The Highest Mountain on each Continent
From a geology viewpoint, there are only 6 continents on the Earth: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, South America and North America. Europe is considered a peninsula of the Eurasia continental platform and is not a true physical continent. However, from a political perspective, Europe is considered a continent thus Elbrus (18,513'/5642m), located on the border with Asia in southern Russia represents Europe and not Mont Blanc (15,771'/4807m) which lies in the Alps on the border of France and Italy.
Then there is the competition between Australia's Kosciuszko (7,310'/2228m) and New Guinea's Carstensz Pyramid, aka Puncak Jaya (16,024'/4884m) both located on the Oceania continent - which is not really a continent but a region of the south west Pacific that includes Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and many other islands.
Dick Bass the first 7 Summitter, choose Australia as one of the 7 continents and Kosciuszko as it's mainland high point. However Canadian Pat Morrow, who was competing with Bass to finish the 7 challenged Bass's summit of Australia's Mt. Kosciuszko as the highest peak in Oceania saying that Carstensz Pyramid on Irian Jaya (Papua) in Indonesia's New Guinea was the true highpoint for the Australasian continental mass. Italian Reinhold Messner jumped in and agreed with Morrow. Today Carstensz is considered one of the seven but some 7 Summiteers try to bag the lower Kosciuszko to meet both the Bass and the Messner lists.
The 7 Summit idea was hatched and first accomplished by American Dick Bass. He started with six summits in 1983: Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Denali, Vinson and Kosciuszko. Then with guide, David Breashears, he became the oldest person, at 55, at the time to summit Everest in 1985. Canadian Patrick Morrow became the first to summit all seven with Carstensz in addition to Kosciuszko ending in 1986. Messner summited all the peaks without supplemental oxygen, a first, also completing the task in 1986.
Finally, since none of the seven are extreme technical mountaineering climbs, with the altitude challenges of Everest notwithstanding, some pundits suggest the second highest mountains on the continents is a better challenge for real mountaineers. I would agree that that list would be significantly more difficult if only for the fact that it includes K2 instead of Everest!
Here are the 7 Summits in height order:
Asia: Everest (29,035'/8850m) 5/21/11
Mt. Everest is on the border between Nepal and Tibet (China). It is in the Himalaya mountain range which stretches 1500 miles from Northeastern Pakistan to Bhutan. There are over thirty mountains higher than 25,000 feet and fourteen over 26,300 or 8000 meters. Of the fourteen 8,000 meter peaks, nine are located in the Himalayas making it clearly the top of the world. Mt. Everest was first summited by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary with a British expedition in 1953. They took the South Col route which is described on this page. At that time the route had only been attempted twice by Swiss teams in the spring and autumn of 1952.They reached 8500m well above the South Col. Of note, Norgay was with the Swiss thus giving him the experience he used on the British expedition. The Swiss return in 1956 to make the second summit of Everest.
Today, hundreds of climbers from around the world use this route to try to stand on top of the world. It is considered slightly more dangerous than the North Ridge Route due primarily to the instability of the Khumbu Icefall. However some considered it slightly easier than the north due to the absence of the ladders and rock climbing on the steep steps of the North Ridge route.
The Grand Dame of all Everest statistics, Ms. Elizabeth Hawley reports on the Himalayan database the total number of people who have summited Mt. Everest as of February 2014 to be around 6,871 by 4,042 different climbers, meaning that 2,829 climbers, mostly Sherpas, have multiple summits. The south side (Nepal) remains more popular with 4,416 summits while the north (Tibet) has 2,455 summits.
Overall 248 people (161 westerners and 87 Sherpas) have died on Everest from 1924 to 2013, 140 on the Nepal side and 108 from Tibet. Since 1990, the deaths as a percentage of summits have dropped to 3.6% due to better gear, weather forecasting and more people climbing with commercial operations. Annapurna is a much more deadly mountain than Everest with a summit to death ratio of 2:1 deaths for every summit (109:55).
