Reinhold Messner’s adventure resumé reads like the world’s loftiest bucket list. He was the first mountaineer to ascend all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), and he summited each without using supplementary oxygen. He was the first to cross Antarctica and Greenland without snowmobiles or sled dogs. He reached the South Pole on foot. He traversed the Gobi Desert by himself. And somehow, during his free time between expeditions, he managed to publish more than 60 books, serve a stint in the European Parliament, and help found six museums across South Tyrol in Italy.

But one of his most impressive and impactful accolades remains his 1978 ascent of Mount Everest, which marked the first successful climb to the top of the world without the aid of bottled oxygen. Critics and supporters alike told him that it could not be done, that it was physically impossible for a human to push themselves to that altitude without supplemental air, but at 1:15 p.m. on May 8, 1978, he and his partner, Peter Habeler, stood on the summit. It was the ascent heard around the world, kicking off a media frenzy and revolutionizing what climbers thought to be possible. It laid the groundwork for his solo ascent of the mountain two years later, which renowned climber Conrad Anker said was “like landing on the moon. After that, everything else kind of pales in comparison.”

Reinhold is one of the world’s greatest adventurers, but he wasn’t born that way. The road to the top of Everest was paved with decades of bravery, tragedy, and perseverance. To quote the title of one of his books, his was truly a “life at the limit.”

A valley in the Dolomites, photographed by Pauline Coupez
Photo by Pauline Coupez

A Childhood in the Hills

If you were to visit the village of Villnöss in South Tyrol, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the utopian valley community at the foot of the Italian Dolomites served as the childhood playground for the greatest climber who ever lived. To this day, the tranquil region has remained virtually unspoiled — its vibrant green hills dotted with wildflowers and churches, the granite spires of Gardena Pass and Geisler Mountain crowning the surrounding countryside.

Reinhold Messner was one of nine children. Their father was the senior teacher and headmaster of the valley’s only school, but he also bred rabbits and raised chickens to bring in extra income for his family. From a young age, Reinhold was expected to lend a hand in the henhouse, often working eight hours a day during the summer. But no matter what he was doing, his eyes always drifted upward. The Geisler faces towered over the valley, beckoning him into the hills.

Goats on an alpine mountainside, photographed by Roman Königshofer
Photo by Roman Königshofer

He was five years old when he went on his first climb. Reinhold’s parents took him and his brother Helmut up to Sass Rigais, one of the nearby mountains, for a few days of camping and climbing. Their father, an experienced climber himself, taught the boys basic holds and moves and encouraged them to practice on smaller crags and boulders before graduating to longer, rope-assisted climbs. From that day forward, Reinhold was hooked.

Soon, he was spending any free moment practicing his moves. He didn’t just climb on the Geisler peaks — he scrambled up the massive boulders at the edge of the nearby forest and scaled the walls of run-down buildings. During breaks in between classes, he would even dash to the nearest wall to start ascending. Needless to say, he couldn’t get enough.

Reinhold’s father served as his climbing teacher throughout his childhood, but by the age of 12, Reinhold and his younger brother Günther had eclipsed their mentor and began taking on harder, more dangerous routes on their own. When Reinhold was 16 and his brother was 14, they raced up the north face of Sass Rigais, a route that had eluded their father back in his prime. As they stood at the summit and looked over their valley below, they soaked in the feeling of ecstasy at having conquered the danger and exposure of the wall. They’d tasted the freedom of the hills, and they wanted more.

A Canadian countryside, photographed by Niels Oberson
Photo by Niels Oberson

Entering High Altitude

As Reinhold and Günther grew older, they started making a name for themselves as some of the most creative — and riskiest — climbers in the Dolomites. Their names were littered all over the record books, as they took down a slew of first, second, and third ascents. Most impressive, however, was that they often did so without using bolts, permanent anchors climbers drill into rock faces to aid their climbs. As they saw it, using such tools was a form of cheating since they theoretically made any wall possible to ascend. There was simply no fun in that. It made climbing boring.

An alpine lake, photographed by Victor Aerden
Photo by Victor Aerden

In 1969, Reinhold got his first taste of high-altitude mountaineering, when he joined an expedition to the Andes led by a group of climbers from Innsbruck, Austria. There, they established new routes on two different mountains, Yerupaja Grande and Yerupaja Chico, and by the time they returned home, Reinhold felt ready to start taking on higher peaks. He immediately turned his sights toward the north face of the Droites, the most difficult ice climb in the Alps, which had only seen three successful ascents, the quickest of which took three days. On the first day of his climb, Reinhold set off at dawn — by noon, he was standing at the summit. This feat attracted the attention of the  French climbing community and secured him his first advertising contract, marking the official start of his career as a professional climber.

