Mountain man: the miraculous life of Reinhold Messner, the world’s most controversial climber

He was the brash, brilliant and ego-fuelled climber who first scaled Everest without oxygen, survived earthquakes and whose brother was swept to his death as the two men attempted a treacherous descent. As a new controversy sees him stripped of two Guinness world records, Natalie Berry relives the extraordinary highs and shattering lows of a mountaineering colossus

Tuesday 03 October 2023 12:33 BST
Reinhold Messner has been described as charming and flamboyant, arrogant and egotistical. An enigma
Reinhold Messner has been described as charming and flamboyant, arrogant and egotistical. An enigma (Jim Herrington*)

Moments after the elation of reaching the summit of Nanga Parbat at sunset alongside his younger brother, Gunther, Reinhold Messner’s descent into despair began.

At 8,126 metres, on top of the majestic Rupal Face in Pakistan, with no supplemental oxygen, 24-year-old Gunther hallucinated in the thin air, unable to move in the dark. A bitter-cold overnight bivouac near the summit caused his condition to deteriorate, prompting Reinhold to make a judgement: whether or not to attempt to descend via the less steep, but uncharted, Diamir face. Gunther’s torturously slow progress through a maze of precarious ice blocks led to a second endless night.

The next day, while Reinhold was picking his way down the glacier, he turned to find that his brother had vanished. Gunther had been seemingly swept away by an avalanche, and buried under snow and ice. Following a desperate, delirious two-day search, Reinhold lost seven toes to frostbite and subsequently faced a separate mountain of accusations, after he was rescued from the glacier himself by local farmers.

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