Why is Mount Kailash still not climbed?

Interview: Reinhold Messner and Kailash

The Kailash in Tibet is still virgin - to this day no one has ever climbed the summit. Reinhold Messner would have had the unique opportunity in 1985, but he refused. Why actually?

GEO Saison: Why did you of all people get the permit?

Reinhold Messner: A friend of mine was a senior minister's doctor in China. He came to Switzerland in the eighties for treatment. My friend could help him. Before leaving he said: "You have one wish." And Professor Rhomberg replied: "I wish that I would travel to Kailash with Reinhold Messner and that Messner could climb it." Shortly afterwards, we received permission from Beijing to go around the mountain. And I was given the option to climb it a year later. A great offer.

... that you did not accept

One of the greatest legends surrounding the Kailash is the story of the yogi Milarepa, who lived lonely at the foot of the mountain in the 11th century. He is said to have reached the summit sitting on a ray of sunshine. The mountain was not touched. In other words: it must not be trivialized, for example by an expedition with rope and hook. It would be sacrilege to conquer it. The locals don't want that. So I circled the mountain twice but didn't climb it.

But you have already visited and climbed many sacred mountains.

The Kailash has the greatest charisma. It rises up next to a lake. The feminine and the masculine are right next to each other. According to the locals, the mountain emerges from a primeval sea and remains as a phallic symbol.

Did you go around the mountain for spiritual reasons?

No, out of curiosity. It's one of the toughest hikes one can do. It was once said that the Chinese wanted to build a road around the mountain. But I don't believe in that.

How do you rate the Kailash from an alpine point of view?

The mountain can be climbed. Good climbers would do it without any problems.

And the kora [pilgrimage on Kailash] can be done by anyone?

The Kora is a high altitude hike, the highest point is at 5700 meters. Those who are not acclimatized find it difficult. It can be life threatening. Many people used to go to Kailash to die. They were buried in heaven: the vultures, these giant birds, ate their remains.

How full is the pilgrimage route actually?

There is never great loneliness there. The Tibetans wait in tents at the foot of the mountain for good weather and then begin their hike, which usually takes three days. Every Tibetan has a desire to come there once in a lifetime. The many people, including Indians, treat each other with respect. They puff up the pass as if they were locomotives. Many don't make it.

How did you experience the pilgrims on your trip?

Their beliefs and doubts, their efforts, actually the whole of existence are reflected in their faces. The current state of Tibet, a people without a future, is also evident in their faces. For the Tibetans, the Kailash is a final anchor point that connects them with their culture. They wander together, meet one another. Some of the people I spoke to came from regions that were incomprehensibly far away. They had covered the 500-kilometer path that led them through the desert to the mountain with a cart. The pilgrims who prostrate themselves, stand up, take three steps, need two weeks for the kora. What cold people experience at this time, what hunger! And all of this just to be redeemed, to be freed from rebirth.

It is said that the divine power of nature is revealed on Kailash. How exactly does it show up?

Nature has a regenerative power. We become aware of this when we expose ourselves to it free from technical aids. The cold and the wind make it clear that the mountain is infinitely bigger than I am. This is what characterizes the divine dimension. This is the quintessence of mountaineering: a mountain must be experienced. The measurements that apply on the mountain are not meters or minutes, but fear, doubt, fatigue and our sore muscles. Mountaineering is not a heroic act, it leads to the realization that we humans are limited.

Are you yourself a spiritual person hoping for salvation?

I am interested in the origins and history of religions and beliefs, less in belief itself. The idea of ‚Äč‚Äčnirvana seems attractive to me, as it means to me that you lose yourself in the infinity of space and time. The earth emerged from a big bang that was preceded by nothing. In the end there is an implosion that leads back to nothing. Such thoughts came to me at the Kailash. They don't come when we are stuck in the mill of everyday life, when we have appointments, write a book, build a house. When you march around the holy mountain, leave it all behind. Everything becomes unimportant, not because that mountain is there, but because you are walking and moving.

Would you say that Kailash is a place of happiness?

You cannot find happiness, so there cannot be a place of happiness. Happiness is a state that is over when you realize you have been happy. The circumnavigation of the Kailash is only a successful lap while I am doing it. The more I try, the more tired I get, the more I forget about my existence, the harder I puff, the further I am from the question of whether I am currently happy. The effort creates what the Tibetans call the key experience in meditation, namely dissolution. You can't call the helicopter on your cell phone when you're up there - it never comes. You have to get fully into your walking.

Will you ever return to the holy mountain?

I want to travel to Kailash with my family soon. I should still manage to circumnavigate it.