In 1970, Reinhold set out on his first Himalayan expedition, joining a team of climbers attempting Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face — which is widely considered the greatest alpine wall in the world. It’s massive and dangerous, like three Eiger faces stacked on top of one another. When a few members of Reinhold’s team dropped out before the trek, Günther had the opportunity to join his climbing partner once again, and he didn’t hesitate.

What followed is one of the most controversial events in mountaineering history.

The Nanga Parbat Expedition

Late one afternoon, Reinhold and Günther stood together at the summit of the ninth-highest mountain in the world — they were the only members of the team to reach the top. But given their state of exhaustion and Günther’s signs of altitude sickness, they decided to stay near the summit overnight in an emergency bivouac. The next day, they set off down the western Diamar face, but Günther began to lag behind as Reinhold scouted ahead for a safe route. Soon, according to Reinhold, he had disappeared completely, presumably swept away by a wall of snow.

Two other members of the team, Max Von Kienlin and Hans Saler, provided different accounts of the events, claiming instead that Reinhold had been tempted by the thought of a first descent of the unconquered Diamar face. In their version, he sent his lagging brother down the dangerous Rupal face, abandoning him so he could follow his ambition on his own. It was a devastating allegation, one that Reinhold would fight against for the entirety of his career.

Prayer flags in Nepal
Photo by @lostwithpurpose

It wasn’t until 2005 that Günther’s body was discovered, fully preserved in the snow and still wearing his jacket and boots. His body’s location at 14,400 feet (4,400 meters) on the western Diamar face — not the Rupal face — finally vindicated Reinhold’s version of events.

The Nanga Parbat expedition was an undeniable tragedy — one that took Reinhold’s brother and climbing partner, forced the famous climber to amputate six of his toes due to frostbite, and placed him at the center of a controversy that would follow him for three-and-a-half decades. But despite all of that, Reinhold never thought about quitting. From the moment he’d placed his hands on the wall of Sass Rigais, he knew that death was a part of this sport, shadowing him up each rocky facade. But he wasn’t ready to let it deter him.

“It is through resisting death that we humans experience what it is to be human,” he later said. “And it is in this seeming paradox that the most fundamental reasons for climbing mountains or seeking out extreme situations are to be found.”

For many people, the events on Nanga Parbat would have marked the end of their climbing careers. For Reinhold Messner, this was only the beginning.

Everest

Following a similarly tragic result on his second Himalayan climb (this time on Manaslu, a mountain that claimed the lives of two expedition members in a massive storm near the summit), Reinhold realized he needed to change the way he climbed.

The traditional and most popular method of high-altitude mountaineering is known as expedition (or siege) style. This is the strategy employed by most guided climbs today. With a siege-style climb, expedition teams forge their way up a mountain slowly and steadily, harnessing their manpower to establish a series of camps that they can use to haul gear and acclimatize on their way to the top. It’s a gradual way of climbing, and it’s arguably the safest. It’s also, as Reinhold saw it, the most cumbersome way to the top.

Yaks at Everest Base Camp
Photo by @jamtuna

Thanks to Reinhold and a few other mountaineers from the 1970s who also felt bogged down by the massive teams and loads of gear involved in expeditions, there’s now a second method of climbing known as alpine style. With alpine climbing (named for the range in which Reinhold learned to climb), speed is key. Eschewing the tedious planning of siege-style climbs, alpine climbers work alone or in teams of two, take only the gear they absolutely need, and get to the summit and back down in as efficient a manner as possible, all while adapting to their environment instead of trying to control it.

For Reinhold, part of the draw of alpine style was the way in which it relinquished the burden of a multitude of teammates. Having a lot of allies at altitude can certainly be helpful, but as Reinhold had learned to climb with just his brother, he didn’t want to waste any worry on those around him when he was up on the wall, looking death in the face. On his own, he would be responsible only for himself.

Reinhold practiced this new style on some lesser peaks in South America before bringing it to the Himalayas, but when he returned to high altitude in 1975, he was poised to once again make waves in the climbing world. He was joined by a new partner, an Austrian named Peter Habeler, and together, they made a revolutionary ascent of Gasherbrum I, the 11th-highest mountain in the world. At that point, all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks had been summited, but Reinhold and Peter were the first to conquer one using alpine style. Most expeditions at the time involved at least two tons of equipment, but between them, the pair of alpinists carried just 440 pounds.

