Some hill-walkers I’ve met in Scotland are a bit sniffy about mountains below 3,000ft high. Up there they grimly collect the series of peaks over that height, collectively known as the Munroes. Some of them are nice summits, but an awful lot of them are just high bogs.
The absurdity of this system sank in during my childhood when my father and I climbed in the hills of Arran, the island in the Firth of Clyde. I maintain that these are some of the most beautiful little mountains in the world. They are close to the sea and easily accessible in a day. But all of them are under that qualifying height.
Climbers are like that, though, always drawing up arbitrary rules in their game of conquest. And they are incurable collectors. If the Munroes aren’t high enough, they dream of climbing the Russian “Snow Leopard” – the five 7,000m peaks in the CIS, or even the Seven Summits, the highest point of each of the continents. Up to now, more than 65 climbers have become Seven Summiteers. That means they’ve climbed Mounts Aconcagua (South America), McKinley (North America), Vinson (Antarctica), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Elbrus (Europe), Everest (Asia), Carstensz Pyramid (Australasia) and Kosciuszko (Australasia).
Hang on, that’s eight. Well yes, that’s the problem. On 30 April 1985, the American entrepreneur Dick Bass reached the summit of Mount Everest, and claimed that he was the first to have climbed the highest peak on the world’s seven continents. Bickering began just over a year later when a rather stronger Canadian mountaineer, Pat Morrow, got to the top of Elbrus and announced that he, not Bass, was the first to climb the Seven Summits.
The difference was that Morrow had climbed the stone peak of Carstensz Pyramid in the western half of New Guinea now known as Irian Jaya, and asserted that this was the summit of the true seventh continent he called Australasia, while Bass had regarded the highest point of Australia, Kosciuszko, as his seventh summit. Now, Kosciuszko is a bit of high moorland, and not really a mountain. For those of us who think the best off-road vehicle is a rental car, it is possible to drive up it in a hatchback. It seems ludicrous to mention it in the same breath as Everest or McKinley.
A debate then ensued which neatly allied two usually warring factions of the climbing fraternity. The people who regard themselves as hard-core mountaineers sided with Morrow, as presumably they couldn’t accept Kosciuszko as a real mountain. But so did the adventure companies, who saw that they could make some money guiding clients up the remote Carstenz Pyramid. The irony was that usually the hard-core mountaineers wouldn’t be seen dead with people who actually charge people to go climbing.
The arguments for one summit or the other are geologically arcane, too. Morrow maintained that the continent of Australasia includes New Zealand, New Guinea, and some Pacific islands, as well as Australia. But when you take plate tectonics into account, New Guinea does not sit neatly on Australia’s continental shelf. The island is a composite of three plates that geologically link Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Australia. Only the island’s southern lowlands sit on the Australian plate, divided from the north part of the island by the Java Trench, which is generally accepted to be the geological border that separates Asia from Australia. Carstenz pyramid lies to the north of the Trench, therefore is part of Asia.
The political arguments are no clearer. Carstenz is located in Irian Jaya, which at the moment belongs to Indonesia, which is classified as part of Asia. Only the eastern part of New Guinea, the independent country of Papua New Guinea, has any ties with Australia. And if you settle on the idea that the country of Australia is a continent, Kosciuszko is not the highest peak on Australian territory. That would be the 2,745m mountain called Big Ben on Heard Island, way down in the Southern Ocean, a seriously difficult place to get to.
If none of the seven summiteers are confident that they’ve ticked all their boxes, this might be one they would like to knock off, too. This, of course, is all rather absurd, and just goes to show that mountaineering doesn’t bear too much rational scrutiny. The Seven Summits is maybe just a great way for a wealthy person to see some of the most exotic corners of the world.
