A Spirit of Optimism
A Spirit of Optimism
Outside, snow flurries alternate with moments of sunshine – after all, my appointment with the Messners at the Venosta Valley Farm Shop is early in the year. After greeting the other patrons in an engaged and friendly manner, Magdalena and Simon join me at a table in the cafeteria. We discuss their upbringing in Juval, their future plans and why their father, the world-renowned extreme mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, once threatened to call the police.
Your father, Reinhold Messner, is a charismatic personality and the most famous adventurer in the world. But he also sometimes frustrates some people with his unpopular opinions. Have you ever been in situations where you thought: "Why can't our dad just be a postman?"
Magdalena: No, I’ve never asked myself that question, not even as a child. It’s just the way he is. 
Simon: (after a pause) Yes, I feel the same way. That’s how we grew up. As a child, you don't really compare yourself to other kids. Our life, which maybe looks special from the outside, felt normal. To us it was just everyday life. 
M: Well, maybe the “Yeti” phase was more difficult. When I went to primary school in Merano, sometimes people said mean things to me. You know, when kids mimick what their parents say behind your back. You feel pushed into a corner because of your dad and that’s unfair. As a child, it’s difficult to defend oneself from those kinds of attacks. But looking back, I think it made me stronger. It made me stand up for myself at an early age. I used to say: “I’m with my father, but I'm not my father”. 
S: Yes, it could be a problem sometimes. As a child you’re supposed to take responsibility for whatever your father does or says, even though you may not agree with him. 

Simon, you just got back from a climbing expedition in Patagonia. How do other mountaineers react when they hear your name? 
S: I don’t think my surname makes me stand out in particular. I'm Simon, and just because my last name is “Messner”, it doesn't make me a better climber. But, yes, it’s true that people sometimes react strange when they find out my surname … and I don't like it much! 
M: We both enjoyed being students because we blended in with everyone else. If the question of our parents' profession was ever raised, we had to quickly decide whether or not we were going to reveal our true identities. I usually said that my dad’s a writer ... 
S: And I used to say that he’s a farmer ... 
M: Exactly, if you keep something secret, you’re not actually lying (laughing).

As the son of Reinhold Messner, was it a foregone conclusion that you’d be pursuing a career in mountaineering?
S: No, not at all. As a child I wasn't interested in climbing. It was part of our everyday lives and seemed quite normal to us. Even our bedtime stories were about the mountains! Only later, at the age of 16 or 17, was I drawn to climbing. Nowadays, mountaineering is a central part of my life, but I’m not obsessed with it. If you wish to keep up with the best, you have to be fully committed and train hard: maybe 30 or 40 hours per week. You have to be really driven – but that’s not for me. 
M: Our dad never tried to pressure us or to push us in any particular direction. 
S: At times I think he may even have given us too much freedom. 
M: Yes, we were given all the freedom to choose and at the time we probably even found it a bit overwhelming. But soon you also learn to take responsibility for what you do and when something goes wrong, there aren’t any come-backs. You just have to sort things out for yourself. Cleaning up another person’s mess just isn’t our dad’s way of doing things.
Was learning to take responsibility a part of your upbringing? 
M: Sure. Since our parents travelled a lot, I felt responsible for my younger siblings. My sense of responsibility came from within – but it was always a big issue in our family. Willpower and discipline were important topics, and moaning wasn’t allowed. When we returned late at night from a long trip, we knew that we’d have to go to school the next day. We didn't even try to protest. 
S: Sometimes I felt like grumbling, but I already knew from the beginning that it was no use (both laughing). Once we came back from Yemen and I went down with jaundice. I stayed at home for a month and I liked it so much that I didn’t want to go back to school. I just locked myself in my room and didn’t want to come out. 
M: (laughs) Yes, I remember that very well. I think it was the only time mum called dad for help, because she didn't know what to do. 
S: Even he didn't know what to do (both laugh). He just said: either you go to school or the police will come after you. I didn't think that was so great either.

Simon, you’ve recently teamed up with your father in the film business, shooting mountaineering films. Would you say your detailed stories are a reaction to the fast pace of modern life? 
S: Yes, you could say that. You know, we live in an interesting age. You hear people all the time who don't really have much to say, but who present themselves well. Unfortunately, many people think that a slick presentation is also the most interesting. Obviously, that’s nonsense. One could blame the social media for having contributed to this perception. Even in mountaineering films, pretty pictures seem to count the most. I’m very sceptical about this trend. Our productions are more like traditional mountaineering films with more pauses for contemplation, making room for people to question things. We're getting away from slick images, fast cutting … or speed for its own sake. I'm really sceptical that this is what people really want.

In the 21st century, what is the significance of mountaineering? Is the Golden Age of first ascents and sensational expeditions truly over? 
S: No, I don't think the Golden Age of mountaineering is over. It’s just evolving. I see the mountain as an extension of the wilderness – that’s my approach. If you take responsibility for yourself and know how to make your own decisions, then mountaineering will always be a relevant and exciting topic. 
Magdalena, in 2017 you took over the management of the Messner Mountain Museums (MMM). What specific challenges have you faced? 
M: The MMM are the only museums, even internationally, that are funded without outside contributions or subsidies. We’ve never looked for subsidies or funding and we’d like to keep it that way. Most of all, we value our freedom and independence. Competing in the free market economy works well for us, but it takes a lot more effort. The six museums are run with a core staff of only 20 people – which is actually quite remarkable. It only works because we run the business along family lines and everything’s done on a personal level. Our staff is really dedicated and everyone feels part of the MMM family. We received an award as one of the best employers in South Tyrol. For me, that’s some recognition that we’re doing things right. 

To what extent is the MMM still Reinhold’s baby and how much has it become Magdalena Messner’s? 
M: Well, my stamp is already on it – especially in the way it’s run and in the overall setup. I also lend a hand in organising MMM events, though Reinhold still has the last word. They’re still his museums, after all. I’m glad about that because there’s enough room for both of us. Though our roles are different, we complement each other very well. Each one does what they do best. Of course, we sometimes may disagree but, unlike me, he can quite quickly change his mind and accept a good idea ... 
S: ... and then, of course, the “good” idea becomes his (both laugh).

Simon and his father run the Messner Mountain Movie production company and Magdalena is in charge of the museums. When work and family are so intertwined, how does one switch off in the evening?
M: It doesn't always work, but we seem to be getting better. Over time, you become more relaxed about it. Initially, I set unrealistically high expectations for myself, which made life difficult. We’re so conditioned by the desire to do our best, that I slipped into an unhealthy perfectionism that was counter-productive. I realized I had to find a more natural approach to my work and that was easier said than done. Looking back, I can see that it was an important step forward. Everyone has their own limitations. 
S: When I started working on the film projects, work became all-consuming and I find that even now it still intrudes on my private life. But when I go climbing, I feel a sense of equilibrium, though I suppose it could also be a form of escape. But climbing forces you to be in the here and now.

Both of you grew up in Merano as well as in Juval. Where does Juval mean to you?
S: Juval is our real home and the centre of the family, for all of us. 
M: Absolutely. We have so many happy experiences and memories from our childhood days. As kids, we felt so carefree and the place still makes me feel good. In summer, we used to spend the whole day outside. We only had to come home in time for lunch or if there was any work to do. Otherwise, we were completely free. 
Juval Castle is filled with works of art and antiques. What was it like living in that kind of environment? Were you told never to touch this or that? 
S: No, our dad was very relaxed about it. Mum sometimes said something to us. But we got used to it. There wasn’t any reason for us to knock things over or dirty the carpets with our shoes.
M: But there were some dark rooms in the castle where our imagination ran riot (laughs). There were lots of stories about ghosts in Juval. That was a bigger problem!

Many visitors are disappointed to find Juval Castle closed in July and August. Do you think this might change in the future or is that non-negotiable? 
M: This is a sensitive topic. We realize that once we decide to stay open in summer, there’s no going back. It might work for the time being, but then who knows what will happen in five years' time? At some point, someone in the family might want to make use of the castle in summertime. Who knows?
S: It's actually good that the castle is closed for two months. Juval isn’t just a museum open to the public. People also live there. In summer, visitors to the castle have asked me if Reinhold Messner is somewhere around. They ask: “Doesn’t he live here?” (laughing). Juval has a personal connection, and not only for us.

Your father isn’t particularly associated with religion. Considering the main theme of the MMM Juval – "Myth of Mountains" –, and mountains as places where the gods are said to reside, what role did religion play in your childhood?  
M: In our family, there was a very open approach to religion. We discussed it, but at the same time our parents gave us a lot of freedom in this regard. 
S: Reinhold believes that everyone’s free to do what they want and what they think is right. 
M: He isn’t an atheist – he calls himself “a possibilist”, meaning that while nothing is certain, everything remains possible. I can also identify with that to some extent. Though I’ve been baptized and I’m influenced by western culture as much as anyone else, I’m too rational to be drawn to religion as such. 
During this interview, I generally get the impression that questioning things and forming an independent point of view is important to both of you. 
M: Yes, that's what we encourage people to do: Simon with his films and myself with the museums. We’re not trying to preach to anyone, but we want people to think for themselves and we often present an alternative point of view. On the subject of the inhabitants of the mountains, many visitors to the museums are surprised to discover that despite the different cultural and geographical environments, there are more similarities than differences.  

What are your plans in the near future? Do you have any projects? 
S: We certainly aren’t about to run out of ideas (laughing). In the near future, the focus remains on climbing and film projects. This summer I’d like to organise a screening in South Tyrol of our latest films. In the medium term, I plan to take over or, rather, manage the family farms. I’d like to integrate the farms even more. That’s an important step for me. 
M: Yes, in the longer term we’re thinking of integrating our various activities even further. Whether it’s the museums, farms or other interests, that's still some way off. In the coming years there’ll be some changes in my private life. Professionally, I’m planning to develop different kinds of events that’ll no longer be so closely associated with my father or myself. We’ll be presenting the first such events this summer, including an open-air theatre program at Sigmundskron Castle in June and the Mountain Music Festival at Ripa Brunico in August. My plan is to bring in some changes and to keep moving. It’s sure never to get boring!

Magdalena Messner

Born in 1988 // Studied Economics and Art History in Vienna and Rome // Profession Managing Director of the Messner Mountain Museums. 
After completing her two degrees, Magdalena originally planned to take a gap-year. That was when her father asked her to help him set up the Corones Museum. After considering the offer, she decided to join the project and that’s how she became involved in the MMM. Even as a 14-year-old, she was already typing out her father's handwritten manuscripts. Now that she’s an author in her own right, she has published three books about the museums as well as her father as a mountain farmer and self-made man.

Simon Messner

Born 1990 // Studied Molecular Biology in Innsbruck // Profession mountaineer and filmmaker 
A polyhedral young man, Simon graduated from the Agricultural College, studying Molecular Biology in Innsbruck. He soon concluded that, as an outdoor type, laboratory work wasn’t for him. After completing his final thesis in the field of epigenetics, he took up mountaineering. His achievements include several first ascents in the Alps, as well as in the mountains of Jordan and Oman. Joining up with his father, he also turned his attention to filmmaking. Simon wants to tell true stories about the mountains and the effect of the wilderness on those who venture into it. 

Interview: Petra Götsch 
Photos: Maria Gapp 

The Interview took place in 2019. 
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