Introduction (From the book “Climbing the Seven Summits” by Mike Hamill, published by The Mountaineers Books:
No one has had as great an impact on the idea of the Seven Summits as the men who coined the term and were the first to complete all the climbs. Dick Bass, Frank Wells, and Pat Morrow first introduced the idea and in doing so captivated the imagination of many. They turned a dream into reality by overcoming obstacles and showed the rest of us that climbing the Seven Summits could be done when Bass became the first to climb them all in 1985. Americans Bass and Wells, Canadian Morrow, and Italian Reinhold Messner were pioneers in every sense of the word in popularizing the concept of the Seven Summits.
Why has climbing the highest peak on each continent become a popular goal for experienced and novice climbers alike? In the last decade and a half of leading thousands of clients and climbing with many professionals on the Seven Summits, I have come to realize there are a variety of reasons for climbing the Seven Summits. These range from simply wanting to travel to each of the seven continents to fulfilling a lifetime climbing goal, to pursuing work as a guide and setting speed records. No matter why people climb the Seven Summits, they all have at least one goal in common: adventure.
My own pursuit of adventure, pure and simple, is part of what has compelled me to guide expeditions on the Seven Summits. Beyond fueling my own desire for adventure, I take satisfaction in helping others experience these awe-inspiring landscapes and attain their climbing goals. I’ve had the pleasure of climbing in some of the most rugged places on Earth with some of the most intriguing people on the planet. Professors, pipe-fitters, astronauts, renowned climbers, and tattoo artists are just a few of the unique individuals I’ve shared these mountains with. While sharing my knowledge of the climbs, I have in turn learned more from the people I climbed with their lives, vocations, avocations, and triumphs.
Climbing the Seven Summits has been an education for me. I’ve learned more about countries and cultures than I could have through formal education. Conversing with local people and listening to their perspectives tells you a lot about their culture and your own. Growing up, I dreamed of traveling to exotic, remote, and rugged landscapes, with Antarctica on the top of the list. To be able to climb the tallest peak on each of the seven continents has been the icing on the cake. From viewing penguins in southern Chile to trekking with Chagga tribesmen in Tanzania, to drinking cognac with South Ossetians in southern Russia, climbing the Seven Summits has inspired me to learn about the world and the people we share it with.
In the few decades since Bass, Wells, and Morrow pioneered the idea of the Seven Summits, it has grown from just a dream to an entire industry. In the early 1980s, there were few climbers on any of the Seven Summits, but now thousands scale at least one each year. In 1985, the logistics and costs of such an endeavor were mind- boggling, and climbing on any of the Seven Summits was still in its relative infancy. Climbing gear was heavier, bulkier, and unacceptable by today’s standards. Organizing the expeditions in the ’80s was a full-time job, and paying for the logistics was more suited for wealthy businessmen like Bass and Wells. There wasn’t a commercial guiding industry like we have today, and the climbing techniques used on the Seven Summits were quite different. Bass, Wells, and Morrow deserve a lot of credit for piecing together such a complex puzzle and surmounting these obstacles.
There is no arguing that climbing the Seven Summits has changed considerably since the ’80s. The challenges that Bass, Wells, and Morrow overcame are different from what we face today. Nowhere is this truer than on Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Little was known about Vinson when Bass and Wells went there in the early ’80s—and even less was known during its first ascent in 1966. Today, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), a company with operations in Antarctica that routinely ferries climbers on flights to and from the continent, takes care of most of these logistics for a fee.
Climbing Mount Everest has also changed significantly. People have followed Everest climbing closely since the early days of Britons George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in the 1920s, to the first ascent by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953, and especially during the tragic climbing year 1996 when many perished on the mountain. Today, Everest is the best known of the Seven Summits, receives much press, and holds a unique place in our collective imagination. It took Dick Bass three attempts to summit Everest. In those days, only one team per year was granted a permit to climb the mountain. Today, there may be forty expeditions or more on the mountain each year. When Mallory first explored Everest from the north side in 1921, it took him more than a month just to reach base camp. Today, climbers can drive there in two days from Katmandu.
In 2011 alone, several people completed the Seven Summits, and thousands scaled at least one of them. In 1990 New Zealanders Rob Hall and Gary Ball were the first to complete the Seven Summits in less than a year, finishing just hours under seven months. Recently an American climber, Vernon Tejas, climbed them all in just 134 days! A fifteen-year-old American named Jordan Romero became the youngest person to complete the Seven Summits in 2011. Several people have now skied all of the Seven Summits.
Progress in logistics, climbing techniques, safety, and environmental responsibility on the Seven Summits is due in large part to the leaders who spent their careers scaling these great peaks. Each one has helped drive the industry forward and create a better, safer climbing experience on these mountains. Phil Ershler, a leading US guide and Himalayan climber, was an integral part of the Wells-Bass team in the early days. Beyond his expertise on peaks including Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga, he was a pioneering guide on Aconcagua and Denali, which are part of his yearly routine. He now has more than seventy ascents of the individual peaks of the Seven Summits under his belt.
Eric Simonson, also a veteran on many Denali, Kilimanjaro, Vinson, and Aconcagua expeditions, was one of the first to offer commercial expeditions to Mount Everest. The infrastructure he, along with others including Russell Brice, Rob Hall, and Todd Burleson, put in place in the late ’80s and ’90s shaped the climbing industry we see today.
Others, too, have played an integral role in the development of climbing at least one of the Seven Summits. Brian Okonek, Colby Coombs, Ray “the Pirate” Genet, Vernon Tejas, Rodrigo Mujica, Willie and Damien Benegas, Dave Hahn, Giles Kershaw, Jim Williams, and Igor Tsaruk are just a few of these leaders. Brian Okonek, Colby Coombs, and Caitlin Palmer, working with Alaska-Denali guiding (now Alaska Mountaineering School), have helped implement standards for guiding and operation within Denali National Park and Preserve. Their cumulative knowledge was finally put in print with Colby’s comprehensive guide on Denali’s West Buttress route and his Alaska range climbing guide with Mike Wood (see Resources). Okonek recently retired from guiding on Denali, but for decades he employed a methodical approach to leadership, safety, guide development, and environmental stewardship on one of the world’s most extreme mountains.
Rodrigo Mujica has done as much as anyone to develop climbing and guiding on Aconcagua, his backyard peak. A Chilean, Mujica was one of the first to pioneer the Vacas Valley approach and make guiding Aconcagua commonplace.
The late Giles Kershaw, although he probably wouldn’t have described himself as a great climber, was a pioneer on Vinson Massif, spearheading exploration on the Antarctic continent by air. Giles also championed an effort that eventually became Adventure Network International (ANI), the first commercial logistics company for Vinson expeditions.
These are just a few of the intrepid souls who have made pursuing the Seven Summits an attainable goal for the rest of us and have implemented safety and environmental measures that help ensure climbing can continue on these peaks well into the future. No matter how experienced climbers are in the mountains, they never know what the next expedition will bring. Weather, climbing companions, and climbing conditions are just a few of the variables that change from trip to trip, making each experience unique and exciting. Even the most benign of the Seven Summits can turn into a life-and-death struggle in the wrong conditions. This visceral desire for adventure compels us to seek out the unknown. We challenge ourselves to feel alive and, ultimately, get to know ourselves and others on a much deeper level than we could otherwise.