May 1978: Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler on the
first oxygenless ascent of the Everest
The Crystal Horizon
To begin with, it was just a beautiful illusion, a fantasy, to imagine climbing the highest mountain in the world without technical assistance. But out of this illusion a concept grew and finally, a philosophy: can Man, solely by his own efforts, reach the summit of Everest? Is the world so constructed that Man can climb to its highest point without mechanical aids?
I don't climb mountains simply to vanquish their summits. What would be the point of that? I place myself voluntarily into dangerous situations to learn to face my own fears and doubts, my innermost feelings.
The 'Adventure' is immediately diminished as soon as Man, to further his own ambition, uses technology as a hoist. Even the highest mountains begin to shrink if they are besieged by hundreds of porters, attacked with pegs and oxygen apparatus. In reaching for an oxygen cylinder, a climber degrades Everest to the level of a six-thousand metre peak. . .
The Himalayan pioneers ventured cautiously up into the great heights, groping their way, sometimes in small groups, sometimes alone. The fascinating tales they brought back of the loneliest regions of the world inspired other adventurers to follow their example. But they all lived in harmony with the mystery of the mountains. It was only with the nationalistic expeditions of the inter and post war years and their great emphasis on 'Conquest', that the delicate balance between the Adventurer and the 'Unknown' was destroyed.
Some of the mystery ebbs with every expedition. A mountain region is soon exhausted when no rein is placed on technical assistance, when a summit triumph is more important to a mountaineer than self-discovery. The climber who doesn't rely on his own strength and skills, but on apparatus and drugs, deceives himself.
The face mask is like a barrier between Man and Nature; it is a filter that hinders his visionary perceptions. An Everest ascent without using
artificial oxygen is the only alternative to previous ascents, all of which were made with its help.
'Everest by fair means' — that is the human dimension, and that is what interests me.
Mountains are so elemental that man does not have the right nor the need to subdue them with technology. Only the man who chooses his tools with humility can experience natural harmony.
Suddenly, I begin to nurture this idea. I want to climb until I either reach the top of the mountain, or I can go no further. I feel so passionately about this that I am prepared to endure anything, to risk much. I am willing to go further than ever I have before. I am resolved, for this idea, to stake everything I have....
(Reinhold Meissner and Peter Habeler succeed in climbing Everest without oxygen on May 8th 1978. But two years later a new ambition seizes him: to be the first man to climb Everest solo, and without oxygen. In the summer of 1980 he and a friend trek through Tibet to the north side of the world's highest mountain. There, he acclimatizes himself and prepares mentally and physically for the assault. Before dawn on August 18, he sets out, alone. But before the sun has risen, disaster strikes...)
The snow suddenly gives way under me and my headlamp goes out. Despairingly I try to cling on in the snow, but in vain. The initial reaction passes. Although it is pitch-dark I believe I can see everything: at first snow crystals, then blue-green ice. It occurs to me that I am not wearing crampons. I know what is happening but nevertheless remain quite calm. I am falling into the depths and experience the fall in slow motion, strike the walls of the widening crevasse once with my chest, once with the rucksack. My sense of time is interrupted, also my perception of the depth of the drop. Have I been falling only spilt seconds or is it minutes? I am completely weightless, a torrent of warmth surges through my body.
Suddenly I have support under my feet again. At the same time I know that I am caught, perhaps trapped forever in this crevasse. Cold sweat beads my forehead. Now I am frightened. 'If only I had a radio with me' is my first thought. I could call Nena. Perhaps she would hear me. But whether she could climb the 500 meters up to me and let a
rope down to me in the crevasse is more than questionable. I have consciously committed myself to this solo ascent without a radio, and discussed it many times before starting.
I finger my headlamp and suddenly everything is bright. It's working! I breathe deeply, trying not to move at all. Also, the snow surface on which I am standing is not firm. Like a thin, transparent bridge it hangs fragile between both walls of the crevasse. I put my head back and see some eight meters above the tree trunk sized hole through which I have fallen. From the bit of black sky above a few far, far distant stars twinkle down at me. The sweat of fear breaks from all my pores, covers my body with a touch which is as icy as the iridescent blue-green ice walls between which I am imprisoned. Because they converge obliquely above me I have no chance of climbing up them. With my headlamp I try-to light up the bottom of the crevasse; but there is no end to be seen. Just a black hole to the left and right of me. The snow bridge which has stopped my fall is only one square metre large.
I have goose-pimples and shiver all over. The reactions of my body, however, are in stark contrast to the calm in my mind: there is no fear at the prospect of a new plunge into the bottomless depths, only a pre sentiment of dissolving, of evaporation. At the same time my mind says, that was lucky! For the first time I experience fear as a bodily reflex without psychological pain in the chest. My only problem is how to get out again. Mount Everest has become irrelevant. I seem to myself like an innocent prisoner. I don't reproach myself, don't swear. This pure, innocent feeling is inexplicable. What determines my life at this moment I do not know. I promise to myself I will descend, I will give up, if I come out of this unhurt. No more solo eight-thousanders!
