This page provides an overview of what the Seven Summits challenge is as well as Seema’s account of her trip to each of these mountains. Please scroll down to read the reports.
Seven Summits is a popular undertaking in mountaineering, wherein climber attempts to ascend the highest peak on every continent. The peaks involved are Everest, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Denali, Vinson Massif and Puncak Jaya or Kosciuszko (depending on whether you choose Reinhold Messner’s or Richard Bass’s version of the challenge).
The story of Seven Summits appears to begin with the American mountaineer, William D. Hackett. According to Wikipedia, in 1947, he reached the top of Mt McKinley (now known as Denali) in Alaska. Hackett was then a lieutenant in the US Army. Two years later, he climbed Aconcagua and year after that, Kilimanjaro. In 1956, he climbed both Mt Kosciuszko and Mont Blanc; the latter considered in those years to be the highest point in Europe. In 1960, Hackett attempted Vinson Massif and Everest but did not succeed. However, with what he had accomplished, he became the first man to top five of the highest summits in each continent. In 1983, Richard Bass, an American businessman and amateur mountaineer climbed all of the Seven Summits, except Everest. His companion on all these climbs was Frank Wells, fellow businessman and former president of entertainment major, Walt Disney.
In 1985, Bass climbed Everest in a party without Wells. That successful ascent made him the first man to complete Seven Summits. Interestingly in 1978, the famous Italian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner had reached the summit of six of the peaks in the list. But it was 1986 by the time he got around to climbing Vinson in Antarctica; he ended up the fifth man to complete the Seven Summits challenge. The first woman to wrap up Seven Summits was the Japanese mountaineer, Junko Tabei. In 2006, the late Malli Mastan Babu, well known mountaineer from India, became the first Indian to accomplish Seven Summits, completing the challenge in 172 days. At that time, it was fastest completion. In 2013, Premlata Agarwal became the first Indian woman to complete Seven Summits. In May 2018, the media reported that the fastest completion had touched 117 days, the credit going to Australian mountaineer Steve Plain.
As mentioned, Seema does not view Seven Summits as an end in itself. She views it as a milestone to look forward to; the journey continues. What she would like to be on is a longer trip. She sees herself continuing to visit mountains, trek and climb and attempt to push further the conditions she can cope with. Seema is conscious of her life’s early years and the toll they took. “ It’s never too late to be what you might have been,’’ she said.
Sikkim, March 2015. During a trip to Darjeeling, Dinesh and I decided to make a quick trip to the south side of Kanchenjunga. The weather was still cold. Days felt crisp and beautiful.
While pitching our tent at Chokha we were greeted by a stranger with a “ hello’’ and the offer of an apple. It was Sergey Chulkov, a mountain guide from Russia. We ended up on the same trail for the rest of the trip. That was the beginning of a friendship. We promised to meet again soon; this time in Russia to explore the Caucasus Mountains.
Five months later at the recommendation of a friend, the two of us were in Ladakh for a trip lasting two weeks, exploring a new route in eastern Nubra Valley. The trek involved three passes, all above 5350 meters in remote, beautiful setting. It was perfect setting to decide we should extend that mountain experience all the way to the Caucasus. Next thing we knew, we were on a flight to Moscow!
It was a delight to be received and greeted by Sergey that August at the airport in Mineralnye Vody. Being a mountain guide he made it easy for us – food, stay, travel; all of that got addressed efficiently. While exploring Mineralnye Vody (it is a resort town) and exchanging stories of our trips, Sergey came up with the suggestion that we attempt Mt. Elbrus since we were recently acclimatised to 5000 plus meters in Ladakh. We had neither expedition gear nor logistics arranged for such an attempt. Sergey convinced us to rent gear. We quickly picked up our permits; acquired some rations, hired our gear and headed into the mountains.
Elbrus has two summits, both of which are dormant volcanic domes. The taller west summit is 5642 meters (18,510 feet); the east summit is 5621 meters (18,442 feet). The east summit was first ascended on July 10, 1829 by Khillar Khachirov, and the west summit in 1874 by a British expedition led by F. Crauford Grove; the latter expedition included Frederick Gardner, Horace Walker and the Swiss guide Peter Knubel of St. Niklaus.
We decided to attempt the west summit.
