The 7 Summits

The Quest to Reach the Highest Point on Every Continent – by Steve Bell


The quest to climb to the highest point of each continent has inspired a generation of climbers from all over the world.  The so-called “Seven Summits” offer a tremendous challenge, demanding great determination from the strongest of mountaineers, yet remaining attainable by dedicated novices.  Climbers of all levels of ability can aspire to climb the continental summits, and the number of those who have completed all seven has risen dramatically in recent years.  The fact that the Seven Summits is a realistic and relatively attainable goal makes them attractive; the collection of summits is a global objective, not restricted to one mountain range, country, or continent, and completing them requires travel to some of the most wondrous corners of the world.  It is hardly surprising that the idea had caught on.

Of the many popular collections of mountains that climbers try to complete, the Seven Summits offers the widest variety of experiences.  Each of the seven continents is unique and so are their highest points.  The wind-beaten and barren “Stone Sentinel” of Aconcagua commands the South American Andes; Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped volcano is the backdrop to African game parks; the double-headed crown of Elbrus reigns as the surprising king of Europe; the recently discovered Vinson Massif hides within the ice wilderness of Antarctica; McKinley, the “High One” of North America, spills its glaciers onto the untamed Alaskan plain; Australasia gives us a choice of a pleasant hike up Kosciuszko or a journey back in time to the pyramid of Carstensz; and the highest of them all, Everest, offers the most prized of all summits to the determined and the lucky.

The people who are drawn to climb the Seven Summits, and their motives for doing so, are no less varied.  For some it is an excuse to travel around the world; others may have climbed several of the mountains already, then simply decide to finish them off for fun; a few may never have climbed before, become captivated by the Seven Summits, and then sell their climbing boots after completing them.  For everyone it is a huge challenge which demands determination, commitment, fitness, and risk.  Whatever the motivation, the reward is great.  For most people, completing the Seven Summits is a major milestone in their lives, representing a challenge undertaken, adversities faced, and experiences shared.

Self-expression:  Defining the Challenge

Each one of the Seven Summits gives climbers the opportunity to express themselves through the route and style of their climb.  There is no fixed way to climbing these mountains.  There is the easiest way, by the standard routes at the best time of year, or climbers can push up the odds by taking a harder route, an unclimbed route, or attempting the climb out of season, such as in the winter, or even using skis.  It is this opportunity to define and tailor it to fit one’s ability and ambition, that has made the Seven Summits a serious objective for a number of leading mountaineers.  Few climbers would complete the Seven Summits by the same routes and in the same style as Reinhold Messner or Doug Scott.  If they had to, the Seven Summits would not be the universally sought after collection of climbs that it is.  The attainability of these summits gives them widespread appeal, but the extreme possibilities that exist on them can also draw attention from the world’s most talented climbers.

Of course, self-expression in mountaineering extends far beyond the Seven Summits.  Climbers have the freedom to determine how they climb any mountain, whether they wish to be led up the most straightforward route by mountain guide, or make a solo ascent in winter by the most difficult route.  All mountains, if they are to be climbed, have a base level of difficulty which is absolute.  It is easy to make a climb more difficult, but aside from thorough preparation, it is perhaps impossible to make a climb easier.  This base level of difficulty determines each mountain’s status in the Seven Summits’ hierarchy–Kosciuszko is a walk, while Everest is journey to the edge of extinction.  But even Everest, by its standard route, is not as impressive an achievement as Scott’s first ascent on the South Face of McKinley or Messner’s solo of his direct finish to the South Face of Aconcagua.

However, as far as the Seven Summits are concerned, there is one wild card.  The otherwise absolute baseline of difficulty can be varied on Everest by increasing the amount of supplementary oxygen used.  Although it has been proved that the mountain can be climbed without oxygen, the vast majority of climbers still use it.  Without oxygen, Everest would be beyond the ability of most people, and the Seven Summits would be relegated to the domain of the elite.  But how much oxygen should be used?  It stands to reason that if oxygen makes the climb easier, the more oxygen used the easier the mountain becomes.  But how easy should we make it?  Records have been kept of those who have climbed Everest without oxygen and those who have climbed it with oxygen.  But whether oxygen users breathe copious amounts from low on the mountain or merely sleep on it for a couple of hours in the top camp, they still used oxygen.  No difference is recorded in the style of their ascent despite the achievement of the latter being considerably greater than the former.

There are also important safety implications.  A climber who needs a lot of oxygen is more dependent on it for survival.  The ability to descend from high on the mountain without the aid of supplementary oxygen greatly reduces the risk of tragedy.  Even with thorough preparation, oxygen supplies can become exhausted, equipment may fail to operate, or a bottle could be dropped.  Some of the recent fatalities on the mountain could have been avoided if climbers were less dependent on oxygen.  The amount of oxygen used is therefore an important safety and ethical issue that needs to be considered by anyone attempting Everest.

As the quest to climb the Seven Summits grows in popularity, it is likely that more mountaineers will use them as a stage for their particular style of climbing.  However, while there will be those who may try to climb the Seven Summits solo, or in winter, or by their hardest routes, they will always be few in comparison to the vast majority of climbers who will maximize their chances of success by taking the easiest options available.

The Seven Summits and Other Collections

Climbers are incurable collectors.  The appeal of climbing the highest mountain–in the world, in a continent, in a country or state–is obvious and inevitably such mountains will attract more attention than lower peaks nearby.  But many climbers are drawn by collections of such mountains, giving them a greater long-term objective that might take years to complete.  This phenomenon exists at nearly every level of mountaineering, ranging from climbing all of the Scottish Munros to the ultimate high-altitude challenge of climbing all 14 of the 8000m peaks.

It could be argued that the Seven Summits is the most elegant and logical collection of climbs.  It is a worldwide challenge, not restricted to a single range of mountains, nor to one country or continent, that offers the climber an array of mountaineering experiences in some of the exotic and beautiful corners of the world.  This alone makes the continental summits an incredible quest, but what make the Seven Summits particularly special is that the summits are within reach of the average climber.  While the world’s elite mountaineers extend the boundaries of the possible on mountains like Everest and McKinley, these same mountains can be climbed via their standard routes by determined novices, assuming that expert guidance is provided.  And the remaining continental summits are considerably easier.  The Seven Summits is therefore a less demanding objective than many of the other collections of climbs listed above, though for most it offers the greatest reward, not least because success and survival are far from certain.

During the 21 century, more exciting adventures of this kind will be contrived to test our strength and spirit, in an age when such challenges are no longer forced upon us, but are sought out by choice.  If just one of these new adventures can match the variety, attainability, and sheer wonder of the Seven Summits, then we will be very fortunate indeed.