My sweaty fear freezes in my hair and beard. The anxiety in my bones disappears the moment I set my body in motion, as I try to get my crampons out of the rucksack. But at each movement the feeling of falling again comes over me, a feeling of plunging into the abyss, as if the ground were slowly giving way. . ,
Then I discover a ramp running along the crevasse walls on the valley side, a ledge the width of two feet in the ice which leads obliquely upwards and is full of snow. That is the way out! Carefully I let myself fall forward, arms outstretched, to the adjoining crevasse wall. For a long moment my body makes an arch between the wedged snow block
and the slightly overhanging wall above me. Carefully I straddle across with the right foot, make a foothold in the snow which has frozen on the ledge on this crevasse wall on the downhill side. I transfer weight to the step. It holds. The insecure spot I am standing on is thus relieved. Each of these movements I instinctively make as exactly as in a rehearsed ballet. I try to make myself lighter. Breathing deeply my whole body identifies itself with the new position, I am for a moment, a long, life-determining moment, weightless. I have pushed myself off from the snow bridge with the left foot, my arms keep me in balance, my right leg supports my body. The left foot can get a grip. Relieved deep-breathing. Very carefully I move — face to the wall — to the right. The right foot gropes for a new hold in the snow, the left boot is placed precisely in the footstep which the right has vacated a few seconds before. The ledge becomes broader, leads obliquely upwards to the outside. I am saved!
In a few minutes I am on the surface — still on the valley side to be sure — but safe. I am a different person, standing there rucksack on my shoulders, ice axe in my hand as if nothing had happened. I hesitate for a moment longer, consider what I did wrong. How did this fall happen? Perhaps my left foot, placed two centimetres above the underlying edge of the crevasse, broke through as I tried to find a hold with the right on the opposite wall.
Down below in the crevasse I had decided to turn round, give up, if I got out unharmed. Now that I am standing on top I continue my ascent without thinking, unconsciously, as if I were computer programmed.
The first glimmer of dawn illuminates Everest's North Col. I look at the time — shortly before seven. How long was I down there? I don't know. The fall into the crevasse is already wiped from my mind. The vow to descend could not have been fundamentally serious. I don't ask myself how I came to deceive myself thus. Determinedly I go back along the lower edge of the crevasse, my mind totally fixed on the summit, as if this perilous incident had only shaken my body, but not that identification which has for weeks constituted my being — my identification with Everest. The fall into the crevasse has put me into a far greater state of alertness than normal. I know this is the only place where I can cross the crevasse which runs right across this 500 metres-high ice wall below the North Col. During my reconnaissance ascent
four weeks ago I discovered the snow bridge, just 2 metres wide, which today proved almost my undoing. Then it had borne my weight. It may hold up now as well, if I only put weight on the outside edges.
On my solo climb I have no aluminium ladder and no rope, which larger expeditions would use to overcome hindrances of this sort. Two ski sticks and the titanium ice axe are my sole aids. Trance-like, I turn back to the hole I fell through. I shine my light down. Black as night. This time I must watch like hell so as not to make any mistake. On the other side of the crevasse is a steep snow wall. Soon decided, I bend forward and thrust the ski sticks — handles foremost — into the snow up to the discs. High up on the wall above me they now make two firm anchor points, artificial holds. I must cross the hole with a big straddling step and find a hold up there on the other side of the crevasse with the ice axe and ski sticks. Even though I know that on my descent I must find another route, I am immersed in the ascent as if there were nothing more to follow. With a powerful move I swing myself up, make a few quick steps and feel safe again. All these movements are fast but not hurried. Slowly, it becomes day....
Now I am 7,220 metres high. Again I squat down to rest. Haste at this altitude produces exhaustion, and I have most of my day's work already behind me. However, I want to go on as long as I have the strength for it. Far below is the valley end of the Rongbuk Glacier. The view to the west is still clear. To the left under the sky lies Nepal, in front of that a tip of the west shoulder of Everest. In the distance great ranges of mountains fade away. The bright light of the morning dissolves mountains and valleys. The rock bastion of Changtse, also known as the North Peak, falling abruptly to the Rongbuk Glacier, is now a most impressive view. The beautiful pyramid of Pumori looks supernatural and uncanny. Here and only here is God able to manifest himself. To the right the Tibetan plateau loses itself in infinity. The few clouds there, distributed like spiders' webs, are motionless. Up here, too, no wind. Snow only whirls through the air far below on the North Col; it seems to me as if this col is a funnel for alt the winds in Tibet....
The rock slopes on the north side are deeply snowed up, everything looks gentle and flatter than it really is. Up here everything seems peaceful. Now I have to rest at shorter intervals but each time my breathing quickly returns to its former rhythm, and I feel myself recover. This change between going on and stopping, exhaustion and
returning energy determines my speed. With each metre of ascent this rhythm becomes shorter phased, more constrained. Higher up above, I know from experience, it will be only will power that forces the body from complete lethargy for another step. This sort of snail's pace compels me to rest now for some minutes every 30 paces, with longer rests sitting down every 2 hours. As the air up here contains only a third, of the usual quantity of oxygen I climb as the Sherpas do. I climb and rest, rest and climb. I know that I shall feel comparatively well as soon as I sit down but put off this compelling feeling minute by minute. I must be careful to avoid any harsh irritation of the respiratory tracts. The bronchial tubes and throat are my weakest points. I know it. And already I sense some hoarseness. So I am doubly glad that on this windy mountain hardly a breeze is blowing today. A steep rise now costs me more energy than I thought. From below, going over it by eye, I supposed it would require 5 rest stops. Meanwhile it has become 8 or 9 and I am still not on top. There, where it becomes flatter, something like deliverance awaits me. I don't want to sit down until I am over the rounded top.
While climbing I watch only the foot making the step. Otherwise there is nothing. The air tastes empty, not stale, just empty and rough. My throat hurts. While resting I let myself droop, ski sticks and legs take the weight of my upper body. Lungs heave. For a time I forget everything. Breathing is so strenuous that no power to think remains. Noises from within me drown out all external sounds. Slowly with the throbbing in my throat will power returns.
