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The Murder of the Impossible

Reinhold Messner’s famous essay from 1971.

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.

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. Now 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.

– Reinhold Messner, Mountain #15, 1971

Comments

  1. Some thoughts…

    When you say impossible, mean it. Otherwise the mountain you climb won’t be the one within yourself; and that’s the only honest climb there is. Courage is nothing if you can’t fall. The rope keeps you safe, and that’s fine, but let’s be honest about what we’re doing when we do hard things.

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