We started our expedition from Treskol village. While we were there, we got news about three Polish climbers who seemed to have disappeared on the mountain. Elbrus is famous for its notorious weather conditions and great wind speeds. Climbers often underestimate the moody weather. The search and rescue teams could recover the bodies of two of the three Polish climbers. The search was still on for the third missing climber, when our attempt got underway. We took a cab to Azau (2350 meters; 7710 feet). A cable car service is available from Azau to the normal starting location for the Elbrus climb, known as Barrels Hut or Garabashi Station (3720 m; 12,200 ft.). The normal route on Elbrus is the easiest, safest and fastest on account of the cable car and chairlift system which operates from about 9 AM till 3 PM. Starting for the summit at about 2 AM from Diesel Hut or Leaprus mountain hut allows just enough time to get back down to the chairlift if movement is efficient. The ascent of Elbrus from the south takes about 6–9 hours with total height gain of 1700–2000 meters (5600–6600 feet) between Barrels Huts and the west summit of Elbrus.
At Barrel Huts, we stayed in one of the barrels (metal containers used for cargo). One can cook and sleep in these barrels cosily despite bad weather and stormy conditions outside. Next morning we walked to Pesthakova Rocks from Barrel Huts to get used to the mountain. It took us couple of hours. The next destination was Diesel Hut at 4050 meters (13,290 feet). It is located south from Barrels Huts and up the slopes of Elbrus. We were forced to stay in Barrel Huts for four days as the weather was bad. While waiting for the weather to clear, we connected with climbers from different parts of the world. There were Turks, Europeans, Russians, and Chinese. Russians are generally simple, friendly people. They love Indian music and Indian movies. Many of them have heard of actors, Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty; some know film songs they appeared in.
As teams started going for their summit bid, there was both excitement and nervousness. The weather started deteriorating steadily. We decided to wait it out. Amid strong winds, other teams came back disappointed. Watching all this, Dinesh and I started doubting our summit bid too. Finally, we got a small weather window. We set our alarm for 1.30 AM, cooked some dinner of buckwheat and some borsh (a Russian vegetable soup with mostly beetroots in it). Then we prepared the gear and went off to sleep. No one could sleep well that night. It was very cold.
At 1.30 AM we woke up and started getting ready. In the excitement, we could hardly eat the oat porridge with banana Sergei made; somehow we gulped it all down and set out. It was 2.30 in the morning. The weather was not perfect for the summit attempt. The temperature that night on the summit was minus 35.
From Diesel Hut the route heads straight up towards the east summit of Elbrus, then continues south up the slopes. The slopes surrounding the classical route to Elbrus from the south contain large crevasses. The classical route up Elbrus becomes steeper after passing between two linear rock bands. After leaving this section, the Elbrus route heads on – first northward, to the east summit of Elbrus, or rather the saddle between the east and west summits of Elbrus (5416 m eters; 17,769 feet), but soon it turns left to the west summit (5642 meters; 18,510 feet). Before reaching this saddle, the route passes through a gently sloped basin filled with snow. At the saddle there is a shelter, from which the route heads west, then – left, in the direction of rocks forming the shoulder of the west summit. It is a narrow, exposed snow path allowing for a straight dash to the summit ridge. The gusty winds slowed us down. We were forced to bend down every few minute to avoid being toppled.
It was 7 AM when we reached the col. The temperature was really low. Our speech was slurred and there was snot frozen on us. We decided to rest and have some tea from our flask. As I poured the tea into the cup, I noticed a woman in her twenties lying down and two men trying help her. We found out that she had tumbled down from the slopes above as while trying to clip to the safety line. The strong wind had thrown her off balance. The fixed safety lines were starting from a few hundred feet above the col. We could see a number of people headed towards it.
We made good time in getting to the ropes, took a short break and were soon on the summit plateau overtaking many climbers in the process. We walked on relatively flat area for a short time and found ourselves just below the final slope to the summit. We were now sure that nothing could stop us from getting to the top. We could see Sergei waiting for us on the top with a big smile. The final 30 feet to the top was a narrow track. We took slow steps and got to the top. The summit was flat, big enough to hold many people. It used to have a bust of Lenin till the early 1990s. It has been replaced by a block of ice, flags and other offerings from climbers.
We were standing at the highest point of Europe. We had set out with the idea of meeting a friend and hiking in the Caucasus and here we were on top of Elbrus.
Thus, very unexpectedly, my Seven Summits journey began.
