At 8,848 m (29,029 ft) above sea level, Mount Everest, situated on the border between China and Nepal, has been a source of fascination and inspiration for mountaineers since it was first identified by a British survey team led by Sir George Everest, Surveyor-General of India, in 1841.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first of more than 4,000 different climbers to date to stand on the "roof of the world", on 29 May 1953, but it would be another 25 years before Earth's highest mountain was conquered without the use of supplementary (bottled) oxygen. In defiance of medical and scientific logic, it was Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler who bravely ushered in a new era for mountaineering when they summitted Everest - at their second attempt - on 8 May 1978. Two years later, an indefatigable Messner was at it again, this time with only an inhospitable Himalayan monsoon for company.
Motivated by the belief that anything was possible after his adventure with Habeler, Messner ventured over new terrain on his solo trek to the summit, which from base camp at 6,500 m (21,325 ft) took three days, including a fall into a crevasse. Crossing above the North Col at approximately 7,020 m (23,031 ft) to the Norton (Great) Couloir, a steep gorge that allowed him to circumvent the perilous north-east ridge of the mountain, the off-season ascent was made against the unpredictable backdrop of Everest's ever-changeable climate. But then when has the Italian master ever done things the easy way?
"Climbing Everest solo... was the hardest thing I've done," recalled Messner in an interview with The Guardian in 2003. "I was alone up there, completely alone. I fell down a crevasse at night and almost gave up. Only because I had this fantasy - because for two years I had been pregnant with this fantasy of soloing Everest - was I able to continue." Messner's historic climb of the mountain known to Tibetans as Chomolungma ("Goddess Mother of Mountains") and the Nepalese as Sagarmāthā ("Goddess of the Sky") is documented in The Crystal Horizon: Everest - The First Solo Ascent (1989), one of more than 60 books authored by the adventurer.
Messner was born in Brixen, Italy, within touching distance of the Dolomites mountain range, on 17 September 1944. He reached his first summit at the age of five and went on many more mountaineering escapades with his father, learning to survive at high altitudes and preparing himself for the challenges ahead.
In 1970, Messner was given a stark reminder of the ever-present dangers faced by climbers when his younger brother Günther perished on Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. Reinhold escaped with his life, but lost seven toes and some fingertips to frostbite. The tragedy left him mentally as well as physically scarred (his brother's remains have never been recovered), but also with a burning desire to succeed as an alpinist. In 1986, he became the first person to conquer all 14 "8,000ers" - mountains that peak at least 8,000 m (26,000 ft) above sea level - when he scaled Lhotse, the "South Peak" connected to Everest via the South Col, on 16 October.
Now aged 70, Messner's will be remembered as a climber who conquered danger, fear, and the lack of oxygen at extreme altitudes with no little skill and determination. His mantra from the early 1970s had been to go where no oxygen-starved human had gone before "by fair means" or not at all, and it's in this spirit that climbers will no doubt be tackling the 60-million-year-old Everest and aiming for that rocky, snow-covered peak for centuries to come.