They don't really celebrate Thanksgiving in other parts of the world, but if they did you could be damn sure that the gods of the Himalayan Mountain range would be thankful for the fact that Reinhold Messner isn't still out there making the most formidable and deadliest mountains on Earth look like a bunch of pussies. It's been a while since the man universally-recognized as the world's greatest mountaineer has jammed his crampons into some unsuspecting Himalayan crevasses, but this guy spent the majority of the 60s, 70s, and 80s pretty much dominating the fuck out of every mountain on the planet. Even today, the 68 year old hardass hasn't ruled out the possibility of coming back and pimp-slapping the Himalayas in the Kanchenjunga once more for old time's sake… and nothing freaks them out more than the prospect of staring down this grizzled old ironman and his icy stare of death once again.
The greatest mountain climber of all time was born in a place called Brixen, South Tyrol, which is technically part of Italy but may as well be Austria anyways. He summited his first mountain at the age of five, when his no-bullshit ex-Nazi father helped him get up the 11,000-foot Geisler Peak. It's appropriate that Geisler Peak was located in the Dolomite section of the Alps, because even though this guy was at an age where he should barely be old enough to know how to tie his own shoes, he was already announcing to the world that Messner was his name, and fucking up motherfuckers was his game. He was like the Mozart of doing crazy shit, climbing a number of Alps and Dolomites in his youth and making everybody else feel badly about their own lifetime accomplishments in the process, and by the time he was a teenager he had already made a name for himself as an insane climber who worked at ridiculous speeds and basically refused to do anything that didn't involve being balls-out all the time.
Back in this time most mountain climbing was done "expedition style", meaning that you drove out to base camp with a huge donkey-load of crap, fixed ropes, made Sherpas do all the actual work, and then clipped yourself onto a sturdy rope and walked up to the top. It was like taking an escalator to the summit. Messner decided that this was totally cheating (and also bullshit), so he pioneered his response – "alpine style" mountaineering was where you carry everything you need on your back, and move as fast as possible with no crazy bullshit and no help from anything other than your own hardcoreness. He went without supplemental oxygen tanks, satellite phones, metal protection pegs, fixed ropes, or other things designed to ensure that you don't , you know, die on the mountain, and just do it up badass style – man versus mountain, winner take all, loser ends up face-down in the snow and waits until their corpse gets eaten by a Yeti. Messner was the first man to climb many of the Alps and Dolomites in this way, and he did it faster than anyone and with a way more awesome beard/headband combination. Slopes that took others four days, he was beating in five hours. It was like Tyson knocking the fuck out of the Number One Contender with a first-round uppercut. In his spare time, when he wasn't setting the land speed record for summiting the Matterhorn, Messner got a degree in Architectural Engineering – a specialty that, not being a liberal arts major, was totally not a load of crap.
As a man who refused to half-ass anything in his life, Messner decided that for his first Himalayan expedition he was going to go straight up the highest sheer rock face in the world – the 15,000-foot, ice-covered face of Nanga Parbat. In 1970 he became the first person to ever summit this Gateway to Hell using this borderline-suicidal route, then he camped on the summit, descended the other side, and subsequently became the only person to ever cross the mountain from one side to the other. This was cool, but it was less awesome that he lost his brother in an avalanche and had seven toes amputated because of frostbite in the process. Unwilling to be beaten by anything in the world, animate or otherwise, Messner would later go back and become the first person to solo the mountain, climbing it by himself in 1978 without losing any digits in the process. It was the first time any person had summited a Himalayan peak above 26,000 feet without a climbing partner, but it wouldn't be the last. Later on, when people claimed that Messner's account of his brother getting swept away in an avalanche was bullshit, Messner went back once again, found the body, recovered what was left of it, and proved that those chumps who called him out as a liar were a bunch of "rat-soup-eating insecure honky motherfuckers".
After getting up Nanga Parbat without supplemental oxygen, Messner decided he was going to take his alpine style awesomeness all the way up Mount Everest – the tallest and most formidable mountain in the world. A brutal little hill that had only been summited for the first time 25 years earlier (by fellow badass climber Sir Edmund Hilary), Messner not only risked death by attempting to climb it, but he shocked the world in 1978 when he announced that he was going to do it without supplemental oxygen. People thought that Messner was fucking psychotic and should have had a strait jacket slapped on him for even suggestion something so ridiculous, because, as far as the climbing community was concerned, if this guy thought he was going to survive at that altitude without an oxygen tank he was probably more fit to climb the walls of a padded room than he was to ascend Everest. At five miles above sea level the oxygen density of the air is one-third of what it is at sea level, and most scientists thought that it was impossible to survive in that climate without suffocating to death or causing serious, irreversible brain damage. Hilary's research had shown that the air was too thin to support the circulatory system in anything more strenuous than complete rest, and even modern scientists agree that it's impossible for the human body to acclimatize at that altitude – 8,000 meters is the beginning of what's known today as the "Death Zone", where lack of oxygen causes severe loss of strength, and the brain stops functioning the way it's supposed to, causing normal people to freak out, do stupid shit, become retarded, and then die. Ascending into the Death Zone without an oxygen tank is a ballsy move even today, but in 1978 Messner might as well have been telling people that he was going to explore the wreckage of the Titanic without SCUBA gear.
