Reinhold Messner

CHIEN-MIN CHUNG / GETTY IMAGES

ADVENTURER: Messner eats with Mongolian nomads, shortly after a solo trek across the Gobi Desert

The peculiar greatness of Reinhold Messner is grounded in a pure form of selfishness. His pas de deux with the world's most inhospitable wildernesses have always been about measuring his own might, skill and especially will. "I am Sisyphus," he has written, "and the stone which I push up the mountain is my own psyche."

He has carried that heavy burden to the literal ends of the earth. Messner, 62, is not only the greatest high-altitude mountaineer the world has ever known; he is probably the best it will ever know. His 1980 solo ascent...

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