The Seven Summits is one of the ultimate challenges in mountaineering world; it consists of reaching the summit of each of the highest peaks on each continent.
Mountains included: Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Mount Vinson, Mount Elbrus, Kosciuszko and Carstenz Pyramid.
First to complete: Dick Bass, 1985 (Bass version); Patrick Morrow, 1986 (Messner version).
Fastest completion: Vernon Tejas in 134 days.
Typical order of Bass’ Seven Summits: Kosciuszko, Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali, Mount Vinson, Everest.
Typical order of Messner’s Seven Summits: Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali, Mount Vinson, Everest, Carstenz Pyramid.
Introduction to the 7 Summits.
Whilst this arbitrary list is not made up of the 7 highest peaks in the world, it poses an eclectic variety of challenges, ensuring that anyone who completes the challenge is a highly-skilled and dedicated adventurer.
But the Seven Summits concept is not without controversy. As we’ll see, there is not just one version of the Seven Summits and its history is full of disagreements and challenges to what should be the ’real’ Seven Summits challenge.
Which are The Seven Summits?
While it may sound a straight-forward concept, defining which is the highest peak on each continent has proven not to be. Thankfully, some of the peaks are simple and are universally accepted without debate. These are:
• Tallest mountain in Asia (and the world) – Everest (8,848 m/ 29,029 ft).
• Tallest mountain in South America – Aconcagua (6,961 m/ 22,838 ft).
• Tallest mountain in North America – Denali (6,190 m/ 20,310 ft).
• Tallest mountain in Antarctica – Mount Vinson (4,892 m/ 16,050 ft).
Then there are the peaks that have challengers for their place on the Seven Summits list:
• Tallest mountain in Europe – Mount Elbrus (5,643 m/ 18,514 ft).
The challenger: Mont Blanc (4,810 m/ 15,872 ft).
• Tallest mountain in Africa – Kilimanjaro (5,895 m/ 19,341 ft).
The challenger: Mount Kenya (5,199 m/ 17,057 ft).
And then there’s the debate that has led to multiple versions of the Seven Summits challenge. It centres on two mountains:
• Tallest mountain in Australia – Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 m/ 7,310 ft).
• Tallest Mountain in Oceania – Carstenz Pyramid (4,884 m/ 16,024 ft).
The history of the two versions.
In 1983, American Dick Bass first set out the Seven Summits concept, alongside Frank Wells and Patrick Morrow. In doing so, they formalised the simple idea of climbing the 7 highest peaks on the 7 continents. It was Bass who initially laid out what appeared to be a straight-forward challenge for the mountaineering community.
However, Italian Reinhold Messner also developed a Seven Summits concept. Yet his version differed from Bass'. This disagreement in the 1980s remains an unresolved debate that still splits opinion in the mountaineering world.
At the centre of the debate are two mountains: Mount Kosciuszko, situated on the Australian mainland, and Carstenz Pyramid, which is on Papua New Guinea.
The question is: which of these two mountains is deservedly the highest mountain on the continent and therefore one of the Seven Summits?
It is a question of how to define the boundary of a continent. Bass’ argues that the continental landmass is correct (and so it’s Australia), while Messner’s argues it should be the larger continental plate/mass boundaries (therefore Oceania).
We end up with two versions of the Seven Summits: the Bass Seven Summits, which includes Mount Kosciuszko, and the Messner Seven Summits, including Carstenz Pyramid.
But it seems to be about more than geography. This argument also appears to be about the merit of each peak.
Mount Kosciuszko is a walk-up and requires very little technical ability. Meanwhile, Carstenz Pyramid is seen as one of the more technical climbs in any of the Seven Summits. As such, there is an argument that says Carstenz Pyramid makes the Seven Summits more of a genuine challenge, while Mount Kozciuszko doesn’t.
Patrick Morrow puts it well. In justifying his adherence to Messner’s version, Morrow said: “Being a climber first and a collector second, I felt strongly that Carstenz Pyramid…was a true mountaineer’s objective.”
The debate remains unresolved, though many climbers prefer to accept Messner’s version for the sake of its merit. However, many will also summit Kosciuszko to ensure there’s no question of the validity of their achievement.
As such, the Seven Summits actually regularly consists of 8 mountains. This eight-mountain version is commonly referred to as the Combined List.
But this merit argument is taken further still. There is another list that challenges the ‘accepted’ Seven Summits concept entirely.
It is proffered by those who argue that the second highest mountains on each continent actually provide a far greater technical climbing challenge and so should be considered a truer challenge of skill and endeavour.
This alternative version of the Seven Summits (again, there are 8!) is:
• Asia – K2 (8,611 m/ 28,251 ft)
• South America: Ojos del Salado – 6,983 m (22,608 ft).
