’This is Not Heidi Land’
It’s not romance but responsibility and real life that’s needed in the Alps, says mountain legend Reinhold Messner
"Everything that made the mountains charismatic has been largely taken away from us by people from the city," says Reinhold Messner, as he glares at me from behind an enviably thick fringe of hair, as if I was responsible for this alleged outrage. Messner is known to be an uncomfortable interviewee and today, as he squats on a low stone wall in the late afternoon sun, he appears in a combative mood. We are inside the pinkish walls of Schloss Sigmundskron, which perches over the ugly urban sprawl of Bozen. It is home to the first in mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner’s chain of museums that celebrate a mountain culture Messner fears is under threat.
Messner is a man who oozes that immense self-belief that helped him revolutionise the history of mountaineering, climbing all the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 metress without oxygen. He is one of the few people to deserve that much over-used hyperbole "living legend". He’ll turn 67 this year, and now that his girth has broadened into middle-aged comfort, it’s his quite extraordinary mane of hair that still gives the mountaineering legend that imposing aura of vitality, as he barks his thoughts at me.
Firing his words out rapidly in a guttural Tyrolean accent, his sentences seem like machine gun fire. Messner rails against the meddling of policy makers from the city, who he constantly refers to as Schwätzer, a term probably best translated as "big mouths". The urbanites in suits, he complains, are ruining the Alps and taking the destiny of the mountain regions out of the hands of those who have "the responsibility" to shape and protect the regions’ future – those, like him, who were born there as mountain people.
Romancing a playground
Sitting there in the afternoon sun, Messner is like a grumpy lion and he almost growls at me when I bring up the subject of ecological sustainability of an Alpine agriculture that has changed so much over the course of the past half century. Messner might have gone to Brussels to represent the Greens’ faction, but he isn’t a fan of the green lobby. "Green groups are destroying the Alps because they don’t believe that agriculture and environment go hand in hand."
Messner fears that the Alps have become overly-romanticised – something for outsiders to look at and climb up rather than the working environment of the indigenous population. He is horrified by the de-population of the rural Alpine regions, as young people leave to find jobs in the cities, eroding the mountain culture. Part of the problem is that over-regulation has meant the mountains can’t provide enough jobs for local people. The people born in the mountains should get the chance to live and work there, he says. "They will look after the environment. They’ll find an environmental model that works." That doesn’t mean building more and more big hotels and more cable cars, he argues, but it does mean allowing farmers their access roads to the Alms (Alpine meadows) so they can drive up their tractors, even if the tourists find the roads ugly.
"This is not Heidi Land," he grumbles.
Messner is very scathing about the city-dwellers mawkish enthusiasm for the Alps as romantic settings for vain adventures. Rather awkwardly for me, he holds the English primarily responsible for this snowballing phenomenon, as the aristocrats of the 19th century branded the Alps the "playground of Europe."
Surprisingly, perhaps, for a man who made his name as a mountaineer, he is an opponent of the mountain huts that service this "playground" high-altitude hiking. Mountaineering is a serious business for Reinhold Messner and he clearly has little time for amateur enthusiasts.
Rescuing the Alps
"High-altitude climbing is about suffering, it’s about being afraid." It’s not about sport. That sort of talk won’t please tourism planners, and it might sound harsh until you consider Messner’s biography. This is a man who lost his brother, not to mention seven toes, on a disastrous expedition to Nanga Parbat, on which he was confronted with the reality of his own mortality. Human beings, he says, have used the Alps over centuries to a height just above the tree-line. Above that height, perhaps of around 2,500 m, we should leave the mountains to the experts – the "serious mountaineers" like him, with the lower slopes for agriculture.
When it comes to the sort of sentimental Alpine romanticism that Messner so abhors, I can think of nothing more likely to fit the description than agritourism – the "Urlaub am Bauernhof". What could be more misleading than waking up late in freshly laundered sheets and pretending you live on a farm?
So I am surprised to learn that Messner is a fan and runs two himself because, he says, they provide a workable solution to combining traditional Alpine culture with profitable tourism. Yet it seems wilfully naive to suggest that agriculture combined with soft tourism can save the Alps economically. It’s true that centuries of farming have created the landscape of grazed alms and working huts that tourists love. Without the agriculture, the slopes would soon be strangled by unattractive low brush. That’s part of the reason why all Alpine countries heavily subsidise mountain farming. But agriculture alone won’t bring jobs to the Alps.
Messner’s vision for the Alpine regions is pretty simple – more autonomy in decision-making to support the survival of this culture is the key issue.
"The city folk shouldn’t come here and tell the mountain communities how to rescue the Alps. If we can protect our mountain way of life, we can protect the mountains," Messner says. "That’s true of mountain people in all regions of the globe."
And with that, and a short shake of hands, probably dismissing me as a flatlander, Messner stalked off into the South Tyrolean sunshine.