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Secretly Enamoured with the Seven Summits

by Globetrooper Todd | 2 Responses
Seven Summits

The Seven Summits is a group of the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. It sounds pretty simple, but there’s a lack of conclusive agreement on what constitutes a continent. For example, if Australia is a continent, then where does New Zealand live? And if Europe and Asia are one land mass (Eurasia), how do you draw a line between the two?

Once faced with these questions, you soon realise that naming the Seven Summits is far from straightforward. To some people, this is a pointless argument. To others, it’s core to their life mission. Either way, I enjoyed finding out what the fuss was all about.

If someone asks you to name all of the continents, it usually goes something like this:

Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, South America… umm Australia? Oceania? Australasia? The Pacific? hmm

Most credible dictionaries name Australia as a continent. But let me ask you a question: Should the total of all seven continents include all countries on Earth?

The definitions in most encyclopedias suggest that some island countries have no continental home. Countries like Greenland, Cuba, and of course, New Zealand. So let’s say we decide that all countries deserve a continental home. That means our definition of a continent should probably relate to land masses or tectonic plates.

So far we have the following lists:

Continents (per encyclopedias) Land Masses (per geology)
Africa African Plate
Antarctica Antarctic Plate
Asia Indo-Australian Plate
Australia Eurasian Plate
Europe North American Plate
North America South American Plate
South America Pacific Plate

From this list we can see why there’s contention over whether the highest peak in Oceania is Mt Kosciuszko (Australia), Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia/New Guinea), or even Mt Wilhelm (Papua New Guinea). The first peak is on the Australian continent, the second is on the border of the Indo-Australian plate, and the third is on the extended version of the Australian continent.

Most of the mountaineering fraternity agree that Carstensz Pyramid is the logical Seventh Summit. However, if you go strictly by tectonic plates, then Mt Everest is the highest peak on the Eurasian plate and Mt Elbrus misses out. But those same traditionalists still cite Mt Elbrus as one of the Seven Summits.

Harry Kikstra, the founder of 7summits.com, asks his readers the following:

… is [a summit] the highest point of a continental mass including the surrounding continental islands? [In that case] it is Carstensz for sure; if the sea level would be a bit lower, it would be connected to Australia and not to the rest of Asia

So it seems there’s a third definition of a continent, which isn’t a tectonic plate or a continental mass, but a combination of the two. That is, a continental mass including its satellite islands.

All of this contention results in the following common definitions of the Seven Summits. You’ll notice that neither follows the strict tectonic plate definition (only the continental mass, and, continental mass + islands definitions).

(Dick) Bass List (Reinhold) Messner List
Kilimanjaro (5,892m) Kilimanjaro (5,892m)
Vinson Massif (4,892m) Vinson Massif (4,892m)
Kosciuszko (2,228m) Carstensz (4,884m)
Everest (8,848m) Everest (8,848m)
Elbrus (5,642m) Elbrus (5,642m)
Denali (6,194m) Denali (6,194m)
Aconcagua (6,962m) Aconcagua (6,962m)

If you’ve reached this far in my findings, chances are that you too are secretly enamoured with/of the Seven Summits. After all, it really is a silly argument in the scheme of things (such as world poverty, the meaning of life, etc). But if you mix science, mountaineering, strong opinions and travel, you’ll certainly get my attention.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions or comments below.

Posted in Mountaineering | April 29th, 2010

2 Responses to Secretly Enamoured with the Seven Summits

  1. Kosciuszko, for those who have climbed it is a hill surrounded by slightly shorter hills, pretty sure its on the verge of being wheel chair accessable!
    dick bass wanted a title “first person to climb the highest point of each continent (as told by encyclopedia britanica)” and that was the easiest way to do so…
    anyway, reinhold messner, being the sporting chap he was decided that kosi didnt live up to the challenge he had envisioned and decided instead on cartensz as an appropriate substitute!
    moral is, if you want a title then do it easy, if you want an adventure then put some thought into it!
    (not saying that its easy in any way!)

  2. I certainly agree that Messner is a much more accomplished climber, especially given he did the 14 8,000ers without supplemental oxygen. But, one of the outcomes of my research was that his list follows an even more arbitrary definition of a continent (i.e. continental mass + islands).

    I wonder why there’s not much focus on the 7 Tectonic Summits by people interested in titles? Surely that’s the most pure definition of a continent. Or maybe not. On quick glance, the 7 Tectonic Summits would be Kili, Vinson, Carstensz, Everest, Denali, Aconcagua and maybe Mt Cook (not sure about that one). However, that list is still less challenging than Messner’s list, which goes back to the point you made about titles vs. adventure.

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