Onwards. Another 30 paces. How this ridge fools me! Or is it my eyes? Everything seems so close, and is then so far. After a standing rest stop I am over the top. I turn round, let myself drop on the snow. From up here I gaze again and again at the scenery, at the almost end less distance. In the pastel shades of the ranges lies something mystical. It strengthens the impression of distance, the unattainable, as if I had only dreamed of this Tibet, as if I had never been here. But where I am now, I have been already, that much I know.... The altimeter shows 7,360 meters and it is about 9 a.m. I did the stretch to the North Col in two hours. By this ploy I have spared myself a bivouac. Now I am climbing slowly, consciously slowly....
This time there is no one to help carry; no one to prepare my bivouac; no comrade to help me break trail in deep snow and no Sherpa to carry
my equipment. Nobody. How much easier it is to climb as a pair. The knowledge that someone is standing behind you brings comfort. Not only is solo climbing far more strenuous and dangerous, above all the psychological burden is more than doubled. Everything that lies ahead of me, including the descent — while resting this is all often blown up out of all proportion — weighs me down. Like a snail which carries its home on its back I carry my tent in my rucksack. I shall erect it, sleep in it and take it with me for the next night. I am equipped like a nomad. I can survive for a week. Nevertheless I have scarcely any reserves. After seven days I must be back, nothing can be allowed to go wrong, A second tent would be too heavy, to say nothing of oxygen apparatus which would double my load again. My 18 kilos weighs so heavily at this height that I now stop and stand after every two dozen steps, struggle for breath and forget everything around me.
The stretches between the rest stops become shorter and shorter. Often, very often, I sit down to have a breather. Each time it takes great will-power to stand up again. The knowledge that I have completed my self-inflicted day's stint helps me now. It is as if thinking of that erases energy. 'Still a bit more, you can do it', I say to myself softly by way of encouragement. 'What you climb today, you won't have to climb tomorrow.'...
The sun and the dry air parch me. I remember that I have with me a tiny bottle of Japanese medicinal herb oil, and put two drops of it on my tongue. For a while that brings relief and opens the air ways. Apart from aspirin this herbal remedy is the only medication I carry on the mountain.
The thin air works like a grater on my throat. Each breath leaves a pain in the throat and a feeling of stickiness in the mouth. I take my time setting up the bivouac.
I am tired and glad that I have finally decided to stop. Already the consciousness that no further effort is required works wonders. Was it not myself, but a power from without which drove me on? I feel it to be so. My will returns to normal and I begin to think clearly again. I can perceive again, not merely see. I enjoy a magnificent view to the glacier below me, towards the snow world to the east....
My tiny tent, not 2 kilos in weight and constructed so that it can with stand storms up to 100 kilometres per hour, does not need much space. It is just big enough for me to lie with my knees bent. Nevertheless I
require a long time to flatten out a site for it. I push the snow back wards and forwards with my boots, stamp it down. I have no shovel. The tent must not be sloping. I have trouble putting it up. Again and again a gust of wind comes and lifts it. Not until I have the tent wall stretched on the light metal tubes do I feel all right. With my ski sticks, ice axe and the only rock piton I have with me I anchor the bivouac cover. Then I lay a thin foam rubber mat on the floor, and, pushing the full rucksack from behind, crawl inside. For a time I just lie there. I listen to the wind hurling ice crystals against the tent wall. It comes in waves, ebbs to and fro and its rhythm keeps me awake. The wind is blowing from the north-west, that is a good sign. I ought to cook, I must. Again a command that absorbs everything in me and about me. But more tired than before from the many small jobs, from the erection of the bivouac, I cannot brace myself to it. For the last time I go out side the tent, fetch snow in my little aluminium pot and peer down into the valley, as if to dodge the all-important work of cooking. It becomes terribly cold. For a time I sit on the knob of rock which I picked out from below as an 'ideal resting place'....
I know of no mountain, no other region from which there is such an infinite view as from Mount Everest across the Tibetan plateau. With this impression I crawl back into 'the constriction of the tent. The space about me shrinks to a cubic meter, and I quickly forget where the tent is standing. Feet in sleeping-bag I begin to cook on my small gas burner. Taking off the rucksack, levelling the camp site, fixing the tent, all that was a hard piece of work after more than ten hours of climbing. Now follow six hours of chores, and these chores are as strenuous as the climbing was before. I eat cheese in small crumbs and nibble a piece of coarse South Tyrolean brown bread. At intervals I fall asleep. When I wake up again the first pot is full of warm water. The soup tastes insipid. The snow has taken ages to melt.
I am surrounded by so much peace and at the same time so power fully aroused that I could embrace anyone. Although I have eaten nothing since this morning I am not hungry. Also I must force myself to drink. The feeling of thirst is less than the fluid requirement of my body. I must drink at least four litres; this is a fundamental standard which I have set myself, like the course of the route and weather studies.
I need so much energy just to fight against fear and inertia. In this I pursue a goal which not only climbers can understand. When shall
finally be able to live without a goal? Why do I myself stand in the way with my ambition, with my fanaticism? 'Fai la cucina' says someone near me, 'get on with the cooking'. I think again of cooking. Half aloud I talk to myself. The strong feeling I have had for several hours past, of being with an invisible companion, has apparently encouraged me to think that someone else is doing the cooking. I ask myself too how we shall find space to sleep in this tiny tent. I divide the piece of dried meat which I take out of the rucksack into two equal portions. Only when I turn round do I realize that I am alone. Now I am speaking Italian although for me the mother tongue is South Tyrol German....
