Whether it was Reinhold Messner's call for mountaineers to pursue summits "by fair means" (which usually meant alone, without oxygen), Doug Coombs first pointing his skis straight down the mountain's "fall line,” or Jacques Cousteau inventing his way ever deeper under the ocean, the explorers in this list were all pioneers of their sport. For this compilation, we disregarded the likes of Magellan and Lewis and Clark, choosing to stick to explorers from the 20th and 21st centuries — a world that is largely known, where exploration means digging deeper, going higher, traveling farther, or flying faster. In other words, these adventurers looked to the known limits of man, and kept going.
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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.
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Lynn Hill, the 5' 2", 110-pound rock goddess, almost singlehandedly neutered one of the most testosterone-soaked sports on the planet. The feat: Becoming the first person to free climb The Nose route on El Capitan — a 31-pitch beast that was widely considered impossible to ascend without ropes and pulleys. It was 1992, and having been an athlete her whole life — gymnast, weightlifter, runner — Hill had spent the 1980s dominating every climbing competition she entered. Just before turning 30, she decided to step away from competition and return to her first love, traditional climbing, big outdoor routes that required serious commitment. Little did Hill know that she was also laying the foundation for an entirely new era in big-wall climbing, in which the most famous aid-only routes (those requiring gear to pull you upward) would be climbed using only body power. Preternaturally strong and technically gifted, Hill was uniquely suited for stringing together a relentless series of moves without the help of aid gear. Hill began working on The Nose in 1989. Three years later, she had climbed each and every pitch — during several separate trips — using only her own hands and feet to ascend. The very next year, as if to prove this was no fluke, she also became the first climber to do the entire route in a day, in one single push. That feat, free-climbing The Nose in under 24 hours, was so stunning and ahead of its time that it wouldn’t be repeated for another decade.
• She was the first person to free climb The Nose on El Capitan, a rock formation at Yosemite National Park that is nearly 3,000 feet high.
• After her first successful ascent of The Nose, she tried again and finished the climb in less than 24 hours – one of only two people to do this.
• She was the first female to ascend “Midnight Lightning” in Camp 4 at Yosemite National Park, a boulder that is considered difficult because of a jump that’s necessary to successfully complete the climb.
The Last Word
When The Nose finally went free, it shattered long-held beliefs about what was possible on big walls. In many ways, it was Lynn Hill’s feat that began a revolution in the sport, one that led to Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's much more publicized triumph on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in 2014. If you surveyed today’s rock hounds on the top 10 most talented sport climbers ever, almost every single one of them would put Hill on the list — and many would place her at number one.
Credit: Tony Duffy / Getty Images