The second highest mountain in Asia is K2 in Pakistan at 28,251'/8611m and is about 800 miles northwest of Everest in the Karakorum range. It is considered significantly more difficult than Everest requiring technical rock climbing and extreme weather.
I summited Mt. Everest at 5:00 AM on May 21, 2011 via the South Col route with IMG Sherpa, Kami Sherpa. We stayed on top for about 10 minutes in cold and windy conditions. It was a humbling experience given the massive scale of Everest but it was the reaction from the Alzheimer's community that brought tears to my eyes.
South America: Aconcagua (22,902'/6980m) 1/29/11
The highest peak outside the Himalaya it is located in Argentina near the border with Chile. It was first summited by Mathias Zurbriggen in 1897. It is the highest mountain in South America at 22,902'. Most climbers fly into Santiago (Chile) or Mendoza (Argentina) and take a bus to Puente del Inca for the normal route or to Penitentes for the Polish Glacier, Polish Traverse and Vacas routes. There are no central statistics but about 3,500 climbers make a summit attempt each year with an estimated 30% success rate.
The second highest mountain in South America is Ojas del Salado also in Argentina at 22,608'/6983m and is 370 miles north of Aconcagua in the Andes range.
I summited on January 29, 2011 with Peter Anderson of IMG. Aconcagua is the highest peak outside of the Himalaya at 22,902'. While not a technical climb per se, it is known for harsh winds and extremely cold temperatures on summit day. We had a great team and 100% success rate.
North America: Denali (20,310 feet 6,190 meters 7/17/11
Denali is the native American name for the mountain but it was changed to Mt. McKinley in honor of President McKinley and then officially changed back to Denali by the National Park Service in 1980. It is in central Alaska - 300 miles South of the Arctic Circle and 200 miles East of the Bearing Sea. Denali offers some the the largest vertical gain of any mountain on Earth. With base camp at 7,200' and the summit at 20,310', this 13,110' of gain over twelve miles is larger than Cho Oyu (8,407) or even Everest (10,535). The biggest threat on Denali is the weather. It is well known for socking you in for days with high winds and snow. An estimated 32,000 climbers have attempted Denali with about a 40% success rate. Almost 100 have died including 11 in 1992.
The second highest mountain in North America is Mt. Logan in Canada's Yukon at 19,551'/5959m and is 385 miles southeast of Denali. Similar to Denali it is a huge massif but with eleven peaks. Logan is believed to have the largest base circumference of any mountain. The normal route is consider straightforward but weather is a huge problem for Logan like it is for Denali in addition to being so remote.
I reached 17,200' at the High Camp on Denali in mid July 2011 with Mountain Trip. We waited for 8 days there for lower winds that never came. I consider this a non-summit and not a failure similar to how Alzheimer's researchers feel when a clinical trial does not result in their original objectives. Every effort results in lessons and I was able to forward the message of hope, need and urgency for an Alzheimer's cure during my climb.
Africa: Kilimanjaro (19,340'/5896m) 9/19/11
One of the world's highest volcanoes it was first summited in 1889 by Meyer and Purtscheller. There are actually three peaks: Kibo, Shira and Mawenzi with Kibo being the summit. There are 5 main routes that meander from the jungle through five microclimates to join the three final ascent routes to Kibo. Both the Machame and Lemosho routes offer a more leisurely paced scenic climb. The Lemosho route is less crowded while the Machame route has a more difficult beginning but joins into the same route as the Lemosho. The Marangu climb is crowded since it follows a road part way.
It is considered a walk-up by many climbers but still represents a deadly threat when climbers go too fast or ignore difficult weather. The local park officials maintain strict rules thus requiring local guides to accompany each team. The climb takes anywhere from 4 to 7 days with 7 being the suggested time to allow for proper acclimatization. Huts are on some routes as well as tent camping. Porters carry most of the load so climbers usually just manage a small day pack with their personal gear.
The second highest mountain in Africa is Mt. Kenya in Kenya at 17,057'/5199m and is 250 miles north of Kilimanjaro. The normal route to Peak Lenana is considered a scramble but routes to Batina Peak offer challenging rock climbing (5.7 range) to reach the summit.
