Reinhold Messner is widely acclaimed as the greatest mountain climber of his generation, the first to scale Everest without bottled oxygen, the first to do it solo and the first to conquer all 14 of the world's highest peaks. Mr. Messner has surprised the world with achievement upon achievement, including climbing Everest solo and during the monsoon season - an achievement still widely considered the most remarkable in climbing history. He has become a celebrity in his home region in the Alps along the Italian and Austrian border, a household name in Germany, and by all accounts a very wealthy man. He has published dozens of books and appears regularly on television. He has been compared to Michael Jordan for taking his sport to a level never previously imagined.
But in a series of recent lawsuits, he is seeking to ban two books by former climbing partners on the grounds that they threaten his reputation. The lawsuits center on a 1970 expedition on 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat in Pakistan which included Mr. Messner and his brother, Günther, lifelong climbing partners. Near the summit on the mountain's southern face, the two were separated from the rest of the group. What happened next is murky, and the subject of the books and lawsuits. The one incontrovertible fact is that Günther never returned.
According to Mr. Messner, his brother was suffering from altitude sickness as they reached the summit on June 27, 1970. Mr. Messner said that as his brother's condition worsened, he decided they should descend the less steep, but unexplored, western face. During a brief separation, he said, Günther was swept away in an avalanche. Mr. Messner met with worldwide acclaim when he returned, not only for being the first to climb the forbidding southern face of Nanga Parbat but also for being the first to traverse the mountain - to go up one side and down another.
But questions always lingered about Mr. Messner's story. Mr. Messner blames the other members of the Nanga Parbat expedition for Günther's death because they failed to search for the two of them on the western face. To counter a charge they believed to be outrageous, Mr. Messner's former partners gave their version of the story - that Mr. Messner sent his brother down alone.
Max von Kienlin, one of the climbers on the Nanga Parbat expedition, claims that he kept a diary during the 1970 trip. In it, he said, he recorded conversations in which Mr. Messner spoke of his longstanding plan not only to reach the summit but also to descend the other side. Mr. von Kienlin contends that Mr. Messner, determined to attain that goal and concerned that his weakened brother would slow him down, sent Günther back down the southern face and then crossed over to the western face alone. Mr. Messner calls the story false and the diary a fake, but an expert recently authenticated the text by comparing the handwriting with that in another document written by Mr. von Kienlin in 1970.
In April, Mr. Messner announced that a bone found on Nanga Parbat in 2000 had been genetically proven to have come from his brother's body. Since it was found on the western face, the bone proved his version of the story, he said. The bone seemed to be significant evidence, since it was found by a reputedly independent climber and underwent DNA analysis at the respected Innsbruck Medical University in Austria. But Mr. Messner's critics say that the climber had worked with Mr. Messner and that Mr. Messner paid for the DNA analysis.
While his lawyers fight in court to ban the books, Mr. Messner is looking for new challenges. He has embarked on a solo desert trek likely to last three months. In an interview before he left, he declined to say where he was going, but said he planned to apply the same strict principles as in his mountain expeditions: no support staff, minimal gear and no emergency communications equipment. Still, he sees it as safer than his past exploits. "It's just like mountain climbing," he said. "Except you can't fall down."