“ POLE POLE’’ TO KILIMANJARO
As my Seven Summits journey began with Mt. Elbrus, I started researching and reading about the remaining six highest points of each continent.
Mt, Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa and the highest standing free-standing mountain in the world (free-standing because it stands alone and is not part of any mountain range). It has three volcanic cones, Mowenzi, Shira and Kibo; the first two are extinct but Kibo, the highest peak, is dormant and could erupt again. It had erupted about 200 years ago. The highest summit on the Kibo crater rim is called Uhuru peak (Freedom in Swahili)
There are six popular routes to climb Kilimanjaro. We decided to go on the Marangu route. Dates were decided and tickets quickly booked to both Tanzania and Ladakh, the latter for acclimatization
Day 1: Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut (6046 feet to 8046 feet)
In mid-August we did a trek in Ladakh as acclimatization drill, came back to New Delhi and headed straight to Tanzania. We landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport and drove two hours to Marangu Hotel.
The same evening our service provider Mr. David – an Irish settler in Tanzania, he provided logistics support for the expedition – greeted us. After a quick chat over tea he checked our gear and equipment. Next morning, we met up with the rest of the expedition members, three Irish boys from Dubai and two Tanzanian sisters. In the next couple of hours, following our introduction to the support staff, our team set out in a bus to Marangu Gate with four guides and 15 porters.
After completing the National Park Permit formalities at the Gate we hiked through tropical, lush green, beautiful rain forest.
It took us 4 hours of moderate uphill slog to get to Mandara Huts.
We were housed in warm cosy wooden huts which were set up in a clearing among tall trees in the forest.
Day 2: Mandara Hut to Horambu (8858 feet to 12,205 feet)
Next morning, after a quick breakfast, the team headed out in cold foggy conditions.
The trail went through thick forest for an hour or so and then we found ourselves in high moorland. We got our first view of Kibo and Mowenzi peaks. We walked for seven hours to reach this next camp of Horambu. Again we stayed in wooden huts. It was a wonderful experience.
Day 3: Horambu Hut to Mowenzi Ridge (acclimatization walk)
We set out after a nice breakfast to Mowenzi Ridge. The landscape was unique. The route offered a complete view of upper Kilimanjaro for the first time.
We walked till a low shoulder on the ridge between Mowenzi and Killi. By now the land scape resembled moonscape.
After half hour of resting, eating and taking pictures, we headed back to Horambu Hut.
Day 4: Horambu Hut to Kibo Hut (12,205 feet to 15,430 feet)
Today was a long “ pole pole’’ walk for the team. In the local language it meant walking slowly. Apparently, it was standard approach for all teams on the mountain as climbers have to acclimatize to the new heights. Getting sick at this stage means missing the summit!
It was quite frustrating for us as we were already acclimatized to elevation and wanted to move fast.
The initial hours were mostly gradual uphill walk on clear marked trail. The middle part entailed walking on a plateau, on dusty trails. The last bit was gradual uphill to the huts at 15,000 feet-plus elevation. Since we had broken away from the main group we reached camp almost an hour before others in bright sunshine.
We moved into a stone building with bunker beds. The place was cold and dusty due to the wind. We kept ourselves entertained by interacting with the local people and exploring features around the camp site.
After an early dinner, we all retired to bed by 6 PM with the plan of getting up by 12 midnight for a 1 AM departure.
Again due to our better state of acclimatization, we bargained and managed an extra hour of sleep!
Summit Day: Kibo Hut to summit and back to Horambu Huts
We were forced to wake up at midnight due to all the commotion in the hut.
We left at 2:30 PM. Two girls from our group had in the meantime turned around and returned to the hut. Within an hour we caught up with the group. We all climbed up the steep scree hill slowly in single file. After an hour of frustratingly slow walking we, along with a guide, cut loose from the main group and headed up to the rim of the crater.
Just as the sun was cresting the horizon we found ourselves at Gilman Point, a notch in the ridge line along the crater rim.
We waited for the rest of the team to join us. We witnessed a breathtakingly beautiful sunrise from the rim before continuing along the ridge.
Summit was still some distance away.
The terrain along the rim was undulating. It forced us to shift from east to west; we could now see the remnants of the glacier around the crater.
In an hour’s time we reached Stella Point, intersection of Marangu route with Machame route. The crowd along the summit trail now resembled a mela!
After surmounting the last few steps we found ourselves on the summit plateau. We could see people milling around a large signboard denoting the highest point of the continent; Kilimanjaro’s summit – 5895 meters / 19,341 feet. From its base to the top, the climb entails an ascent of around 16,100 feet; the reason Kilimanjaro is deemed the highest among free-standing mountains on Earth. While the journey up is a trek capable of being executed by any reasonably fit person alert to handling altitude, in the history of mountain climbing with its dominance by Europeans, the credit for Kilimanjaro’s first ascent goes to Hans Meyer and Ludwig Putscheller. They reached the top in 1889.
We waited a long time for the team to join and after the customary photo session, we headed down. It had taken us around six and a half hours to get to the summit from Kibo. We covered the same distance in one and a half hours on the way down.
We wound up camp and headed down to Horambu for some rest.
It had been a long day.
Day 6: Trek down to the starting gate
We were looking forward to getting back to the hotel for shower and good food. We all left early from the Horambu huts and with a half jog-half walk pace we made it to the gates in less than half the time we had taken to climb up.
The bus picked the team up at the gate to ferry us back to Marangu Hotel.
Late afternoon/evening was spent with the support team, drinking beer, singing songs and appreciating each other’s contribution the past week.
Customary Certificates were distributed to all team members.
Day 7: Flight back to India.
AS HIGH AS IT GETS IN THE WEST AND SOUTH
Cerro Acancagua, as Aconcagua is known in Spanish, is in the province of Western Mendoza in west – central Argentina.
It is on the country’s border with Chile.
Aconcagua is an extinct volcano. Located in the Andes mountain range, it is the highest mountain in both the southern and western hemispheres.
Acancagua has many climbing routes, the most popular being the normal route and the Polish traverse route.
The mountain is famous for its strong winds and low temperatures. But the greater challenge is the altitude; the summit lay at 6960.8 meters / 22,837 feet. The season to climb Aconcagua is December- January.
I did my homework and signed up with an Argentinian service provider. I booked my tickets and headed straight to Ladakh for my pre-acclimatization drill. Temperatures in Ladakh were sub-zero the whole day, with lows dipping to minus 25.
This was perfect for me to get used to the extreme cold of Aconcagua, not to mention the altitude.
After spending two weeks in Ladakh, I travelled to South America via Europe.
I reached Mendoza after an arduous 43 hour-flight and promptly checked into a hotel.
Next morning I was scheduled to meet the guides and members of the expedition team and check necessary gear and supplies. After that I was to pack.
Our expedition team consisted of 10 members including me. We were from all over the world. We had three guides to assist us. Altogether, we were thus a 13 member-team.
Day 1: Mendoza to Los Peritentes
Next day, that is 28th of December, the expedition began. We collected our permits and headed to Los Peritentes at 2580 meters. We checked into a hotel there to spend the night.
Day 2: Los Peritentes to Confluencia (2580 to 3400 meters)
We started walking from Honcores Valley at 2950 meters where our permits were checked at the gate. Undulating terrain followed Rio Honcores to the campsite at Confluencia (3400 meters). Confluencia as the name suggests is the meeting point of two valleys. We reached camp and pitched our tents; rested for the day.
Day 3: Confluencia to Plaza De Franca to Confluencia (3400 to 4050 and back to 3400 meters)
Today was acclimatization day. We headed towards the south side and trekked for about five hours to reach the south basecamp. The view was impressive. After spending some time there, we trekked back to Camp Confluencia only to realize that a couple of our tents had blown off in the wind. This was the first taste of Aconcagua for me. A feeling of what wind speed can do and how cold it can get, grew on me.
Day 4: Confluencia to Plaza De Mulas (3400 to 4350 meters)
Plaza De Mulas in Quechua means the place of mules. This is the last point on the mountain where mules can ferry expedition supplies to. Beyond base camp one has to lug stuff up the rest of the mountain; it’s all on climbers’ backs.
Today was a long nine hour trek to base camp. The trail began with a flat walk along the river Honcores, crossing many of its tributaries. The trail got steeper towards base camp. We knew that we would be spending the next five days in this camp. We quickly pitched tents and settled down to rest for the day.
Day 5: (4350 meters Plaza De Mulas)
It was a day to rest and recuperate. We got to meet other expedition teams; eat good food, play cards and chess. We were screened by a team of doctors for acclimatization and fitness.
