors of nothing", motivated only by success, certainly looked ridiculous having spent so much cash and received so much assistance from the Sherpas. It was as if the emperors, to achieve public adoration in Rome, had driven their slaves to the limit.
Finally, in 1975, after several failed attempts, the second British expedition led by Chris Bonington (which included Doug Scott, Dougal Haston, Peter Boardman, Pertemba Sherpa and Mick Burke), successfully climbed the southwest wall of Mount Everest. Scott and Haston bivouacked on the descent to the south summit (8,760 m), and Boardman/Sherpa Pertemba managed the ascent and descent. Burke, unfortunately, did not return from the summit of Everest. The most difficult wall on the highest mountain had been climbed. Yet again the telegraph wires sang with the latest news. But no, the never tiring "conquerors" did not move on to other pastures. Instead, they relentlessly rediscovered the same mountains. In May 1978, Peter Habeler and I were the first to climb onto the roof of the world without oxygen. Later that year, on the August 9, 1978, I managed to climb the Nanga Parbat solo via the Diamir Wall — the first time that one of the 14 8,000ers had been climbed in its entirety solo. It was only worth being the second discoverer in a small group, or alone. The reduction in equipment and porters only increased the adventure.
Also that year, Naomi Uemurawho, in 1970, was the first Japanese to reach the summit of Mount Everest, drove his pack of dogs from Canada to the North Pole, supported only twice with food and fuel that was flown out to him. Upon reaching the Pole itself, he was picked up by plane. In the winter of 1984, the highly experienced Uemura did not return from an expedition on Denali in Alaska. Not even Uemura was able to survive without breathing apparatus in the wintry Arctic. He had shared everything with the Eskimos and bound himself to dog sleds — but he did not come back. An intensive search, even from the air, was not possible during such short periods of daylight. The cold and the storms covered the solo adventurer for ever. We all guessed that the new dimension in high-altitude climbing would take place in winter. The question was: How do you prepare yourself and, more importantly, where do you get the motivation from? Naomi Uemura became the role model for all solo adventurers looking to escape from the monotony of city life, straining to break free from civilisation into the great wide open offered by the Himalaya, the Antarctic and the Arctic. To die like Naomi Uemura! As if escaping from the dull facets of everyday life into the jet-stream storm could ever be considered a "death". With frost-bitten feet, limping on their last legs of willpower, lungs collapsing, suffocating on their own body liquids — order, morals and thought all stop here. Finally, hope as well. Winter mountaineering on the highest mountains and largest ice wastes was not yet in fashion, but it would soon become the new challenge, the last adventure on Earth.
Someone who has always come back, Fridtjof Nansen-style, even from the most dire situations, and has consequently earned all my respect, is the British mountaineer Doug Scott. On September 24, 1975 he and Dougal Haston spent the night in a snow hole just below the summit of Everest: without a stove, without a sleeping bag and without breathing apparatus. Without freezing to death. Next, he wanted to attempt Kangchenjunga without oxygen. Together with Georges Bettembourg, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, Doug Scott set off in the spring of 1979 choosing the route via the north wall, traversing the west saddle and then following the ridge up to the summit. On May 4th, they reached their limit. An emergency situation forced them to it at an altitude of 7,900 metres, thousands of miles from home. The wind was whipping at 150 kilometres an hour. Gusts sent stones skimming across the snow. They huddled together in their down suits as in cocoons and waited. When the wind died down, they dragged themselves onwards over the scree. The next gust of wind threw them to the ground. Huddled together with the wind blasting at their backs, they fought for survival. Fought the fear of freezing into ice statues and being blown off the mountain. Again they made a dash. Again only a few steps.
On the ridge the northwest storm was at its strongest. It blew in the direction of Sikkim. Should they make a dash for Sikkim and hide in its wind shadow? Break out of this frozen hell and flying chunks of ice? During the night the wind had almost blown them there.
The darkest hour came just before dawn. The wind tore their tent to shreds and it collapsed. Splinters of ice pierced their faces. Doug Scott rammed his ice axe into the floor of the tent, the tent poles broke and material fluttered in tatters. The fight for survival rose another notch. "Don't leave anything behind!" shouted Scott. Even in a moment of panic, this titan of adventure did not lose control. Kangchenjunga spewed snow and fog: a majestic mountain. They had walked that fine line between being there and not being there, and managed to rescue themselves. Scott interpreted it as a sign from heaven.
Tasker and Boardman disappeared in 1982 during their attempt to climb the whole northeast ridge of Everest. Somewhere among the rock turrets in the death zone above 8,000 metres, they met their end. Why, we do not know. They did not come back. Like innumerable top climbers before them and even more after them. Doug Scott is still alive, and that is a consolation at least. Meanwhile, all but two of the 8,000ers have been climbed in winter. Millions of people are now participating in winter sports, from ice climbing to ski mountaineering, both on and off the piste. The equipment, especially the clothing — wind tight, breathable, wear-resistant — is many times better than 30 years ago. In 1980, Polish mountaineers stood on top of Mount Everest in winter, in the decade between 1979 and 1989, the best in the world. A moment of glory for alpinism! In 2014, Simone Moro, currently the most successful winter pioneer on the 8,000ers, and David Göttler failed on the ridge between the Rupal wall and the Diamir wall below the summit of Nanga Parbat. Success was unattainable in winter: despite modern equipment, a great deal of experience and maximum motivation, there was no alternative but to retreat.
On two occasions I attempted an 8,000er in winter: Cho Oyu in 1982; Makalu in 1986. I failed both times. Once because of the avalanche risk; once because of the -40°C jet-stream. I have no regrets. The Antarctic crossing also demanded maximum endurance and resistance to suffering from Arved Fuchs and me, but the risks are even higher climbing a summit over 8,000 metres above sea level in winter. If you are not prepared to turn round then sooner or later you will die. Only the power within, built up over a series of attempts, enables us now and then to reach our limits, just like others on a winter hike, or an ice climb, or on a sledding trip. There are many opportunities to prove yourself. But for everyone, Paul Preuss's maxim applies: "Ability is the measure for gauging feasibility."