I summited Kilimanjaro on September 19, 2011 with Eben Reckord of IMG. We took the Machame route that started in the jungle and went through five microclimates to the summit. Our team had 100% success.
Europe: Elbrus (18,513'/5642m) 8/11/11
Mount Elbrus is an extinct volcano in the Caucasus Main Range, the European border with Asia in southern Russia. Mt. Elbrus has two main summits - the western summit at 18,513'/5642m and the eastern summit at 18,442'/5621m.The first ascent of the west peak was in 1829 by a Russian army team and the east in 1874 by an English team. Mont Blanc is sometimes consider the highest in Europe but Elbrus technically holds that honor.
The normal climbing season is May to September. The climb is quite short by 7 Summits standards taking less than a week at most. It can be climbed from the north or south with the north being significantly less crowded and more difficult. The standard south route on Elbrus is technically easy and includes a cable car up to the 12,500' level. It is snow slope from there to the summit. Climber stay in 'huts' which are single room, rock walled building with tin roofs at 12,700' and/or the Barrel Huts, 13,600', which are, well, huge barrels. A snow-cat is reported to be available for climbers who want a ride even higher - up to 15,750. It is common to have over 100 climbers going for the summit in a single day in July. The north side has a longer, more complicated approach and is considered more of a climbing experience than the south. As with most mountains that have a reputation for being easy, they are also deadly and Elbrus is no exception. About 25 climbers die each year due to ill-preparedness or the weather. It can be extremely cold and windy. However literally thousands of people have summited Elbrus included a Soviet team in 1956 of 400 climbers!
The second highest mountain in Europe, Dychtau in Russia at 17,077'/5205m and is 40 miles southeast of Elbrus. It considered a very dangerous and technical climb with the main peak accessible from a steep and narrow ridge from the adjacent saddle.
I summited Mount Elbrus from the less climbed North side on August 11, 2011 with AlpsIndustria out of Moscow. It was a fast climb summiting 5 days after arriving in Russia. Elbrus is an extinct volcano in the Caucasus Main Range with two main summits. I summited the West peak at 18,513'/5642m.
Oceania: Carstensz Pyramid (16,023'/4884m) 10/22/11
The 'newest' of the 7 summits when Pat Morrow and Reinhold Messner challenged Dick Bass's summit of Australia's Mt. Kosciuszko as the highest peak in Oceania. Carstensz Pyramid on Irian Jaya (Papua) in Indonesia's New Guinea is now consider one of the 7 but most 7 Summiteers try to bag the walk-up Kosciuszko as well.
The Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz first sighted the peak in 1623. It was first climbed by Austrian Heinrich Harrer and team in 1962. Carstensz is considered the most exotic of the 7 Summits surrounded by dense jungle and rumors of cannibals! Even though it is near the equator, snow sometimes graces the limestone slopes.
The climbing is consider the most technical of the 7 Summits requiring rock scrambling a short section of 5.8 rock climbing with fixed ropes and a Tyrolean traverse across a 80' gap. This involves pulling yourself upside down across a suspended rope. But the real challenge is just getting there. Often the road is closed to climbers by the owners of the Freeport mine thus requiring a 5 day hike to reach to base of Carstensz. Instead many teams charter a helicopter. Obtaining permits and travel logistics can be quite difficult.
The second highest mountain in Oceania is Puncak Trikora also in New Guinea at 15,580'/4730m and is 100 miles east of Carstensz.
I summited Carstensz Pyramid on October 22, 2011 with Scott Woolums of Mountain Trip. Carstensz was a maze of logistics challenges, difficult conditions and rewarding climbing; including the infamous Tyrolean traverse across a 80' gap. I have a great video of me pulling myself upside down across the suspended cable. But the real challenge was just getting there. We arranged a helicopter to avoid the 6 day jungle trek but barely made it in and out.