Once more I make tomato soup, then two pots of Tibetan salt tea. I learned how to make it from the nomads. A handful of herbs to a litre of water, plus two pinches of salt. I must drink a lot, if I am not to become dehydrated. My 'blood could thicken up too much if I do not take enough fluid, so I force myself to melt more snow to drink. The cooking lasts several hours. I just lie there, holding the cooking pot and occasionally pushing a piece of dried meat or Parmesan cheese into my mouth. I have no desire to leave the tent. The storm outside gets up even more. Now grains of ice beat like hail against the tent wall. The poles sing. That is good, for the wind will clear snow from the ridge and drive off the monsoon clouds which were advancing during late afternoon. There is no question of going to sleep. Terrible buffets beat at the tent. Or does my over-wakeful sense only deceive me? Tent floor and sleeping-bag are lifted up time and again. If the storm becomes stronger it will hurl me together with my lodgings into the depths. I must hold the tent fast. Snow powder forces itself through the cracks. Cooking has now become impossible. I lie down, arms in sleeping-bag, and wait. I would like to keep my eyes closed but every time a solid gust of wind comes I open them again involuntarily. Am I still here?
This lying here tensely itself takes energy. The tent walls flutter, the storm whistles, howls, presses. Whirling snow beats on the tent like spray on the bow of a ship.
Once when I look out through the tent flap a torrent of ice crystals beats against me. Nevertheless, no panic wells up. My surroundings are completely hidden, extinguished. The black rock outcrops above me appear ghostly. This storm really threatens to catapult me and the tent in to the depths. The fine ice dust in the tent, the fingers which stick to metal, all that makes me shiver continually. Nevertheless I manage to
remain fairly warm. Whenever the wind allows I put both arms deep into the sleeping-bag and hold it down from within. Only my face remains free. Once I fall asleep briefly.
The night is tolerable. The storm has abated. In the sleepless intervals endless thoughts go round and round in my mind. I feel this thinking as something tangible. From the back of my mind springs one fragment of thought after another, to and fro, like points of condensed energy, finding no way out, with a life of their own. As if there were an energy in my field of force which is independent of me. Indeed it belongs to me, but exists without my so much as lifting a finger, with out impulse. Even in sleep.
It comes and goes against my will. So it is also with this almost tangible power around me. A spirit breathes regularly in and out, which originates from nothingness and which condenses to nothingness. Only somewhere between these extreme forms do I perceive it, even with my senses....
As the morning dawns sluggishly I notice that the wind is drop ping again. That lends me wings. I manoeuvre the gas burner into the sleeping-bag to warm it up. An hour later I am drinking lukewarm coffee. With that I chew the hard, coarse brown bread from South Tyrol again. All the small chores in the constriction and cold of the tent add up to a bodily ordeal. I work with numb fingers; uninterruptedly, hoar frost trickles from the canvas. To be able to stretch out fully, or to stand up to adjust my clothes is a luxury which I cannot perform in here. Such a tent would weigh at least three times as much as my special construction. Once more I force myself to cook. The dry lumps of snow produce an unpleasant noise between my fingers. It is an eternity before my fist-sized pot is full of water.
For an hour I lie still with my clothes on in the sleeping-bag, drink and doze off. I don't want to look at the time. When I open my eyes I often don't know whether it is morning or evening.
I feel a driving unrest in my innermost being. It is not fear which suddenly seizes me like a big all-embracing hand. It is all the experiences of my mountaineering life which spread out in me and press for activity. The exertion of 30 years of climbing; avalanches, which I have been through, states of exhaustion which have condensed over the decades to a feeling of deep helplessness. You must go on! Time won is energy saved. I know what can happen to me during the next few days,
and I know how great the grind will become below the summit. This knowledge is now only endurable in activity.
I must go, and yet each smallest chore is an effort. Up here life is brutally racked between exhaustion and will-power; self-conquest becomes a compulsion. Why don't I go down? There is no occasion to. I cannot simply give up without reason. I wanted to make the climb, I still want to. Curiosity,... ambition (I want to be the first) — all these superficial incentives have vanished, gone. Whatever it is that drives me is planted much deeper than I or the magnifying glass of the psychologists can detect. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, step by step I force myself to do something against which my body rebels. At the same time this condition is only bearable in activity. Only a bad omen or the slightest illness would be a strong enough excuse for me to descend.
As the sun strikes my tent and slowly absorbs the hoarfrost from the inner wall I pack up everything again. Bit by bit, in the reverse order to which I must unpack again in the evening. Only two tins of sardines, a gas cartridge as well as half the soup and tea, do I leave behind in a tiny depot, to make my rucksack lighter. I must make do with the remainder of the provisions. It is almost 9 o'clock.
The weather is fine. Tomorrow I shall be on the summit! The moment I crawl out of the tent my confidence is back once more. As if I am breathing cosmic energy. Or is it only the summit with which I identify? The air above me seems to be thin, of that soft blue that looks transparent. The mountains below me I see only as wavy surfaces, a relief in black and white. Take down the tent, fold it up! I command myself. But now these impulses no longer come from the mind, they come again from the gut.
Each drawing of breath fills my lungs with air, fills my being with self-realization. There can be no doubt. I set out on my way....
As always at great height I need a long time today to get the life giving energy circulating again. It is as if the harmony had been disturbed. Through movement — right foot placed, weighted, released, dragged, left foot... — a field of energy develops in my body. With the reduction of anxiety, currents concentrate throughout my body immeasurable, intangible forms of energy....
When I think, the energy at my disposal is quickly used up. With will power alone I can get no farther now but when I disengage my
brain I am open to a power from without. I am like a hollow hand and experience a regeneration. The balled fist or out-stretched fingers con tribute with exhaustion to helplessness. Only when I am like a hollow hand does an invisible part of my being regenerate, not only in sleep, but also in climbing.
