Simply finding the Seven Summits – the highest mountains on each continent – is a tall order.
Let alone measuring them all to within a few frustratingly ever-evolving feet, naming them after rock star 19th-century British colonial land surveyors and Polish-Lithuanian generals – and, get this, risking limb and life-savings to climb them all because, well, they’re there.
Stark, scary, seductive, forever inscrutable, the Seven Summits and countless viable alternative peaks to “conquer” say far more about humans (basically that we have far too much time on our hands) than we ever will about them.
But that shouldn’t stop us from tirelessly rambling on about these majestic monsters or traveling there.
Elevation: 29,035 feet
Location: Nepal/Tibet border
There’s no customs booth on the summit of Mount Everest – the highest mountain on Earth – where a frontier straddles Nepal and Tibet. So what’s with all the crazy lines on this cramped, gale-plumed, oxygen-starved peak?
The ultimate magnet for big ticket bucket-listers vying for a shot at standing on top of the world during a narrow climbing window in late spring, Everest is all business these days. The fabled peak attracts more puffy-suited high-fivers than ever to its increasingly doable but dicey slopes – and about as many divergent references, depending on your angle.
Nepalis call their famous hill Sagarmatha (“Sky Head”), Tibetans know it as Chomolungma (“Mother of the World”), while geologists lump Everest (named after legendary 19th-century British land surveyor George Everest) in the youth category.
Roughly 50 million years old – a toddler in big mountain time – it’s the largest fold of Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates in the Himalayan range, with plenty of growing room left (about a quarter inch a year).
Ever since it was first scaled in 1953, Everest has remained a crowning achievement among snowballing legions of climbers. Recently, the mythical mountain has also been described as the “world’s highest garbage dump” (of abandoned climbing detritus) and a “zoo” of Death Zone queues waiting for summit selfies at airplane altitudes.
During an especially busy and lethal 2019 climbing season, the mountain has claimed at least 11 lives.
Reach for the top: Climbers typically reserve at least 45 days (including pre-ascent preparations, a long tromp to base camp, and crucial acclimatization periods on the mountain before an average four-to-five-day summit push) and an ante of anywhere from $40,000 to over $100,000 for a spot on a commercial expedition.
From the Nepal side, the Southeast Ridge is by far the most popular passage to the summit, among nearly 20 other climbing routes at present. Last year, over 800 climbers and support guides reached the top – a new record.
Marvel from below: Barring a long bus ride, the most chilling part of the suggested two-week roundtrip trek to Everest Base Camp is a quick flight from Kathmandu to a harrowingly short mountain airstrip in Lukla. From there, the 40-mile ascent past mountain villages, Buddhist monasteries and bell-clanging yak traffic to the 17,600-foot-high base of the world’s highest peak is often shortlisted as one of the world’s greatest hikes. And a great place to smile and turn around.
Alternative alp (for Himalayan realists): 20,285-foot Imja Tse (commonly known as Island Peak) holds the unofficial distinction of being one of the most climbable “trekking peaks” (basic mountaineering skills and gear still necessary) in the Everest region – with bonus views of neighboring giants Mounts Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu and Ama Dablam.
Elevation: 20,310 feet
Location: South Central Alaska
North America’s highest peak (formerly named Mount McKinley) may max out at an elevation barely above Himalayan low camps, but never mind all that. Few bits of tectonically bent granite are as impossibly enormous as Mount Denali, which rears nearly three-and-a-half vertical miles up above its relatively low 2,000-foot starting point.
From base to summit, that’s over a mile taller than Everest.
The crown of the 600-mile-long Alaska Range is big enough to create its own weather patterns. Like, for example, 150 mph winds and -93°F on an especially brutal day.
Scientists say Mount Denali is still on the rise – at a steady-ish rate of about half a millimeter per year. So check back in a mere four million years from now and the ultimate Bob Ross mountain may be about a mile higher.
Reach for the top: The National Park Service recommends at least 17-days and plenty of prior glacier training on friendlier peaks in less extreme latitudes virtually anywhere else – Washington’s Cascades, the European Alps, South America – before attempting to climb the oft-cloud-veiled centerpiece of Denali National Park & Preserve, home to some of the most intense and unpredictable weather and mountaineering conditions on the planet.
The vast majority of climbers attempt to reach the summit via the popular West Buttress route, which can see as many as 600 people on it at any given time during peak season between late May and early June.
Marvel from below: Boarding a tour or transit bus during temperate summer months along 92-mile Denali Park Road provides incredible views of the famed peak and numerous wildlife photo ops in a six-million-acre park and preserve inhabited by nearly 40 different mammals and 172 recorded bird species.
Alternative alp (for Denali trainees): Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). Washington state’s highest peak, a glaciated volcano encased in over 35 square miles of snow and ice, remains one of the most popular rites of passage for alpinists with even higher Alaskan, Andean or Himalayan sights.
Elevation: 19,340 feet
Location: Northern Tanzania
Even for a lone cone as spectacular as this jumbo geological marvel plunked in the East African plains, how does even the coolest-looking, -sounding, -residing mountain retain its rightful mystique once the annual climber rate surpasses the 50,000 mark?
Probably just by being Kilimanjaro – the world’s tallest freestanding peak, a dormant (but still simmering) volcano, and a not-so-microcosmic world unto itself.
Meandering through numerous ecological zones (tropical rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, etc.) from savanna to snowcapped summit, hardy climbers here might be fooled into thinking they’re tromping across half the planet. But that would be too easy.
Reach for the top: A non-technical “walk up” climb with several established routes to choose from, Kilimanjaro is far too susceptible to being minimized as a multi-day hike. Reality check: Less than 30% of climbers manage to complete the entire journey on the most popular 5-day Marangu “Coca-Cola” Route plan, according to local guide service Ultimate Kilimanjaro.
A better bet: Losing the hasty crowds and adding a few extra days of acclimation on one of the longer, slower, undulating routes to combat altitude sickness – the main reason hikers bow out here.
Dry season (late June to October) is the preferable time to tackle Kilimanjaro, with September being the prime climbing month. Permits are essential to enter the park, and all climbers must use a guide and porters.
Marvel from below: Summit fever aside, don’t forget where you are – in prime African safari territory. Making time to see the Big Five and other amazing creatures in nearby Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater is a rivaling high point during any Kilimanjaro climbing expedition. Many guide services can build these visits into the itinerary.
Alternative alp (for road-less-taken types): Mount Kenya (17,057 feet). Far from the Kili crowds and less than 100 miles from Nairobi, Africa’s almost-famous, second-highest mountain occupies its own national park – frequented by savvy African peak baggers seeking a quieter, cheaper and reputedly an even more picturesque climbing experience.