The 9 Best Mountaineers of All Time (2023 Guide)
Published on: 02/14/2023
Climbing is a vast and diverse sport, with disciplines ranging from bouldering to trad to sport to alpine to deep water soloing. All these unique disciplines and styles of climbing, however, can trace their roots to a single origin point: mountaineering.
Cambridge Dictionary defines mountaineering as “the sport or activity of climbing mountains.” Despite its age, mountaineering remains among the most popular and accessible disciplines of climbing in the modern world.
People around the world have been entering the mountain environment for various reasons (political, religious, and economic) for thousands of years. However, modern mountaineering is generally thought to have started in the Middle Ages, with many pointing to the poet Petrarch’s 1336 ascent of Mount Ventoux (6,300 feet) in southern France as the first mountaineering trip.
Up until the late 20th century, most mountaineers hailed from wealthy nations in Western Europe, simply because funding a mountaineering expedition requires a great deal of financial heft. However, in recent decades the climbing community has become much more diverse. Today we regularly see skilled and strong mountaineers from all regions of the world.
The 9 Best Mountaineers of All Time
1. Reinhold Messner (1944-Present)
Many of the individuals on this list proved difficult to rank, because the annals of mountaineering are stuffed with so many legendary names. Reinhold Messner, however, was a surefire choice. Many in the climbing community unquestionably refer to him as the best mountaineer of all time.
The high-altitude pioneer made both the first solo ascent of Mount Everest (8,048 meters) and the first ascent without supplementary oxygen. He was also the first person in the world to summit the world’s tallest peaks (all fourteen peaks over 8,000 meters, which he did without oxygen, finishing in 1986). Regarding supplemental oxygen, Messner stated he would climb Everest by “fair means” or not at all.
The Italian mountaineer was also an early finisher of the “Seven Summits” (the highest peaks on each of the event continents), and the first to complete the list without using oxygen. He popularized an alternate list of summits, the “Messner List,” replacing Australia’s Kosciuszko (7,310 feet) with the much more technically difficult and remote Puncak Jaya (16,024 feet), in Indonesia.
Among other feats, Messner made the first crossings of Antarctica and Greenland without the aid of snowmobiles or dog sleds, and a rare solo crossing of the Gobi Desert.
2. Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008)
As the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, New Zealander Edmund Percival Hillary will always have a place on the list of the most skilled mountaineers of all time.
A member of only two Himalayan expeditions, one a reconnaissance mission to Everest and another a failed attempt on Cho Oyu (8,188 meters), before his ascent of Everest, Hillary he honed his skills on the rugged, perilous peaks of New Zealand’s Southern Alps in his early years, before serving in the Second World War as an aerial navigator.
In addition to mountaineering, Hillary reached the South Pole overland, as well as the North Pole, becoming the first person in history to reach both poles and summit Everest. He is best known for the quote, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
In later life, Hillary was an avid philanthropist. He founded the Himalayan Trust (which he led for nearly 50 years, from 1960 until his death in 2008) and served as honorary president of both the American Himalayan Foundation and Mountain Wilderness.
3. Jerzy Kukuczka (1948-1989)
While lesser known than many of the figures on this list, Polish climber Józef Jerzy Kukuczka stands as high as any of them. After Messner, Kukuczka was the second person in history to climb all fourteen eight thousanders, a project which took him a mere eight years. He ascended several of the peaks in winter, the majority by new routes, many with alpine-style ascents, and three as first winter ascents.
In addition, Kukuczka climbed all the peaks but Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. In 1986 Kukuczka and partner Tadeusz Piotrowski put up a new line on K2, the “Polish Line,” which remains unrepeated nearly 40 years later. Piotrowski was killed two days later, while descending the route.
Even today, Kukuczka still holds the record for setting new routes (10) on 8,000-meter peaks. He also remains the only climber in history to have summited two 8,000ers (Dhaulagiri [8,167 meters] and Cho Oyu) in a single winter season. He is generally considered the world’s leading figure in high-altitude ascents in winter, and the pioneer of alpine-style climbing.