The rhythm of climbing — rest is determined by energy, and this energy determines my rhythm. The stops between climbing are already longer than the 15 paces I make now each time. This is my measure of time, step be step. Time and space are one....
During the ascent I am like a walking corpse. What holds me upright is the world around me: air, sky, earth, the clouds which press in from the west. The experience of proceeding one step at a time. The sense of one's will as something tangible prior to the last two paces before resting. The terrain is easy. Nevertheless it demands my whole attention. That I can stand, that I can proceed, gives me energy to think ahead, to want to get ahead. At least as important as success is joy at one's own skill. It is astonishing how often I have overlooked this part of the pleasure of climbing and have talked solely of loads carried to the summit. High altitude climbing requires a whole range of proficiencies, knowledge and inventiveness. The higher you go, the more man himself bec6mes the problem. Ability also to solve problems of this sort is what makes a good climber. I see the usefulness of climbing not in the further development of technique, rather in the development of the instinct and proficiency of man to extend himself. Learning about his limitations is just as important as his claim to be able to do any thing....
My altimeter shows 7,900 metres. But altimeters have the capacity to become inaccurate up high. Generally they show less than the actual height. It is also possible that the air pressure has altered during the night. I no longer take the altimeter seriously....
I progress so slowly! How long my pauses to breathe are each time I don't know. With the ski sticks I succeed in going 15 paces, then I must rest for several minutes. All strength seems to depend on the lungs. If my lungs are pumped out I must stop. I breathe in through my mouth and expel the air through mouth and nose. And while standing I must use all my will-power to force my lungs to work. Only when they pump regularly does the pain disappear, and I experience something like energy. Now my legs have strength again....
Meanwhile the mists around me have become so dense that the sun only now and then breaks through. Direction-finding becomes more difficult. Sometimes the breathless silence after resting fills me for a few moments with terror. Have I already gone too far? When the silence becomes unbearable I have to continue climbing. Always obliquely upwards. The pounding in my body and the gasping for breath after each ten paces let me forget the emptiness about me. For a pain-filled eternity there is nothing at all. I exist only as a mind above a body. While resting I literally let myself fall: with my upper body leaning on the ski in sticks, the rucksack tipped on to the nape of my neck, I go through a period of only breathing out and breathing in. Then I perk up again, and with the first step experience the exertion of the next section. Onward!
Sometimes I feel as if I am stuck in the snow. Nevertheless, I don't let myself get discouraged. I move continually to the right up the North Face. The whole face is like a single avalanche zone. New snow trick les down from above and it is sleeting. I tell myself that it is only a temporary disturbance; the snow will consolidate itself. It will hold for two days yet', I say to myself.
The ascending traverse continues endlessly with many but regular pauses. Because of the exertion and concentration I have not noticed that the weather has become so bad that I ought to turn back. All around everything is covered in mist. I squat and rest. Perhaps I should put up the tent. The spot seems too insecure to me. I must bivouac on a ridge. If it snows anymore that means avalanche danger. These are not rational thoughts, but come from the instincts which lie deep within me. For at least another hour I force myself on still further. On a blunt elevation which runs across the face like a giant rib I squat down again. For a while I feel only heaviness, indifference, numbness. Then the clouds tear themselves apart. The valley appears: grey, lightly covered in snow, soon masked again by mists. Not only do the mountains seem flattened, also 'the slopes beneath me and the snow shield in the big couloir. I see all that with the feeling of no longer belonging to the world below. When I notice it is 3 o'clock in the afternoon, it sinks in: I am still about 200 metres to the east of the Norton couloir. When I then peer at the altimeter it shows 8,220 metres. I am disappointed. It's more than that surely! It's not only that I would be delighted to have got as far as 8,400 metres, but that I have exerted myself much more
than yesterday. It is misty and snows lightly. I can't go any further today. And yet that is an evasion: I do not know whether there is a bivouac place higher up.
I am dead tired. Conscious of this I scarcely make it to the next rocks. Earlier than planned I erect my tent. On a rock bollard, safe from avalanches — snow slides would branch off to the left and right of it — I find a 2 by 2 metre big, almost flat surface. While I make the snow firm I remain standing up. I ask myself how I shall find my way back if the weather stays like this. This doubt and the knowledge of all that can happen condenses into fear. Only when I work am I inwardly at peace. The quite light snowfall, the stationary clouds, the warmth, all that is sinister to me. Is it the monsoon or only anxiety? A fall in temperature is on the way, it seems to me. If I cannot get back for days my reserves will be soon used up. The avalanche danger on the North Face and below the North Col grows with every hour.
An hour later my tent is standing on the rock outcrop. Once again I anchor it with ice axe and ski sticks. I can camp here protected from the wind. Also, if there is a storm there is scarcely any danger. I place the open rucksack in front of the tent flap, and push the mat in. Lumps of snow for cooking lie ready to hand. All is prepared for the long night. A feeling of relief comes over me....
How does one live at this height? I am no longer living, I am only hesitating. When one must do everything alone each manipulation takes a lot of will-power. With each job I notice the effect of the thin air. Speed of thought is greatly diminished and I can make clear decisions only very slowly. They are influenced by my tiredness and breathing difficulties. My windpipe feels as if it were made of wood, and I am aware of a slight irritation of my bronchial tubes.
