Simon Messner and Martin Sieberer: ascent in Karakorum.

Seven hundred meters to the summit of the Untouched Yernamandu Kangri, 7180m, Karakorum. Simon and Martin are there, sitting next to each other in silence. If one of them said, “Enough, let’s go back,” the other would agree. Instead, though perhaps thinking it, no one says anything. The two, in silence, continue in half a meter of snow toward the summit with what little energy they have left. Fog envelops them; it is the first ascent.

Simon Messner e Martin Sieberer

“Mountaineering you don’t inherit,” I seem to recall from an interview some time ago about Simon Messner. A very heavy surname, a silent climb. Talking with Simon about mountaineering makes you realize what he really means by that term today, where often agonism and self-centeredness obscure its purity. Perhaps because Italian is not his first language, or perhaps just by choice, when he talks about his accomplishments he refers to them as “beautiful things.” Not records, FKTs, first ascents or feats… Good things.

It was July 25 when Simon, part of the Salewa People team, along with faithful companion Martin first climbed an as yet untouched 7000 in the Karakoram. Three thousand meters of elevation gain in three days, a line to be found and climbed relying only on one’s own strength.

Simon Messner Martin Sieber Karakorum

Let’s start from the end. It has now been two months since together with Martin you touched the top of the Yernamandu Kangri. A first time for you over 7000, but a first time for the summit to be climbed. What was it like to cross a new line, what were your feelings, what went through your mind at that precise moment?

There must have been 30 meters with snow. To the north is a snow frame. It was a precious moment, it was foggy and as is often the case we saw nothing at all. I thought before we left that it would be a strong moment, and it was, but we also knew that we still had to descend, moreover without a rope. (The simple lanyard we had helped us with our heads, yes, but if we had fallen into a crevasse we would not have had a chance.) We had quite a burden on us, and going down was more tiring than going up, it’s strange, but it’s like that all the time: you’re tired, your concentration fails, and eventually you’re far from civilization and no one can help you. We had had that mountain in mind for a few years, but never really thought about leaving. It was very difficult to find photos and information from other expeditions, and we had to wait for a long time for permission to enter Pakistan, which arrived three weeks before departure. In the end it worked out well for us. I was very happy and curious to go to that part of Pakistan, the south, the Karakoram: very green, the people are kind. We arrived at base camp, where the last expedition had arrived in 1981. We saw no one, just what we were looking for. Only one snow leopard has visited several times, but of people, not even a shadow. All top. We felt good, strong, but the weather did not agree. It snowed all day, we stayed at base camp playing cards, reading, then finally the window of good weather: three days.

A rapid ascent preceded by limited acclimatization. 3000 meters of elevation gain in three days.

We started out thinking, “We’ll try as long as we can keep going.” We went fast, maybe too fast. I didn’t think it was possible to climb 1,000 meters in one day at those altitudes with those conditions and difficulties. However, I think that was the only conditions to be able to complete the climb: by the time we were at the top, the weather had already changed. Three days we used to the minute reaching the limit of our capacity. At one point, sitting on the base of the final wall, I remember well that we were sitting on the ice, very tired. I’m sure if someone had said, “Enough, let’s go back,” the other would have agreed without saying a word. Instead, no one said anything. He thought it, but did not say it. So we went on, in silence, it was strange. There was some pressure, that final wall didn’t look easy, and we were so tired with the half-meter high snow slowing us down with every step. I would say, and Martin always says this too, that if we had brought even the lightest rope we would not have made it: 2-3kg more would have exhausted us before completing the project. It was a borderline climb.

Simon Messner Martin Sieber Karakorum

Tell us about your enterprise through 6 moments important, from the choosing your destination to when you returned home?

1. In Europe, when the email came in that there was our permission for Pakistan, everything changed there. At that moment both Martin and I said, “Come on, now let’s go.”

2. The approach, which went very well: we never got stuck, we were fast, without discomfort and physical problems.

3. Arriving at the base camp, which did not exist. It was a place near the glacier that seemed suitable. The next day we left to search for the line by crossing the glacier.

4. The waiting day after day when the weather was not good. When it then improved, being able to go out.

5. Going up the path, tracing it, the connection between us. In turns everyone would go forward, even 100 meters away, without saying anything, we would take turns as if it were the most natural thing there is.

6. The moment on the final wall, 700 meters with a 60-degree slope. The ice there is very very hard, almost concrete. Climbing there we didn’t talk for hours, each climbing for himself up to the ridge.

(7. Getting to the top is a small dream realized for both of us.)

Simon Messner Martin Sieber Karakorum

Speaking of Martin; you are a close-knit team that has been proven for years, which is perhaps also one of the elements that has enabled the success of this venture. How long have you been climbing together, what makes you such a close couple?

I met Martin 4 years ago, just before I left for my first time in Pakistan in 2019. I immediately noticed that he was very strong, that he is someone who is willing to do things and does them without much talk. After our first ascent together it all took off, we did a lot of good things in the Alps as well, such as the Bonatti on the Matterhorn in the day from the valley. It is very important to find a person who has more or less the same motivation as you. Not with all comrades do you have this kind of connection. When I scale I never have to think about him, I have complete confidence in his ability and I think about him with me as well, that’s how it works. Maybe, indeed definitely also the fact that Martin like me used to climb solo in the past helps a lot, because we have about the same level and if he can climb untied, I can too .

Another watchword for this venture is alpine style. What meaning do you think the word mountaineering should have?

Mountaineering is an activity with a lot of history. Today you don’t know how to see things, understand how to climb mountains…. The how is very important. Most of those who can afford it, climb mountains with great outside help, let’s say, and they can do it. But for me mountaineering is something different, it is trying to climb a line in my mind with the strength I have. And alpine style means to have done it without help except from your partner.

Mountaineering is not a sport, it has connections to sport, but it is not sport. It is very difficult to measure it, the conditions change as well as the weather. Talking about Pakistan, K2 for example, which is very close to where we were, it’s a totally different world there, not necessarily negative, but it’s a different thing. Two, three, four hundred people climbing to the top together using ropes, oxygen, helicopters, camps. It is not necessarily wrong, but it is different. To this day for both Martin and me the desire to go on an eight-thousand-miler is zero, but zero really. It has nothing to do with going to the mountains. If you are alone in the mountains every decision is up to you, but if you go in a group everything changes: one decides and the others follow.

Your media exposure has, over the years, been growing from the early years when you were scaling without being followed by anyone. What has changed and why?

As a child, it was normal for my father’s life to be exposed to the media. Some of it was very normal for us children, and on the other hand I knew that media exposure can help but it’s not all positive. I always read my name on two sites, I knew I was known in mountaineering, so I always had to be careful. People were always watching me, noticing every misstep, and so I decided to do it for me, to express myself, and in the end those early years were the best time, totally free and carefree. In those years I learned the basics, went a lot of free soloing, which I wouldn’t do today, and grew up as a normal mountaineer. Then I don’t know what changed, I improved and grew, I did good things, I don’t know . However, it’s always important to keep a part of what you do, just for you.

There are many points in this interview that I like to reread, perhaps because Simon was able to express things I had never heard before, perhaps because the way he did it was different and sincere. In the days leading up to the interview, perhaps because of the particularly busy time for the subject, I often wondered what mountaineering was. Now I know it a little more.

Simon Messner e Martin Sieberer