Someone once asked Johan Reinhard how many close calls he'd survived. When he finished tallying them, the total came to 34. "I haven't been broken up too badly," says the 57-year-old Illinois native, "but I've been nearly killed almost every way you can think of." To thrive as the world's foremost high-altitude archaeologist, it helps to be both lucky and wise. When an avalanche wipes the slope you just exited—that's luck. When a Nepalese tribe of hunters orders you, upon pain of death, to stop shadowing them, and you beat feet—that's wisdom.
For two decades Reinhard, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Vienna, has scoured remote Andean mountaintops seeking clues left behind by ancient South American civilizations. His discoveries have blown minds in the science world: In 1995 he recovered the famous 500-year-old Incan "ice maiden," the most well preserved body from pre-Columbian times. Last year he and his team battled 70-mph winds and snow to unearth three more mummies on the summit of Argentina's 22,000-foot Mount Llullaillaco. "The DNA samples we sent to George Mason University were as intact as a living person's," says Reinhard.
The archaeologist, who's been climbing mountains since college, has bagged more than 100 South American peaks over 17,000 feet, making him one of the world's most prolific Andean climbers—a record he didn't consciously seek. "What keeps me going up is that [those high mountains] have the world's best-preserved mummies," he says, "and they're soon going to be destroyed." Earlier this year Reinhard scrambled up to a burial site on an Argentinean peak to find that thieves had gotten there first. With dynamite. "All we found were remains of blown-up textiles and bones," he says.
Now funded as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Reinhard retreats to his home near Franklin, West Virginia, to sift through his findings when he isn't in the field. "I've had to give up a lot for this life," he says. "But I've always had the freedom to go out and explore."