Kukuczka was killed in 1989 while attempting Lhotse’s (8,516 meters) South Face. Kukuczka was leading an exposed pitch using a secondhand transport rope, which severed when he took a fall. He fell over 6,000 feet down the South Face, and his body was never recovered.
4. George Mallory (1886-1924)
George Mallory is perhaps best known for a failure, not a victory, but his name remains etched in the history of mountain climbing regardless. Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the 1920s and was in the first party to climb above 8,000 meters in 1922. Early in his career, he was also a prolific first ascensionist on rock in the United Kingdom. His first ascent of the Lake District’s Pillar Rock was likely the country’s hardest climbing route for many years.
When asked, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” Mallory famously responded:
“It is of no use … If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
Death on Everest
Mallory disappeared high on Everest’s northeast ridge in 1924, along with climbing partner Andrew Irvine. His body was not discovered until 1999, by American climber Conrad Anker.
Because Mallory and Irvine were amid a summit bid when they disappeared (and because of questionable sightings placing them close to the summit), some question whether the duo reached the top of the world’s tallest mountain before their death. However, general consensus is that the mountaineers did not, with Anker noting that he believes the feat “possible, but highly improbable.” Anker and Leo Houlding free climbed the Second Step (which Mallory would have had to overcome) in 2007, and estimated the difficulty at 5.9, just within the realm of possibility.
Other figures, including Edmund Hillary and Mallory’s son John, remarked that whether or not Mallory reached the top was irrelevant. “If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain?” Hillary said. “I’m rather inclined to think, personally, that maybe it’s quite important, the getting down.” The latter echoed this sentiment: “To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.”
5. Junko Tabei (1939-2016)
There are countless famous female climbers, and today female alpinists. But the early history of mountaineering was decidedly male-dominated, largely due to patriarchal conventions. Japanese female climber Junko Tabei broke barriers in that regard. She was the first woman to climb Mount Everest (1975) and the first woman to climb the Seven Summits.
Her “Joshi-Tohan Club” (Ladies Climbing Club) made the first female ascent of Annapurna III (7,555 m, 24,787 ft). It also organized the climb that resulted in her Everest summit, the “Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition.” (The all-female team had planned to send two women to the summit, but altitude sickness resulted in only one, Tabei, being able to make the bid.)
Following her ascent of the world’s tallest peak, Tabei told media she’d rather not be remembered for her gender, but as the 36th person to summit Everest. “I did not intend to be the first woman on Everest,” she said. In later life, Tabei authored seven books, organized several environmental cleanup projects, and guided climbs up Mount Fuji for schoolchildren affected by the 2011 Japanese earthquake.
6. Nims Purja (1984-Present)
Most of the figures on this list made their names in the 20th century, and few are active today. Nepali-British climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, however, is one of the modern world’s leading mountaineers. Purja is best known for climbing all 14 8,000ers in a mere six months and six days (using bottled oxygen). The project was documented in the Netflix film 14 Peaks, Nothing is Impossible.
A former British special forces (Special Boat Service) soldier, Purja was also the first to summit Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu (8,481 meters) all within 48 hours. “I knew more than anyone that nature didn’t care for reputation, age, gender, or background,” he wrote in his memoir, Beyond Possible: One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks — My Life In The Death Zone. “It was equally indifferent to personality: the mountain couldn’t give a shit if the people exploring it were morally nasty or nice.”
In January 2021, Purja led a Nepali team to successfully claim the first winter ascent of K2 (8,611 meters). The mountain is generally considered one of the most dangerous 8,000ers and was the last that had not been climbed in winter. Purja was the only member of his team to summit without supplemental oxygen.
