By all accounts, the Seven Summits were once a worthy goal. If I was climbing in 1990 or 2000, I would have leapt at the chance to embark on an expedition to any of them. Back in 1986, when Patrick Morrow first ticked the real Seven Summits (if you’re about to comment something banal like “wHaT aBoUt dICk BaSs?” don’t bother… more on that later), it was quite a feat. It may not require an extremely high level of technical mountaineering skill, but several of these peaks are quite remote and require no small amount of expedition planning.
Fast forward to 2020, and as depressing as it might be to admit, the Seven Summits is basically a measure of how big your pocketbook is (because the kind of people who climb the Seven Summits carry around “pocketbooks”).
For those that aren’t familiar, the Seven Summits consist of the the highest peak on each of the seven continents: Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica) and Puncak Jaya (Oceania). The original list was created by Richard Bass in 1985, but he chose to include the highest peak on mainland Australia, the 7,000-foot Kosciuszko, which is basically a short hike. The second iteration of the list, courtesy of Reinhold Messner, included the highest peak in all of Oceania instead, Indonesia’s Puncak Jaya (16,024 ft), which is perhaps the most technical peak on the whole list, requiring some moderate rock skills. As such, Messner’s version of the Seven Summits is the one more serious mountaineers aspire to, and Patrick Morrow was the first to complete it.
I have no gripe with any of the peaks themselves. I’d like to attempt to summit them all someday myself. The “Seven Summits” mentality is the problem. It’s the same festering mentality that lives in selfies and Instagram and Twitter. It’s the mentality that has led thousands to the ramparts of Everest while most other 8,000-meter peaks see scant action by comparison. Folks who are going after the Seven Summits aren’t going after adventure or difficulty, they’re going after getting their name on the wall.
In a world where “firsts” are fast becoming an endangered species, the weekend explorers of our generation are scrambling to mop up the dying vestiges of fortune and glory. How else will they impress their co-workers at the annual Christmas party?
There’s never been any pretense that the Seven Summits is about pure difficulty. None of these peaks (with the exception, perhaps, of Puncak Jaya) are the most difficult on their respective continents, and some are downright walkups (though most do also have more difficult routes eschewed by Seven Summits suitors).
There was at one point an argument to be made that it was about sheer adventure and expedition skill. After all, gaining the Seven Summits requires traveling to all seven continents, navigating a variety of cultures, locales, climbing styles, terrains. But in 2020, with a McDonalds and smartphone coverage just about everywhere, globalization has left scant “adventure” to be found in this contrived challenge.
The lack of technical difficulty or the waning adventure a Seven Summits bid entails isn’t the problem, though. The worth of a goal is only its worth to the goal-seeker. We should just be aspiring to different goals—goals that don’t glorify people simply for paying an assload of money to fly around the world and have guides hold their hand up a summit.
On average, the total cost of climbing the Seven Summits is close to $120,000 for the expeditions alone, if not more. Add in flights, gear and everything else, and you’re looking at probably $150,000 or more. Yes. $150,000. Any sort of goal that requires a $150,000 investment can’t be truly seen as anything but a measure of wealth. There are hundreds of mountains in the world that are wilder, more remote, and more difficult than the Seven Summits, mountains that cost magnitudes less for people with the know-how to climb them independently. All these Seven Summits people are like folks who go to Disney World and just queue in front of the same ride all day long, when none of the other rides have anyone in line.
Of course, these peaks are worthy goals in their own right, and yes, a host of impressive feats have been accomplished on the Seven Summits, from Erik Weihenmayer’s blind ascents to Werner Berger’s completion of the goal at the ripe old age of 76. But the vast majority of people going after it aren’t disabled or members of minority groups or septuagenarians.
Even for those attempting to raise awareness for important causes, there are better objectives with which to do so, ones that aren’t intrinsically limited to either members of a certain economic class or someone who can drum up enough funding to, for all intents and purposes, be granted temporary access into said economic class. For example, Aron Ralston (of “127 Hours” fame), went on to summit every 14er in Colorado, in winter, with one arm, alone. That’s a goal that doesn’t have nearly as a high of a price tag, and it’s far more impressive than the Seven Summits. I know, because I’m trying to bag them myself, and I happen to have two arms.
Disclaimer 1: I have not summited any of the Seven Summits.
Disclaimer 2: I would gladly attempt them all someday given the opportunity. Anyone have a spare $150k?
Before some ex-frat guy who feels invalidated because he spent his trust fund on the Seven Summits tears me a new one in the comments section… the fact that I haven’t done it myself doesn’t disqualify me from an opinion. I haven’t mainlined heroin into my eyeball either, but I can advise y’all that that’s a pretty dumb venture too, right?
Don’t worry. Just so everyone isn’t completely at a loss as to what to do with your Bitcoin gains after this revelatory announcement, I’ve decided to create my own little challenge for all you globetrotting adventure seekers.
Go here:-33.720583, 73.103834. Once there, email me a selfie. If you’re first, I’ll buy you a beer.
The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.
Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer currently based in a tent. He also writes for The Outdoor Journal and Fiire. He was the first solo hiker on Slovenia’s Juliana Trail, and his coverage was published in this month’s Travel + Leisure. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is also afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.