Although I have not been able to prepare any really hot drinks, because water boils at a lower temperature on account of the height, I still keep on melting snow. Pot after pot. I drink soup and salt tea. It is still too little. I am not very hungry. I must force myself to eat. Also I don't know what to eat without making myself sick. Should I open this tin of sardines now or something else? The slightest effort requires time, energy and attention. All movements are slow and cumbersome. I decide on cheese and bread, chicken in curry sauce, a freeze-dried ready to serve meal which I mix with lukewarm water. I stick the empty packet under the top of my sleeping-bag. I shall need it during
the night to pee in. It takes me more than half an hour to choke down the insipid pap. Outside it gets darker. The many small tasks in the bivouac take as much energy as hours of regular climbing. The difference between arriving at a prepared camp, to be cared for by Sherpas or comrades, and evening after evening having to make camp and cook for oneself is tremendous. Perhaps it is the essential distinction between the classic big expedition and the modem small expedition. Going to sleep is by itself a big exertion. Up here I cannot simply get into bed, stick my head under the covers and fall asleep....
In the morning I am just as tired as the evening before, and stiff as well. I ask myself whether I really want to go on. I must! Then I use the little strength I have to move my body. I know well enough from experience that I can still carry on for a time, but I try to push every thing aside — to think of nothing, to prolong a deliberate state which allowed me to endure the whole night.
I have only to get going and keep moving in order to have some energy again. The will to make the first decisive move still fails me. When I open the tent flap this morning, it is already day outside. A golden red glow bathes the summit pyramid; to the east, fields of clouds stretch away into the distance. Automatically I remember the monsoon. It is an eternity before I hold the first pot of warm water between my hands. There is ice lying in the tent. I can't eat anything...
Twice whilst melting snow I take my pulse. Way above 100 beats per minute. I feel all in. No more trains of thought. Only commands in the mind. The night was one long ordeal. Painful joints, mucous in my throat. Morning is depressing. On this 20 August I leave everything behind: tent, ski sticks, mat, sleeping-bag. The rucksack too stays in the tent. I take only the camera with me. So just as I am I crawl out of the tent, draw my hood over my head and with bare fingers buckle crampons on to my boots. I retrieve only the titanium axe from the snow. Have I got everything? It must be after 8 o'clock already. Without the load on my back things are easier. But I miss the ski sticks as balancing poles. With the short ice axe in my right hand. I, feel secure, certainly, but for traversing it is a poor substitute.
Only when I climb directly upwards do my gloved left hand and the ice axe fumble about in the snow beneath my head. I proceed on all fours. While resting I distribute my whole weight so that the upper part of my body remains free. I kneel in the snow, lay my arms on the
rammed-in ice axe and put my head on this cushion. I can still survey the steep rise above me, orientate myself, weigh up difficulties. Fortunately an uninterrupted snow gully runs up the Norton Couloir. So long as I can see and plod I am confident.
Once, before I reach the bottom of the broad trough, I look out for a longer rest possibility. The tent, a yellow speck, appears as through a weak magnifying glass. Is that only the light mist or are all my senses fooled? I remember the place and then climb up the rise above me to the right. Pace by pace. Step by step. Already after a short while I miss the rucksack like a true friend. It has let me down. For two days it has been my partner in conversation, has encouraged me to go on when I have been completely exhausted. Now I talk to the ice axe. But a friend is little enough in this state of exposure. Nevertheless, the voices in the air are there again. I don't ask myself where they come from. I accept them as real. Lack of oxygen and insufficient supply of blood to the brain are bound up with it, are certainly the cause of these irrational experiences which I got to know two years ago during my solo ascent of Nang Parbat. Up here in 1933 Frank Smythe shared his biscuits with an imaginary partner.
The rucksack has indeed been my companion. But without it things go easier, much easier even. If I had to carry something now I would not make any progress. I decided to make the ascent because I knew that on this last day I could leave everything behind. In the driving clouds, following my instinct more than my eyes I look for the route step-by-step. Again the distant memory of this couloir. I live in a sort of half-darkness of mist, clouds, snow drifts and recognition of individual sections. I was here once before! A feeling that even lengthy reflection cannot dispel....
It is getting steeper. When I move I no longer pound like a locomotive, I feel my way ahead hesitatingly. Jerkily I gain height. This climbing is not difficult but downright unpleasant. Often I can find no hold in the snow and must make out the steps by touch. I cannot afford to slip here. For the first time during this solo ascent I feel in danger of falling, like increased gravity. This climbing carefully with great concentration increases my exhaustion. Besides, the mist interferes more and more. All I see is a piece of snow in front of me, now and then a prospect of blue sky above the ridge. Everything goes very slowly. In spite of the enormous strain which each step upwards requires, I am
still convinced that 1 shall get to the top, which I experience now in a ort of anticipation, like a deliverance.
The knowledge of being half-way there in itself soothes me, gives strength, drives me on. Often I am near the end of my tether. After a dozen paces everything in me screams to stop, sit, breathe. But after a short rest I can go on. Worrying about the bad weather has cost me additional energy. And the ever-recurring question of the descent. But simultaneously in the thickening mist I experience an inspiring hope, something like curiosity outside of time and space. Not the demoralizing despair which a visible and unendingly distant summit often triggers. It is now all about the struggle against my own limitations. This becomes obvious with each step; with each breath it resolves itself. The decision to climb up or down no longer bothers me. It is the irregular rhythm, the weakness in the knees. I go on like a robot. Against all bodily remonstrances I force myself upwards. It must be! I don't think much, I converse with myself, cheer myself up. Where is my rucksack? My second friend the ice axe is still here. We call a halt....
The fancy to have climbed here once already constantly helps me to find the right route. The steep step shot through with brightly coloured rock lies beneath me. I still keep to my right — not so long ago an avalanche went down here. The snow bears. Under the blunt ridge it becomes deeper, my speed accordingly slower. On hands and knees I climb up, completely apathetic. My boots armed with crampons are like anchors in the snow. They hold me....
