The most difficult alpine climbs in the world tantalize us not only because of the physical feats and courage displayed by the mountaineers who try them. We’re also fixated because of the sheer walls and razor-thin aretes, the howling high-altitude winds, the clattering rockfalls and yawning crevasses and devastating avalanches, and all the other attributes of great mountains express pure wildness and remoteness.
Here we round up some of the very hardest alpine climbs in the world. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s presented in no particular order. Read on to learn about—and then maybe dream about—some of the hardest mountains to climb on earth!
King of the Karakoram Range, K2 is the second-tallest mountain in the world and, famously, a far trickier climb from a technical standpoint than Mount Everest. This remote, gargantuan pyramid is also one of the most breathtakingly beautiful of peaks, belying the nearly 100 lives it’s claimed. The “Savage Mountain,” as it’s widely known, was first climbed in 1954 by Italians Ardito Campagnoni and Lino Lacedelli, with fewer than 400 successful summit attempts since. The standard Abruzzi Spur route includes the frightening negotiation of the “Bottleneck,” in which climbers pass below enormous ice towers (seracs) prone to sudden collapse. A winter ascent of K2 long stood as one of the great prizes in mountaineering; in early 2021, a Nepalese team headed by Nirmal Purja finally accomplished that terrific challenge. K2’s east face, meanwhile, remains unclimbed.
The third-highest mountain in the world culminates a stunning Himalayan massif of more than a dozen peaks. Its Tibetan name translates roughly to the “five great treasures of the snow,” First climbed in 1955 by George Band and Joe Brown, Kangchenjunga is infamous for its huge avalanches.
This commanding peak, the ninth-highest in the world and the second-most prominent in the Himalayas after Everest, holds the sinister nickname of the “Killer Mountain.” Looming in the western Himalaya, Nanga Parbat (“naked mountain,” in Sanskrit) comes ridden by avalanches, and boasts what’s arguably the greatest mountain face in the world: the 15,000-plus-foot Rupal Face. The first to stand atop this overwhelming summit was the legendary climber Hermann Buhl, in 1953.
The first 8,000-meter peak to be climbed—in 1950 by M. Herzog and L. Lachenal—Annapurna (the “Beautiful Goddess”) remains one of the most dangerous of the mighty Himalayan summits, and the crown of among the world’s grandest massifs. Roughly a third of the climbers who’ve attempted Annapurna haven’t made it back alive. (Among those who’ve perished on its slopes was Anatoli Boukreev, who met his end in an Annapurna avalanche just months after surviving the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.) Annapurna’s epic south face ranks among the most notorious challenges in mountaineering.
Originally mapped as “K1,” Masherbrum raises its soaring, sharp-pointed peak in the Karakoram Range along the Baltoro Glacier. This 22nd-highest mountain in the world was first climbed in 1960 by G. Bell and W. Unsoeld, and has accrued only a relative handful of successful summit bids since. The imposing northeast face—the “Impossible Wall”—has yet to be climbed: Noted mountaineer David Lamalikened this route to “climbing the Eiger with Cerro Torre on top.”
Its ferocious granitic steepness and lofty elevation makes Baintha Brakk—aka “the Ogre”—one of the most legendary climbing goals flanking the Biafo Glacier in the Karakorams. Doug Scott and Chris Bonington pulled off the first ascent in 1977; Baintha Brakk’s summit wasn’t visited again until 2001, such is its difficulty.
This remote monster, which overlooks the great Yarlung Tsangpo River in its titanic Himalayan gorge, was the loftiest unclimbed peak in the world until 1992, when a Japanese-Chinese team surmounted it along its Southwest Ridge. It hasn’t been summited since.
The highest mountain in the world is, all around, the most coveted summit of them all, and—despite the hundreds who attempt it each year, and the 4,000-plus successful climbs—still a very dangerous proposition. Indeed, the notorious overcrowding and glut of inexperienced climbers relying on guides and Sherpas to try for the loftiest point on Earth above sea level makes Everest, far from the most technical climb in the world, among the most lethal: More than 300 people have died on its iconic slopes. The staggering altitude, frequent storms, and such dicey portals as the serac-studded Khumbu Icefall ensure Mount Everest will never just be a “walk in the park.”
Its previous “official” name of Mount McKinley finally retired in 2015 in favor of the indigenous Koyukon one, Denali (the “Big One” or the “High One”) is North America’s highest mountain and the third-most topographically prominent peak on the planet. This behemoth of the Alaska Range—first climbed in 1913 by H. Stuck, W. Harper, R. Tatum, and H. Karsens—is also the most northerly mountain above 20,000 feet, which makes for extreme conditions that include frigid temperatures and frequent, gnarly storms. Among the most challenging routes on Denali is its north face, the avalanche-swept Wickersham Wall, which, at roughly 14,000 feet top to bottom, ranks among the world’s greatest mountain faces.
Its elevation might look puny compared to most of the other mountains on this list, but the Eiger is a shining example of a peak’s height not being reflective of its challenge. This horn in the Bernese Alps boasts the most famous north face in the world: the Nordwand, a technically demanding and rockfall-showered wall considered the last great mountaineering challenge in the Alps until it was finally climbed in 1938. (That was a full eight decades after C. Almer, P. Bohren, and C. Barrington made the first ascent of the Eiger.) More than 60 climbers have died attempting the Eiger North Face, earning it a grisly nickname: the Mordwand, or “Murder Wall.”
Mere elevation also doesn’t convey the arduousness of Cerro Torre, a granitic spire in the Patagonian Cordillera that ranks as one of the Western Hemisphere’s chief mountaineering challenges. Sheer-sided, raked by Patagonia’s infamous gale-force winds, and often capped by thick rime ice, this mighty tooth wasn’t successfully climbed until 1974 (D. Chipappa, M. Conti, C. Ferrari, P. Negri), though disputed claims of ascent predate that inarguable top-out.
We’ve left off a whole mountain range or two’s worth of tough peaks and nigh-impossible routes. The superlative Karakoram alone includes a slew, from the insanely difficult Latok group near Baintha Brakk to the spiky Trango Towers in the Karakoram, which include arguably the globe’s greatest wall on the east face of 20,623-foot Great Trango. And what about 26,795-foot Dhaulagiri in Nepal, to mention just another Himalayan legend? The classic Alpine climbs of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn still test the mettle of mountaineers. Mount Deborah is another standout challenge in the Alaska Range, while the legendary Devils Thumb spiking out of the Stikine Icefield on the Alaska-B.C. line continues to present one of North America’s most difficult alpine propositions (not least its treacherous, unclimbed Northwest Face). And what about Mount Logan in Yukon, the 19,551-foot crown of Canada? Or any number of head-spinningly farflung Antarctic peaks, including the Spectre in the Gothic Mountains, whose South Spur has thus far defeated alpinists?
Well, you get the picture…
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