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“Accidents happen when people try to assess their performance in the mountains with numbers.”

Our society hates risk. How did you approach risk during your career? 


It’s very simple! I agree that we live in an era which is against risk-taking: over the last 10,000 years, human beings have tried to minimise risk in order to build our civilisation. Mountaineers do the opposite: they go their own way, acting against their instinct for self-preservation. Little by little, with millions of small steps, they master the art of going somewhere where they could die, without dying! You learn to overcome risk. When I climbed the north face of the Droites on my own, I was sure that I could handle it. Otherwise I would have died from fear. When I climbed Everest without oxygen, I had already reached similar altitudes before – it was only 800 metres more. We went there to try, step by step, but we were prepared to fail and to return. Accidents happen when people try to assess their performance in the mountains with numbers. That being said, if death was not a possibility, mountaineering would be a sport like indoor climbing. Today, 99.99% of the population is not ready to climb mountains – which is a good thing, I think – because there’s a cultural issue: the tension between human nature and the nature of the mountains.


What was your experience from 1999 to 2004, when you were a Member of the European Parliament for Italy’s Green Party?


Well, the European Parliament didn’t have much power at the time. Every country was allowed to have the last word; today, things are better. In 2002, I was able to publish a paper on people’s behaviour when encountering the mountains – it was read by Kofi Annan. Today, I feel that I can do more as a “celebrity” because respect has been lost for politicians, particularly over the last 10 years. I feel that we’re all starting to understand that our planet is not big enough for 8 billion people. Efforts are being made to try to correct that but our whole system is built in a way which is difficult to change. Europe could set an example. In the end, I feel that technology will play a big role and may potentially save us. 


What is your legacy?


I have always been driven by a desire to be responsible for myself. I was born in a very small valley, where morals and ethics were very strict. I wanted to free myself. In South Tyrol, with its 500,000 inhabitants, the economic situation was so limited that I didn’t have any opportunities in the climbing world. I managed to earn invitations to join expeditions and I learnt to do things by myself. I invented the alpine style, with light equipment, minimum infrastructure and maximum preparation. Looking back, my difficult relationship with my father may have helped me to develop an ability to overcome any obstacles I face. Climbing a mountain is nothing more than overcoming a huge obstacle. In terms of business, I never had a manager during my career but I still explored both the North and South Poles and the Gobi Desert, before becoming a politician and creating a museum with 6 different locations. When you take full ownership of what you do, good things happen. Remember that nature is just there; it’s not good or bad – it’s our behaviour which determines the outcome. One of my brothers said that my motto could be “it can be done”.

© Ronny Kiaulehn

In his first lives, he was the first person to climb Everest without oxygen and to reach the summit of all 14 mountains above 8,000 metres. Later, he established records crossing the North and South Poles, became a politician and created a museum with 6 different locations. Now, he’s a storyteller and a guardian of nature. Interview.

What do the mountains mean to you?


They’re a way of evaluating my whole being, both mentally and physically. They’re somethingyou can experience, not somethingyou can measure in numbers. The only thing you can do is to carry the experience with you, emotionally. That’s why I feel that the mountains should remain wild, with no infrastructure. These rocks leave people feeling small and breakable, giving them the ability to take full responsibility, to focus, to take care of details and, ultimately, to remain safe. When you see companies taking groups to the top of Everest with 100 sherpas to build a “highway” with fixed ropes, camps, oxygen, doctors and, in some cases, a guide per climber, you realise that people are no longer facing up to their individual responsibilities: bad things can happen.

Reinhold Messner: a rebel’s approach to risk

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