A glider flies by Everest
Photo by Kym Pham

It wasn’t long before Reinhold set his sights on the world’s tallest mountain. By 1978, there had already been 59 confirmed summits of Mount Everest, but Reinhold and Peter planned to be the first to reach the top without the use of supplemental oxygen — a feat that was considered physically impossible given the mountain’s sheer height, and the time it took to acclimatize and ascend to its peak.

They decided to do this because in order to execute an alpine-style ascent of Everest, bottled oxygen would be out of the question. In the 1970s, the required equipment would weigh over 100 pounds on its own — an unthinkable handicap. But their reasoning also went beyond that. With the exception of the leaning seracs (towering blocks of glacial ice) and perilous crevasse crossings of the Khumbu Icefall just above Base Camp, Everest is not a technically difficult climb. What makes it so tricky is its staggering altitude. When breathing such thin air, the human body can fall prey to myriad issues, not limited to exhaustion, frostbite, headaches, nausea, and cerebral and pulmonary edema. Reinhold saw the use of e supplemental oxygen on Everest as another form of cheating. It manually decreases the risk that makes the mountain so inherently dangerous. Displaying the same appreciation for purist techniques that caused him to forgo using bolts when climbing in the Dolomites, he decided that the only honorable way to reach the top of the world would be without the shortcut of bottled oxygen.

Mountain peaks in Nepal, as captured by Denise Bartels.
Photo by Denise Bartels

When they announced their intentions, Reinhold and Peter were serenaded with outrage. The majority of the pushback came from scientists and physiologists who warned them that their bodies simply could not survive the summit without extra oxygen. But they were not deterred. Reinhold was used to being told that he was attempting the impossible, that he was flirting with tragedy. When he and Günther tore up the Dolomites as kids, local climbers claimed they’d either cheated or were stark mad. When he’d started soloing in the Alps — often without a rope — he received a letter from mountain journalist Toni Hiebeler that warned, “If you don’t stop, you’ll be a dead man by autumn.” But the truth was, Reinhold wasn’t reckless. He understood the dangers he faced, but he was confident in his ability to overcome them. He’d never let the opinion of the public stand in his way before, and he wasn’t going to start now.

When Reinhold and Peter set off from Base Camp, their total cargo clocked in at less than 45 pounds. To navigate the Khumbu Icefall, they joined forces with an Austrian expedition, though once the group was through, the alpinists were on their own. Peter then fell sick at Camp III and retreated to Base Camp while Reinhold continued pushing his way upward before being held back by 80-mph winds at the South Col, just below 8,000 meters. The duo eventually regrouped at Camp II, but Peter was ready to give up. He’d asked the Austrians if he could use some of their oxygen to make the summit, but Reinhold wasn’t about to let his partner quit.

“If I can do it, you can do it,” he told Peter. The cliché worked. Over the next few days, they made their way up to Camp IV, where they hunkered down and awaited their summit bid the following morning.

A monastery in Nepal, photographed by Hardik Patel
Photo by Hardik Patel

They rose at 3 a.m. to start melting water and packing their gear. Altogether, they carried less than 16 pounds, comprised of just their ice axes, extra layers, rope, and recording equipment. The overcast skies worried them, but they pushed on with Peter taking the lead. At the Hillary Step, the famous vertical face that presents aspiring summiters with their final challenge, Reinhold took over so he could film Peter climbing from above. After a final trudge through the snow, they found themselves standing at the summit of Mount Everest, having made the entire ascent from Camp IV in under eight hours.

Their descent proved dangerous, however, as Reinhold suffered temporary snow-blindness caused by ice crystals whipping through the air and the intense UV rays from the sun. But ultimately, they returned safely, having completed the entire round-trip through the Death Zone (the area above 8,000 meters — 26,247 feet — at which which a lack of oxygen is most perilous) in under 10 hours — a journey that took climbers who used supplemental oxygen an average of 12 to 14 hours.

Two climbers in the shadow of a mountain, photographed by Michael Sheridan
Photo by Michael Sheridan

But the most exhilarating piece of the journey was the 15 minutes spent at the top of the world. Appearing exhausted and at a loss for words, Reinhold only managed to say, “Now we are on the summit of Everest.” It wouldn’t be until later, when he was back at his home in Italy, that he would be able to truly and eloquently express what he had felt in that moment:

“In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.”

Did you enjoy this story? Check out more of our Famous Travel Expeditions series here!

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.