Day 6: Plaza De Mulas to Mt Bonnette (4350 to 5004 meters)
Today’s schedule was to climb Mt. Bonnete (5004 meters), as part of acclimatization. It was steep scree terrain with boulder sections towards the summit. It took us about eight hours to get to the summit and back to base camp. I had a clear view of the route almost all the way to Aconcagua from Mt. Bonette.
Day 7: Plaza De Mulas to Camp Canada (4350 to 5050 meters)
Today’s was a serious outing onto the flanks of the mountain as we made our way to Camp Canada. We ascended a series of switchbacks and the trail was much steeper than anything we had done so far. We carried some of our expedition gear and food supplies to cachet before returning to Plaza De Mulas.
Day 8: Plaza De Mulas
This was our last rest day before beginning our ascent of Acancagua. We finalized our gear and got ready for the climb.
Day 9: Plaza De Mulas to Camp Canada (4350 to 5050 meters)
Today we began our ascent of Aconcagua. Nine out of ten members started up the mountain. It felt a lot easier than the day before. It was the benefits of acclimatization kicking in. As soon as we reached our destination we pitched tents, melted snow and prepared dinner. Then, we rested.
Day 10: Camp Canada to Nido De Condores (5050 to 5560 meters)
Today on the ascent to Nido De Condores (Camp 2), the route got steeper. We climbed for a couple of hours and reached the camp. As we were pitching tents the weather turned bad.
This is the thing about big mountains. They make their own weather. As the weather turns bad it can get very cold in no time. It snowed nonstop from then till next morning. We came out from our tents periodically to clear the accumulated snow and save our shelter from collapsing.
Day 11: Nido De Condores (5560 meters)
We woke up to good weather. After munching some chocolate bars for breakfast, we got ready to go to Camp Cholera as part of load-ferry. Camp Cholera is at 5930 meters. It is at an exposed spot and can get very cold and windswept. After a few hours of steep uphill in the snow, we reached camp. Once again, the weather turned bad. We managed to make a cachet of our rations and equipment and descended to lower camp.
Day 12: Nido De Condores to Camp Cholera (5560 to 5930 meters)
The weather had cleared out. We were scheduled to break the camp at Nido de Condores and proceed to the summit camp: Camp Cholera. The same night we would attempt the summit.
One of our team members, an Australian athlete, developed severe altitude problems and had to be evacuated. Now we were eight team members with three guides.
We packed up and climbed to the final camp. The weather improved. Our guide, Mariano, got the weather report from base camp. Weather was going to be nice for the next two days. We were all excited for the summit attempt.
At 6 PM we had early dinner and prepared our gear for the summit. Then, we went to sleep.
Day 13/14: Camp Cholera to Summit and back to Camp Cholera (5930 to 6962 and return to 5930)
This was the most arduous day of the expedition. We set off early, at around 3.30 AM. It was a starry night and the temperature was minus 35. We walked in a file. After two hours, one of our team members, a Frenchman who was distance runner, decided to go back as he was exhausted. We headed up the north ridge to Independencia Refuge (6250 meters) by sunrise. From here we followed the route and traversed up to a ridge known as Cresta Del Viento. This area was very exposed; it was windy and cold. We then crossed the top of a huge scree field that stretched all the way to base camp, to reach the base of Canaletta. There was ankle deep snow and ice. This three hundred metre steep slope led to the summit ridge.
After an extremely demanding section, we reached Cresta Del Guanaco, the ridge that joins the mountain’s southern summit (6930 meters) to the north summit (6962 metres). We followed the track to the north. This was the most strenuous section of the climb. We finally reached the summit around noon. A small, aluminium cross marked the highest point in South America. The weather was clear and perfect on the summit. The views were stunning. It was a surreal experience. We spent close to an hour on the summit. I unfurled the Indian flag. We ate our packed lunch and quickly descended to high camp. It was a 13 hour-round trip. We felt very strong and happy. We had dinner and went off to sleep.
We broke the camp and started descending the mountain. We were all eager to reach base camp and have a shower, eat a proper meal.
After a long descend we all reached base camp. It was party time. We had pizzas and champagne for dinner.
We trekked all the way from base camp to the road head, which was a long haul. Our bus was waiting for us at Los Peritentes. We reached Mendoza at night.