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Climbing the 7 Summits: Author Describes What It Takes to Reach Each Continent's High Point

On Monday I published an interview with climber Mike Hamill, author of Climbing the Seven Summits, in The Seattle Times.

Hamill is one of approximately 350 people who have stood on the high points of all 7 continents, and his book explains the routes and basic preparation needed to make summit attempts at those peaks.

In this published interview Hamill, 35, talks about the kind of people who are attracted to taking on such a goal, and he offers an opinion on how the peaks stack up in order of difficulty.

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Interesting: Alaska’s Denali comes in at No. 2 on Hamill’s toughness list, topped only by Mount Everest. Hamill has summited Everest 4 times, Denali 9 times and Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua 19 times.

The print article could not accommodate space for all of the questions I asked Hamill, so I’ve included those additional responses below.

Included at the end are his recollections on the recent tragedy on Nepal’s Mount Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest peak at 26,759 feet/8,156 meters, where an avalanche killed at least 11 climbers. Hamill, guiding on the mountain at the time, was in camp when the avalanche occurred and was involved in the rescue effort.

REI: Does one need any special qualities to make the 7 summits a goal?

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Hamill (in photo, left): The 7 summits aren’t for everybody, but I think most people out there could set a goal to climb at least one of them and in doing so step out of their comfort zone, experience a new culture and use it as an excuse to get fit.

Whether or not people have a desire to climb, I think it's important to dream. Those who do want to climb the 7 summits should be prepared to dedicate a lot of time to training and organizing expeditions.

It's a huge commitment that can't be underestimated. People need to be highly motivated, very fit, have a flexible schedule and be willing to master the intricacies of mountain travel and climbing technique if they haven't already.

REI: What nonphysical skills are important?

Hamill: Understanding the culture of these trips. When you’re on climbing trips you’re part of a group. You can certainly be an individual, but you have to always work together as a group. The people who do best on these trips are people who are social and want to help out the group and make it successful. If someone does that, they’re more likely to be successful themselves.

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On Lhotse Face, Mount Everest. (Mike Hamill photo.)

REI: Beyond the physical and metal rigors, what else is daunting about pursuing the 7 summits?

Hamill: Committing to such a big goal and staying focused on attaining that ultimate goal over the course of years, and sometimes decades.

REI: How did climbing get its grips on you?

Hamill: I was a competitive Nordic skier all through high school and college, and I went to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York where they had a really good Division I team.

The school has this really old outing club, an outdoor program, and it had a good group of climbers when I got there. I connected with them and fit in. They taught me a lot about climbing. That’s really where I got my start.

I was elected captain of the skiing team my senior year but ended up declining the position in order to climb full time. Nordic skiing had been a huge part of my life up to that point, so that was a big decision for me, but as it turned out, it was a great decision.

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Snow arch frames Alaska's Mount Foraker. (Mike Hamill photo.)

REI: Even with its inherent risks, climbing appealed to you more than the sport you had always pursued?

Hamill: For me it was adventure of it, the history, the literature that went along with it, and partly the danger. I liked pushing my boundaries.

Nordic skiing was a very difficult sport, but it wasn’t that dangerous. Mainly it was the whole culture that went along with it. I loved the people. I just immersed myself in all the classic literature like Starlight Storm, Conquistadors of the Useless (by Lionel Terray). I was amazed by what people were doing.

You had this incredibly physical sport that also had higher consequences than, say, road biking. You’re pitting yourself against a mountain in a changing, dynamic environment. That appealed to me.

REI: How do you deal with the dangers of climbing?

Hamill: You kind of keep the risk in the back of your mind. As a guide you spend most of your time looking after clients and making sure they’re safe, but you can’t turn your brain off in regard to your own safety.

I was climbing on Liberty Ridge (on Mount Rainier) maybe 10 years ago and got caught in a rockfall. I got hit by some rocks pretty good. I didn’t end up breaking anything but it knocked the wind out of me and bruised some ribs, and that scared me. We ended up bailing off the climb.

Two days later I was guiding on the Disappointment Cleaver route and ended up having appendicitis. I don’t think the 2 events were necessarily related, but I had to get rescued down from Camp Muir on a sled. So that was really eye-opening for me, made me question the whole thing. As guides we’re used to being in control all the time, but we’re still vulnerable if things go wrong.

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On Antarctica's 16,050-foot Vinson Massif. (Mike Hamill photo.)

REI: On the night of Sept. 22 you were on Manaslu when a serac (a huge block of ice) broke free and caused an avalanche that claimed at least 11 lives and buried many other climbers. Where were you when it happened?

Hamill: I was at Camp 2, just below the camp that was avalanched, with my team. We were asleep when the avalanche occurred but were hit by a bit of the air blast and that’s what woke us up. No one on my team was injured. 

REI: What was your response?

Hamill: I immediately dressed and went up to the affected camp with 2 fellow guides to help with the rescue. We worked with the survivors and a team of skiers/climbers that were camped nearby to treat and rescue the climbers.

I organized the rescue on scene and worked with people at base camp via radio to arrange helicopter support to fly the victims to base camp and Kathmandu. We also searched the avalanche debris for those that were still missing. We were able to find several of the buried climbers. 

REI: Have you been involved in any previous rescue/recovery efforts? Anything this big?

Hamill: I have been involved in other rescues but nothing on this scale. There are occasionally injuries or deaths on most peaks. I often assist with or lead rescues on Mt. Everest as we see quite a few altitude-related issues there. 

REI: Does an event like this cause you to rethink climbing as a passion or guiding as a profession?

Hamill: An event such as this makes you think and reflect a lot. You always hope for the best on expeditions, especially climbs to 8,000-meter peaks. But the reality of these climbs is that there are potential hazards. Part of the allure for people is that there is risk involved and that to summit one must push beyond their comfort zone. 

REI: So it sounds like you would climb there again.

Hamill: Manaslu is a beautiful peak and the area of Nepal it is in is more remote and untouched than more popular regions such as the Khumbu. I would recommend trekking in this region to anyone that wants a true adventure. 

Note: Hamill’s book provides details on 8 peaks, actually. For the continent of Australia, some consider Indonesia’s 16,024-foot Carstensz Pyramid (just 60-plus miles off Australia’s north coast but part of the same continental shelf) as a more worthy alternative to 7,313-foot Mount Kosciuszko, a walk-up peak outfitted with a ski lift, no less. Hamill devotes a chapter to the debate over which peak merits recognition as the continent’s high point.

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Acclimatizing on Mount Everest. (Mike Hamill photo.)

Posted on at 1:00 PM

Tagged: Denali, Mount Everest, Pete Hamill and mountaineering

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