[Photo] Ed Webster
I first met Reinhold Messner in Kathmandu, completely by chance, in late May of 1985. My first expedition to Mt. Everest had ended a week earlier. I walked into our trekking-company office to see if there was any mail from home–and there stood Messner. He had just summited, within the past six weeks, and of course without supplementary oxygen, his eleventh and twelfth 8000-meter peaks, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.
I was thoroughly starstruck. Wearing casual pants and a plaid shirt, his long, wavy hair framing his distinctive, highly focused, bearded face, Messner was speaking with the agency’s owner. I’d intruded. Messner’s gestures, I noticed, were animated and highly expressive. Both men turned toward me. Bumbling, I started to introduce myself when Messner barked: ” I know who you are. How was the upper section on the West Ridge Direct?”
No way, that’s impossible, I thought. He knows who I am? That can’t be. And he even knows which route on Everest I’ve been on for the past two months?
“The rocks in the Yellow Band were really loose, blocky and fractured,” I stammered. “Two of my partners got 800 feet from the top, using oxygen. We didn’t summit.”
Messner nodded. My reply was as he expected. Then we shook hands.
But in the months and years to follow I was left with a lingering, and at least for me, really important question.
Had Messner noticed that I looked a lot like his long-lost kid brother?
My 1970s Colorado rock-climbing partners, especially, Bryan Becker and Peter Gallagher, were the first to notice, I recall, my “family resemblance” to Messner–and to rib me ceaselessly about it, although it was of course an honor to be even slightly compared to the legend who was catapulting climbing standards nonstop to unimagined levels of difficulty on Dolomite rock, Alpine north faces, and Himalayan peaks. Light and fast–then lighter and faster still! Messner’s book The Seventh Grade was the seminal ethical bible for my generation. OK, Messner and I had similarly long, thick unruly brown hair, vibrant blue eyes, and healthy beards. We both began as rock climbers, but at that stage of my life I was a mere mountaineering aspirant. Nonetheless, according to my jocular climbing partners, Messner was “Big Reinhold,” and I was “Little Reinhold”–or even on some days, “Tiny Reinie.”
[Photo] Ed Webster
Finally I revved up in the mountains. I tandem-soloed with my longtime partner Bryan Becker a new route in one day, the Becker-Webster, up the left-hand margin of the notorious Emperor Face of Mt. Robson in 1982. Then I joined three expeditions to Everest (aka: Chomolungma) in the innocent, golden, pre-guiding, pre-circus decade of the 1980s, attempting a different side of the mountain on each trip. While on my second expedition to Chomolungma in August 1986, I soloed a new route up the East Face of Changtse (ca. 7550m), the North Peak, about 9,000 feet round-trip in 16 hours. I laughed and began to feel my “Little Reinhold” moniker might one day become a little more apropos.
[Photo] Bryan Becker
Complete strangers even occasionally mistook me for Messner. The funniest episode occurred in Shigatse, Tibet, in 1986. My team was eating breakfast in the hotel dining room when an older European Grand Dame approached our table and planted herself solidly beside me, looking down at me as if through the lens of a microscope.
“Excuse me,” she said. “You are someone I know.”
I attempted to tell her I didn’t think we’d ever met.
“No, you are someone famous. I know your face. I also know your hair.”
She paused for a moment, leaned forward, and eyed me with ever-greater scrutiny.
“You cannot fool me!” she declared, her voice high in pitch and decibels.
“YOU are Reinhold Messner!”
My teammates immediately choked on their omelets. Guffawing, they pounded their chests with their fists to dislodge hunks of egg and yak cheese wedged in their throats, as tears streamed from their eyes. Unsuccessfully, I tried to convince my finger-pointing, now-shouting, accuser that I really was NOT Reinhold Messner…. that I just looked like him, sort of. If she’d thought to ask me to speak to her in German or Italian that would have easily solved the mistaken identity.