It was kind of like this.
Only without the ladder, ropes, or anything resembling a safety feature.
But Reinhold Messner told everyone else the bullshit intellectual community to pound an enema and blow their stupid science out their sphincters, because nothing was going to stop him from grabbing the conventional wisdom about the limits of human endurance, taking it out behind the woodshed, and murdering it into sludge with a rusty hatchet. His 1978 expedition up Everest was like a brutal Ali-Frazier slugfest with Geography itself – he got caught in a storm on the South Col, suffering through 125 mph winds and temperatures of 45-below-zero for two days straight, and the altitude was so thin that he woke up in the middle of the night gasping for air because the simple act of sleeping was enough to cause the guy to lose his breath. Messner stuck with it though, charging up the mountain face under impossible conditions. By the time he reached the Hilary Step he was collapsing every 10 to 15 feet, laying down in the snow to catch his breath for a few minutes so he could push on, but he persevered, kicked ass, summited, and returned home victorious. His success rocked the pants off of everybody, and actually forced physiologists to go back to the chalkboard and re-examine the human body's ability to function at altitudes that can only be described as TOTALLY XTREME TO THE MAX GONZO RAAAARRRRR OOOH YEAH.
Just to prove that it wasn't a fluke, Messner went back two years later and soloed the North Face without oxygen, Sherpas, or crevasse ladders, becoming the first (and to this day, only) person to ever go that way without an air tank. Oh, and he summited the mountain in four days. It usually takes most mere mortals a little over a month.
I got this.
After Everest, the Messner-Bot 8000 kept rocking through the Alps and Himalayas like they were his bitches, going up Annapurna, K2, Lhotse, Mount Doom, the Aggro-Crag, Space Mountain, Witch Mountain, both Gasherbrums, Broad Peak, Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Shisha Pangma, and Cho Oyu. This guy blitzed up and down these daunting mountains, faster than anyone, using routes nobody else had even attempted, and setting speed records in the 70s still not beaten to this day. A bunch of people have died on these brutal mountains, but this guy didn't care – he was so hardcore he did two 8,000'ers (Gasherbrum I and II) one right after the other without even returning to camp first, and didn't even slow down. This was another first in the history of mountaineering, but this guy has so many "firsts" at this point that it's barely even worth mentioning it. By 1986, the 42 year old Messner had ascended all 14 mountains in the world taller than 26,000 feet, becoming the first (and for a long time only) human to ever accomplish the feat. Oh, and he did it all without supplemental oxygen or fixed ropes. And with only three toes. Some of the ascents took a couple tries, which is no small feat when you're talking about taking an expedition out to Nepal and Pakistan, but Messner was a god damned force of nature, and wasn't going to let any bullshit mountain get the better of him. He kept kicking those peaks in their giant ice-covered asses with a pointy set of crampons until he'd accomplished what is quite possibly the most extreme demonstration of human endurance a person can attempt.
|For every 2.5 people who summit Annapurna, one person dies on its slopes. It's the deadliest 8,000-meter mountain in the world, yet when discussing Messner most people don't even bother mentioning it.
Once he got into his fifties, Messner's days of sprinting up and down the Himalayas like they were speed bumps on the road of extreme awesomeness were behind him, but that didn't stop this guy from doing ridiculously badass shit like all the time. In 1989 he walked 1,700 miles across Antarctica carrying all of his supplies on his back, using a technique pioneered by Shackleton, and from there he went on to cross Greenland, the Tibetan Plateau, and a couple of deserts. In 2004, at the age of 60, he walked 1,200 miles across the Gobi desert on foot. He also spent 12 years investigating Yetis in the Himalayas (he determined that the myths were based off of sightings of Tibetan brown bears), and served in the Italian Parliament from 1999-2004 under a platform that basically consisted of the political tenet that "Mountains Kick Ass and We Shouldn't Screw with Them".
Nowadays Messner lives in a hilltop 13th century Italian castle with his hot girlfriend, some kids, and a herd of pet yaks. He runs the Messner Mountain Museum, a collection of artifacts from climbing history, and he has a charity that collects trash and other bullshit discarded on Himalayan mountains by careless wannabe mountaineers. He's authored 60+ books, was the subject of a Herzog documentary, and is to this day universally recognized as mountaineering's equivalent of Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and Larry Bird all rolled together into the body of a grumpy, crotchety old hardass.
Messner herding some fucking yaks outside his castle in South Tyrol.
TIME Magazine: 60 Years of Heroes
National Geographic: Murdering the Impossible