Climbing Flying Mountain

Reinhold Messner and his brother Günther reached the summit of Nanga Parbat in June 1970. They were the third mountaineering team ever to do so. Nanga Parbat, located in Northern Pakistan, is the ninth-highest mountain in the world, and the deadliest after Annapurna. On their ascent, the brothers climbed up the Rupal face, one of the highest mountain faces on earth. It rises 4,600 meters above its base, and its peak fades into cold, distant clouds. Reinhold Messner later wrote a novel about their fateful ascent, which he called The Naked Mountain. The title is a literal translation of Nanga Parbat, but it resonates on other levels, too—the climber is always defenseless, at the mercy of 8,000 meters. 

Nanga Parbat wasn’t merciful to the two brothers. Reinhold and Günther’s climb was tough and rushed. The Naked Mountain is taut, like traditional climbing narratives, but with one difference. Messner’s story ends with the loss of his brother.

Messner would go on to become one of the world’s most prolific climbers—arguably, the best climber of all time. In 1978, he was the first man to successfully reach Mount Everest’s summit without bottled oxygen. By 1986, he had scaled all of the world’s eight-thousanders. He is an advocate of climbing “by fair means,” that is, using minimal tools and equipment on extraordinarily dangerous climbs. This also means that Messner frequently faces death, yet has somehow emerged with only a few lost toes (six, frostbitten during his delirious descent of Nanga Parbat). 

Many years after climbing Nanga Parbat, Messner became friends with an Austrian named Christoph Ransmayr, and they began traveling and climbing together. Also an adventurer, Ransmayr harbors an inexplicable fascination for ice. He organizes expeditions to the Arctic Circle, as a leader for a company called Poseidon Arctic Voyages.  He is also one of Austria’s greatest living writers. Our path not only leads into foreign territory, but into the interior of the world itself, in a language that knows both the real *and *the possible, he writes. Storytelling is much like exploring. Ransmayr and Messner make a good team. They inhabit the realms of the real and the possible at once—Messner through climbing, Ransmayr through writing. They find foreign territory, then claim and change it through their journey.

Being from Austria means a couple of things—you are in a country so close to the Alps that mountains are inevitably on your mind. But Austria is also a nexus of European culture, a country marked by Enlightenment thinking and still pining for its lost empire. Ransmayr writes about the two side by side—what happens when exploration and conquest merge. Messner, who is from South Tyrol (technically a part of Italy), is a cultural Austrian. He climbs and conquers intuitively.

The two men recognize that mountaineering is a blatantly symbolic act. The ascent to the summit is a sign of triumph over the impassive world through reason and will. Alexander von Humboldt, the Enlightenment explorer who founded the field of biogeography, thought that “other laws of a more mysterious nature rule the higher spheres of the organic world. A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view.” Mountain climbers struggle against nature, not for the sake of a world of mind, but to create a world of will. Yet this is not always a process of rational conquest. As the mountaineer climbs higher, moving away from the topography of the mountain and into his inner landscape, something surreal and indefinable happens to human and world. The climber passes into an intermediate space—neither wholly real nor imagined—in which man and nature are no longer at each other’s mercy. Each suspends the other in order to examine it, and in doing so, the boundaries of mind and world extend beyond the real, into the poetic. 

This poetic process is something Ransmayr intuitively grasps—he doesn’t put much stock in understanding the world through Enlightenment rationality. When Alexander von Humboldt traveled through South America, he did not expect to fully explain the world he was discovering, but allowed himself to be overwhelmed by forests, meteor showers, electric eels. Nature has to be given the opportunity to unfold to the explorer on its own terms. 

Messner believes in giving nature its due. In 1971, he wrote a manifesto on bare climbing entitled “The Murder of the Impossible.” In it, he rails against people who rely completely on their equipment to climb by drilling holes and rigging hooks into the mountainside. He flippantly writes, “‘Impossible’: it doesn’t exist anymore. The dragon is dead, poisoned, and the hero Siegfried is unemployed.” Others have killed the mythology of the mountain through technology—it is Messner’s job to return the impossible to the mountain. 

