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Chapter 3: Big Reinhold, Little Reinhold

1991 reception at the Alpine Club in London, where Royal Robbins and Reinhold Messner met for the first time.

[Photo] Ed Webster

In 1991 I was invited to England to be a speaker at the then-annual (but now discontinued) Buxton Festival in the Peak District, hosted by the British Mountaineering Council. After the flight over, I tagged along before the festival opened to an evening party–and not just any soiree–at the venerable Alpine Club headquarters in London. The special occasion was the book launch of Reinhold Messner’s newest autobiographical tome, Free Spirit. This was the third time I encountered the world’s most accomplished mountaineer.

Messner was in town with his wife, Sabine Stehle. Also present in the Alpine Club’s reception room that night was Royal Robbins, America’s premiere rock and big wall climber from Yosemite Valley’s Golden Era, the 1960s. Representing the younger generation of Yosemite rock climbers was Paul Piana, who with Todd Skinner accomplished the 1988 first free ascent of the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, a route Royal pioneered in 1961. Robbins, Piana and I were each slated to lecture at Buxton. Standing amidst such a group, pinching myself yet again to make absolutely certain this was really happening, I watched, listened and photographed the very first meeting of two of the climbing world’s greatest legends, as Royal and Reinhold turned toward each other and shook hands.

Robbins–King of the Big Walls, greeting Messner, Master of the High Himalaya.

Later, I asked Royal for his impressions of Reinhold.

“He was as strong a personality and as imposing a presence as I’d heard from other climbers,” Robbins told me. “I had always looked forward, and hoped I’d have the chance, to meet Messner. I could tell from the intensity of his eyes why he’s been such so successful.”

Next, Ken Wilson, founding editor of the profoundly influential Mountain Magazine, took center stage, telling tales, making faces, and mimicking other climbers. Mirth overflowed our foaming beer mugs and wine glasses. Mountain–commencing with issue 1 published in January 1969, through Mountain 145 in May/June 1992 (under the follow-up editorships of Tim Lewis and Bernard Newman) was the Alpinist Magazine of its day, documenting Robbins’ later big wall firsts and the great majority of Messner’s pioneering feats and new routes.

After Reinhold warmly inscribed my copy of Free Spirit, I then noticed a lopsided disparity. Because every climber in the room had magnetically converged on Messner–surrounding him to have their books signed–and not to miss a single profundity, ethical proclamation or story detail–that this left his wife very much out in the cold. In fact Sabine was currently standing all alone on the opposite side of the room from her husband, now thronged by virtually everyone else who was there. I walked over to her.

The author alongside Robbins and Messner at the Alpine Club.

[Photo] Ed Webster collection

“Hello, you don’t look too excited to be here,” I remarked.

“These meetings with other climbers, they are all the same,” she said, sighing heavily.

“They are so boring. All of them just want to speak with Reinhold. And climbers, they can talk forever.”

Sabine then rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, although she hadn’t needed to emphasize her point. “A life at Reinhold’s side has absolutely nothing to do with la dolce vita, (the sweet life), as many people–especially women–think,” she once wrote.

I tried to think of something to brighten up her evening–and suddenly had an impetuous thought.

“Would you please sign my copy of Reinhold’s new book also?” I asked.

Sabine pulled back slightly, and appeared utterly shocked.

“Me? You would like me to sign Reinhold’s book…?” she asked quizzically.

“But no one has ever asked me to sign a book of his before,” she added.

“Well, you are part of his life, and his story,” I blurted. “Would you mind?”

Warmed and transformed during the next few moments, Sabine signed Free Spirit, adding her name beside his. She too shared the spirit of adventure, and had accompanied Reinhold to Tibet, probably more than once. Sharing mutual smiles, I gently thanked her for her kindness–and became the proud owner of Reinhold Messner’s latest book, signed by both husband and wife.

Reinhold Messner and his wife Sabine Stehle at the reception at the Alpine Club in London.

[Photo] Ed Webster