A good case can be made for the claim that the Austrian Reinhold Messner is the strongest mountain climber in the world. Although his early climbs in the Alps were at the very highest level of difficulty, it is in the last 10 years, during which he has concentrated on small, very fast, oxygenless ascents of the highest (8,000-meter) peaks in the world, that he has made his distinctive mark. He is the first man to have reached the summit of four 8,000-ers. On Nanga Parbat in 1970, having struggled to the top with his brother, Messner could not descend the same route, and was forced to go down the opposite face of the mountain and find his way back to base camp. This desperate ordeal claimed his brother's life. In 1=75, with his long-time partner Peter Habeler, he climbed Hidden Peak alpine-style -- without porters, fixed lines or tent camps: an astounding feat that stretched climbers' notions of the possible. In 1978 Messner and Habeler became the first men to climb the world's highest mountain without oxygen.
Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate chronicles that deed. Ever since the British expeditions of the 1920s, on which the technology of artificial oxygen was first developed, climbers had vigorously debated its use. In 1924 E. F. Norton had reached 8,600 meters on Everest without oxygen, and in 1939 Fritz Wiessner had climbed almost as high on K2, the world's second-highest mountain. But there seemed to be a distinct barrier at about that altitude; and many of the successful Everest climbers (62 men and two women had preceded Messner and Habeler to the top) had expressed the view that an oxygenless ascent of Everest (8,848 meters) uas out of the question. Messner claims that most doctors had also declared the feat impossible, which probably exaggerates the case; in any event, it is surprising that he does not even mention the first doctor to study the issue scientifically -- the American Charles Houston, himself the leader of two K2 expeditions. In 1946 in a naval research lab in Florida, Houston's "Operation Everest" took four volunteers over 35 days "up the mountain" at a thousand feet a day in a decompression chamber. At the height of Everest's summit, two of them could still ride a bicycle -- which convinced Houston that an oxygenless ascent of the mountain was well within human capability.
There is no disputing the magnificence of the two Austrians' accomplishment. Unfortunately, Messner's book is disjointed, blatantly padded, and often downright dull. Part of the problem is that, with the exception of the summit dash, there isn't much of a story to tell. On Hidden Peak the pair had climbed in splendid isolation; on Everest, they tagged along on an Austro-German expedition bent only on making the 19th ascent of the south-east ridge route first pioneered by Hillary and Tenzing. In 1953 that climb was a thrilling tale; today, both as tale and apparently as experience, it is a bit routine. In contrast to the deep team solidarity felt by the earlier expedition, some of the 1978 climbers reacted with actual disappointment when four of their comrades made the top, for that success threatened their own chances of going for the summit.
A more serious failing derives from Messner's attitude toward himself. Modesty is not one of his assets. By titling, an earlier book The Seventh Grade, the man as much as said that a new category of difficulty -- beyond the conventional six -- needed to be created to accommodate his exploits. Much of the tedious verbatim camp chat in Everest (transcribed, we are told, form tapes) has as its covert function the elevating of Messner and Habeler's attempt to superhuman stature. This goes to the author's head, allowing him such fatuous remarks as, "In the Middle Ages we would have been burned as heretics," or to assess his next project -- the solo climb of an 8,000-er -- thus: "This is my last great alpine dream. Indeed it is the last great alpine idea."
What comes across in Messner's character is, of course, his driven intensity; but also, more surprisingly, the impression of a lonely and not very happy man. Again and again he reports that "the higher I climb, the deeper I seem to see within myself." This may well be true, but you'd never guess it from the book. The stray remarks that approach self-revelation allude to the pain of a recent marriage break-up, and to the vital support of his mother -- "one of the very few people who really understands me." There is almost no sense of the other souls on the expedition -- not even of Habeler, despite a 15-year relationship. Reinhold Messner's universe, one fears, has little room for other people. The accomplishment of the summit leaves him mainly with a sense of loss and emptiness, for which the only remedy is the next great adventure.
Yet if this enigmatic man lives off a compulsive need for challenge, at what an astounding pace his candle burns! In May 1978 he reached the top of Everest; by June 30, in Munich, he had finished writing the book; and on August 9 he fulfilled his "last great alpine dream" by gaining the summit of Nanga Parbat -- the mountain on which he had lost his brother -- alone and without oxygen.