Messner and Kukuczka: Two of the Greatest Climbers of All Time


The Himalayas. (All rights reserved)

REINHOLD MESSNER — b. 1944. Italian.

JERZY KUKUCZKA — 1948-1989. Polish.

No. 2

They weren’t partners. They were rivals. And they are still tied for two on this list of the Greatest Climbers of All Time.

In one of only a few instances of climbing being a race to be first, Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka pursued the summits of all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks.

Who was first was clear. Messner completed the circuit a year ahead of Kukuczka. But who was greater?

With flair, Messner initiated the quest to be the first man atop the fourteen peaks in 1983. At that time he had nine summits ticked on his ice axe.

Kukuczka took it as a challenge and threw himself into it without reservation, even though he had only climbed three of the 8,000ers to date. While Messner racked up his remaining ascents, Kukuczka got to the top of the mountains at a faster rate.

While Messner was a visionary and had a flamboyant way with the public, Kukuczka was the starving artist. Messner sought the summits over 16 years to complete the quest and used established routes. Kukuczka on the other hand finished a year after Messner but after starting his quest only eight years earlier. Messner had modern equipment. Much of Kukuczka’s was used or handmade.

Nine of Kukuczka’s bagged summits were by new routes. Four of his overall ascents were in winter.

Messner climbed two peaks alone, including Mount Everest, and climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen.

Kukuczka needed oxygen on Everest.

I have my favorite, but such a side-by-side comparison makes it a photo finish when being objective. And the lens was smudged.

Now that I’ve exhausted three of the best men, and a woman that some of you don’t think was the best among women, are wondering who in hell will I tell you is No. 1. For that, come back tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. US Eastern Time.

This post is part a culmination of a series of posts that considered Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook.

To find out who was ranked at number one, click here.


3 thoughts on “Messner and Kukuczka: Two of the Greatest Climbers of All Time

  1. Just discovered this series. I’d only like to add that Messner ascended to many the 8000 meter peaks on new routes, some of them unrepeated. I think his new routes on Nanga Parbat, Manaslu, the Gasherbrums, Everest, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna (and a variants of established routes on Cho Oyu an Broad Peak; not to speak of the routes he opened in the alps) are often somewhat overshadowed by him being first on the 14 8000ers, going without oxygen etc. Especially his routes on Everest, Annapurna, Gasherbrum I, Nanga Parbat and Manaslu (on the Nairz expedition) are astonishing routes. By the way: I like your final article on this series very much.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Michael.

    I go back and forth over who I admire more, Messner or Kukuczka? Both of them had a great deal of originality and their approaches were quite different.

    I’ve been meaning to come back and write one on the greatest women alpinists for some time; maybe this will be the year! Just a couple of other projects to get out of the way first.


  3. I admire man with less resources more. Winter ascends are extremely dangerous and Kukuczka’s faster speed to match Messner’s record through new uncharted routes puts him slightly ahead of Messner’s accomplishment in my eyes.

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