Mountain museums in the mighty Dolomites
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