• North America: Mount Logan – 5,959 m (19,551 ft).
• Europe: Dykh-Tau – 5,205 m (17,077 ft).
• Africa: Mount Kenya – 5,199 m (17,057 ft).
• Antarctica: Mount Tyree – 4,852 m (15,919 ft).
• Oceania: Puncak Trikora – 4,730 m (15,580 ft).
• Australia: Townsend – 2,209 m (7,247 ft).
And there are other versions too! The include ones that define Mont Blanc for Europe or as the ninth on the list. And there are those that adhere to the plate boundaries more specifically, which makes Everest the high point of the whole of Eurasia.
Information on each of the Seven Summits.
Tallest mountain in Asia (and the world) – Everest.
Since 1852, this mountain has been the source of wonder, challenge and achievement for all who have gazed on its slopes, knowing it to be the high point of the world.
Within the same continent are, in fact, the entire top 100 tallest mountains in the world (depending on the list your reference). The Himalayan range is the mightiest of all mountain ranges on Earth, and the next highest peaks (K2, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu and so on) are all part of this great chain.
Tallest mountain in South America – Aconcagua.
The highest mountain outside Asia, Aconcagua is also considered the world’s highest non-technical climb. The climbs in the Himalayas in particular are such that none are seen as quite so simple as this South American giant, (which is little more than a high altitude hike).
Spanning the border between Chile and Argentina, this mountain began to form over 30 million years ago. It was first climbed in 1896 and has an history in South American history.
Tallest mountain in North America – Denali.
This mountain was actually officially named Mount McKinley in 1917-2015. But since 1975, the Alaskan state government petitioned the US federal government to revert it to the traditional name Denali, meaning ‘the high one’. In 2015, they had there wishes granted.
In one sense, Denali is the world’s highest peak, as it rises 5,200 m (17,000 ft) from its base to its summit. This is over a kilometre more than Everest. It is also an enormous test of climbing skills, endurance and mental strength, often featuring late in Seven Summits ascents in order to use the previous, simpler mountains to prepare for it.
Tallest mountain in Antarctica – Mount Vinson.
Mount Vinson, the high point of the Vinson Massif, is the highest point on the great frozen continent, Antarctica. It is the coldest, most isolated and most southerly of the Seven Summits. It was the last to be discovered and the last to be climbed, (first ascent rather than order of Seven Summits ascents).
It is certainly a fierce test of ice climbing, with glaciers unmatched by any other mountain on the list. And it is certainly a unique challenge, situated 1,200 km (746 miles) from the South Pole and the only one of the Seven Summits to have no local indigenous population.
Tallest mountain in Europe – Mount Elbrus.
The debate about Mount Elbrus’ place in the Seven Summits is one of borders. While no-one can argue about its superior elevation to its challenger, Mont Blanc, Elbrus lies somewhat isolated on the border between Asia and Europe. As such, some view Mont Blanc as an important mountain to summit within a challenge like this, situated in the centre of, arguably, the political and cultural centre of Europe (Western Europe) and the continent’s great range (The Alps).
Mount Elbrus is actually a dormant volcano, displaying a pair of contorted summit cones. Its eruptive history leads to its gently-domed shape that makes the mountain less of a climbing challenge. But it is also deadly, with one of the world’s higher death rates. Sudden weather changes and large crevasses lead to an average of 30 climbers perishing on these Caucasus Mountain slopes. Bureaucracy and location means it is also far less visited than many of its alpine neighbours to the west.
On the other hand, Mont Blanc is one of the most visited mountains in the world, surrounded by summer and winter resorts catering to thousands of visitors per year. It is the highest point in Western Europe and far more accessible than Mount Elbrus. Many people climb it each year, and though it becomes more challenging on its higher slopes, it doesn’t require a very high-level of technical ability either.
Tallest mountain in Africa – Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro is found towering over Tanzania in East Africa. It is regarded as the world’s tallest free-standing mountain (i.e. not part of larger range). It has 3 peaks, the tallest being Kibo, and all 3 were once volcanoes. Its biggest challenge is altitude sickness, and so is used as preparation by Seven Summiteers for the higher challenges of Everest, Aconcagua and the other higher peaks on the list.
And while there is no debate about the fact that Kilimanjaro is the tallest peak in Africa, or that it is part of that continent, there is debate about whether Kilimanjaro is a sufficiently challenging prospect to be included on the list. Its challenger on merit? Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya’s multiple peaks (it is an extinct stratovolcano too, with a massif that’s been carved into jagged spires by glacial erosion) offer a greater climbing challenge. It is far less climbed than its southern neighbour (they are 320 km apart) and to reach the true summit, the peak Batian (5,199m/ ft), requires highly proficient climbing skills. Some of its routes are rated at African Grade VI+, translated as ‘Hard, Very Severe’ in British traditional grading.