How much? Jagged Globe, an expedition company based in Sheffield, will take you up all seven for about £60,000. Plus flights. But let me suggest a way that avoids the cost of flights. This is an idea I’ve been nursing for some years, something you could call Seven Seas, Seven Summits. My plan is to sail around the world from continent to continent, climbing to the highest point of each one. This might just become the next challenge for climbing collectors. Sailing does have similarities with mountaineering. Both activities involve uncomfortable battles with the elements interspersed with short moments of pleasure, and both seem to attract similar personalities, although there is surprisingly little crossover between the two. For the adventurer who would like to come with me, here’s our itinerary.
Starting from the pool of London in our 60ft steel yacht, we first head south through the North Atlantic, the first of the Seven Seas, sail past Gibraltar through the Mediterranean and then into the Black Sea. Here we land and travel to the interior to climb Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain. This extinct volcano is the highest point of the Caucasus,in the far south of Russia, not far from Chechnya. If we manage this fairly straightforward snow plod, we can return to our yacht and head south.
We’ll to pass through the Suez Canal, emerge into the Red Sea and sail down the Eastern seaboard of Africa. We’ll hop off here and tackle Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest, another ex-volcano, surrounded by spectacular vegetation and wildlife. Not a great challenge, but one of the few places where you find snow on the equator.
We’re heading east now, to tackle the Big One. We sail across the Indian Ocean, the second Seven Sea, and land at Bombay. To get to Mount Everest, Asia’s highest, you can travel across northern India by train and then arrive at Kathmandu in Nepal by road. Too much has been written about this mountain, but please note that it is heading north-east an inch and a half every year and growing bigger, so be quick.
We’ll rejoin our boat, which our kind skipper has sailed round to Calcutta for us, and rest our weary bones on the foredeck while we head past the Andaman Islands off the coast of Thailand on our way to Irian Jaya, to try to climb Carstenz Pyramid. There’s some seriously dense jungle here, inhabited by the Dani people. The men wear penis gourds, and bird-of-paradise feathers in their hair, while the women wear raffia-grass skirts. Their way of life is seriously under threat by their rulers 2,000 miles away in Indonesia.
Season-conscious climbers ask: when do you climb Carstenz? Answer: any time, it rains constantly. After this, we may as well head through the South Pacific (our third Sea) and land in New South Wales, Australia. Hire a rental car and knock off Kosciuszko while we ponder the next and most difficult sea-leg of our journey, the voyage through the Southern Ocean (our fourth Sea) to the shores of Antarctica. This is why I specified a 60ft steel yacht, as we may be nudging growlers (small icebergs) on the way to Vinson, the last continental summit to be discovered and climbed. This fact is hardly surprising as it lies well south, at 80 degrees latitude, but it’s a fairly simple climb. Hop back on board and head north through the Southern Ocean, up into the South Atlantic, the fifth of our Seven Seas.
Jump ship at Buenos Aires and make for Aconcagua, the second highest of the Seven Summits, near the Argentinian border with Chile. They’ve built a hotel at Base Camp since I was last there, so we can rest in comfort. Now we’re heading north to climb the eighth of our Seven Summits, if you see what I mean. Our skipper has passed through the Panama Canal and we rejoin ship to continue up the western seaboard of North America, through the North Pacific, the sixth of the Seven Seas.
We land at Anchorage, Alaska and the skipper will continue north into the Arctic Ocean. We now head for the one-horse town of Talkeena. There might be only one horse, but it has more small aircraft per capita than anywhere in the USA. The reason is partly the large number of lakeside holiday lodges serviced by private float-planes, but also because of all the climbers heading for Denali (formerly known as McKinley), the highest mountain in North America.
To reach base camp you get into a cramped Cessna which has skis as well as wheels. You fly for 100 miles across lakes and bear-infested forests. You then skim through a gap between the jagged teeth of rocky ridges; the plane lands heavily on the glacier at the foot of Mount Denali.
This is a very cold mountain with fearsome weather. At first you approach on skis, dragging your supplies on a sledge. But if you succeed, you’ve climbed your last mountain. Rejoin the boat on Alaska’s north coast and return through the Arctic Ocean, our seventh and last Sea. Congratulations, you’ve completed the Seven Seas, and all eight of the Seven Summits.