Defying convention and common belief, Reinhold Messner climbed one 8,000 metre peak after another, shunning oxygen, working quickly and travelling light. Mountaineering would never be the same again.
Portrait by Toby Triumph
There is mountain climbing before Reinhold Messner and there is mountain climbing after Reinhold Messner. And it really is that simple.
Messner was revolutionary. He was radical. A single-minded purist hell bent on making the impossible possible; pioneering a new way of climbing the world’s highest peaks with a less-is-more approach that reduced a summit attempt to its core elements, eschewing the unnecessary and the cumbersome. No oxygen. No large support teams. No excess. Messner stripped it bare, so all that was left was an honest exchange between man and mountain.
Alpine-style ascents are now the preferred method of many of the very best high-altitude climbers, perfectly suited to those with the necessary blend of experience, athleticism and physiology. But in the 1970s Messner was a lone wolf. When he made a solo ascent of the 8,125 m Nanga Parbat in 1978 he became the first climber ever to reach an 8,000-meter peak alone and without supplemental oxygen.
Eyebrows were raised.
Up until this point climbing real mountains meant preparing a real expedition with all the trimmings – established camps, support teams, fixed ropes, tonnes of gear. And of course bottled oxygen. Later that year, he summited Everest with climber partner Peter Habeler, sucking on nothing but thin air, causing the climbing community and forcing many a physician to re-assess what was humanly possible. Talk about a game changer.
And if that wasn’t enough, in 1980 Messner repeated his Everest feat, this time alone, with just a backpack, up the North Face, returning to base camp in a mere four days. Naturally, it was another first. It blew minds then and now. By the end of 1986 he had become the first man to climb all 14 8,000ers without the use of supplemental oxygen. Superstar status was his. He moved into a 13th-century castle in Tirol, Italy. Elvis had entered the building.
In the decades since, Messner has pursued Yetis, crossed deserts, explored polar regions, raised yaks and completed a successful stint as a European MP but has remained as relevant as ever. He has left a trail of words in the form of 20-odd books, with the best of them vital additions to the canon of adventure literature. He has made enemies, divided opinion but ultimately always got us, continues to get us, thinking about the mountains. And more than the mountains. About what is possible. And about doing it all with an authenticity, a style and a swagger that is undeniable.
"His arrogance is what made him so strong and focused," says Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen. "Like Muhammad Ali, he walked his talk.”