The Murder of the Impossible Messner Mountain #15 1971


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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - May 6, 2009 - 11:23am PT
In support of the dialog that Donini has been helping along, this fine Messner piece delves into some of the overarching issues surrounding forcing up routes and the integrity of the creative process in climbing. Lots of food for thought as Messner's table is always richly stocked!

What have I personally got against "direttissimas"? Nothing at all; in fact I think that the "falling drop of water" route is one of the most logical things that exists. Of course it always existed - so long as the mountain permits it. But sometimes the line of weakness wanders to the left or the right of this line; and the we see climbers - those on the first ascent , I mean - going straight on up as if it weren't so, striking in bolts of course. Why do they go that way? "For the sake of freedom," they say; but they don't realize that they are slaves of the plumbline.

They have a horror of deviations. "In the face of difficulties, logic commands one not to avoid them, but to overcome them," declares Paul Claudel. And that's what the 'direttissma' protagonists say, too, knowing from the start that the equipment they have will get them over any obstacle. They are therefore talking about problems which no longer exist. Could the mountain stop them with unexpected difficulties? They smile: those times are long past! The impossible in mountaineering has been eliminated, murdered by the direttissima.

Yet direttissimas would not in themselves be so bad were it not for the fact that the spirit of that guides them has infiltrated the entire field of climbing. Take a climber o a rock face, iron rungs beneath his feet and all around him only yellow, overhanging rock. Already tired, he bores another hole above the last peg. He won't give up. Stubbornly, bolt by bolt, he goes on. His way, and none other, must be forced up the face.

Expansion bolts are taken for granted nowadays; they are kept to hand just in case some difficulty cannot be overcome by ordinary methods. Today's climber doesn't want to cut himself off from the possibility of retreat: he carries his courage in his rucksack, in the form of bolts and equipment. Rock faces are no longer overcome by climbing skill, but are humbled, pitch by pitch, by methodical manual labor; what isn't done today will be done tomorrow. Free-climbing routes are dangerous, so the are protected by pegs. Ambitions are no longer build on skill, but on equipment and the length of time available. The decisive factor isn't courage, but technique; an ascent may take days and days, and the pegs and bolts counted in the hundreds. Retreat has become dishonorable, because everyone knows
now that a combination of bolts and singlemindedness will get you up anything, even the most repulsive-looking direttissima.

Times change, and with them concepts and values. Faith in equipment has replaced faith in oneself; a team is admired for the number of bivouacs it makes, while the courage of those who still climb "free" is derided as a manifestation of lack of conscientiousness.

Who has polluted the pure spring of mountaineering?

The innovators perhaps wanted only to get closer to the limits of possibility. Today, however, every single limit has vanished, been erased. In principle, it didn't seem to be a serious matter, but ten years have sufficed to eliminate the word 'impossible' from the mountaineering vocabulary.

Progress? Today, ten years from the start of it all, there are a lot of people who don't care where they put bolts, whether on new routes or on classic ones. People are drilling more and more and climbing less and less.

"Impossible": it doesn't exist anymore. The dragon is dead, poisoned, and the hero Siegfried is unemployed. Not anyone can work on a rock face, using tools to bend it to his own idea of possibility.

Some people foresaw this a while ago, but they went on drilling, both on direttissimas and on other climbs, until the lost the taste for climbing: why dare, why gamble, when you can proceed in perfect safety? And so they become the prophets of the direttissima: "Don't waste your time on classic routes - learn to drill, learn to use your equipment. Be cunning: If you want to be successful, use every means you can get round the mountain. The era of direttissima has barely begun: every peak awaits its plumbline route. There's no rush, for a mountain can't run away - nor can it defend itself."

"Done the direttissima yet? And the super diretissima?" These are the criteria by which mountaineering prowess is measured nowadays. And so the young men go off, crawl up the ladder of bolts, and then ask the next ones: "done the direttissima yet?"

Anyone who doesn't play ball is laughed at for daring take a stand against current opinion. The plumbline generation has already consolidated itself and has thoughtlessly killed the ideal of the impossible. Anyone who doesn't oppose this makes himself an accomplice of the murderers. When future mountaineers open their eyes and realize what has happened, it will be too late: the impossible (and with it, risk) will be buried, rotted away, and forgotten forever.

All is not yet lost, however, although 'they' are returning the attack; and even if it's not always the same people, it'll be other people similar to them. Long before they attack, they'll make a great noise, and once again any warning will be useless. They'll be ambitious and they'll have long holidays - and some new 'last great problem' will be resolved. They'll leave more photographs at the hut, as historical documents, showing a dead straight line of dots running from the base to summit - and on the face itself, will once again inform us that "Man has achieved the impossible."