Yet, the original Seven Summits concept is simple: it is the highest point on the continent, not the hardest climb. In the case of Africa, that is very clearly Kilimanjaro.
Tallest mountain in Australia – Kosciuszko.
Found in the Snowy Mountains in the south of New South Wales, Kosciuszko is, in reality, little more than a walk up. Anyone with moderate fitness can climb its gentle slopes that rise to a level not even close to half of Everest’s Base Camp. However, it legitimately stands above the rest of the low-lying continent that is Australia and so earns its spot on the list.
Kosciuszko is actually named after a Polish General in the American Revolutionary War. All the aboriginal names for the mountain translate ‘Table-top Mountain’, a similar appearance to the Blue Mountains further north.
Tallest Mountain in Oceania – Carstenz Pyramid.
Also known as Puncak Jaya, Carstenz Pyramid is the highest summit of the steeply-sloped Mount Carstenz in Indonesia. It is the highest island peak in the world, and the highest point found between the Himalayas and the Andes. It is a formidable climbing challenge, and as such is regularly left until last to complete,. The technical training required is arguably the highest of the Seven Summits.
Unfortunately, like many mountains around the world, Carstenz Pyramid has been progressively losing its glaciers. They may disappear entirely in the very near future. Glaciers are in retreat around the world in response to Global Warming, but rarely quite as drastically as on this peak.
Successful completions of the Seven Summits.
There have been several notable landmark achievements related to the Seven Summits.
The first man to complete the Bass version of the Seven Summits was, unsurprisingly, Dick Bass himself. He climbed six of them in 1983, then completed the set in 1985 by becoming, at that time, the oldest man to have climbed Everest.
The first to complete the eight-summit version, or Combined List (including Carstenz Pyramid and Kosciusko), was Patrick Morrow, completing the list when he climbed Mount Elbrus on 5 August 1986.
In the same year, the man who defined the Carstenz Pyramid version, Italian Reinhold Messner, also completed the eight-mountain version. He finished on Mount Vinson on 3 December. While not the first to complete this list, despite arguably founding it, he was the first to do so without using supplementary oxygen on any peak. Until 2008, only one other person achieved this incredible physical feat: Miroslav Caban in 2005.
Masha Gordon, is the fastest woman to complete the Seven Summits. On 17 June 2016, she completed the challenge (Mount Denali was her last) and did so in only 238 days.
She also trekked on skis to both poles during this period, completing what is known as The Explorers Grand Slam. Her achievements have been the inspiration for her charity Grit&Rock, where she aims to inspire young girls into mountaineering and outdoors adventures.
The fastest man to complete the Seven Summit was American Vernon Tejas. He began on 18 January 2010 with Mount Vinson and finished on 31 May 2010 with Mount Denali. He completed the Combined List in an extraordinary 134 days.
Typical order of the Seven Summits.
Many attempts on the Seven Summits follow a similar order. The logic of the order is to use the previous mountain to prepare for the next. As such, the less technical mountains with lower elevations are often ticked off first, with the more demanding, isolated and higher challenges left to the end.
Many follow this order, or close to it:
The first two mountains are technically unchallenging and easily accessible, while Mount Elbrus and Aconcagua are also non-technical but the altitude and weather start to play their parts (not to mention the red tape required to simply get to the mountains).
The mountains that follow introduce more technical challenge, more snow and ice climbing and more height. Everest is often not last because Carstenz Pyramid is more of a technical climbing challenge. The optimum climbing seasons also influence the order.
But this order really is only a guide. Depending on your location, the guide you might choose and any number of other factors, you’ll find there lots of accounts of variations, each with their own legitimate and useful logic.
How to climb the Seven Summits yourself.
Climbing the Seven Summits now is decidedly simpler than when Bass et al did so in the 1980s. There are many companies offering organised itineraries to lead you around the world.
Many aspiring Seven Summiteers will join with professional adventurer guides for some of the more technical mountains, but not the simpler, accessible peaks. Everest, Mount Vinson, Carstenz Pyramid and Denali all benefit greatly from this professional support. In fact, most would be impossible for all but the most experienced mountaineers without it.
Other mountains benefit from tour guide support in other ways. Mount Elbrus has so much red tape that having a local tour guide is essential to simply get you onto the mountain in the first place.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, Kosciuszko is accessible to anyone for much of the year and certainly has no need of a professional guide.
So if you have the finances and the time, the Seven Summits are certainly an attainable challenge these days. And despite the controversy, they are still one of the world’s ultimate adventures.