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Messner: Man in the Clouds

Interview by Raul Cazan.


Museum in the Clouds or Messner Mountain Museum is the highest expositional structure in the world, situated at 2181 metres altitude. One cannot access it but on mountain paths or on an old mountain road by a coach especially dedicated to the “ascension in the clouds”.

The great alpinist, activist and entrepreneur, Reinhold Messner, after a lifelong climbing on the 14 world’s 8000ers with no oxygen mask, is dedicating his energy to cultivating the image and culture of the mountain. He is voicing alpine communities in the Dolomites, is a promoter of sustainable tourism and founder of a museum structure with no precedent in the world.

At Firmiano Castle there is the “administrative” centre of his museums. At Juval the myths of the mountains are “hosted”, while in Ortles one can visit the museum of the ice worlds. In Brunico, the museum of the mountain peoples. On Monte Rite, the most shocking attraction – the museum of alpinism and of the rocks. As I was already contemplating the Carpathian variant of the SuperAlp, I wondered if his projects were worthy of being transposed in a Carpathian environment.

Then bigger questions came up. What is the culture of the mountain? How will we maintain
natural equilibria and life in the mountains? At the conclusion of the SuperAlp!2 – a project of the Alpine Convention, which consisted of sustainable crossing of the Alps from Chambery (France) to Belluno (Italy) with low carbon footprint means of transportation (hike, bike, train or bus) – the rough mountain man answered my questions with an “unusual kindness”, as some locals told me…

Are your projects exportable in the Carpathians?

Such museum related initiatives as well as support for the mountain peasants can be done in the Carpathians. However you must find someone to be willing of carrying out such job.
I for one cannot be that person simply because I do not have the power and the means to export my work all the way to the Carpathians in order to create from scratch such structures. I visited Bulgaria lately, the Balkan Mountains, and I noticed that poverty over there is way higher that it used to be in the South Tyrol or in the Dolomites 50 years back. I am aware that the economic differences with regards to the mountainous areas between Bulgaria and Romania are rather minimal.
There is though the possibility to grow a large sustainable tourism initiative, but you will be in need of financial means and a lot of energy. A museum structure such this one is just a drop of water in the sea. Nonetheless it is a structure that functions, it is beautiful and I am convinced that these kinds of museums will be more successful in the next two decades.

But why a museum in the clouds?

I am glad that you, the SuperAlp! guys ended your itinerary here in Monte Rite because you have the occasion to enjoy this Mountain Museum, a project that speculates already existing construction structures. The walls of the museum belong to an old fort from WWI, and there is nothing I have changed in terms of construction. Even the road that led you here is almost a century old. However, I gave this old structure content and I filled it with culture. The idea of a mountain museum in the Alps does not presuppose building of new structures because they might have a negative impact on the environment. A mountaineer can see that in the objects exhibited in the museum lies a great culture and history. There are old paintings that reveal alpine ascensions’ histories, ancient objects that belong to the alpinists, documents, photographs and geological data that speak the history of the alpine rocks. The exhibitions comprise, in each room of the fort, one decade in the history of ascensions on the alpine peaks.

Isn’t it a perfect infrastructure needed for such a project? Whom these initiatives belong to?

The most important thing lies in the common will and determination of those who live or are linked with the mountain area; strength of a single man, whoever he may be, does not suffice. Even hiking freaks and nature lovers eventually need hotel rooms, good tourism structures, incentives to get people to walk in the mountains. We need open roads with a sufficient breadth as to allow access of a bus, but with restricted access for automobiles. Problems such as these are solvable if there is local will and initiative. This is the essential thing: locals and only locals must be involved in development structures of sustainable tourism development in order to sell their products to mountaineers that respect the mountain. I do believe that it is wrong and unproductive to blame politicians. Local is the key word, each must acknowledge her own responsibility.

Have you ever been in the Carpathians?

Yes, I have, unfortunately not in Romania, but in the Tatra. Carpathians are much different than the Alps, it is a long range and well forested, much more than here. It is a big mountain chain and I am sure that extraordinary things can be done over there. However, you must carry them out!

