From Siberia To Canada Via North Pole

March 07, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

MERANO, Italy -- There are four toes left inside his boots, white flecks in his beard and 50 years riding on his shoulders. In Reinhold Messner's reflective mind, determination jostles with intimations of mortality.

The Italian daredevil who is generally recognized as history's greatest mountain climber is embarking on his last great expedition and perhaps his most daunting challenge -- an ice cap stroll, Asia to America.

Mr. Messner is about to leave for a 1,200-mile walk across the frozen Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Canada via the North Pole. Weather permitting, he expects to start walking tomorrow and arrive 90 days later.

It has never been done, this across-hemispheres, over-the-pole trek at 40 below.

As much as anyone in the world today, it is Mr. Messner who embodies the "because it's there" spirit of discovery.

"It's the only thing I know how to do. It's too late now, at my age, to stop -- not to do it. And more than anything -- I'm like a child -- I would always be unhappy if I don't try," he said.

Mr. Messner is the explorer as anti-macho man, the man of action who is humbled -- even frightened -- by the wilderness he challenges.

"Luckily, we have the intelligence to survive. We have fear, too, which tells us when not to go ahead," he said.

Mr. Messner is a master at wringing that extra drop from extremis. He was the first to climb the world's highest mountain without an oxygen supply, and alone, in 1980.

He is the only one who has climbed the world's 14 peaks higher than 26,248 feet. And he has walked polar ice before -- to the South Pole in 1990 and diagonally across Greenland in 1993.

Mr. Messner's polar walk will be what he calls a "by fair means" expedition. He will trek with his pediatrician brother, Hubert, each towing a 300-pound supply sled. There will be no dogs, no food caches, no support planes, no outside help, save a once-daily bleat from an U.S. satellite to keep them on course.

Today, Mr. Messner is a familiar face in Alpine Europe, advertising chocolate, mineral water and apples on television and in magazines. All of which helps to finance his expeditions and restoration of the 12th-century castle where he lives in the summer and runs a restaurant serving home-grown produce.

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