The Greatest Mountaineering Rivalries: Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka

Race for the Crown of the Himalaya

Reinhold Messner

Reinhold Messner     Photo: Lorenzo Tonello

In 1983, having conquered nine peaks above 8,000 meters with recent ascents of Kangchenjunga and Gasherbrum II, legendary alpinist Reinhold Messner declared his intention to capture all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter summits. Pole Jerzy “Jurek” Kukuczka accepted the implied challenge with gusto. He’d already topped three peaks, including Everest and a solo ascent of Makalu, and answered with three more summits plus an aggressive double hat trick in 1985 and 1986 that brought his total to 12.

But Messner hadn’t been idle. He’d even strung together rapid-fire ascents of Gasherbrums I and II without heading back to base camp between the two summits, which he’d already had marked on the scorecard. Kukuczka was below Manaslu with two peaks left when he heard the news that Messner had completed successful bids on Makalu and Lhotse and claimed victory in 1986. Kukuczka wired a congratulatory message to Messner for the feat, and then knocked off the last two climbs, 26,545-foot Annapurna and 26,289-foot Shisha Pangma, the following year. He was the second to climb the Crown of the Himalaya, but he’d done it in eight years to Messner’s 16, using handmade equipment and secondhand clothes. Nine of Kukuczka’s ascents were pioneered routes, four in winter. Messner, meanwhile, made a couple of solo ascents, including a lone foray up Everest, without oxygen (as usual), which Kukuczka required for that mountain.

Together, their feats in the race to the top of the world rank among the greatest in mountaineering history, and they were later awarded silver medals for the accomplishment at the 1988 Calgary games, the last Olympic nod to alpinism.

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