If people have already been driven to the idea of establishing a set of rules of conduct, it means that the position is serious; but we young people don't want a mountaineering code. On the contrary, "up there we want to find long, hard days, days when we don't know in the morning what the evening will bring". But for how much longer will we be able to have this?

I'm worried about that dead dragon: we should do something before the impossible is finally interred. We have hurled ourselves, in a fury of pegs and bolts, on increasingly savage rock faces: the next generation will have to know how to free itself from all these unnecessary trappings. We have learned from the plumbline routes; our successors will once again have to reach the summits by other routes. It's time we repaid our debts and searched again for the limits of possibility - for we must have such limits if we are going to use the virtue of courage to approach them. And we must reach them. Where else will be able to find refuge in our flight from the oppression of everyday humdrum routine? In the Himalaya? In the Andes? Yes certainly if we can get there; but for most of us there'll only be these old Alps.

So let's save the dragon; and in the future let's follow the road that past climbers marked out. I'm convinced it's still the right one.

Put on your boots and get going. If you've got a companion, take a rope with you and a couple of pitons for your belays, but nothing else. I'm already on my way, ready for anything - even for retreat, if I meet the impossible. I'm not going to be killing any dragons, but if anyone wants to come with me, we'll go to the top together on the routes we can do without branding ourselves murderers.

 Mountain #15, 1971


Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
May 6, 2009 - 12:07pm PT
I remember this article well, it was a great response to the dirrectissima fad, but has a lot of relevance today. Essentially Messner in decrying the use of technology to overcome obstacles that should be dealt with by the use of creativity, skill and commitment.
John Mac

Trad climber
Littleton, CO
May 6, 2009 - 12:22pm PT
It's still a great and inspiring read today as it was all those years back. Interesting that this post and the "bolts on Everest" are up on the site at the same time...

Thanks for posting it up.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - May 6, 2009 - 12:36pm PT
Compare and contrast the words of Messner and Maestri......
John Mac

Trad climber
Littleton, CO
May 6, 2009 - 04:15pm PT
This deserves to be on the front page...

Social climber
way out there
May 6, 2009 - 07:20pm PT
"decrying the use of technology to overcome obstacles that should be dealt with by the use of creativity, skill and commitment."

Skill is easy to come by. Creativity you are generally born with it or not. That isn't a bad thing. Not everyone will be or want to an artist.

Sadly the "murder" was done then and now by those that have lacked the ability or desire to commit. Once it is done...there is no turning back. There is no way to replenish the resource, repair the stone, reglue the hold, undo the chip.

Serenity crack is just one of thousands examples.

For a moment it reminds me of M-climbing.....much as I love it.
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
May 6, 2009 - 08:01pm PT
I wonder what he thinks of the new bolts on the yellow band on the South Col/Southeast Ridge route on Everest?

Social climber
May 6, 2009 - 09:41pm PT
I have never seen this article. Though I have never been that interested in Messner due to his earlier controversies I applaud his line of thinking. When he speaks about heading into the mountains with nothing but a rope, a tursted companion and a few pitons it reminds me of one of my mountain heros. "Today's climber doesn't want to cut himself off from the possibility of retreat: he carries his courage in his rucksack, in the form of bolts and equipment" Advances in technilogy keep us safe but blur the ethics of the pure sport. I don't think Messner would care much about the bolts on the yellow band. It isn't a route he would want to take and the thing was pretty much a sport climb with all the fixed ropes and tat anyway.

Social climber
way out there
May 6, 2009 - 10:15pm PT
"I don't think Messner would care much about the bolts on the yellow band. It isn't a route he would want to take..."

I disagree. I think Messner would be dissappointed. No question it makes it safer for the guides and more importantly the Sherpas. The real point is how the mountain has been brought down to tourist status by the guides services and modern gear.

I don't think Messner would begrudge the Sherpas wanting to make their livihoods safer. But I suspect he does begrudge what Westerners have done to the mountains.

Social climber
I'm lost, Please help me!!!
May 8, 2009 - 02:26pm PT
This is just to good not to bump.

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
May 8, 2009 - 03:58pm PT
When I later stumbled onto this article in '75 after I had been climbing for a year, it pretty well set my thinking around what climbing was about for me. Their later O2-less, alpine ascents of major peaks cemented it. 'Adventure' and 'impossible' weren't so much murdered as marketed, and are now a consumer entitlement available to everyone and go quite well with XBox's and HD TV's.

Torino, Italy
May 10, 2009 - 03:59am PT
Steve Grossman:

>Compare and contrast the words of Messner and Maestri......

The terrifying irony of the article above is that the first to repeat the "Saxon Direttissima" on Lavaredo, and to denounce it as over bloated and basically less interesting that the Hasse-Brandler (and to point out that it was neither a direttissima - it moves diagonally - and that the fabled overhangs were half the size claimed by the FA...)

