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What are the Seven Summits?

11/6/17 by Emma Walker

The seven summits are the highest peaks on each continent and summiting them is no joke. There are few (if any) mountaineering accomplishments more impressive than successfully climbing them. It takes years, if not decades to complete the feat.

While everyone agrees that the Seven Summits are the highest peaks on each continent, there’s some controversy as to which peaks should be included on the list. The debate centers around the boundaries of some continents, and whether or not it should be the tallest mountain in all of Oceania or just Australia. The two most popular versions of the Seven Summits contain most of the same peaks, with one exception. The Bass version, named for American climber Dick Bass, who completed the summits in April 1985, includes Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko. There’s also the Messner list, completed by legendary alpinist Reinhold Messner just a year and a half later, which replaces Kosciuszko with Carstensz Pyramid, the highest peak on the Australasian continent. Both are legitimate accomplishments, though the Messner list is considered a more challenging mountaineering objective. Many would-be summiteers bag both peaks just to be safe.

Whether you want to take on the Seven Summits for yourself, or pick a couple for your bucket list, here’s the full Messner list.

Carstensz Pyramid, Australasia (16,024 feet)

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The first successful ascent of Carstensz Pyramid (also known as Puncak Jaya) was in 1962 by an Austrian team that included Heinrich Harrer. Harrier was also a member of the first ascenders of the Eiger’s North Face and famously wrote Seven Years in Tibet. Carstensz is among the more formidable peaks on the Seven Summits list—not only is the route technically demanding, but climbing requires a number of permits and a five-day hike through dense jungle. Because it’s so close to the equator, Carstensz Pyramid is climbable year round, but expect lots of rain.

Mount Vinson, Antarctica (16,067 feet)

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This summit is part of the enormous Vinson Massif, which covers just over 100 square miles of the Antarctic continent, and is named for US Congressman Carl Vinson, a major supporter of funding for American research and exploration of the continent. Vinson didn’t see a first ascent until 1966, when an American party reached the summit with support from the American Alpine Club and the National Science Foundation. Located on the Ronne Ice Shelf, the peak isn’t technically demanding, but it’s incredibly cold and windy. The average temperature in the Ellsworth Mountains is around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, but rises to a balmy -29 degrees in the summer between December and February, which is when most mountaineers attempt this one. Another perk is that the sun is also out 24 hours a day during these months, making the 10-day ascent up the Branscomb Glacier just a little easier.

Mount Elbrus, Europe (18,510 feet)

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Nestled in the rugged Caucasus Mountains in Russia near the border of Georgia, this dormant volcano is among the most prominent summits in the world, rising dramatically from the landscape around it. The first ascent of Elbrus’ slightly taller west summit (it has two) was by a British expedition and their Swiss guide in 1874, making it one of the first of the seven summits to be climbed. These days, most climbers take the technically easy "Normal Route," which still presents some serious challenges: not only is it at high altitude, but the weather here is notoriously unpredictable and a storm could come up very suddenly. Most people summit this one in July or August, making the popular standard route very crowded at times.

Kilimanjaro, Africa (19,341 feet)

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The Kilimanjaro massif is technically three distinct volcanoes, though all are either dormant or altogether extinct. The tallest summit, Kibo, saw its first ascent in 1889 by a German-Austrian team who finally succeeded in completing the climb via classic siege-style mountaineering tactics, establishing a series of camps along the route. Today, Kilimanjaro is the site of much scientific study thanks to its fast-receding glaciers and icefields. The standard route covers a huge variety of ecosystems and is largely considered more of a trek than a technical climb. Kilimanjaro is typically climbed in January through March or June through October, though the earlier part of the year will have cooler temps and maybe even snow at the top.

Denali, North America (20,310 feet)

Denali’s name is Athabascan for "the high one," and it’s not hard to see why: this giant is among the most prominent and isolated peaks on the planet. (Its altitude is nothing to scoff at, either.) While there was some controversy surrounding the peak’s first ascent after a reported 1906 climb of the peak was eventually found to be false, the first confirmed ascent was by an American group in 1913. Denali’s most popular route, the West Buttress, was pioneered by Bradford Washburn in 1951, and remains the safest and least technically demanding way to the top. Earlier in the season (late April through late May) is the best time to tackle Denali and avoid precipitation, but the Kahiltna Glacier experiences drastic and unpredictable weather changes, so you have to be prepared for anything here (temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, winds up to 100 miles per hour, rain, snow, sun).

Aconcagua, South America (22,841 feet)

High in the Andes near the Argentinean/Chilean border, Aconcagua is the highest peak in the world outside the Himalayas in Asia. A German team was the first to reach its summit in 1897, and it’s been a popular challenge for adventurers ever since. The so-called "Normal Route" follows Aconcagua’s northwest ridge and is among the world’s highest-altitude non-technical ascents. Still, its considerable elevation means it’s no easy feat, and only an estimated 30% of climbers who attempt to reach the summit are successful. The official climbing season is from November 15th and March 31st.

Mount Everest, Asia (29,029 feet)

The mother of all mountains, Everest is the highest point on the planet and, as such, is a major mountaineering objective. First famously ascended in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, Everest is without a doubt the best-known peak in the world. Attempts to reach its summit are costly thanks to its remote location and, depending on the route, hazards like the notorious Khumbu Icefall. Still, its status means it’s the crowning achievement of a Seven Summits attempt, and an Everest expedition is an unforgettable experience. Most attempt this one in April or May.

Estimates of the number of climbers who have completed all of the Seven Summits vary, but all told, if you include both Carstensz Pyramid and Kosciuszko, at least 416 people have pulled it off. (Nearly 150 of those have knocked off both peaks). Following in the footsteps of Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei, who became the first woman to stand atop each summit when she climbed Carstensz Pyramid in 1992, 71 women have completed all the summits. Tabei was also the first woman to summit Everest.

Of course, summiting the highest peak on each continent is no easy feat, even for the world’s fittest athletes. "Just like cold," says Sean Swarner, who has completed the Seven Summits (including making it all the way to the North and South Poles!), “pain is a relative term.” Swarner would know: he’s done all this with just one functioning lung. A two-time cancer survivor, with two unrelated, incredibly rare forms of cancer and a discouraging diagnosis, Swarner set himself apart when he became the first cancer survivor to summit Everest in 2002.

A tip from Swarner if you plan to tackle any or all of the summits: "I know what true pain feels like," he says, “I know the mind gives up long before the body should. The body can handle so much more than the mind lets it.”

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.