Yet because Messner believes that he alone can shoulder this task, he denies nature its necessary autonomy. He has instead distorted a philosophy into an ego-driven project of conquest. The moments of poetry that unfold in The Naked Mountain happen in spite of his intentions, not because of them. And there is no humanism in Messner’s thought. His brother Günther becomes a figure who trudges doggedly behind him, suffering from fever and delirium. When they reach the summit, the two men are stranded, and huddle together at the top of the mountain for the night. Messner does not speak to his brother, but retreats further into himself.

In his manifesto, Messner angrily writes, “the courage of those who still climb ‘free’ is derided as a manifestation of lack of conscientiousness.” These words come a few months after he has lost Günther to an avalanche, during their unplanned descent of Nanga Parbat without tools or rope.

Ransmayr must have heard the story of Günther’s death from Messner several times—maybe even while climbing the Himalayas with him. He probably read The Naked Mountain. Messner’s novel is an attempt to settle accounts with the leader of the expedition, Karl Maria Herrligkoffer. Herrligkoffer accused Reinhold of causing his brother’s death by attempting a climb that was foolhardy and dangerous, acting against explicit orders. But Herrligkoffer’s story is one of many different stories surrounding the Messners’ climb.

The narratives tend to splinter around one central event: the rocket flare that Herrligkoffer sent up from base camp. Messner and Herrligkoffer had come to a tacit understanding that Messner would be the first to reach the peak. The rocket was the signal to start the climb. It was to indicate the weather forecast—red for bad, blue for good. Messner was to set out immediately if a storm was approaching, for fear of wasting time. Herrligkoffer received the weather report, and ordered a blue flare to be sent up. Someone grabbed a flare wrapped in blue cloth and set it off, but it was red. Messner saw the signal, and knew that the time had come for him to begin the final push to the top. There were no more blue flares at base camp that could signal the mistake—according to Herrligkoffer, at least—so Messner set out on his own with minimal equipment, early in the morning. He crunched through the snow quickly, spiking the mountain’s side with his crampons. Günther followed him around midday, also without rope—he didn’t want his brother to attempt the climb alone.

Messner claims that this was how he and Günther found themselves on the summit with no means of climbing down the crevasse they had scaled on their ascent. Instead, they were forced into descending on the Diamir face—a route which they had memorized but were unprepared to take. Günther and Messner climbed down, their paths separating farther and farther, until they lost sight of each other. Günther never reappeared. 

Ransmayr added his story, “The Flying Mountain,” to the collection of tales about the Messners. But it is a completely fictional retelling of their climb of Nanga Parbat. Liam and Pàdraic are two Irish brothers who set out to climb a mountain in Tibet known as Phur-Ri. Messner, the stronger brother who lived, becomes Liam, the determined climber who dies. Pàdraic writes the novel as a prose poem that chronicles their journey to the summit, into blank space and suffocating whiteness. Ransmayr, who does not share Messner’s extreme drive or ego, realized that exploring demands humanism. And so his account of their climb is not a chronicle of challenging crevasses and strategies, but a story about the brothers themselves. When Liam and Pàdraic climb Nanga Parbat, they choose to climb with each other and in each other’s company. In this way, Ransmayr humanized Messner’s story, tempered and redeemed it through his writing. 

Liam and Pàdraic are quite close to the top. But Pàdraic has been feeling sick since the afternoon. They pitch their small tent in their final encampment and curl up for the night. But snow comes with darkness. Sheets of white pile themselves around the tent, on its roof, over its sides. Pàdraic is delirious, dizzy from the thin air and weak with fever. Liam makes him tea and sprinkles white powder into it. His brother daydreams until dusk, lulled by the opium. At night, he curls up, mistakes Liam for his Tibetan lover, and reaches towards his brother for an embrace. Liam pulls away, giggling sleepily. Pàdraic is embarrassed—he turns away, fervently hoping that Liam is still asleep. The two brothers stay in the tent for several days. Pàdraic moves in and out of delirium. Sometimes shapes become clearer in his mind, only to blur again. The snow continues to fall gently, trapping them in their fragile nylon canopy.

