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The Seven Summits

High Points of the Seven Continents

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Mount Everest

The upper summit pyramid of Mount Everest, highest of the Seven Summits.

Photograph copyright Richard Collins / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images
A team of French climbers first ascended the South Face in 1954.

The South Face of Aconcagua is one of the largest mountain faces in South America.

Photograph courtesy Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz
The regular route up Carstensz Pyramid ascends its steep north face.

Carstensz Pyramid in the remote jungles of Indonesia is the most technically difficult of the Seven Summits.

Photograph courtesy BBC

The Seven Summits, a well-known mountaineering objective, are the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. The Seven Summits, from highest to lowest, are:

  1. Asia: Mount Everest 29,035 feet (8850 meters)
  2. South America: Aconcagua 22,829 feet (6962 meters)
  3. North America: Denali AKA Mount McKinley 20,320 feet (6194 meters)
  4. Africa: Kilimanjaro 19,340 feet (5895 meters)
  5. Europe: Mount Elbrus 18,510 feet (5642 meters)
  6. Antarctica: Mount Vinson 16,067 feet (4897 meters)
  7. Australia: Mount Kosciusko 7,310 feet (2228 meters)
    OR
  8. Australasia/Oceania: Carstensz Pyramid 16,023 feet (4884 meters)

A Tale of Two Lists

American Dick Bass, an amateur mountaineer, adventurer, and businessman, and Frank Wells came up with the idea of climbing the Seven Summits, with Bass becoming the first to reach the top of all the continents in 1985. This was not without controversy, however, since Bass selected gentle Mount Kosciuszko, an easy day hike in Victoria, as the summit of Australia.

Reinhold Messner's Summit List

The great European mountaineer Reinhold Messner then created his own Seven Summits list and included New Guinea's rugged Carstensz Pyramid, a remote, challenging limestone peak also called Puncack Jaya, as the high point of Australasia or Oceania rather than Mount Kosciuszko. In 1986 Canadian Pat Morrow, using the Messner list, was the first climber to ascend those seven peaks. Later he said, “Being a climber first and a collector second, I felt strongly that Carstensz Pyramid, the highest mountain in Australasia…was a true mountaineer’s objective.” Messner himself summitted all seven peaks on his list a few months later in December 1986.

Mount Elbrus or Mont Blanc?

Besides the controversy between the high point of Australia or Australasia, there is disagreement over what peak is the roof of Europe. Mount Elbrus lies in Europe by only a few miles if you use the normal dividing line between Europe and Asia whereas Mont Blanc, straddling the French, Italian, and Swiss borders, is clearly the highest summit in continental Europe. Nonetheless, most Seven Summit aficionados consider Elbrus as the top point and Mont Blanc as an also-ran.

Interesting Seven Summits Ascents

As of December, 2011, over 348 people have climbed the Seven Summits. The first woman to climb all the peaks was Japanese Juko Tabei, who finished in 1992. Rob Hall and Gary Ball impressively climbed the Seven Summits in seven months in 1990 using the Bass list. In 2006 Kit Deslauriers was the first to ski down all the peaks using the Bass list, while Swedes Olof Sunström and Martin Letzter skied the Seven Summits plus Carstensz Pyramid a few months later in 2007.

Seven Summits Controversy

All the hype about climbing the Seven Summits has led to lots of controversy. Many of the people that have completed their Seven Summits quest are inexperienced climbers who pay immense amounts of cash to outfitters and climbing guides to drag, cajole, and short-rope them up the difficult peaks like Mount Everest, Denali, and Mount Vinson. Critics argue that guides, like those on the disastrous 1996 Everest season, put client’s lives in danger by pushing them toward summits in bad weather conditions. The amateur Seven Summit climbers, rather than garnering the necessary experience and skills that would allow them to climb these peaks as an expedition member rather than a guided client, shell out as much as $100,000 for the chance to reach the lofty summit of Mt. Everest, the world’s highest point, and almost as much to climb Mount Vinson, the most remote of the Seven Summits.

Climbing the Seven Summits

Mount Everest is considered the most difficult and dangerous of the Seven Summits for climbers, while Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, if you’re doing the “easy” list, is the easiest to climb, being just a short day hike. Otherwise, the big rounded volcano of Kilimanjaro, also a walk-up peak, is also relatively easy to climb, although the altitude usually defeats many of its suitors. It’s usually the first peak of the Seven Summits that climbers tick off their list. Both Aconcagua and Mount Elbrus are also simple climbs that are ascended with basic mountaineering skills in good weather. Aconcagua, with a trail most of the way to its summit, is still a high mountain and proper acclimatization is essential for success. Carstensz Pyramid is technically the most difficult of the seven peaks to climb since it requires technical rock climbing skills. Denali and Mount Vinson present more serious challenges to would-be climbers. Denali is a huge mountain covered with glaciers and exposed to severe weather, while Vinson in Antarctica is remote, hard to reach, and expensive.

What Does It Cost?

If you’re interested in climbing the Seven Summits, check out the article Climbing the Seven Summits: Can You Afford It? for detailed information on the costs involved to climb all the peaks.

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