The Seven Summits

High Points of the Seven Continents

Mount Everest
Richard Collins/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The Seven Summits, a well-known mountaineering objective, are the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. The Seven Summits, from highest to lowest, are:

  1. Asia: Mount Everest 29,035 feet (8850 meters)
  2. South America: Aconcagua 22,829 feet (6962 meters)
  3. North America: Denali AKA Mount McKinley 20,320 feet (6194 meters)
  4. Africa: Kilimanjaro 19,340 feet (5895 meters)
  5. Europe: Mount Elbrus 18,510 feet (5642 meters)
  6. Antarctica: Mount Vinson 16,067 feet (4897 meters)
  7. Australia: Mount Kosciusko 7,310 feet (2228 meters)
  8. Australasia/Oceania: Carstensz Pyramid 16,023 feet (4884 meters)

A Tale of Two Lists

American Dick Bass, an amateur mountaineer, adventurer, and businessman, and Frank Wells came up with the idea of climbing the Seven Summits, with Bass becoming the first to reach the top of all the continents in 1985. This was not without controversy, however, since Bass selected gentle Mount Kosciuszko, an easy day hike in Victoria, as the summit of Australia.

Reinhold Messner's Summit List

The great European mountaineer Reinhold Messner then created his own Seven Summits list. He included New Guinea's rugged Carstensz Pyramid, a remote, challenging limestone peak also called Puncak Jaya, as the high point of Australasia or Oceania rather than Mount Kosciuszko.

In 1986 Canadian Pat Morrow, using the Messner list, was the first climber to ascend those seven peaks. He later said, “Being a climber first and a collector second, I felt strongly that Carstensz Pyramid, the highest mountain in Australasia…was a true mountaineer’s objective.”

Messner himself summitted all seven peaks on his list a few months later in December 1986.

Mount Elbrus or Mont Blanc?

Besides the controversy between the high point of Australia or Australasia, there is disagreement over what peak is the roof of Europe. Mount Elbrus lies in Europe by only a few miles if you use the normal dividing line between Europe and Asia, whereas Mont Blanc, straddling the French, Italian, and Swiss borders, is clearly the highest summit in continental Europe. Nonetheless, most Seven Summit aficionados consider Elbrus as the top point and Mont Blanc as an also-ran.

Interesting Seven Summits Ascents

  • Over 400 people had climbed the Seven Summits by 2016.
  • The first woman to climb all the peaks was Japanese Junko Tabei, who finished in 1992.
  • Rob Hall and Gary Ball impressively climbed the Seven Summits in seven months in 1990 using the Bass list.
  • In 2006 Kit Deslauriers was the first to ski down all the peaks using the Bass list, while Swedes Olof Sunström and Martin Letzter skied the Seven Summits plus Carstensz Pyramid a few months later in 2007.

Seven Summits Controversy

The hype of climbing the Seven Summits has led to controversies as well. Many of the people who have completed their Seven Summits quest are inexperienced climbers who pay immense amounts of cash to outfitters and climbing guides to drag, cajole, and short-rope them up the difficult peaks.

Critics argue that guides, like those on the disastrous 1996 Everest season, put client’s lives in danger by pushing them toward summits in bad weather conditions. Amateur Seven Summit climbers far too often skip garnering the necessary experience and skills which would allow them to climb these peaks as expedition members rather than guided clients, instead often shelling out sums approaching $100,000 for a chance to reach these lofty summits.

Climbing the Seven Summits

Mount Everest is considered the most difficult and dangerous of the Seven Summits for climbers. Carstensz Pyramid is technically the most difficult of the seven peaks to climb, requiring advanced technical rock climbing skills. 

Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, if you’re doing the “easy” list, is the easiest to climb, being just a short day hike.

Otherwise, the big rounded volcano of Kilimanjaro, also a walk-up peak, is also relatively easy to climb, though the altitude often defeats many of its suitors. It’s usually the first peak of the Seven Summits that climbers tick off their list.

Both Aconcagua and Mount Elbrus are also fairly simple climbs which are successfully ascended with basic mountaineering skills in good weather. Aconcagua, with a trail most of the way to its summit, is still a high mountain and proper acclimatization is essential for success.

Denali and Mount Vinson present rather more serious challenges to would-be climbers. Denali is a huge mountain covered with glaciers and exposed to severe weather, while Vinson in Antarctica is remote, hard to reach, and expensive.

What Does It Cost?

If you’re interested in climbing the Seven Summits with a guide service, be prepared to spend over $150,000 for guide fees alone. You'll need to assess the detailed costs of climbing the Seven Summits to see what that goal will set you back and begin saving for the trips.

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