Antarctica: Mt. Vinson (16,067'/4897m) 12/9/10
600 miles from the South Pole, Mount Vinson was first summited in 1966 by climbers led by Nicholas Clinch from the American Alpine Club and the National Science Foundation, it was the last of the 7 Summits to be conquered. It was named after US Senator and Antarctica supporter, Carl Vinson. It is in Ellsworth Mountains Range. Just getting there is an adventure involving a 4 hour, 20000 mile plane trip on a Russian IIyushin 76 cargo plane from the tip of South America to the snow camp of Union Glacier Hills. Once there climbers are ferried via a Twin Otter to base camp. Climbs usually take place between December and February.
The climb is normally scheduled for about three weeks with the summit taking place around the middle of the time. However once there, weather can be the worst on the planet often stopping teams in their tracks for weeks. Similar to Denali, climbers carry all their personal gear plus a share of the group gear - no porters in Antarctica! The climb itself is a series of long snow slopes not requiring significant technical skills or gear however it is harsh with the weather and loads over 50 lbs split between a pack and a sled. Once you summit, if you summit, you might be stuck for more weeks waiting for the big IIyushin to return!
About 1200 people have summited Vinson since 1966 with no deaths. A popular option after a summit is to fly to the 89 degree and ski the final 70 miles to the South Pole.
The second highest mountain in Antarctica is Mount Tyree at 15,919'/4852m and is 7 miles north of Vinson. Only 7 climbers have made it the top of Tyree! It is significantly more difficult with it's steep faces. One of the most famous climbs in mountaineering took place in January 1989 when the legendary American alpinist Terry ‘Mugs’ Stump, an American climbing legend, soloed the west face without a rope in a roundtrip time of 12 hours - an amazing feat that still stands out 20 years later.
I summited on December 9th with Phil Ershler of IMG. This was the first of my 7 Summits climbs. 600 miles from the South Pole, just getting there was an adventure involving a 4 hour, 20,000 mile plane trip on a Russian IIyushin 76 cargo plane from the tip of South America to the snow camp of Union Glacier. The view of endless ice and snow from Vinson's summits was one of the most astounding scenes I have ever witnessed.
Australian Mainland: Kosciuszko (7,310'/2229m) 10/27/11
A simple walk-up on the otherwise relatively flat Australian continent. But if you want to be very precise, there is a volcano that Australia has in her territory on Heard Island - Mawsons Peak, 9005'/2745m. It is an active volcano about 2500 miles off the western coast of Australia e.g. the middle of the Indian Ocean and the island has no ports or villages.
The second highest mountain on the Australian mainland is Mt. Townsend at 7,247'/2209m and is 2 miles north of Kosciuszko. It is somewhat more 'craggy' than Kosciuszko but is still a simple walk up. It is reported that the locals ask each climber to take a rock to the summit with the goal of surpassing it's higher neighbor.
I summited Kosciuszko on October 27, 2011. It was a fun and easy walk with beautiful views of the Snowy Mountain Range. While a walk up, this final climb in my 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's provided another opportunity send our message of hope, need and urgency to find a cure Alzheimer's, improve early detection and support family caregivers.
Western Europe: Mont Blanc (15,771'/4807m) 7/95
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in western Europe at at 15,771 feet. It is on the boarder between between Italy and France and is called Monte Bianco in Italy. While living in nearby Geneva, Mont Blanc was visible on a clear day. I first climbed the Aiguille du Midi Route with a guide in July, 1995. It was steep, snowy and one of the longest days of my life.
It starts with an easy gondola ride up to the Agile du Midi - a spectacular lookout point for the Alps. It takes about an hour to get to the Refuge' for an short overnight rest. This was an interesting way to start the climb since you are in the observation tower with hundreds of tourists. However you are dressed in Gortex, gloves and crampons with a pack on your back. You get very strange looks as you leave the warmth of the building through what can only be described as an ice tunnel. The tunnel leads to a very narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides. The ridge, about two feet wide, drops steadily then makes a right turn towards the Valley Blanche - a beautifully wide valley that holds the approach to hundreds of snow, ice and rock climbs throughout the year.