Simon Messner on climate change: “We can no longer look away!”

Simon Messner (r.) and Martin Sieberer (in the background Broad Peak)
Simon Messner (r.) and Martin Sieberer (in the background Broad Peak)

Climate change is also falling at the feet of mountaineers. Increasingly, we hear and read about top climbers whose projects fail because high temperatures make for dangerous conditions even at the highest altitudes. “I can’t say that I anticipated getting scorched off the second highest peak in the planet,” wrote American climber Graham Zimmerman with a twinkle in his eye after he and Canadian Ian Welstedt tried unsuccessfully to scale K2 via the seldom-climbed West Ridge in July. The avalanche and rockfall risk was simply too high.

South Tyrolean Simon Messner and Austrian Martin Sieberer also returned empty-handed from the Karakoram at the end of August because conditions on the still unclimbed 7,134-meter-high Praqpa Ri, located near K2, threw a wrench in their plans. “Two times we got stuck in bottomless powder at around 6.000 meters forcing us to turn around,” Simon Messner wrote on Facebook. The weather app had predicted temperatures of up to plus 10 degrees Celsius at 7,000 meters, wondered the 30-year-old son of mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner. Simon answered my questions.

Simon, you were on an expedition in Pakistan during the corona pandemic. How special were the circumstances?

Martin Sieberer and I were on an expedition in the Karakoram in the off-season – in August 2021. Apart from the fact that it was warmer than average and had more precipitation during our trip (which we actually wanted to avoid by setting off late), the Afghanistan crisis then came along at the end of August. Seeing what was happening in Afghanistan really affected both of us. Especially because Pakistan is a supporter of the Taliban and says so openly.

Late in the summer season, you tried in vain to climb the seven-thousander Praqpa Ri. The mountain near K2 is actually quite accessible, but still unclimbed. What do you think are the special challenges?

Praqpa Ri
The 7,134-meter-high Praqpa Ri in the Karakoram

That’s a good question. The mountain was attempted in 2016 (by Nancy Hansen and Ralf Dujmovits) but not scaled. Then in 2017 the Southeast Summit was reached for the first time by two Chileans (Andres Bosch and Alejandro Mora) via the Southeast Ridge – a nice line though not really difficult. However, the steep slopes are avalanche-prone and with temperatures as warm as in recent years, such a route is simply very dangerous.

Anyway, the mountain is not easy to climb from the north, south and west – and if it is, then only in very good conditions. And this is precisely the problem: finding good conditions is becoming more difficult in the Karakoram from year to year.

In addition, there is the Savoia Glacier, which must be crossed on the approach, and this glacier is wild and very riddled with crevasses. This is also not a harmless thing, which probably scared off aspirants.

After your return, you repeatedly pointed out the consequences of climate change in the Karakoram, which could no longer be ignored. What did these look like in concrete terms?

Yes, climate change has definitely reached the high mountains of the world! Especially in the Karakoram – so the locals say – the temperatures are increasing from summer to summer and the weather is generally becoming more unstable, not to say hardly predictable. What I noticed in particular was a strong radiation during the day with too warm nights, so that the snow did not freeze even at high altitude.

I certainly don’t want to make it seem like I know everything better and that I’m not part of the problem – I’m  certainly not excluding myself here! Climate change affects us all, and we are all part of this problem, whether we like it or not. But I know from my own experience that we humans put off such problems because they seem too far away and too intangible. But now the signs of change are already so noticeable that we can no longer look away!

Do we have to gradually abandon the idea that the summer months are really the most favorable for an ascent in the Karakoram and possibly switch to another season?

Yes, that’s the way it looks. The months of June/July were once considered the ideal time for the Karakoram. For trekking this will remain the case, but for mountaineering you will have to change your orientation – it is now more towards September.

After your first ascent of the 6,718-meter-high Black Tooth in the Mustagh Tower massif in summer 2019, you were again en route with Austrian Martin Sieberer. You seem to work well as a two-person team on expedition.

Simon Messner and Martin Sieberer
Well-rehearsed expedition team

That’s right. Martin and I had seen Praqpa Ri in 2019 from our second bivouac on Black Tooth – so it was clear to us that we also wanted to attempt this mountain together.

I think for a rope team to work well, it takes several things. First, both have to identify with the goal and really “want” to do it. Then it is useful if no one from a rope team is too shy to, for example, do the trail-breaking or sometimes carry a heavier backpack. In addition, we complement each other very well: What one is not so good at, the other can do and vice versa. And finally, we are both rather quiet characters. We don’t have to talk incessantly, but each of us likes to be on our own.

Small team, alpine-style climbing – that was once your father’s preferred style in the Himalayas and Karakoram. Did he also influence you in this respect?

Basically, that should generally be the preferred style today. To follow a prepared and set up line has no appeal!

But I was certainly influenced by my father, as well as by personalities like (the American) Steve House or (the Pole) Wojciech Kurtyka. If you think a little bit about mountaineering, you can’t avoid a reduced style – especially nowadays.

Before the expedition, you simply announced that you were going to Pakistan, but left the exact destination open and you did not communicate during the expedition. Is that your nature?

It corresponds to my general attitude towards mountaineering and the fact that I don’t want internet access in the mountains – there is nothing worse than being online all the time. Especially on an expedition, the beauty is that you can escape the fast-paced world.

But that’s a sore point you raise, because we live in a time of big announcements. In terms of mountaineering, we actually live in times of “announcement alpinism” – not a nice development, in my opinion.

You also opened some ice climbing, rock climbing and mixed routes in the Alps last year. Is it the mix between climbing “on your doorstep” and in faraway lands that appeals to you, or do you favor one of the two?

Simon Messner on ascent on Praqpa Ri
Simon on ascent

For me, all “varieties” of alpinism have their appeal: rock and ice climbing as well as ski touring “on the doorstep” are just as beautiful as an expedition. But an expedition is a bit bigger and requires a lot of time, money and even more patience.

I am convinced that climbing “on the doorstep” will become more important in the near future, simply because traveling will become difficult or because we will have to limit it. Therefore, we climbers would be well advised to keep the few walls and mountains in Europe that are not yet fully tapped as pristine as possible. This is the biggest favor we can do for ourselves and especially for nature.

When are you planning your next expedition?

I have agreed with my girlfriend Anna that I will go on an expedition every two years at the most – that would be in 2023. I don’t know yet where the journey will take me. But I think I’ll come up with something in the course of two years.