Climbing the seven summits – the highest mountain on every continent – is an improbable and expensive dream of mine… but that’s the beauty of dreams.
In 2010 I travelled to Tanzania and trekked to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the “roof of Africa” and this year – after a seven-year wait – I climbed Mount Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s highest mountain.
I have always loved trekking and hiking, spending several weeks of every year on the slopes of the Scottish Highlands or Welsh Snowdonia – however, topping out on Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, ignited something new inside me.
I wanted to take my hobby further, turn it into a passion and really achieve something: climbing the seven summits, the highest mountain on every continent.
Climbing the seven summits
Although I don’t doubt the technical and physical challenges I face climbing the seven summits, the toughest challenge will likely be a financial one. Climbing the seven summits do not come cheap.
Most are difficult to access and each one brings its own separate challenge whether that’s a technical test, hostile weather conditions, poor accessibility or, obviously, altitude. One thing all the mountains have in common is that they are expensive to climb.
I don’t claim to have the answers but I have spent hours and hours researching how I will achieve my dream. Below I list how I – and others like me – have the best chance of climbing the seven summits and achieving our common dream.
Location: Africa (Tanzania)
Elevation: 5,895m (19,341ft)
Range: none – freestanding
Duration: 5-6 days
The world’s highest freestanding mountain is a good introduction to high-altitude and multi-day expeditions. No mountaineering experience is necessary on this non-technical trek.
‘Introduction to Winter Mountaineering’ course
Spend at least five days in the Scottish highlands midwinter learning basic crampon, ice axe and rope skills. Look at climbing knots, belaying, snow anchors and avalanche assessment.
2. Mount Elbrus
Location: Europe (Russia)
Elevation: 5,642m (18,510ft)
Range: Caucasus Mountains
Duration: 7 days
Put the winter mountaineering skills to practice on Europe’s highest mountain. Avoid the cable cars and chair lifts to truly test yourself on Elbrus’s icy slopes, which require good crampon and ice axe technique.
Intermediate / Advanced Winter Mountaineering course
Combine an intermediate and advanced course in either Scotland or the French Alps to further develop crampon, ice axe and rope skills. Gain experience of climbing on glaciated peaks and acclimatisation techniques. Consider summiting Mont Blanc – western Europe’s highest mountain.
Oberland 4,000ers course
Summit three really testing mountains over 4,000m in the alps in an intensive week-long course. This provides more training to ensure your rope work is intuitive by the time you tackle the more demanding high-altitude mountains.
3. Mount McKinley (Denali)
Location: North America (USA)
Elevation: 6,194m (20,322ft)
Range: Alaska Range
Duration: 21-26 days
Cost: from $6,000-10,000
This is arguably the second most difficult mountain of the seven summits. It is a tough expedition because climbers need to carry heavy loads or pull them on sledges. The notoriously stormy and unpredictable weather on the mountain only makes matters worse. It’s perfect preparation for Vinson.
4. Mount Vinson
Elevation: 4,892m (16,050ft)
Range: Sentinel Range
Duration: 18 days
The last of the seven summits to be discovered, Vinson rises from the most hostile, isolated yet untouched continent on Earth. This long climb, though technically moderate, should not be misjudged. The combination of remoteness and potentially extreme conditions means you need considerable mountaineering experience to tackle this mountain.
Location: South America (Argentina)
Elevation: 6,961m (22,838ft)
Duration: 21 days
The second-highest summit of the seven and the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, Aconcagua is an awesome mountain. The route is non-technical and often referred to as the “highest trekking peak in the world”. It could be climbed earlier in the program but it makes sense to climb it on the way back from Vinson while you’re in that part of the world (ish).
Rock climbing course
Hone your rock climbing skills and work on specialist techniques (jumaring a hanging rope for example). These skills will be essential for your next challenge.
6. Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid)
Location: Oceania (Indonesia)
Elevation: 4,884m (16,024ft)
Range: Sudirman Range
Duration: 20 days
Cost: from $8,000-10,000
This is a very technical mountain and you need to be able to abseil and jumar a hanging rope. Despite it being the lowest of the seven summits, do not underestimate this mountain.
Cho Oyu, Nepal
Elevation: 8,201m (26,906ft)
Duration: 40 days
Here’s the ‘mock exam’ for Everest. The high camp is at 7,400m – much higher than you will have camped previously. Here you’ll need to practise using oxygen and refining your clothing and equipment.
It’s best to attempt it with a group of climbers who are also going to Everest soon. Together, you can increase your chances on Everest. It’s worth noting that Cho Oyu is the sixth highest mountain in the world and the most frequently climbed 8,000m peak.
7. Mount Everest
Location: Asia (Nepal/China)
Elevation: 8,848m (29,029ft)
Duration: 60 days
The big one. The South Col route from Nepal remains the most realistic route. It’s technically easier and with the top camp at just under 8,000m, it means you spend less time in the ‘Death Zone’. This is your best shot at Sagarmāthā.
Despite success and survival rates improving dramatically in the last couple of decades, don’t kid yourself for a minute. As of March 2019 records suggest there have been over 280 deaths on Everest (likely 288) – 72 since 2010.
This is the highest mountain on Earth – and incredibly dangerous. Good luck.
- Costs are calculated to include airfares from the UK.
- Additional training courses would (of course) be beneficial. Particularly more Alpine and high-altitude practice.
- This program is based on the Messner or Carstensz list assuming that the highest point in Oceania is the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia and not Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.
For an excellent analysis of each summit, professional mountain guide Mike Hamill has written A Guide to Each Continent’s Highest Peak.