Sometimes it can feel as though the world is small. With flights that can take people thousands of kilometers in mere hours and borders that are largely open to tourists and businessmen, there are few places on Earth that truly feel remote or far away to the avid traveler. But deep inside ourselves, humans are explorers at heart. We always have been and we always will be.
“We are the middle children of history. Born too late to explore earth, born too early to explore space.” — Anonymous
That is why I was immediately taken by the idea of the Explorer’s Grand Slam. It is a feat that feels truly grand and truly remote on many different levels. It is an extreme challenge that less than a hundred people have ever completed. (For comparison, roughly 800 people per year are reaching the summit of Mount Everest.) So what is the Explorer’s Grand Slam? How does one complete the Grand Slam?
The ultimate adventure challenge
The Explorer’s Grand Slam consists of nine distinct challenges. It tasks a single person with summiting the tallest mountain on each continent. Those include seven of the highest peaks in the world in places as far flung as Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.
In addition to that, that same person must also reach the North Pole and the South Pole in order to fully complete the challenge.
The journey encompasses thousands of miles of travel via air and, potentially, hundreds of miles of travel via foot or by road. But the result is something truly spectacular.
The Seven Summits
The Seven Summits are the tallest mountain peaks that adorn each continent. Some of the peaks are extremely high such as Everest and Aconcagua while others are actually quite mild by comparison but each peak offers its own logistical challenges. There are a few discrepancies and variations in the official lists for the Seven Summits. Disagreements over whether or not to include Mount Blanc versus Mount Elbrus or whether or not to include all of Oceania or simply mainland Australia have led to different lists coming out over the years. For the purpose of the Explorer’s Grand Slam we will be using the following list.
1. Mount Everest, Asia, 29,029 ft
Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world and is arguably the most famous mountain on the planet. It’s dauntingly high summit is situated in the heart of the Himalayan mountain range and has been calling to adventurers for decades. Despite being extremely popular and recently well traveled the hike can still pose extreme dangers and even death, especially in the winter. Having the proper equipment, a knowledgeable guide and favorable weather are all key to making a successful ascent.
The peak of Everest resides in the so-called Dead Zone meaning that at the summit the environment cannot support human life.
2. Aconcagua, South America, 22,838 ft
Aconcagua is a mountain that towers over the Andes. The Andes are one of the highest mountain ranges in the world and stretches all the way down the western coast of South America. Aconcagua resides in Argentina and it is the tallest peak outside of Asia. Despite its height, Aconcagua is actually a fairly simple mountain to climb. How can that be?
The northern slope of the mountain is a fairly straightforward face to climb. It does not require any special equipment or people such as expert guides, axes, picks or ropes. It is considered to be a non-technical mountain. This makes it a tempting target for would be climbers. While the mountain itself does not pose many serious climbing challenges it is still fraught with extreme altitude and cold which can harm the unprepared.
3. Denali, North America, 20,322 ft
Residing in the Alaska Range Denali is the tallest peak in North America and is the last of the seven peaks to break the dangerous 20,000ft threshold. It is a heavily trafficked mountain due to its prominence as well as its location within the United States. Current data suggests that roughly 60% of climbers who try manage to safely reach the summit.
The primary dangers for Denali are extreme weather including snow and ice as well as avalanches. Dangerous snow falls and avalanches still regularly claim hikers on the slopes of Denali.
4. Kilimanjaro, Africa, 19,341 ft
Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano which makes it an interesting entry to this list. It is also the tallest free standing mountain in the world and that is due to the fact that it is a volcano. As a volcano, Kilimanjaro offers a fairly easy climbing experience similar to that of Mount Fuji in Japan, only much taller. Located in Tanzania and nearby other well traveled nature destinations, Kilimanjaro is relatively easy to reach and ascend.
The climb is deceptively easy with both children and the elderly able to reach the summit. The danger comes in the form of altitude sickness. Since the mountain can be climbed reasonably quickly and easily, some people climb it too fast and end up coming down with acute mountain sickness and other forms of altitude sickness. Some of these health issues can be fatal.
5. Mount Elbrus, Europe, 18,510 ft
You would be forgiven for not being familiar with Mount Elbrus. Until recently, many people considered Mount Blanc in the Alps to be Europe’s highest peak but recently, the lists have been updated to include the peak of Elbrus in Russia. Mount Elbrus is also a dormant volcano and is the highest peak in the Caucus Mountain Range.