...was Cesare Maestri (before Messner, btw)

Interesting to note also that when "Bubu" Bole freed the Saxon route in 2003 (goes at F7b I think), he said that it was neither a "scaffolding job" not as dull as some of the critics has maintained.

Social climber
wuz real!
May 10, 2009 - 08:50am PT
That was hilarious and insightful, skipt!
I always liked the tenor and theme from this article, more than the actual details I gleaned from it.

I was fifteen when it was first published, unworthy in my own mind, to have an opinion, but it started the wheels turning...
Dingus Milktoast

May 10, 2009 - 09:05am PT
How do climbing values transfer from one generation to another?

I think at one level, the personal, they transfer quite well. I suspect all of us, punter and pro alike, across the generations, take in similar emotions and personal triumph and tragedy.

At the human level, the pesonal level, I think climbing values do transfer well.

But how do climbing values transfer at a group level?

Here I think... not so well. Not so well, at all.

In fact, quite the opposite seems to hold true. The 'next generation' seemingly without fail starts out by rejected the old guard and forging ahead with their own plans.

These differences strike deep into generational identity.

The Messner Generation is winding down. I'm sorry but this is a simple unharguable fact - Messner is no longer relevant, not out in the world not out on the climbs, not in the bar conversations, no where cept in the hand wringing of other graybeards.

Messner's murder gave way to sport climbing in the high mountains. Messner's rant against technology, posted here on the internet of all places, did not span to the next generation.

Doesn't matter anyway... all this sh#t gets decided ON the climbs doesn't it. Nothing said here alters a single bolt.

But Half Dome was free soloed by a gym trained rock rat. This suggests one simple conclusion - Messner WAS ABSOLUTELY WRONG. The act of placing a bolt or driving a pin does not murder the impossible; it merely slides the bar into another realm, same was as Messner's technology did over his forefathers.

Its those of you, (of them) who sieze the tools of the day to push past the old guard - they inspire and infuriate at once. And yet at the EOD? There is nothing the graybeards can do about it... nothing proper anyway.

And Messner's a bit of an as#@&%e, too.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - May 10, 2009 - 10:03am PT
You've met and exchanged ideas with the man then or.......what?!?
Dingus Milktoast

May 10, 2009 - 10:09am PT
No. He wouldn't see me. His assistant said he was a very busy man.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - May 10, 2009 - 10:30am PT
Another climber's accomplishments do not diminish or discredit anything that Messner has said during his career. Does a brave free solo really discredit all that came before it and all use of technology as you assert above?
Dingus Milktoast

May 10, 2009 - 10:36am PT
I didn't discredit ANY Messner accomplishment. HOW COULD I?

Read it again, you'll see.


May 10, 2009 - 10:42am PT
Pretty good insight Dingus ......
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
May 10, 2009 - 10:45am PT
To continue Dingus’ thoughts just above in regard to Reinhold.

Quite some time ago I managed to see Werner Herzog’s short documentary film (Gasherbrum- Der leuchtende Berg 1985) (Also known as “The Dark Glow of the Mountains” and is on DVD on Netflix in an anthology of three Werner Herzog films).

Herzog succeeds in taking the viewer right down into the black hole of RM’s center, where we find that at the deepest level, drive is hollow and there is “no reason” for what Messner does. It is quite emotional too, with Herzog sobbing, recalling the death of his brother. Herzog peels back quite a bit of the wrapper and so making the viewer actually cringe.

And going to, you will see that Messner has more than 31 credits appearing as himself; one actual movie he wrote---“Cerro Torre: Schrei aus Stein”; and so forth. He must be the most intensively involved climber in film and TV media ever. Surprising really and quite interesting. Clearly a position only possible to take in Europe where climbing is much more popular than here in the States. And obviously a very productive, perhaps creative merchant of his wares, so to speak.

I have always loved his rant on dirretissimas with which Stevie G started us off here. And found it a bit of a diatribe, yes, as Dingus suggests. Regardless of how much I revere RM. It is somewhat misguided as it concerns an aspect of route creation that never turned out to be widespread and malignant--- lame plumblines up natural walls. But if taken in a general way his text makes a call for everyone to use their best skills and ingenuity in taking the sport forwards. Not a hugely novel point as Reinhold’s tone would have us believe, but one that needs to always be emphasized nonetheless. A point that perhaps didn’t need quite these theatrics. I also think that RM has gotten to the point where any utterance of his--- be it an introduction to a Huber book, some comment in the media, whatever--- has too much weight for its own sake. A bit kind of how RR’s dictums were hilariously obtuse in their day.
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