I guess myself to be near the top but the knife edge goes on forever. During the next three hours I am aware of myself no more. I am one with space and time. Nevertheless I keep moving. Every time the blue sky shows through the thick clouds I believe I see the summit, am there. But still there are snow and stones above me. The few rocks which rise out of the snow are greeny-grey, shot through here and there with brighter streaks. Ghostlike they stir in the wispy clouds. For a long time I traverse upwards, keeping to the right. A steep rock barrier bars the way to the ridge. Only if I can pass the wall to the right shall I get any higher.
Arriving on the crest of the North East Ridge I sense the cornices, stand still. Then I lie down on the snow. Now I am there. The ridge is Hat. Where is the summit? Groaning I stand up again, stamp the snow down. With ice axe, arms and upper body burrowing in the snow, I
creep on, keeping to the right. Ever upwards.
When I rest I feel utterly lifeless except that my throat bums when I draw breath. Suddenly it becomes brighter. I turn round and can see down into the valley. Right to the bottom where the glacier flows. Breathtaking! Automatically I take a few photographs. Then everything is all grey again. Completely windless.
Once more I must pull myself together. I can scarcely go on" No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have not lost the mastery of my feelings, there are actually no more feelings. I consist only of will. After each few metres this too fizzles out in an unending tiredness. Then I think nothing, feel nothing. I let myself fall, just lie there. For an indefinite time I remain completely irresolute. Then I make a few steps again.
At most it can only be another 10 metres up to the top! To the left below me project enormous cornices. For a few moments I spy through a hole in the clouds the North Peak far below me. Then the sky opens out above me too. Oncoming shreds of cloud float past nearby in the light wind. I see the grey of the clouds, the black of the sky and the shining white of the snow surface as one. They belong together like the strips of a flag. I must be there!
Above me nothing but sky. I sense it, although in the mist I see as little of it as the world beneath me. To the right the ridge still goes on up. But perhaps that only seems so, perhaps I deceive myself. No sign of my predecessors.
It is odd that I cannot see the Chinese aluminium survey tripod that has stood on the summit since 1975. Suddenly I am standing in front of it. I take hold of it, grasp it like a friend. It is as if I embrace my opposing force something that absolves and electrifies at the same time. At this moment I breathe deeply.
In the mist, in the driving of the clouds I cannot see at first whether I am really standing on the highest point. It seems almost as if the mountain continues on up to the right. This tripod, which rises now scarcely knee-high out of the snow, triggers off no sort of euphoria in me. It is just there. Because of the great amount of snow on the summit it is much smaller than when I saw it in 1978; pasted over with snow and unreal.
In 1975 the Chinese anchored it on the highest point, ostensibly to carry out exact measurements. Since then they state the height of their
1980: Messner's self portrait on the summit of the Everest after his solo ascent.
Chomolungma as 8,848.12 metres. I don't think of all that up here. This artificial summit erection doesn't seem at all odd. I have arrived, that's all that matters! It's gone 3 o'clock.
Like a zombie, obeying an inner command, I take some photo graphs. A piece of blue sky flies past in the background. Away to the south snow cornices pile up, which seem to me to be higher than my position. I squat down, feeling hard as stone. I want only to rest a while, forget everything. At first there is no relief. I am leached, completely empty. In this emptiness nevertheless something like energy accumulates. I am charging myself up. For many hours I have only used up energy. I have climbed myself to a standstill, now I am experiencing regeneration, a return flow of energy.
A bleached shred of material wrapped round the top of the tripod by wind is scarcely frozen. Absentmindedly I run my fingers over it. I undo it from the metal. Ice and snow remain sticking to it. I should take some more pictures but I cannot brace myself to it. Also I must get
back down. Half an hour too late means the end of me. At the moment I am not at all disappointed that once again I have no view. I am standing on the highest point on earth for the second time and again can see nothing. That is because it is now completely windless. The light snowflakes dance and all around me the clouds swell as if the earth were pulsating underneath. I still don't know how I have made it but I know that I can't do any more. In my tiredness I am not only as heavy as a corpse, I am incapable of taking anything in. I cannot distinguish above and below.
Again a shred of blue sky goes by with individual ice crystals shining in the sun. The mountains appear far below and quite flat, between the black-white of the valleys. This time I am too late with the camera. Then clouds, mist again; now their primary colour is violet.
Is night coming on already? No, it is 4 p.m. I must be away. No feeling of sublimity. I am too tired for that. And although I don't at this ! moment feel particularly special or happy, I have a hunch that in retrospect it will be comforting, a sort of conclusion. Perhaps a recognition that I too shall have to roll that mythical stone all my life without ever reaching the summit; perhaps I myself am this summit. I am Sisyphus.
After three-quarters of an hour I have the strength to stand up, to stand up for the descent. It has become a bit brighter. I can still see my track. That is comforting. How much easier is the descent of this great mountain! It takes only a fraction of the effort and will-power compared with coming up.
My whole energy is now concentrated in my senses. I find the smell of the snow, the colour of the rocks more intense than in previous days, jump at the occasional sheet lightning out of the clouds far to the west. I want only to get down. Climbing down — once facing inwards — as if I were in flight, I don't ask myself why I undertook all the strain of getting to the summit. I would rather be down already. This long way is a burden.
What disturbs me most is my coughing. It makes my life hell. Even gentle coughing tears at my stomach. Besides, I have not eaten for many hours. I must get to base camp as quickly as possible. Just before the onset of darkness I find my way back to my tent and rucksack.