During the summer, ascending to the peak of Elbrus is relatively easy. The bottom portion of the mountain is quite developed and even boasts a cable car system that can take visitors up to a height of over 12,000ft. According to tourism data, 100 people per day attempt to make it to the peak during the summer. On the flip side, winter ascents are extremely dangerous and seldom tried due to the cold, snow and prominence of crevasses on some parts of the mountain.
Recently, an insurgent movement taking place in the North Caucus region has dissuaded international travelers from reaching the region making this peak one of the more difficult ones to reach today.
6. Mount Vinson, Antarctica, 16,050 ft
Mount Vinson is located in Antarctica making reaching this summit exceedingly difficult. You first have to reach Antarctica and then hire or link up with a team of people who will guide you to the top of the mountain. Due to its extremely isolated location and extreme climate Mount Vinson probably requires the most preparation to climb out of all of the mountains on this list.
The typical cost of summiting Mount Vinson can run up to $30,000 per person which includes hiring an adventure firm to ferry you to the mountain from South America as well as guides to help reach the summit. Luckily, in terms of technical difficulty, Mount Vinson is actually a fairly easy mountain to climb. The biggest difficulty climbers face are the hazards native to Antarctica as a whole: extreme cold, ice, isolation and wind.
Mount Vinson is the perfect stopover before hitting the South Pole.
7. Puncak Jaya, Australia / Oceania, 16,024 ft
Some lists include Mount Kosciuszko instead of Puncak Jaya as the seventh summit. Puncak Jaya is on the island of New Guinea which has recently been grouped in with the Australia and Oceania region for exploration purposes. Mount Kosciuszko is located on the mainland of Australia proper and is a much lower and milder peak standing only 7,310ft above sea level so Puncak Jaya offers a much greater challenge in terms of climbing.
Puncak Jaya is a very difficult mountain to ascend due to its isolated position. It is also the highest mountain found on any island on Earth. The first recorded ascent only took place in 1962 making it the second to last mountain ever climbed on this list only after Mount Vinson in Antarctica. Adding Puncak Jaya makes the Explorer’s Grand Slam that much harder.
In addition to reaching the top of the Seven Summits one must also venture to both the North Pole and South Pole. While this was much harder to accomplish in days past, today it is rather easy to get to both the North Pole and the South Pole.
Reaching the North Pole
Similar to Antarctica, there are various organizations that take people to the North Pole from Northern Europe. Expeditions can be booked out of nearly every Scandinavian country including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. There are various ways to reach the pole including by boat, by air and overland. Reaching the pole in the summer is much easier than reaching it in the winter. Before the invention of helicopters and icebreakers people who wanted to reach the North Pole had to go over the treacherous sea ice during the colder months of the year.
Reaching the South Pole
If you are going to be in Antarctica to climb Mount Vinson anyways, the best way to reach the South Pole it to book an expedition that will take you to both places in one trip. Many different Antarctic expeditions can be found out of Chile and Argentina and there are some who will be able to create an adventure plan that includes both the peak of Mount Vinson as well as the South Pole itself.
This is the most common version of the Explorer’s Grand Slam but there are some variations. Some people prefer to reach the magnetic poles rather than the physical poles because of the added challenge. Some people like to do both Puncak Jaya as well as Mount Kosciuszko so that they have all of their bases covered when it comes to the Seven Summits.
Then there is the extra extreme True Explorers Grand Slam. That challenge requires both poles and the Seven Summits plus all 14 of the world’s mountain peaks that extend over 8,000m (26,000ft) in height. In case the regular Grand Slam was not extreme enough for you.
Then there are those who make a distinction between people who trek on foot to the the poles from the nearest shore from the people who get dropped off at its doorstep by modern transportation. Those who are dropped off get the distinction of a Last Degree trekker who only journeyed the last degree on the map rather than fully hiking, sledding or skiing their way there.
For those who are looking for a true modern challenge that spans the globe, the Explorer’s Grand Slam is certainly something to consider. It hits every continent, every environment and the top and bottom of the globe in one astounding journey.
The youngest person to complete the challenge was 20 years old.
The fastest person to complete the challenge did it in a mere 139 days, which is incredible.
Next time you are longing for a true adventure or gazing out the window wondering what is out there, consider the Explorer’s Grand Slam.