Why does anyone climb mountains? Reinhold Messner brings mountain climbing down to earth in “Italy with a Twist” South Tyrol

By Abi King | Italy

Sep 21

The Messner Mountain Museum

It’s a funny business, mountaineering. Climb, climb, climb to the top. Look around for a bit, head back down. Or so it seems to me, dear reader, at moments of breathless weakness when legs shudder with exhaustion and lungs seem charred and torn at the edges.

My love for the mountains is sure, my love for mountaineering more platonic and my love for mountaineers relegated to a region reserved for curiosity, awe and bewilderment.


Why do people risk so much to climb mountains? Why do those whose families’ tear-stained faces wait behind force themselves higher, further, harder…only to turn around and come back down again?

I was young once...

Mount Fuji Mist

While my summits of Kilimanjaro and Fuji revealed both the majesty and the madness of reaching iconic peaks…that has absolutely nothing on the perspective of Reinhold Messner:

“I wanted to climb up high, and look down deep into myself.”

“I wanted to climb up high, and look down deep into myself.”

This man, in case you don’t already know (and if you don’t, by the way, it’s wise to keep quiet in his homeland of South Tyrol where the mountains and those who conquer them sparkle like the matadors of southern Spain) …this man was the first to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen.

He also, as I’m told, is the first man in history to ascend all fourteen eight-thousanders (peaks beyond 8000 metres. Altitude sickness starts at around 3000 metres. Kilimanjaro measures 5895 metres. Everest 8848 metres. Mont Blanc 4810 metres. And Snowdonia 1085 metres.)

So when he described his latest project as his 15th 8000 metre summit – and invited me to climb it with him – I just had to go along.

I just wish I’d been wearing some sturdier shoes…

So when he described his latest project as his 15th 8000 metre summit – and invited me to climb it with him – I just had to go along.

Mountaineering in a castle

The tongue-twister title of the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian in Sigmundskron Castle is a mouthful to pronounce but, then again, since when did mountaineers like taking the easy route?

Yet beyond the clouds of verbiage is a simply brilliant idea: conserve castles and bring the experience of mountaineering down from the lofty peaks to the likes of you and me.

Mountain Messner Museum Falling slate

The trail begins just beyond the main gate. An orchestrated route through eight stations takes you up into the watch towers, down into the dungeons and teeteringly along the ramparts before easing back onto the safer ground of the sweet floral gardens.

A young mountain goat would tackle it with ease. Post-surgery and post a lot of things these days, I was genuinely challenged.

Ramparts at Messner Mountain Museum

The walkways creak, groan and clang, made of clear glass and meshed metal to recreate the anxiety and watchfulness of a big climb with its 360 degree viewpoint and precarious hanging daggers of rock. At the top, you can see through the spiral staircase to seven storeys below. At the bottom, the world shudders as those above you move.

Amethyst underground at the Messner Mountain Museum

Each turret bears a theme, from enlightenment and education to a hollowed out primitive fear. Lava flows on video while artwork depicts endangered miners and photo portraits remember the dead. Elsewhere, Nepalese prayer flags and Hindu chants conjure the scent of incense into the air.

Messner Memorabilia in Messner Mountain Museum

The history turret touches on the mountains of South Tyrol, a border that shifted nearly 100 years ago when the German speaking land lost from the Austro-Hungarian empire came under the banner of Italy.

Mussolini pursued a policy of Italianization and, when given the choice, 85% of German speakers moved to Hitler’s Germany to escape the complete eradication of their language and customs.

Today, South Tyrol describes itself as “Italy with a twist” combining Wienershnitzel with pomodoros and pizza, wooden carved hearts with designer fashion flare. It’s one of the most prosperous regions in the country, its autonomous status secure.

View Messner Mountain Museum

But it hasn’t always been that way, as the exhibits in the White Tower demonstrate. From Sigmundskron’s birth in 945 AD, the tower traces the region’s history through the Bishop of Trent to Dukes, Princes and Earls until in 1957 it became the focal point for the biggest demonstration in the history of South Tyrol. More than 30 000 protestors gathered here to demand further autonomy and it’s a sobering moment to see all those newspaper cuttings from not so long ago.

But for all the intrigue and creativity of the exhibits (bearded men in metal silhouette appearing on the battlements, Buddhist heads overlooking the moat) the most powerful aspect is the one that mountaineers know best: the view of nature unfolding before them.

Messner Mountain Museum

And as for the ultimate question?

Why risk so much to turn around and come back down? I still don’t understand.

The museum ends with the following quote:

What is important as we look at and into the mountains is not what we understand but what we feel.

I have relished the chance to climb up higher than I have been able to for months, though I would argue that it’s pain and confinement that lets us look into ourselves as much as, or perhaps more than, outdoor accomplishments.

In terms of what I feel? Thankful for freedom, appreciative of beauty and longing for sturdier shoes.

Messner’s final words in the museum are these:

Sturdy shoes Messner Mountain Museum

Messner’s final words in the museum are these:

Follow the arrows and use the numbers and points on the maps for orientation.

And with that, I’m brought back down to earth.

And the gift shop.

And the cafeteria.

untitled-73 untitled-80 Messner museum sign




I travelled to the Messner Mountain Museum as a guest of South Tyrol. All views, opinions, photos, words and sore feet my own.

Comments are closed

%d bloggers like this: