Tales from a reluctant seven summiter…
When I started leading trekking and climbing expeditions to the Karakoram Himalaya in the late 1980's I had never heard of the 'seven summits'. A few years later when I began leading climbs to Kilimanjaro and ski expeditions to Elbrus I gradually became aware that these two peaks were part of the set. Over the years I built up 4 ascents of Kilimanjaro and 3 of Elbrus. Aconcagua is a popular guided peak, and one that most international guides will gravitate towards at some point, and I have been fortunate to lead 3 successful ascents. With two ascents of Everest under my belt I realised that I was more than half way to completing the set. Fortunate invitations to guide Vinson in 2003 and 2005 enabled me to add multiple ascents of the Antarctic summit to my list. As I was now looking to complete the set not once but twice, I visited Denali with friends in 2006 and made 2 ascents of the peak in June. I finally got a chance to climb Carstensz in 2009, completeing the full 'set'. I hope to return to Carstensz in the near future and make another ascent of the peak thus becoming one of the few people in the world to have completed the full set more than once. At some point I shall also visit Australia to climb Kosciuszko (twice), giving me the 'classic' full set as well as the 'modern' version.
Here are a few thoughts from my 27 successful expeditions to the 'seven summits' in the years 1992 - 2009.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's it became possible to organise relatively inexpensive expeditions to the mountains of the Caucuses. During this period I was heavily committed to running trekking and climbing programmes to the Karakoram during the summer months. So my only chance to visit Russia was in the Springtime. I led 4 ski mountaineering projects in the Caucuses in 1992 / 1993 / 1994. Three of these were 2 week guided programmes combining ski ascents of peaks and passes in the Baksan valley region with an ascent of Elbrus. The 1992 and 1994 programmes were enjoyable and incident free enabling most of the clients to reach the summit of Elbrus. However snow conditions were never suitable for the use of skis above 4,800m. In 1993 my Elbrus ski group encountered unusually severe weather on summit day. Four members of the group together with a Russian guide descended the 'wrong' side of the mountain and were missing for several days. Fortunately they were all well and recovered from their ordeal in time to face the British press in Moscow and London. In 1992 I was asked to guide a week Heliski programme for a group of Edinburgh based skiers while I was in the Caucasus. This was an entertaining if slightly stressful experience with a powerful 24 seat helicopter and a pilot with no experience of working with skiers. In Spring 1994 I organised a East to West traverse of the Central Caucasus range. As far as I know this had not been attempted before. The 4 man team completed 50% of the route from Verhny Balkaria to the Bezingi Glacier before abandoning the project in bad weather. An article describing this expedition was published in the Alpine Journal 1995. In 1994 I made my only summer ascent of Elbrus and ironically the snow conditions were better for skiing high on the mountain than on any of my Springtime ski trips. After making my third ascent of Elbrus I stayed in the Caucasus for a few weeks and climbed other peaks including Ushba 4696m, Ullu-Tau 4203m, Jailik 4533m & Shchurovsky 4259m. All these expeditions were 'High Adventure' projects.
I led 4 expeditions to East Africa in Dec 1993, July 1994, Dec 1995, Dec 1998. Each of these was a guided 2 week trip that included an ascent of Mount Kenya as well as an ascent of Kilimanjaro. The December trips were timed to take advantage of the Christmas / New Year holidays. On these 'winter' trips to Mt Kenya we climbed the Shipton route to the summit of Nelion 5188m. On one occasion we traversed the 'Gate of the Mists' to the summit of Batian 5199m. On the 'summer' trip we climbed the 'North Face Standard Route' direct to the summit of Batian. On Kilimanjaro I have guided the Umbwe / Western Breach route to the summit three times. On the Dec 1995 trip I led two people to the summit via the Heim Glacier route. On subsequent trips to East Africa I have climbed in the Rwenzori Mountains (including the Margherita summit on Mt Stanley 5109m) and in the Simien Highlands of Ethiopia (including the summit of Ras Deshan 4620m). Thus I have climbed the 4 highest peaks in Africa. All these expeditions were 'High Adventure' projects.
I have led 3 expeditions to the highest peak in South America. Each of these have been over the Christmas / New Year holiday period. In Dec 1994 I led a small group to the summit via the 'standard' Horcones Route from a base camp at Plaza des Mulas. I returned to repeat this route with a larger group in Dec 1999. We spent the eve of 'the Millennium' at camp 2 and most of the team summitted on Jan 3 2000. Both these expeditions were 'High Adventure' projects.
In Dec 2001 I led an expedition to Aconcagua for 'Andes'. We approached the mountain via the Relinchos valley to a base camp at Plaza Argentina. From here we climbed the Falso Polacos Route, joining the 'standard' route on summit day.
I have led four expeditions to Mt Everest, all for Jagged Globe. In Spring 1999 the team consisted of myself and 4 clients plus Sherpa support climbing from the Nepalese side of the mountain. There were some problems with the oxygen equipment on summit day and I was forced to stop at 8735m, just a little below the South Summit. One client and 2 Sherpas reached the summit. In Spring 2003 I co-led an expedition with Robert Anderson and 9 clients, again on the Nepal side of the peak. Both expedition leaders and 4 clients reached the summit on May 26. In Spring 2005 I led a team of 10 people to the Tibetan side of Mt Everest. Weather conditions were unusually poor for most of the season and our summit chance came very late. On June 3, three clients, three Sherpas and myself reached the summit. The following day my assistant leader Neal Short plus four clients and four sherpas reached the summit. I returned to the Nepal side of Everest in Spring 2008 leading a team of 8 climbers plus a strong Sherpa support crew. A total of 11 people reached the summit on 23rd May. In 2009 I led my first Everest expedition for Adventure Consultants. This was a very well resourced expedition and 2 leaders, 4 clients and a large number of Sherpas reached the summit on 19th May . On these 5 expeditions more than 60 people (leaders, clients, sherpas) reached the summit of Mt Everest. I am grateful to Jagged Globe and Adventure Consulatnts for giving me the opportunity to lead these expeditions. In addition to these Mt Everest expeditions I have led 7 other expeditions to 8000m peaks: 1997 Gasherbrum I, 1998 Gasherbrum II, 1999 Gasherbrum II, 2000 Broad Peak, 2001 Gasherbrum II, 2004 Shishapangma, 2009 Gasherbrum II.
I have climbed to the summit of Mt Vinson, the recently approved name of the highest point in Antarctica, 12 times. In Dec 2003 and Dec 2005 I led expeditions for Jagged Globe that resulted in all my clients reaching the top. In 2003 I also led the two clients on the expedition to the nearby summit of Mt Shinn 4660m which is climbed much less frequently. In the Dec 2006 / Jan 2007 season I was employed by ALE to work as a field guide / 'ranger' on Mt Vinson. During this period I made 3 ascents: one in a 'ranger' capacity and 2 while guiding clients for ALE. On all five of these climbs I have taken the East Ridge on the summit pyramid as my route of ascent and followed the West Ridge in descent. This is only slightly harder than using the West ridge for ascent/descent and offers a more interesting climbing experience. In the Dec 2007 / Jan 2008 season I worked again for ALE making 2 ascents of Mt Vinson with clients and one ascent on skis as part of a 'ranger patrol'. During my visits to Antarctica I have also guided three 'last degree' ski trips to the South Pole, in Dec 2003, Dec 2006, and Jan 2008.
Denali was the first of the 'seven summits' that I climbed while not being employed as a guide. Not only did I not get paid for going, it actually cost me money! In May/June 2006 I planned a ski ascent of the peak together with 3 friends from the Eagle Ski Club. Conditions on the mountain were icy and unfortunately we were not able to use skis above the 14,000ft camp. I reached the summit alone on 2 June, and again with one other member of the party on 5 June. This was my only visit to Alaska.
After making multiple ascents of the other 6 summits I realised that I really should visit Carstensz to complete the 'set'. Although not a technically difficult climb this peak has been plagued by access problems in recent years. Carstensz is located in the Indonesian province of West Papua and there are only 3 ways to get to the mountain. By road via the huge Freeport McMoran copper/Gold mine, by helicopter, or via a week-long jungle trek. Over the years each of these approaches have drifted in and out of favour. Currently the mine does not allow climbers access to the mountain via its property. This is unfortunate as this is by far the easiest and least expensive route. Helicopters have proved unreliable in the past and more than one group has been stranded in BC when their homeward helicopters have failed to arrive.
The jungle approach from Sugapa has a reputation for being a tough trek but is a more reliable option than the two other alternatives. This was the access route favoured by Adventure Consultants for their August 2009 expedition to Carstensz. I was very pleased to be offered the opportunity to lead this eight person expedition, visiting a part of the world that I had not seen before and climbing my 'seventh' summit. The group had a very 'international' feel with climbers from The USA, UK and Argentina, as well as Frenchman who lived in Germany and a New Zealander who lived in South Africa. As well as the five climbers who had signed up as individual clients the group was strengthened by the addition of Argentinean Guide Damian Benegas who was climbing with a private client.
The journey to Papua through Indonesia was memorable in its own right and I was pleased to slip in a 10 day holiday in Bali along the way. The trek though the jungle to base camp will not be easily forgotten by the team and I doubt than any of them will be planning another jungle adventure in the foreseeable future. On the climb itself we had a mix of bad weather and good weather, with conditions on the summit better than we had hoped for. All 8 climbers reached the top on 20th August. For full details of the expedition and the climb click here.
On 29th July 2010 David made his second ascent of Carstensz and became one of the small group of people who climbed each of the seven continental summits more than once.