Reinhold Messner Biography

Explorer (1944–)
Explorer and mountaineer Reinhold Messner is famous for making the first documented solo ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.


Italian mountaineer and explorer Reinhold Messner has made a career of near-impossible climbs, and is considered one of the greatest climbers in history. On May 8, 1978, Messner completed his ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen—a feat previously thought to be impossible. Additionally, Messner has climbed all 14 of the world's peaks that measure 8,000 meters and up. Messner is also an author, politician and businessman.

Alpine Youth

Reinhold Messner was born on September 17, 1944, in Bressanone, Italy. He grew up surrounded by the Dolomites, part of the Italian Alps, in the Villnöss Valley, a primarily German-speaking area, and was introduced to mountaineering by his father when he was just 5 years old. By his teens he had developed into an expert climber and began his conquest of the nearby peaks, favoring a more minimalist style of climbing that involved using only the most essential gear.

Beginning in 1967, Messner studied architectural engineering at the University of Padua. However, he still found time to climb the surrounding mountains—often with his younger brother, Günther—and as his climbing skills increased, he began to feel the lure of the higher peaks. 

Naked Mountain

On June 27, 1970, Reinhold and Günther had just completed an ascent of the Rupal face of Pakistan's 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat—the ninth-highest summit in the world—when Günther began to show signs of altitude sickness. Convinced his brother would not be able to descend the Rupal face, Reinhold began searching for an easier way down. However, during their descent, Günther fell behind, and when Reinhold doubled back to check on his brother, he discovered that Günther had been swept away by an avalanche.

After failing to find his brother, Reinhold eventually made his own way down the mountain, losing six toes and several fingertips to frostbite in the process. Compounding his loss, many blamed him for his brother's death, opining that his personal ambitions had compromised his brother's safety. More than 30 years later, when Messner published his version of the events in The Naked Mountain, the controversy was reawakened, with some questioning the veracity of his account. 

Over the Mists

Despite the tragedy at Nanga Parbat, Messner's passion for climbing continued unabated. In 1974 he teamed up with fellow climber Peter Habeler—who shared Messner's minimalist approach to mountaineering—and together they ascended the Eiger in record-breaking time. The following year, they climbed Gasherbrum I in the Karakoram mountain range without supplemental oxygen, and in May 1978 they tackled Mount Everest, again without the aid of oxygen tanks, making them the first documented climbers to do so. Messner later described his experience: "I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits."

Upping the ante and taking his purist approach to climbing to the extreme, in August 1980 Messner decided to go it alone, completing the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without extra oxygen, sherpas or crevasse ladders. He would later chronicle the accomplishment in The Crystal Horizon, just one of the more than 50 titles he has published during his climbing career.

Meters and Myths

With his relentless attacks on the world's highest peaks, by 1986 Messner had become the first man to climb every mountain across the globe standing above 8,000 meters. Around this time, he also first reported seeing a yeti, a mythical animal said to inhabit the Himalayas. Despite having been labeled by some as a crackpot for his fixation with the beasts, Messner has continued to seek out them out, arguing that they are in fact real, though perhaps just some rare type of nocturnal bear.

As well as ascending the world's highest peaks, Messner has undertaken numerous other expeditions as well, including crossing the Antarctic, Greenland and the Gobi desert on foot. In 1999, Messner also made a foray into politics, winning a seat in the European Parliament as a member of the Italian Green Party. During his term, which ended in 2004, he devoted his efforts primarily to environmental and human rights causes. Since then, Messner has been working on a network of six Messner Mountain Museums, "dedicated to the art, culture, religion and peculiarities of mountain regions throughout the world." He has also established the Messner Mountain Foundation to "support the mountain races worldwide."

Messner married his wife Sabine in 2009. The couple have three children. He was previously married to Ursula “Uschi” Demeter, and they have a child together.

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