Wisedale cracks seven summits


20 February 2004

Many people have stood looking down on Africa’s plains from the top of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. When South African Sean Wisedale summited Africa’s highest peak, however, he became only the 79th* climber of all time, and the first African, to have climbed the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.

Wisedale climbed Mount Vinson in Antarctica in 1998, Aconcagua in South America in 2001, and North America’s Mount McKinley in 2002. Then, in the space of six months in 2003, he conquered three more, starting with the biggest and toughest: Mount Everest in Asia in May, Russia’s Mount Elbrus in August, and Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia in October*.

[*Note: there is some controversy over which seven summits count as the seven – and accordingly over how many have climbed all seven. See more on this below.]

Finally, at 8am on Thursday, Wisedale made it to the top of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, at 5 895 metres the highest freestanding mountain on earth.

Speaking from the summit, Wisedale said: “The view from the top is awesome and it is a fantastic experience. It’s been a very cold night, but I’ve been striving to climb the seven summits for a big part of my life, and now I have done it. I can only thank God, Discovery [who sponsored Wisedale’s expedition] and my family for this achievement.”

Although Kilimanjaro is not the most difficult ascent, physical and mental preparation is still important. Speaking before the climb, Wisedale said of Kilimanjaro: “Although it’s an accessible mountain, it’s still at high altitude, and no walk in the park.”

John Reader, in his book “Kilimanjaro”, describes climbing Kilimanjaro as follows:

    • “The climb is not difficult in mountaineering terms, you could say it is equivalent to scrambling up a staircase more than three kilometres long. Or you could say that it is equivalent to clambering up the side of nine Empire State Buildings laid end to end at about sixteen degrees.

“But then at 4 710m, where the final ascent of Kilimanjaro begins, there is little more than half the density of oxygen which occurs on Manhattan or at the foot of most staircases. So, in effect, the aspiring climber attempts the equivalent of those feats with the equivalent of only one lung.

“The result is agonising, there is no other word for it.”

So close for Harris, Disney
Wisedale is not the first South African to aim for the seven summits. In May last year, Alex Harris and Sean Disney were desperately unlucky not to bag their seventh when a long unbroken run of bad weather was the only thing that kept them from reaching the top of Everest.

Wisedale was filming the Discovery Everest 2003 expedition, and was able to join another expedition crew for a last summit attempt after the rest of the South African team were finally forced to abandon their quest.

On May 30, Wisedale conquered the tallest peak – and by far the most exacting in terms of time, expense and general logistics – immediately putting him at an advantage over Harris and Disney, who had needed only Everest to become the first South Africans to climb the seven summits.

Which seven summits?
To climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents is a challenge that mountaineers have aspired to since American Dick Bass first publicised the idea in his book “Seven Summits” in 1985 – although he climbed the Australian summit Kosciuszko instead of the higher, more difficult Carstensz Pyramid.

Canadian Pat Morrow was the first to complete all seven summits with Carstensz in 1986. Four months later, the great Reinhold Messner followed suit.

Since then, there has been controversy over which seven count as the seven – some arguing that Kosciuszko, the highest point in Australia, should be included; others arguing that Australia is really not a continent, but that Australasia is, and that Indonesia’s Carstensz should therefore be included.

Two overlapping lists of climbers who have climbed the seven summits – the seven with Carstensz list, and the seven with Kosciuszko list – have thus developed. According to 7summits.com, there are currently (not including Wisedale) 78 names on the former list, and 82 on the latter. Taking overlaps into account, a total of 115 climbers (not including Wisedale) have climbed the seven summits … 45 of them having climbed all eight!

Wisedale (who went the Carstensz route) said recently: “To be the first South African to have climbed all seven would be absolutely amazing … The odds of reaching the summit of any mountain are not in favour of the climber, and so to reach the summit of the highest on each continent would be a gift from God.”

The seven summits (with Carstensz) are:


  • Mt Everest, Asia, 8 850m
  • Mt Aconcagua, South America, 6 960m
  • Mt McKinley or Denali, North America, 6 194m
  • Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa, 5 895m
  • Mt Elbrus, Europe, 5 642m
  • Mt Vinson, Antarctica, 4 897m
  • Carstensz Pyramid, Australasia 4 884mSouthAfrica.info reporter