The museums high up in the mountains

An eccentric museum in South Tyrol reflects one man’s unique view of mountaineering

In September, I found myself 5,000ft up the Dolomite peak of Kronplatz mountain, lost, alone, and completely happy. As I edged my way up, I had to stop every 300ft and catch my breath. But whatever panic and lung-burn I experienced was mitigated by the frosted clover and edelweiss and enzian. The air smelled sweetly of manure and cut grass; the tinkle of cowbells and the call of cuckoo birds echoed through the valleys.

Waiting for me at the top of the mountain was Reinhold Messner. At age five, Messner scaled his first mountain in South Tyrol, the autonomous province of northern Italy where he was born and still lives. In the decades that followed, he went on to climb another 3,500 peaks and became one of the most celebrated mountaineers of the 20th century, wrote more than 50 books and represented the Italian Green Party in the European Parliament. 

Now 72, Messner no longer climbs professionally. Instead, he has spent the past decade focusing on the Messner Mountain Museum, six high-altitude institutions devoted to mountain climbing. 

Corones, the sixth and latest installation of the Mountain Museum, is on top of Kronplatz mountain 

The entire project is estimated to have cost £26m. The first museum opened in 1995 in the Vinschgau region. The latest, Corones, a crashed-spaceship of a building 
that opened in 2015, is here on Kronplatz, the nearly 7,500ft mountain that I exuberantly and somewhat stupidly volunteered to climb. Construction of the 3,300-square-feet concrete building involved the excavation of more than 3,900 cubic feet of mountain.

"Morality is dangerous. So is all nationalism and all religions"

Like the other five museums, it recreates, in a pleasurably primitive way, the experience of scaling a mountain. The multilevel space is cool and smells faintly of snow. Making your way through the galleries’ tunnels, you often find yourself disoriented, returned almost to where you began, as if having miscalculated a switchback. Staircases are mirrored with diagonal glass vitrines filled with ice picks, boots, scrapbooks and carabiners.

“In mountaineering, there’s not only the activity, but the philosophy behind it,” Messner told me outside the museum. “Some call it a “moral,” but I’m against that because all morality is dangerous. So is all nationalism and all religions.

He urged me to look north. Below are South Tyrol’s verdant pastures and distant outcroppings. We both inhaled. “You don’t see one bad situation,” he said. Then, in a humble concession to reality, Messner pointed to a distant smokestack, and squinted with vague contempt. “Only there, I guess, a little bit.”

Villnöss Valley on the Austrian border of northern Italy, where Reinhold Messner was born

The sinister, toothy Dolomites, which rise up all around, both exaggerate the loveliness below and cut it with the necessary bit of harshness that’s otherwise lacking. It’s all too easy to imagine, in a fairy tale-like way, a local child growing up feeling as though his character was contingent upon a successful confrontation with these threatening peaks. Which is, of course, exactly Messner’s story.

“When I was a boy, I went beside this beautiful mountain”—Messner pointed west from the museum’s balcony towards a pleasingly round summit—“and I looked for a few days with binoculars, and invented a line I could climb. Then, one Sunday I went up with my brother and we did it. It’s like a piece of art. The same with the museum. I have an idea, I do it.”

Reinhold Messner

 

A week after we met—

Messner left for Africa to direct his first film, Still Alive, a re-creation of a near fatal climb in 1970 by Austrian mountain climbers up Mount Kenya.*

No sport encourages the ostensibly paradoxical impulses of meditative, in-the-moment focus and past-tense memorialising quite like mountain climbing. It seems that everyone who has even dabbled in the endeavour has gone on to document it. But how to do it in a way that begins to approximate the scale of even a small hill?

Ripa museum, housed in a 13th-century castle in the Puster Valley

For Messner, the answer has been interdisciplinary. He told me that he learned how to open and organise a museum by doing it himself, “not by going to museums.” His autodidacticism is apparent in the Mountain Museum displays, which are at once charming and confounding and weirdly ambitious.

Housed in a crenelated castle in the quaint town of Bruneck, Italy, the Ripa museum has an extensive collection of fascinating, bewildering artifacts often presented without context. There’s a room filled with models of traditional mountain homes in places like Patagonia, Peru and Kandahar. There’s a gallery devoted to international water vessels, another stocked with Tibetan musical instruments, and another for Incan weapons. There are a few human skulls (unlabelled) thrown in for good measure.

A typically idiosyncratic display

Atop a modest mountain 75 miles southwest of the Ripa museum is Juval, the 13th-century castle in Vinschgau where Messner lives with his family for part of the year, and which he opens to visitors. There’s an organic farm with animals on the premises, along with a sprawling collection of Asian masks and effigies. Messner’s personal library, consisting mostly of books about Alpinism, is kept here in an ornately carved room.

Positioned at what was the highest place of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ortles museum in Sulden am Ortler is “devoted to the world of ice.” What this mostly means is that it’s bone-chillingly cold inside. There are walking sticks, ice picks, skis, reportedly 200 years’ worth of mountaineering boots, a rescue sled from 1940 and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s binoculars. But most of the museum’s contents are paintings, dozens from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a not insignificant number of contemporary works, all of which depict ice.

Viewing platform of the Dolomites museum, in an old fort on Monte Rite

Bolzano, the largest city in South Tyrol, is the site of Firmian, the largest museum. Housed in Sigmundskron Castle, which dates back to A.D. 945, it’s focused vaguely on “man’s encounter with the mountain.”

In part organised by mountain range, there’s an eclectic mix of exhibits and settings—Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” plays in a gallery devoted to those who died climbing, and bronze figures from Himalayan legends look down from the castle’s towers. Artifacts collected here include ancient maps; old hiking boots that were really just wooden paddles with hand-forged iron cleats hammered into footbeds made of straw; Nepalese crystals; vintage postcards; a model heart in a case; leather-strapped goggles; and a Plexiglas chamber filled with “Everest refuse” (rusty cans, discarded clothing, tarpaulins, candy wrappers, a teapot).

“This is not a classical museum; it’s not an art museum or a museum of natural science. It’s a museum where I tell stories about the mountains,” Messner had told me at Corones.

A 13th-century castle in the Vinschgau houses Juval museum, which opened in 1995

He has sworn that the Corones will be the last of the museums. The plan is for his 28-year-old daughter Magdalena, who has studied both art history and economics, to take over the project.

Standing atop Kronplatz, I asked Messner why this museum will be the last. “There is no other issue,” he said in a throaty German accent. Issue?

“One museum is for the ice, one is for the rocks, one is on mountain people, one is on holy mountains and this one is on the traditional Alpinism,” he says impatiently. “There is no other issue.”

 

“Mountains are not fair—

Ripa museum, housed in a 13th-century castle in the Puster Valley

or unfair—they are dangerous,” Messner wrote. Maybe that’s the real appeal of climbing one, something that books and films and museums can’t ever quite recreate. In a world that can so often feel rigged, there’s an undeniable relief to experiencing so impersonal a struggle.

Perhaps that’s why I quickly came to feel as though it were an absolute necessity that I climb to the rest of Messner’s museums, all of which are accessible by car.

Messner’s feats were to my climbing what a professional swimmer’s are to taking a bath, but I still found myself grinning with pride every time I made it to the top.