The 7 Summits
The first individual to reach this Herculean goal was Richard Bass in 1985. Since then, hundreds of climbers have followed in his footsteps, stirring up admiration, controversy, and – as is endemic to the sport of climbing – not a small bit of climbing-related tragedy as well.
Here is a quick list of the summits YOU’LL have to climb if you want to check the Seven Summits off your list of mountaineering ambitions.
The highest peak in North America is Denali, more commonly known in the America-centric regions as Mount McKinley. It stands at 20,237 feet (6,168 meters); while it is not included in the elusive global list of the fourteen peaks over 8,000 meters, it represents a technical challenge equal to the numerous mountains of renown in Asia’s Himalayan range.
The first ascent of this peak can be traced to 1913, climber Walter Harper being the first to stand on the summit. Over 100 mountaineers have perished attempting to climb Denali, with a roughly 60% success rate for those athletes who do not freeze to death, die of hypoxia, or tumble over the side.
The highest peak in South America is Aconcagua, standing 22,838 feet (6,961 meters) high. In addition to that distinction, it is the highest mountain in both the Western and Southern hemispheres.
The effects of high altitude and cold weather are the biggest hurdles to overcome in climbing Aconcagua, in that it is not a technically difficult mountain to climb. Nonetheless, the casualty rate remains high as novice climbers unaccustomed to altitude acclimatization and extreme cold find themselves in unanticipated danger.
Mount Elbrus holds the distinction as Europe’s highest mountain; it is, in fact, a dormant volcano. It stands only 18, 510 feet (5,642 meters), and it was an English expedition in 1874 which can take credit for the first ascent of that mountain’s highest peak.
Like Aconcagua, Elbrus is not a grueling mountain to climb; however, the brutal winter weather in the region renders a winter ascent nearly impossible. The summer months, on the other hand, can see nearly 100 summit attempts a day. The annual mortality rate on the peak hovers between 15 and 30 annual deaths, attributed almost entirely to inexperienced climbers and disorganized expeditions
The most well-known of the Seven Summits is also that with the highest summit, the highest mortality rate, and the highest degree of difficulty from a technical perspective. I speak, of course, of Mt. Everest, also known as Sagarmatha by the Nepalese for whom the mountain has been native scenery for generations.
In keeping with the distinction of being the world’s highest, geologists and topographers are constantly reevaluating the height of Everest; currently, popular opinion seems to place the mountain at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters). Between 1922 and 2010, 219 fatalities were reported on the mountain, along with a total of over 5,100 ascent attempts. You’d think the mortality rate of 4.3 fatalities for every 100 successful climbs would deter all but the most experienced athletes; however, traffic on Everest remains busier than ever.
Kilimanjaro stands the highest mountain on the African continent at 19,341 feet (5,895 meters). Kilimanjaro, too, is a dormant volcano; unlike the other six of the Seven Summits, however, it is not associated with a greater mountain range.
Therefore, it has the distinction of being the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. In the late 1880’s, right around the time the first expeditions were setting out to attempt an ascent of the mountain, the summit of Kilimanjaro was covered with a glacial ice cap. Sadly, however, experts now estimate that upwards of 80% of Kilimanjaro’s ice has disappeared, concrete proof that even the roof of the world is subject to the climate change currently decimating the polar ice caps.
Vinson Massif holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain on the continent of Antarctica. The highest point, Mount Vinson, rises 16,050 feet (4,884 meters) above sea level. Given its location, the first ascent did not occur until 1966.
Ironically, also given its location, it is one of the easiest peaks to climb, save for the obvious dangers presented by an arctic climate. More than 1,400 climbers have climbed a number of routes since that point, a number which has grown proportionately with the media attention associated with successful attempts of the Seven Summits.
Australia / Oceania
Finally, we turn to the final summit, and herein lies the controversy. In the very first Seven Summits attempt, Richard Bass climbed Mount Kosciuszko, the highest point on the Australian island. However, as famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner and other athletes would argue, Kosciuszko is NOT the highest peak on the Australian continent, which technically includes New Guinea as well.
According to these experts, the Seven Summits instead refers to Puncak Jaya, otherwise known as the Carstensz Pyramid, a peak which stands in the Indonesian province of Papua. Puncak Jaya lies at 16,024 feet (4,884 meters) and presents a comparable challenge to the other six summits on the list; Mount Kosciuszko stands at 7,310 feet (2,228 meters) and has been compared to nothing more than a leisurely stroll.
Many mountaineers today opt to climb both peaks for the sake of being thorough, though it is generally agreed upon that Puncak Jaya is the true obstacle for those attempting to climb the highest point on the Australian continent.