Moun­tain mu­se­ums in the mighty Dolomites

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - MICHELLE JANA CHAN

From the top of Mount Kron­platz, I gaze at the rugged range of peaks around me. To the north are the Ziller­tal Alps and in the other di­rec­tion the Mar­mo­lada glacier. The Lienz Dolomites lie east and the Ortler to the west. A crown of sum­mits and spires, pin­na­cles and tow­ers and, be­low, dark-green pine forests and mead­ows of wild­flow­ers. Out in force are hik­ers, paraglid­ers and moun­tain bik­ers in body ar­mour pre­par­ing to point their front wheel down­hill. They all halt as one man, sur­pris­ingly diminu­tive given his peer­less phys­i­cal achieve­ments, emerges from a ca­ble car. He is wear­ing a jacket and slacks while those around him are dressed in Gore­Tex. They stop and point, pulling out cam­eras, whis­per­ing to com­pan­ions. One fan ap­proaches to shake his hand. “I want to thank you for all the emo­tions you have gen­er­ated,” he says, blink­ing back tears.

Rein­hold Mess­ner is the great­est moun­taineer of all time. The first to scale all 14 of the world’s 8000m-plus moun­tains. The first to climb Ever­est with­out oxy­gen. And the first to climb Ever­est alone. I fol­low close be­hind as he walks — slowly, sure-footed, steadily — over the grassy ter­rain to­wards his latest chal­lenge, MMM Corones, a mu­seum at 2275m de­signed by Zaha Ha­did. It ex­plores the dis­ci­pline of moun­taineer­ing, on which Mess­ner has had a rad­i­cal im­pact. Walls are etched in quo­ta­tions by the climb­ing greats; there is a case show­ing the evo­lu­tion in tools and aids dur­ing the past 100 years and a sec­tion on the doc­u­ment­ing of ex­pe­di­tions, from oil paint­ings to GoPro HD video.

MMM Corones is one of six mu­se­ums Mess­ner has cre­ated over 20 years across this Ger­man-speak­ing cor­ner of north­east Italy. At­tract­ing 100,000 visi­tors a year, they are all in out­stand­ing lo­ca­tions and form a neat cir­cuit for trav­ellers. “Moun­tains have a cul­tural di­men­sion, too,” Mess­ner says. “That is why there is a point to do­ing mu­se­ums about them. They are a strong part of Euro­pean cul­ture.”

This sixth mu­seum is caus­ing a stir be­cause Mess­ner says it is his last (although he said that about the fifth) and be­cause of its avant-garde ar­chi­tect. Ha­did has dreamed up gi­gan­tic glass-and-con­crete aper­tures on the flanks of the moun­tain; it looks more like a Bond vil­lain’s lair than a cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion. In­side are a se­ries of fluid, in­ter­con­nected spa­ces carved into the moun­tain; cas­cad­ing ramps and stair­ways tum­ble down three lev­els. It is mostly subter­ranean yet clev­erly doused in nat­u­ral light from panoramic win­dows that use re­flec­tive glass on the ex­te­rior to mir­ror the moun­tain­scape.

As Mess­ner and I stand on the view­ing ter­race, the cloud lifts. “These are the moun­tains of my child­hood,” he says, point­ing across the val­ley. “The Geisler­spitzen. The Heiligkreuzkofel, the hard­est climb of my life.”

“Re­ally?” I ask, in­cred­u­lous any­thing could be harder than as­cents of Ever­est with­out sup­ple­men­tary oxy­gen.

“The mid­dle pil­lar of Heiligkreuzkofel, a 600m wall,” Mess­ner mum­bles. “I was 23 years old, my brother Gun­ther was 21. We slept on an over­hang. There were no holes (to in­sert a pi­ton), noth­ing. I felt trapped. Be­low me was an abyss. Some­how I did it, but no­body be­lieved us. For 10 years, peo­ple said it was a lie, un­til some­one else fi­nally did it and he found my pi­ton. That was the most dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion of my life.”

A few years later, his younger brother was dead on Pak­istan’s Nanga Par­bat, nick­named “the naked moun­tain” be­cause its sides are too steep for snow to stick. The broth­ers had reached the sum­mit to­gether, but Gun­ther never made it down. Rein­hold lost toes and fin­ger­tips to frost­bite. His climb­ing life was changed for­ever. With com­pro­mised dex­ter­ity, he had to con­jure up new chal­lenges, less about scal­ing rock faces and more about high-al­ti­tude moun­taineer­ing.

He be­came the stan­dard-bearer of a new form of ex­treme Alpin­ism, at­tack­ing the hard­est routes in a sin­gle push, trav­el­ling as lightly and quickly as pos­si­ble, shun­ning the para­pher­na­lia of porters, pre-loaded camps, fixed ropes and sup­ple­men­tary ex­tra oxy­gen.

What cap­tured the public’s imag­i­na­tion was his 1978 as­cent of Ever­est with Aus­trian moun­taineer Peter Ha­beler. They reached the sum­mit with­out bot­tled oxy­gen, achiev­ing what many said was im­pos­si­ble. Two years later, Mess­ner climbed Ever­est again, but this time alone, on a new route by the North Face, and again with­out bot­tled oxy­gen. He had reached the high­est point on Earth solo and un­sup­ported. Mess­ner has trans­formed the way peo­ple look at 8000m moun­tains — as some­thing achiev­able.

At the en­trance to MMM Corones, there is a quote on the wall in Ger­man that trans­lates to: “If tourism is reach­ing the top of Ever­est, where does Alpin­ism go?”

Mess­ner says the good moun­taineers to­day head up lesser-known peaks “in Pak­istan, in eastern Ti­bet; moun­tains that are 6000m or 6500m high with ver­ti­cal walls twice the height of the Eiger”. The rest is tourism, he says, and he throws out a chal­lenge to all those who like to test their lim­its. “Bet­ter to climb an easy peak on your own than be taken up by a guide.” Per­haps he sees the flicker of fear in my eyes, be­cause his voice soft­ens. “Take some­one else. Alone it is too dan­ger­ous. You feel the fear much ear­lier on your own.”

I can­not con­ceive of the iso­la­tion, the lonely de­ci­sion- mak­ing, the ab­sence of ca­ma­raderie. “It’s like be­ing on the moon,” he says. “You feel your ex­po­sure, es­pe­cially at night. They say only chil­dren are afraid of the dark. Bull­shit … Grown men, too. Me, too.”

Mess­ner has de­fied his fears like few oth­ers. He seems to be de­fy­ing age, too. On the road for half the year, he will travel in Oc­to­ber to Mount Kenya. But he al­ways re­turns to his home­land in the South Ty­rol and these grey-white lime­stone peaks with their ver­ti­cal walls and sheer cliffs. “I have done 2500 climbs in the Dolomites. They are for me still the most beau­ti­ful moun­tains in the world.”

Rein­hold Mess­ner, left, at the open­ing of MMM Corones, top, top left and be­low, in the Dolomites, above

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