Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Yoga at Altitude
“If some people are telling you they had their climax on Mount Everest, they lied,” says Reinhold Messner in the November National Geographic. “It is an awful place.”

Caroline Alexander, the article’s author, asks: why risk everything to go there?

“Without the possibility of death,” says Messner, “adventure is not possible.”

The article, from which the following information and quotes were taken, hails Messner as the world’s greatest mountaineer. In 1975, Messner ascended, with longtime partner Peter Habeler, the 26,470-foot summit of Gasherbrum I, called Hidden Peak; Gasherburm I is one of the giants of the Himalayas. Most remarkable of all, though, was that Messner and Habeler ascended without porters, camps, fixed ropes, or oxygen.

Messner and Habeler then scaled Everest without oxygen in May of 1978, a feat that National Geographic says “took climbing to the absolute limit.” Three months later, Messner climbed Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain on Earth, solo. Two years later, he again climbed Mount Everest without oxygen, equipped with a single small rucksack — and alone.

Messner was the first climber to ascend all 14 "eight-thousanders," or peaks over 8,000 meters tall.

The yoga of Messner’s climbing — and make no mistake, it is yoga — involves intense practice and dedication. “If I am well-prepared,” says Messner, “and if I’m living a long time in my visions, in my fantasy, with my challenge, before doing it, I’m living with it, I’m dreaming about it, planning, preparing, training.”

The residue of his practice is a fierce, consuming, and single-pointed state of concentration. “So when I start to climb,” he continues, “especially when I’m on a big wall, whatever the difficulties — I’m so concentrated that there is nothing else existing; there’s only a few meters of wall where I am hanging and climbing; and in this concentration, everything seems quite logical. There is no danger anymore. The danger is gone … But the concentration is absolute.”

As Messner says, without the possibility of death, adventure is not possible. It must be understood, however, that for Messner, the idea of “life” and “adventure” are inextricably intertwined, for it is true, too, that without the possibility of death, life is not possible. That’s the word “life” as opposite to the idea of merely subsisting, which is the ceaseless reaction to external stimuli — avoiding discomfort, seeking its opposite — eternally buffeted by the mind's internal chatter and its cherished anxieties and neuroses.

For Messner, that internal chatter is stilled in the face of absolute danger, a danger for which he has rigorously practiced.

“There are moments in difficult situations, far away, that there is no more doubt,” he says. “There, the questions are gone. And I think these are the important moments. If the question is gone, I have not to answer. Myself living — I am the answer.”

Messner has paid heavy dues to the mountains: frostbite has claimed five toes and three fingers, and during Reinhold's first Himalayan expedition in 1970, Nanga Parbat claimed the life of his younger brother, Gunther.

Is it possible to become Messner’s “myself living,” to become one’s own “answer," without stumbling to the summit of Everest, half-mad with oxygen deprivation, at the edge of starvation and dehydration?