11museoWhy does the alpine tourism suffer?

I see now that a lack of structures which can promote sustainable tourism in the last four decades made us enter in competition with the global tourism, and I am referring to the whole European continent. Today we compete with Africa, China, South America, with the whole globe. Nowadays, a three week trip to Nepal costs less than a little holiday trip from Frankfurt to Cortina d’Ampezzo with the same duration. Investments in alpine areas are essential as long as they aim at sustainable mountain tourism or mountain agriculture, if they are made in the spirit of cleanliness and respect for those places. Moreover, we should not be depending on any government. For the case here, the regional Government in Venice or the Italian Government in Rome are way too remote, they have no clue about what the mountain is. Same in Brussels, 90% of the politicians come from the plains and they simply cannot be well informed on what is happening in the mountains. Governments impose taxes or start over some programmes, nothing more. But what should governments do? How can mountain inhabitants be supported? Governments must allow people to live in the mountains as genuinely as they can. Tourism must be an incentive for people of the mountain, which, by their own old means of production maintain sustainability in the area. They must work in order to survive, to eat and drink, to make it through tough winters. The main condition is to be left alone.
The success of sustainable tourism in South Tyrol lies primarily in the fact that people realized that peasants, mountain producers, cannot be successful unless they become owners of small hotels. We are talking about very small hotels with few guest rooms where they serve typical products directly on the plate. And everything with no state aid whatsoever. Peasants are smarter than politicians; they understood that before the government.

Are you involved in such agro-tourism projects?

I own two small guesthouses which I leased to good administrators – otherwise I would not be here for the interview – that function very well in our south Tyrolean system. What I want most is to have the opportunity to work freely with no cap-laws coming from Bolzano, Rome or Brussels, which are almost imprisoning us. In the mountains the rules are pretty tight anyway. In mountain households there is no need of state aid nor state taxes. The model is valid since the Middle Ages. What I produce is enough for me and my family, the surplus will be sold to those who come in my “Agritour”. I do not sell a single bottle of wine on the market because the competition simply kills me. If a peasant sells his litre of milk to a dairy company at a certain price, this price will be quadrupled on the table of the city consumer.

Thus, by producing and consuming everything in your own household, naturally – with respect to all hygiene norms, the peasant exits politics and the market, becomes his own master. If one has not got enough funds, household can unite in cooperatives of 20-30 entrepreneurial families that manage their selling points. All the time, however, they must keep a hawk’s eye on attracting tourists and on avoiding commercial companies that “chase” their products to re-sell them, thus decreasing quality. Cheese, produced and consumed in one household, is unique and has a way greater value and quality than labeled merchandise, which is sold in the city.

Messner during talks with local mountain entrepreneurs in the province of Belluno
Messner during talks with local mountain entrepreneurs in the province of Belluno

In the end, why are you so preoccupied with sustainable mountain tourism?

I give a great deal of importance to the mountains ; mountains per se are not that important, but I add value by the things I do and I hope many others will do the same here and elsewhere.

Fourteen years now, I no longer climb the highest peaks of the world, I only practice some moderate alpinism – it is no longer the scope of my life, however I completely dedicated myself to promoting and deeply knowing the Alps, the Dolomites.

I am for the idea of creating a type of natural parks dedicated to those who truly love mountains and feel the urge to spend their holidays in the alpine areas. Mountain peasants have always climbed towards 2000 metres altitude to get their construction stones or wood for the winter.

There is thus a possibility to live in the mountains if we use what local knowledge and culture offers. We must turn to good account the alpine zones and forget the naïve idea we can bring back the wilderness in the mountains – in the Alps, at least. This is no longer possible.

But it is possible to show respect for the majesty of high zones and do not touch that, which in the past was not touched because it did not offer oil or wood. Up there, there was a place of those who wanted to get closer to the sun. Walking in the mountains does not mean roaming around, climbing and enjoying picturesque views. It is literature, art and philosophy. I want to give this culture’s substratum to the wanderer that comes from afar.

Translated from Italian

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