7. Alex Lowe (1958-1999)
American climber Alex Lowe was one of the world’s leading figures in rock climbing and alpinism for most of his life, until his untimely death at the age of 40. Lowe was known for remote and technical routes & first ascents on both rock and ice, in rugged locales like Baffin Island, Alaska, Antarctica, and Kyrgyzstan. He also made several first ski descents.
Lowe was awarded the American Alpine Club’s Underhill Award for outstanding achievement in 1995, and led The North Face climbing team for 10 years. Lowe’s saying, “The best climber is the one having the most fun,” is perhaps the most famous quote in the climbing world.
Lowe died in 1999, under an avalanche on Shishapangma (8,027 meters), in Tibet, while part of an expedition to become the first American team to ski an 8,000-meter peak. To learn more information about the life and legacy of Alex Lowe, check out our in-depth profile of the famed American climber.
8. David Lama (1990-2019)
Austrian climber David Lama was as well known for pulling plastic in the climbing competition scene as he was in the high, remote ranges, but even in his short career (a mere eight years spent focused on alpine climbing), he managed to achieve some of the greatest mountaineering feats of our era.
As a young teen, Lama was already climbing 5.14b by age 14 and later managed to win the European Championships in bouldering and lead climbing. In fact, the International Federation for Sport Climbing (IFSC) had changed its rules to allow Lama (15 at the time) to compete in the Open World Cup division. He became the youngest person to ever compete and the first climber to win both a lead and a bouldering World Cup final in his first single season.
Lama retired from his competitive climbing career in 2011, however, to focus on alpine-style ascents. He later made the (controversial) first free ascent of Cerro Torre (10,262 feet) via the Compressor Route. Lama climbed extensively in the Himalaya, Karakorum, and Alaska, as well as lower-elevation ranges. “A life is perfect when you try everything,” Lama once said.
He is best known for the first solo climb (and first overall ascent) of Lunag Ri (22,621 feet) one of the highest unclimbed peaks in the world, in 2018. Lama had attempted the peak previously with Conrad Anker, who suffered a heart attack at 20,000 feet and had to bail. Lama died in April 2019, along with partners Jess Roskelley and Hansjörg Auer. The trio was swept away by an avalanche on Howse Peak (10,810 feet) in the Canadian Rockies, after summiting via a new route on the mountain’s east face.
9. Jeff Lowe (1950-2018)
American climber Jeff Lowe was an early proponent of the fast and light alpine-style method of climbing and made over 1,000 first ascents during his career, from Nepal to Wyoming to Pakistan. One of the most skilled ice climbers of his generation, Lowe is credited with popularizing the discipline in the United States, as well as making first ascents of some of the most iconic ice routes in North America, including Octopussy and Bridal Veil Falls, as well as rock FAs like Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. Lowe was part of a crack team of Americans that battled the notorious north ridge of Latok I in 1978, a climb that remains unfinished in its entirety today.
Lowe co-founded the popular brand Lowe Alpine, producers of high-quality mountaineering boots and other alpine gear, as well as the brands Latok Mountain Gear and Cloudwalker. While working with Latok, he is credited with producing the world’s first softshell jacket, a technology and design now considered a mainstay in the outdoor world. He was honored with the Piolets D’or Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, and inducted into the Boulder, Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
Lowe was hindered, and ultimately severely handicapped, by a nebulous degenerative neurological disease similar to ALS for the last 18 years of his life. In his later years, he was wheelchair bound and eventually, unable to speak. He passed from complications relating to the disease in 2018.
Author’s Note on Inclusion
Many mountaineers do not appear on this list, including Walter Bonatti, Simone Moro, Tomaž Humar, Denis Urubko, Ueli Steck, Conrad Anker, and Dani Arnold, to name just a few. It’s impossible to objectively determine the “best” mountain climbers in the world, certainly in a particular order, so I chose a few of my favorites.
Some, like Messner, indubitably deserve a place on this list. Others, like Hillary, are here primarily because of a singular accomplishment (Everest), while still others, like Lama, are here because of the looming presence they continue to cast over the community, despite lives cut short.