This night I scarcely sleep at all. Also I cannot bring myself to cool properly. I drink a little snow water. Again I eat nothing. The warff1 flame of the gas burner which buzzes near my face is perhaps only
comfort me. I don't switch it off although I don't manage to sit up in my sleeping-bag and fetch in snow. Each activity costs now so much energy! Energy which I have derived from climbing, also the stimulus of reaching the summit. Now it fails me. I lie in the tent as if dead. Only the success keeps me alive. I obey the law of inertia. Between waking and sleeping, surrounded by the living dead, the hours slip away without any thoughts. I am not safe yet....
My thinking weaves uninterruptedly further, always at the limit of consciousness. In the early hours I rouse myself with the feeling of having come to a decision, but cannot concentrate. Have I gone mad? Has this emptiness sent me mad? Am I altitude sick? When morning comes I am once again in flight. Without drinking anything I abandon camp. Tent, sleeping-bag everything except the rucksack stays behind. Only the ski sticks do I tear out of the snow. Traversing east I climb diagonally downwards. To the east I look down into the snow basin of the Rongbuk Glacier as I reach the blunt ridge a little above the North Col. No tent stands there. Or is it just snowed up? The new snow is powdery and dry. It flies about when I step on it. It is bitterly cold today.
Not only during the ascent but also during the descent my will power is dulled. The longer I climb the less important the goal seems to me, the more indifferent I become to myself. My attention has diminished, my memory is weakened. My mental fatigue is now greater than the bodily. It is so pleasant to sit doing nothing — and therefore so dangerous. Death through exhaustion is — like death through freezing — a pleasant one. As I traverse the undulating ridge above the North Col I feel as if I am returning from a shadow world.
I make myself carry on through my tiredness, using the knowledge that I have been on the summit. I offer no more resistance, let myself tall at each step. Only I may not remain sitting. Day after day I have endured the loneliness of the undulating snow surface of the North Pace; hour after hour against the wind, the sharp ice grains which swirl with it; for an eternity through the mist which deluded me into thinking each block of rock was a friend. Each breath up there was an ordeal and still I took it as a gift.
Now feeling attacks me of 'having survived', of 'having been saved'. Little by little I step into something which could be called 'place of fulfilment', a 'saving haven'. Like the pilgrims at the sight of the place of
pilgrimage I forget all the ordeals of the journey....
Bright swathes of mist rush over the North Col. The seething sea of clouds over Solo Khumbu is blindingly white and the curved line of the North-East Ridge stands like a wall between the clear weather in the east and the monsoon in the south. With the certainty of a sleep-walker I descend. But the snow does not please me. It is jellified and makes no firm bond with the firm base. It slides down the smooth ice slabs when I step on it. Presumably I am now also less awake because I expect no serious difficulties in the descent from the North Col. Thus I face them unprepared. Still in a trance, I slip for the first time and immediately lose the ground under my feet. I try to brake, but cannot control the plunge. With the increasing speed of the fall new strengths appear; as always real danger rouses my abilities. And that to a degree that I ask myself from whence I derive so much skill, stamina and energy so quickly.
I stand up again quickly, ram the ice axe firmer and climb down a steep snow wall facing inwards. My carefulness is an instinct: no reflex flinching, no more sudden terror if the snow gives way; only a slow complaisance in my body. In my leaden tiredness there is no sort of hampering nervousness, much more sleep-walking-like knowledge. This sort of feeling of security is directly bound up with tiredness and danger.
The big transverse crevasse into which I fell four days ago during the ascent I by-pass to the right and now stand at the upper edge of a steep slope. Avalanche danger! The morning sun has softened the snow. I experience these alarm signals now as searing pains in my body, not as thoughts in my head.
The precipice drops 400 metres beneath me. Down below, the ice slope runs out into the glacier bottom like the splayed-out feet of the Eiffel Tower. Only brighter or darker shadings indicate crevasses, hollows and domes. I don't hesitate for long, then continue the descent. Soon I have such numb fingers and such tired legs that I sit down in the snow and slide on my backside. I am dehydrated, want to drink. Even the snow sticks like dust in my mouth. I remain sitting. As I rouse myself for a last exertion of strength I move without thinking to the right. A wide open crevasse forces me to dodge. Too late I notice that I should have gone to the left. I can't go back. I can only keep on descending. Suddenly I slip down again unexpectedly, break the motion
with the ice axe and, as my arms refuse to work, slide down the middle of the avalanche cone to the foot of the wall. I lie there for a while. Then come to on the flat glacier bottom. I kneel, lie down again in the snow, gather myself up again. Groaning I stagger forwards, lose the ground under my feet, fall once more. Once I throw everything away from me, roll my face in the snow, shake myself. I am down. I am happy and at the same time despairing. Then Nena comes over the glacier ridge. She stands there, then comes on. Yes, it is her. I can no longer shout. Everything goes black in front of my eyes. Slowly, very slowly I let myself dissolve. With each further step downwards, with the marker poles in front of me, the first moraines in sight, the whole world stands revealed within me. I see my whole being from without. 'Here' is now somewhere else. I am transparent, made of glass, borne up by the world.
Nena says not a word. Or do I not hear her? Involuntarily I hold my breath, stand still. I have trouble staying in balance. I want to take hold of Nena and just stay there, laugh and cry, to rest myself on her and remain lying on the glacier. Immobile, without a word I stand there, as fragile as a light bulb. A single word would suffice to destroy this glassy delicacy, this strange envelope which is all that is left of me. I can see through all my layers and know that I am also transparent for Nena. Leaning on the ski sticks I stare at her a while. Then I break down. All my reserve is gone. I weep. It is as if all horizons, all boundaries were broken. Everything is revealed, all emotions are released. How far must I go before I finally break in two? I myself am now the open book. The more I let myself go the more it forces me to my knees.
From Reinhold Messner,
The Crystal Horizon
Crosswood Press, Ramsbury, Wilkshire,