The Outer Limits

IN THIS ISSUE JANUARY 2008

Mountaineer Reinhold Messner on Survival and the Nature of Time at Extreme Altitudes
Author: Heidi Smith
Photographer: Reinhold Messner

Mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner has a passion for limits – finding and surpassing them. Throughout his adventuresome life, he’s followed his own vision, confounding doctors, critics and scientists with his unprecedented expeditions. As the first person to climb Mt. Everest alone, the first to climb it without oxygen, and the first to summit all fourteen of the world’s 8,000 meter (26,000 foot) peaks, he has a unique perspective on how time flows in the most remote places, under conditions that range from uncomfortable to deadly.

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The Outer Limits

He also has unusual ideas regarding what it takes to live through the harshest environments the planet has to offer. Along his journey, he has experienced some surprising phenomena that suggest there is more to survival than science and psychology currently understand. He talked with SuperConsciousness about the nature of time and the unexpected forms that survival instincts can sometimes take.


SC: How does your experience of time change when you’re on an expedition?

RM: In a normal expedition, time is running like at home. You have a watch, you have a diary, you know today’s date is so and so, it’s morning at 8:00, and so on. But if you are really in a difficult situation and you are concentrating on something very difficult, time does not exist. Time is a very relative issue. Being concentrated, being totally involved in what I’m doing, the feeling of time is like infinity or zero, it’s the same.

SC: Do you experience time differently when you’re doing your expeditions solo?

RM: No, there’s no big difference. It’s the same thing. If I do something solo, I am absolutely concentrated on what I am doing. There’s nobody else on whom I can rely. This is maybe a little bit more difficult on the psychological side, but time is running in the same way. Going with a partner or with two partners, in extreme situations – the whole thing is only functioning if I’m totally concentrated on what is happening. When I have time to say, okay, now we go two hours and afterwards we do a bivouac, and after that we sleep for eight hours, and in the morning we have a watch that is giving us time so that we wake up and we go further, still I am measuring the time.

But if there is maybe an accident, or if maybe for two days I am only concentrating on going up, living with the sun coming to light, going to light in the evening and taking a few hours of – sleeping is impossible at high altitude, but a few hours of rest – afterwards, going further, these moments become very long in my memory. I have the feeling that they are a very short time or infinite time. I cannot tell afterwards how long it was or how short it was.

"All the things I’m doing, they are first in my mind as a vision. There is a challenge, like climbing Everest without oxygen, like traversing 8,000 meter peaks, like traversing Antarctica"

SC: You’ve mentioned that in terms of mountaineering and your other expeditions, you relate more to artists or creators than sportsmen. You’ve created a vision in your mind ahead of time and then you get to go out and have the experience of it.

RM: All the things I’m doing, they are first in my mind as a vision. There is a challenge, like climbing Everest without oxygen, like traversing 8,000 meter peaks, like traversing Antarctica. I’m doing a museum at the moment, and before beginning ten years ago, I had a clear vision in my mind and step by step I tried to fulfill this vision. So this is like an artistic work; an artist slowly with pencil or with notes, if he’s making music or whatever, he’s giving form to his vision. I am giving a form to my visions going up a mountain, doing a museum, or writing a book and there is no big difference for me between writing a book and climbing a mountain or building a museum. Building is not so difficult, but filling it with art pieces is.

SC: So it’s all a creation.

RM: It’s all creation, yes. And the beautiful thing is not inventing the vision, the beautiful thing is making the vision real.

SC: Based on all of your experiences, what conclusions have you come to about the nature of time?

"And the beautiful thing is not inventing the vision, the beautiful thing is making the vision real"

RM: I think time is an invention, a human invention. In reality, time does not exist. You know that we invented the meter. Napoleon did it. We decided that “this is a meter.” So we use it as a help, but in reality, the meter is also an invention. So the 8,000 meter peaks, they are only 8,000 meter peaks because Napoleon made this length of a meter. Otherwise, the 8,000 meter peaks would be 29,000 feet peaks, like they are for British climbers. Or maybe they would be nothing – no measurement peaks. I would prefer that Everest is not an 8,000 meter peak, it’s Everest, finished. With the meter, we can give a certain measurement to this mountain, but this is only a sterile measurement.

For time, it’s clearer that this is a human invention. In reality, we have the possibility to be on the earth for a certain period, for our lifetime. But I’m saying “time” again because I’m used to using it. But I could also say that a life is a life.

"Time is an invention, a human invention. In reality, time does not exist"

SC: It sounds like you’re saying that time is really a human construct.

RM: We need time for physics measurements, for chemical measurements, for all the studies we do also for sending satellites to the moon and so on. But we would not need measurements of time to live a life like people did it 100,000 years ago. You know that in my expeditions, I’m going back to an archaic world, where time measurements, meter measurements, have no strong importance. I think that there is something above the things we can understand, we can find out with our senses. I respect this dimension as the dimension above our possibilities.

SC: When you climbed Everest without oxygen you said, “My mind was dead. It was only my soul that compelled me forward.” What is it that gets you through these situations?