The two brothers have made it to Nanga Parbat’s summit. They have conquered the mountain, and are awash in triumph. But now, Reinhold and Günther can’t find their way downward. They can’t climb down the crevasse they scaled on their way up—it’s too dangerous to attempt without rope. It’s getting dark quickly—the sky is bleeding into a deep, ink-stained indigo. 

Reinhold finds a sheltered hollow in which they can rest overnight. The two men’s limbs are already bloodless and stiff. They take off their shoes. Reinhold unfolds a length of silver astronaut foil. It crinkles with the false promise of insulation. He wraps it around their aching, frozen feet. They huddle together on the ice shelf, immobile. They pick up the ends of the foil and wrap their entire bodies in it, spinning together a thin cocoon of silver. It reflects the stars back at the sky, small silver pinpricks on a fragile blanket. It is too cold to think now. The two brothers hug each other. They can feel their bodies freezing to death. They are together, but this does nothing to prevent them from slipping into hallucinations. Their heads poke out of the astronaut foil, exposed to the wind. They don’t speak, don’t move, simply endure. They wait for the grey of the morning sky. 

Günther and Reinhold have no choice but to take the Diamir face downward. They are weak. At least they know the topography of the area—they can map out its terrain in their minds. They are at the top of an enormous flank of ice and rock, and must move towards a ground they can’t see. The two brothers have almost no equipment with them apart from a few crampons, hooks and grips. They need to make their way mostly using bare hands and frozen feet.

They move towards an invisible abyss, flattening themselves against the snowy mountainside. As they descend, they look downwards at dark, seething clouds crackling with electricity. The clouds writhe, spitting out light that illuminates the path to the still-invisible ground.

It suddenly begins to hail. Bullets of ice pelt the brothers. The hail falls further into the turmoil of the thunderstorm. Reinhold looks up. The sky above him has thickened and grown as black as the roiling clouds below. He can barely see his hands and feet. Günther is close behind him, a presence in the dark. They move onward, hands and feet moving in tandem.

They climb downward, tracing a zigzag track on the shimmering blue slope. Reinhold leads, Günther follows. The rock they grip is barely visible beneath a thick layer of cloud. They trek onward wearily, signaling to each other. The air is very thin. Reinhold suddenly becomes aware of a third climber who is right next to him. The third climber is climbing alongside Reinhold, following his every move. He hears the ice crack beside him, feels certain that there is someone next to him. He later describes it as a ghost, or a palpable presence. “Its being is a returning of my being,” he writes.

This is another account of the climb—both Messner and Ransmayr’s, and yet neither. It seems to belong to the mountain, but it doesn’t. It belongs to the climb itself, which demands poeticism and expansiveness of its explorers. 

Towards the end of this account, Pàdraic is lying on the ground, surrounded by shallow snow-banks. His body carves out an icy hollow in the tightly packed ground. He can’t move, and feels incredibly tired. He wants nothing but to drift away in sleep and separate his fuzzy mind from the frozen, immobile body that traps it. A shape moves above him. He hears a murmur, a sound, finally a voice coming from the pale oval floating over his head. It’s Liam. He reels off a list of names, places, people they have traveled with, reciting their entire journey back at Pàdraic. 

“Try to remember! What do you remember? Remember the truck in China that drove us to Tibet? Remember the pass we just crossed?”

His story hangs in the frozen air like a thread that pulls Pàdraic back towards consciousness. Names summon up faces that had been submerged in the crystallizing webs of his mind. He opens his eyes again, and shapes suddenly sharpen—he can see Liam’s face now.

Then, he feels something fall from the sky. Many things. They hit his breast and spring apart. Liam stares upward. “They’re butterflies! Frozen butterflies.” Butterflies had been caught in a storm cloud during their flight over the mountain, and had frozen solid in mid-flight. They rain down on the brothers in a fragile shower of brilliant white wings encased in ice. Pàdraic feels sensation return to his limbs with every tap of a fresh butterfly shattering on his own body.