People have been fascinated by and drawn to mountains for ages—and also terrified of them, not incidentally. The modern sport of mountaineering/mountain climbing kicked off in the Alps of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, and these days has reached just about every corner of vertically inclined terra firma—though given the multitude of remote high mountains from Alaska to Antarctica, and the multitude of routes on each mountain, there are still so many fresh challenges left to tackle.
Here at Mountain House, we're proud to have fueled an awful lot of alpinists over the decades—and always excited to think of how many dazzling mountainscape backdrops our meals have been cooked before!
Today we're taking a look at some of the greatest achievements in the history of modern alpine climbing, from pioneers of its early era to contemporary adventurers. These are presented in no particular order, though we'll kick off with a few of the early feats in the Alps that helped lay the groundwork for climbs in other corners of the world—including the skyscraping heights of the Himalaya and the Karakoram.
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
The highest mountain in the Alps, 15,774-foot Mont Blanc on the border of Italy and France was first climbed in 1786 by Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, who earned a reward for the feat offered by the scientist and mountaineer Horace Bénédict de Saussure. This climb is among the formative ones to open the modern age of mountaineering.
The mighty tooth of the Matterhorn (15,203 feet) in the Pennine Alps, one of the most famous and striking peaks in the world, was a coveted summit during the golden age of mountaineering in the Alps. Edward Whymper’s party earned the honors for the first successful climb in 1865.
The Eiger North Face
While the 13,015-foot Eiger was first climbed in 1858, its yawning North Face—the Nordwand—remained a terrifying and elusive goal for climbers long afterward. A team of German and Austrian mountaineers led by Heinrich Harrer finally scaled this giant wall, nearly 6,000 feet high, in 1938–surviving an avalanche along the way.
Mount Everest: The First Confirmed Ascent of the World’s Highest Peak
The 29,029-foot horn of Mount Everest had been determined the tallest peak in the world by the early 1850s, but its summit would remain untrodden for a century or so—at least officially—until New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tibetan Tenzing Norgay reached the top on the morning of May 29th, 1953. The route they took via the southeast ridge included a risky surmount of a rock eminence just below the summit that became known as the “Hillary Step,” an iconic climbing landmark mostly destroyed in the devastating Gorkha earthquake of 2015.
One of the great unanswered questions in mountaineering history is whether the British climbers George Mallory and/or Andrew Irvine reached the summit of Mount Everest on the 1924 attempt that took their lives. A 1999 expedition to Everest headed by Eric Simonson found the body of Mallory at close to 27,000 feet on the north face of the peak; Irvine’s remains have never been definitively located.
First Ascent of K2
Hillary and Norgay’s successful summiting of Everest was followed a year later by the first ascent of the world’s second-highest peak, 28,261-foot K2, by the Italians Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. Located in the Karakoram range on the China-Pakistan border, K2 is the more technically challenging climb compared to Everest and remains notorious for its danger.
Annapurna: First of the Eight-Thousanders to be Climbed
The “Eight-Thousanders” constitute the world’s 14 mountain peaks that exceed 8,000 meters (roughly 26,250 feet), Everest and K2 obviously included. The first of the Eight-Thousanders to be climbed was 26,545-foot Annapurna in the Nepal Himalaya, scaled in 1950 by a French expedition led by Maurice Herzog.
Messner on Everest: Round 1
The Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner, widely regarded as one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, holds more than one superlative record on Mount Everest. Along with Peter Habeler, he was the first to scale the world’s highest peak without the aid of supplemental oxygen, a feat they achieved in 1978.
Messner on Everest: Round 2
Two years later, Messner made headlines on Everest again by completing the first solo ascent of this greatest of peaks via the North Ridge route.
First Woman to Reach the Top of Everest (and Land All Seven Summits)
The first female climber to summit Everest was Junko Tabei of Japan, who did so in 1975. Junko was also the first woman to climb all of the Seven Summits: that is, the highest peaks on each continent.
The Initial Achievement of the Seven Summits
Richard Bass was the first to climb those continental crowns, checking the seventh off his list—Everest—in 1985. Besides Mount Everest, Bass’s Seven Summits included 22,837-foot Aconcagua in the South American Andes, 20,310-foot Denali in Alaska (the North American high point), 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus (the European high point), 16,050-foot Mount Vinson (the Antarctic high point), and 7,310-foot Mount Kosciuszko (the Australian high point).
Messner and the Eight-Thousanders
The aforementioned Reinhold Messner also claims the first ascent of all 14 of the Eight-thousanders, an achievement he earned in 1986. He also made all these climbs without the use of supplemental oxygen, just for good measure.
First Woman to Climb All the Eight-thousanders
The Basque climber Edurne Pasaban became the first woman to climb each of the Eight-thousanders in 2010 with her ascent of 26,335-foot Shishapangma in Tibet.
All Eight-thousanders in a Single Season
Just this year, another whopper of a mountaineering record was set by the Nepalese climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who managed to summit all 14 Eight-thousanders in one season. He kicked off this challenge—called “Project Possible 14/7,” the latter number referring to the seven months he intended to work within—in April 2019 with a climb of Annapurna, and he wrapped it in October atop Shishapangma.
As he carried out this remarkable undertaking, Purja also set several other records, including climbing the world’s three tallest peaks (Everest, K2, and 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga) in the shortest window ever and scaling Everest, Lhotse (27,940 feet), and Makalu (27,838 feet) within a record 48 hours.
Mount Vinson’s First Ascent
Given the incomparable remoteness of Antarctica, it’s not so surprising that the ice continent’s high point of Mount Vinson wasn’t even discovered until 1958. This loftiest peak in the Sentinel Range was first climbed eight years later by a team headed by Nicholas Clinch.
Sea Level to Top of the World
In 1990, Tim Macartney-Snape of Australia covered some major ground by climbing Mount Everest from a starting point at sea level on the Bay of Bengal, and he did so without using supplemental oxygen.
Tackling the Devils Thumb
Rising fiercely to just shy of 9,100 feet out of the Stikine Icecap on the Alaska-British Columbia border, the Devils Thumb is one of the legendary elite climbs in North America: a remote, weather-blasted, freakily sheer horn. It was first climbed in 1946 by Clifford Schmidtke, Bob Craig, and Fred Beckey, whose reputation logging first ascents on the continent—including a whole slew of Pacific Northwest climbs, from Mount Hood’s Yocum Ridge to the Picket Range in the North Cascades—is unmatched.
First Blind Climber Atop Everest & All the Seven Summits
New Jersey-born Erik Weihenmayer holds more than a few super-impressive adventuring records, including being the first blind climber to reach the top of Mount Everest (in 2001) and to bag all of the Seven Summits (the following year).
Mountain Majesty With Mountain House
Well, there you have it: 17 of the standout mountain climbs ever made. Obviously there are a slew of great ones we haven't had room to include, but needless to say all of the above embody the Mountain House spirit!
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay