Get a breathtaking dose of history in the clouds at new Messner Mountain Museum

Now that the Messner Mountain Museum Corones (left) is completed, mountaineer Reinhold Messner (below) says he will return to film-making and writing.
Now that the Messner Mountain Museum Corones (above) is completed, mountaineer Reinhold Messner says he will return to film-making and writing.PHOTO: ARCHITONIC'S FACEBOOK PAGE
Now that the Messner Mountain Museum Corones (left) is completed, mountaineer Reinhold Messner (below) says he will return to film-making and writing.
Now that the Messner Mountain Museum Corones is completed, mountaineer Reinhold Messner (above) says he will return to film-making and writing.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Mountaineer Reinhold Messner opens his sixth museum on the apex of Mount Kronplatz in Italy

If you have heard of Reinhold Messner, the first mountaineer to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000m mountain peaks, there is a good chance you learnt of him in the past few weeks, when photos of a spaceship-like aerie designed by Zaha Hadid, the sixth and final outpost of the official Messner Mountain Museum, circulated on the Internet.

It was the final stage of a 15-year-long project by the mountaineer to chronicle what he calls "the great history of mountaineering".

The 71-year-old conceived of the museums - sprinkled throughout peaks, valleys and small towns across South Tyrol, a region in northern Italy that borders Switzerland and Austria - as a way "to tell the next generation about what happens when mountains and men meet", he says in an interview.

It might be more instructive, however, for the next generation to know what happens when mountains and Messner met.

For starters, he and climber Peter Habeler were the first to reach the top of Mount Everest without the aid of oxygen.

"He subsequently climbed Everest again by himself and without oxygen.

"Some people called it the first true ascent of Everest because he wasn't relying on artificial aid," says Professor Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College and co-author of the book Fallen Giants: A History Of Himalayan Mountaineering From The Age Of Empire To The Age Of Extremes.

Messner continued to climb mountains in the Himalayas and dabbled in other extreme pursuits. He trekked across Antarctica without a sled team, for instance.

As he did so, he figured out how to monetise his exploits, writing more than 50 books, by his own estimation.

"Through speaking tours, books and documentaries, he supported himself as a mountaineer from an early age," says Prof Isserman. "He's a mountaineering pioneer and a commercial pioneer and his museums are an extension of that."

The buildings of the Messner Mountain Museum each focuses on different aspects of the mountain experience. There is one devoted to hiking paraphernalia (pick-axes, journals from historical climbs and many photographs); another is centred on mystic mountain statues. 

One showcases ethnological exhibits on the people of the mountains, and one - the museum concentrating on mountain rock - presents a step-by-step narrative of how the Dolomites were formed.

The real draw of the Messner Mountain Museum, though, might be its extraordinary buildings.

"One is in my castle," he says, referring to Juval Castle, a mountaintop retreat dating back to the 13th century that doubles as his summer residence.

Here, he says, it is about "the holiness of mountains". Another, he continues: "I built myself, to be like a glacier crevasse." That one is unsurprisingly devoted to ice. Built into the ground, 1,900m above sea level, the building is low, bunker-like and, when covered with snow, almost totally invisible. 

Another, the largest in the series, is located in the restored Sigmundskron Castle, which dates to the 10th century and sits on yet another hilltop. One of the castles was once the summer residence of the prince-bishops that goes back to the 13th century, and the last historic building is a mountaintop fort from 1912, built on a peak in the Dolomites and reclaimed by Messner in 2002.

Then there is Hadid's Corones museum, a concrete structure perched on the summit plateau of Kronplatz.

A few of the buildings are owned by municipalities and foundations, he says, and two are owned by him privately. The collection is his alone and he does not derive an income from his management of the museums.

The Hadid building "is paid for by a high-class tourism company", he says. Now that the final building for his museum is complete, he says he will return to film-making, writing and climbing.

"I still climb, but at a lower level," he says. "Next week, I'll be climbing again, but only up to 5,000 metres."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Get a breathtaking dose of history in the clouds'. Print Edition | Subscribe