RM: The instincts we have are stronger than our intelligence. The instinct for survival is the strongest instinct we have, and we should be very grateful that we have it. Going in high altitudes is like losing, piece by piece, our willpower, our ability to decide. Sometimes, I could observe myself like a being who is reacting very, very slowly. My brain seems like it’s full of paper, but not intelligence. It’s not filled up with what I’m using normally to do my life and my work, because of the lack of oxygen. We are reduced to nothing in our power, but also to nothing in our brain. So especially if you are in potentially fatal situations, the instincts are the only power that can give us the right direction. Intelligence is much too slow, especially in high altitudes, to give us the information of what we have to do.

SC: In a few of your books, you had mentioned that on the one hand, you’ve been in the middle of the experience and having the experience, and on the other hand, you’ve been almost out of your body watching yourself.

RM: This happened only a few times. I had a few moments in the 70’s and in 1970 on Nanga Parbit. Nobody spoke about out-of-body experiences during this period. I had the feeling like I was a few meters above myself and I could see myself rolling down the mountain. This was very strange.

"Especially if you are in potentially fatal situations, the instincts are the only power that can give us the right direction. Intelligence is much too slow, especially in high altitudes, to give us the information of what we have to do"

SC: Do you think that helped you to survive in that situation?

RM: This I cannot say. But I had the feeling that I became one again afterwards, that this part watching myself became unified with the other part.

SC: On that same climb, you talked about how at a certain point, although you’d never been there before, and in fact no one had ever been there before, suddenly, it was like everything was familiar and you knew exactly what to do.

RM: Yes, this was also a very strange – it’s still very strange. I cannot understand it. But the feeling was so strong that I spoke with my brother about it. I told him, “This piece of rock, I know every hold. I know exactly where to put my hands.” If you do some climbs 100 times, you know exactly where to put your hands and your feet. It seems that in the most extreme situations, our mind is giving us a strange kind of help to survive. It gives us the feeling that you know the situation so you can also handle it.

Also, for example when we climbed Dhaulagiri and we had a lack of water, we didn’t have enough to drink, on the way down I remember very well that I could see some lakes low down. It was impossible that there was water, but I had the clear feeling that there was. Not a feeling, the knowledge there was water. In reality, it was only a shadow in a crevasse, but from seeing the water from far away, I was pushed to go as far as possible to get it.

"It seems that in the most extreme situations, our mind is giving us a strange kind of help to survive. It gives us the feeling that you know the situation so you can also handle it"

(Editor’s Note: While there was no lake, Messner and his crew did find water, right where he had seen the image.)

SC: So something in you –

RM: There is a help, a help to go further. To use maybe a few hours of strength to reach this place and afterwards, again some help pushed us to the next hope, and so from hope to hope we reached the base camp in the end.

SC: A lot of the things that you’ve done, you’re the first person who’s done them. How does that affect you mentally when you’re in these situations?

RM: What I did was not to reach a certain place for the first time. I was in reality never the first man or person to reach a certain place. But I did some new things on the psychological side. Nobody was psychically strong enough to go up an 8,000 meter peak alone or to do Everest without oxygen, or to cross the Gobi Desert the long way without any support, the latest thing I did. What I did was experiencing the limit of the possibilities. My drive is the passion for the limit, the passion to say, maybe we can also do this, so I’ll try. If I fail, I understand what I did wrong, and I correct it and I do it again. I have done thirty-one 8,000 meter peak expeditions up to now, and I failed thirteen times. And I learned especially when I failed. I am learning through trying. I learn, it’s not functioning, I am totally afraid about it and maybe I’m not strong about it, so I go back, I train better, I learn better, and I try again. So, in the end, not all but most of my challenges I was able to fulfill.

"What I did was experiencing the limit of the possibilities. My drive is the passion for the limit, the passion to say, maybe we can also do this, so I’ll try. If I fail, I understand what I did wrong, and I correct it and I do it again"

These expeditions also became famous because others, the doctors, the climbers they said it’s impossible, Messner’s crazy. Nobody can go up Everest without oxygen; why is he trying it? He’s really mentally sick. And so afterwards, we did it and the whole world said “They did something that everybody said was impossible.” But I knew that the British in ’24 went up to 8, 500 meters without oxygen. They were only missing 300 meters. It was nothing. It was not easy. It was difficult. We were afraid, especially because approaching the summit, the people before told us, maybe you will have a heart attack, maybe you will be crazy up there, so we were very, very careful going up and up and up and up. The weather was not so good, and in the end we felt, it’s possible, okay, let’s go to the last point.

SC: You’ve said that you think that you that you would enjoy sitting down with Ernest Shackleton. Why?

RM: You know that I bought his binoculars in London just a few weeks ago.

In an auction, for my museum. Because I have a great respect for him, and I think his power was to save, in critical situations, himself and his people. You know that he failed every time in his life. He never succeeded in his expeditions. But how he failed, it’s incredible. I can feel quite well how difficult it was in 1909 when he reached, not the pole, not quite the pole, and he went back with his three people. Especially in ’15, ’16 when he was out with the Endurance in the sea and the ship broke down, and they had to go thousands of kilometers on difficult ground to survive.

It’s easier to go further, to reach this goal and go on, but to fail and afterwards to go home in such difficult circumstances, it’s very difficult. I still think this expedition was the biggest adventure ever done by human beings.

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