Almost exactly 25 years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first conquered the highest mountain in the world - at 8848 metres - Messner and Habeler wrote their names into the annals of mountaineering.
“It was not a record. It was an idea, which was then put into practice as such,” says Messner, a man whose fans admire him as a pioneer, and whose detractors accuse him of excessive ambition and egotism.
Experienced Alpinists gave the pair little chance of success, and doctors cautioned that a human being could not survive at such altitudes without the use of supplemental oxygen tanks.
“After all, my critics say that my brain suffered,” says Messner, playing up to the allegations.
Nevertheless, he and Habeler are now in the best of health, he insists.
At the age of 73, the Italian is no longer interested in the world’s highest mountain.
“Of course I could still ascend Everest, on the piste that has been made ready, with oxygen equipment and doctors looking after me,” he says.
“But it would be embarrassing. Everest, as Hillary climbed it, is no longer there today. It’s the same mountain, but the mountain has been covered with ropes and chains.”
Sherpas worked “like road workers” for months under conditions of great danger to build this tourist route, he says. The process is irreversible, in part, due to the income it brings Nepal.
A climbing permit costs $11000 (R138000).
“If 1000 people make the attempt, that’s $11million,” Messner notes.
Messner and Habeler crawled the last few metres to the summit at 1pm on May 8, achieving what everyone else barely believed was possible.
“Nevertheless, I had no feeling of triumph, but rather one of emptiness,” Habeler wrote in his book, Das Ziel ist der Gipfel (The Goal is the Summit). “I wanted to go down, just down.”
Messner felt much the same.
During the ascent, his Austrian companion was the one who frequently expressed fears and doubts. He had just become a father.
At the end of the 1960s, Messner and Habeler started climbing high faces with minimal respite, setting their own characteristic mark on alpinism. They climbed the north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps in nine hours, whereas previous rope teams had made a camp for the night.
“We were impudent,” is how Habeler describes this daring undertaking.
At the time, traditional ascents of the highest mountains were undertaken with porters, camps and fixed ropes. Messner and Habeler set out with a bare minimum of equipment.
By these means, Messner was the first to ascend Nanga Parbat and Everest alone. He was the first to ascend three 8000m summits in a single year, and was also the first to conquer all the world's 14 peaks over 8000m.
While Habeler says he was more fearful on Everest than on all other expeditions, Messner does not count the mountain as among his most difficult excursions. Exploring the deserts and the Poles were a greater challenge, he says.
“The Nanga-Parbat business with my brother - that was the worst that I have experienced.” Messner’s brother, Guenther, died in 1970 as the pair were descending after climbing the Rupal Face.
Messner aims to dissolve his foundation, and turn over his museum in South Tyrol to his daughter, as he takes the first steps toward retiring from public life. But with Messner now working on a film of the Everest ascent, maintaining his legacy remains a focus.
Called Der letzte Schritt (The Last Step), Messner is played by his own son, Simon, with a friend taking the Habeler role.
Messner finds value in documenting such true stories, “because tales of actual experience are better than all our imagined ones”. - dpa/African NewsAgency (ANA)