I’m not a professional mountaineer, nor do I think paying an experienced guide makes me one.
Nevertheless, I am an avid hiker and the allure of altitude always draws me in. So when I heard about an opportunity to join a mountaineering expedition on Mount Aconcagua–South America’s highest peak–in the course of backpacking through Argentina, my interest was piqued. After hearing that there were no particularly technical parts to the ascent, I was sold.
This would be my entrée to the “Seven Summits,” a concept I was unfamiliar with before agreeing to the trip.
As I quickly learned, the Seven Summits are the highest peaks on each continent. The term also describes the mountaineer’s quest to summit all seven–an idea that has captured the imagination of climbers and tourists alike and drawn huge crowds to these peaks.
But, much to my surprise, reaching the summit of the highest mountain in South America…was the most anti-climactic event of my life.
After a two-week trek with my climbing group, a snow storm reared its head. Shortly after we reached the top, park rangers closed the summit, denying the climbers behind us access to it entirely for safety reasons. The scene turned ugly, and fast, providing me yet another entrée: to the dark side of high mountaineering culture.
When you’ve devoted the not inconsiderable time, money, and energy required to reach a point such as this, being turned away within sight of the summit is a tough pill to swallow. Our expedition leaders wrangled with park rangers as the storm continued to move in, further endangering the lives of everyone involved. (Luckily, we all made it back safely.)
While I enjoyed my Aconcagua experience, I don’t intend to attempt another Seven Summit peak again.
There are thousands of mountains in the world. Experiencing high-altitude tranquility and beauty is much more rewarding than socializing in base camps that are big enough to have their own postal code.
What’s more, climbing a mountain simply to say you’ve climbed it seems to me to run counter to the true spirit of mountaineering–or what it should be, at least.
In this day and age, the rush to conquer all Seven Summits has made climbing these mountains an overpriced and overcrowded experience. Everest is a case in point. Hikers wait in a queues for hours because there aren’t enough summit days in a season to meet the demand. Last year, rising tensions boiled over in an unprecedented fight between sherpas and visiting climbers at base camp.
I doubt this is what Sir Edmund Hillary and the other mountaineering legends had envisioned as the future of the sport.
If you enjoy climbing for climbing’s sake like I do, there are plenty of alternatives to the Seven Summit peaks. For example, my budget prevented me from hiking Mount Kilimanjaro when I was in East Africa a few years back. I hiked Mount Mulanje in Malawi instead for a fraction of the cost.
It may not have been the highest peak in Africa, but the diverse tropical mountain climates and sprawling tea plantations in the foothills made it a dream hike that didn’t break the bank. Nor did I have to wait in line to reach the top!
Here are some other peak possibilities for hikers looking to steer clear of the price tag and competitiveness associated with the Seven Summit world:
> Alternative Africa:
> Alternative Asia:
> Alternative North America:
- Nat Geo Expeditions
> Alternative South America:
> Alternative Europe:
> Alternative Oceania:
- Mount Bromo in East Java, Indonesia
- Mount Merbabu in Central Java, Indonesia
- Mount Kerinci in Sumatra, Indonesia
Ben Long is a writer and photographer from Lewisburg, West Virginia, who is currently based in Central America. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr and follow his story on Twitter and Instagram @benlongtales.