By modern standards, Reinhold Messner’s mountaineering resume is deceptively unremarkable. Like a lot of climbers, he specialized in light-and-fast ascents, and he summited all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen, many alone. He also completed a one-day blitz of the north face of the Eiger. The thing is, he was the first to do all of the above at a time when climbing expeditions were still the size of traveling carnivals, and climbers were relying on the support of dozens of people. The reclusive Italian, now in his seventies, did much of his most impressive work in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming the first successful climber to ever enter Everest's death zone without supplemental oxygen in 1978. By 1986 he had become the first to bag all 8,000-meter peaks without O2. He was a lone mad man in search of self-discovery through suffering, seemingly obsessed with figuring out the most challenging, aesthetically pleasing way to the top. This often meant taking the hardest route, alone, in winter, and as quickly as humanly possible — or, as he often put it, “by fair means.” This was the only version of climbing Messner understood, and he was better than anyone at it.
• In 1978 he became the first to summit Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, shattering widely held beliefs that such a climb was impossible.
• In 1980 he was the first person to solo Everest. He had no supplemental oxygen, Sherpa support, or crevasse ladders to help expedite his climb.
• He was the first to summit all 14 of the worlds 8,000 meter peaks.
• In 1970 he topped out on the Rupal Face of 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, and descended the Diamar Face, completing the first traverse of the mountain. His brother, Gunthar, who had reached the summit with him, went missing on the way down. Messner also lost six toes due to frostbite.
• In 1974, in record-breaking time, he ascended the Eiger of the Bernese Alps.
The Last Word
Messner almost singlehandedly revolutionized mountaineering, pioneering many of the most fundamental standards that climbers hold dear today, like the light-and-fast ethos. It is because of him that big mountain beasts like Ed Viesturs believe in summiting without supplemental O2 or not at all, and that many mountaineers feel that a solo climb is the only true test of commitment. It’s also because of Messner that guys like Ueli Steck have realized that three-week expeditions could become 72-hour assaults.