(CNN) — Simply finding the Seven Summits — the highest mountains on each continent — is a tall order.
Let alone measuring them all to within a few frustratingly ever-evolving feet, naming them after rock star 19th-century British colonial land surveyors and Polish-Lithuanian generals — and, get this, risking limb and life-savings to climb them all because, well, they’re there.
Stark, scary, seductive, forever inscrutable, the Seven Summits and countless viable alternative peaks to “conquer” say far more about humans (basically that we have far too much time on our hands) than we ever will about them.
Mount Everest is a whopping 29,035 feet above sea level.
Elevation: 29,035 feet
Location: Nepal/Tibet border
There’s no customs booth on the summit of Mount Everest — the highest mountain on Earth — where a frontier straddles Nepal and Tibet. So what’s with all the crazy lines on this cramped, gale-plumed, oxygen-starved peak?
The ultimate magnet for big ticket bucket-listers vying for a shot at standing on top of the world during a narrow climbing window in late spring, Everest is all business these days. The fabled peak attracts more puffy-suited high-fivers than ever to its increasingly doable but dicey slopes — and about as many divergent references, depending on your angle.
Nepalis call their famous hill Sagarmatha (“Sky Head”), Tibetans know it as Chomolungma (“Mother of the World”), while geologists lump Everest (named after legendary 19th-century British land surveyor George Everest) in the youth category.
Roughly 50 million years old — a toddler in big mountain time — it’s the largest fold of Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates in the Himalayan range, with plenty of growing room left (about a quarter inch a year).
Ever since it was first scaled in 1953, Everest has remained a crowning achievement among snowballing legions of climbers. Recently, the mythical mountain has also been described as the “world’s highest garbage dump” (of abandoned climbing detritus) and a “zoo” of Death Zone queues waiting for summit selfies at airplane altitudes.
During an especially busy and lethal 2019 climbing season, the mountain has claimed at least 11 lives.
Reach for the top: Climbers typically reserve at least 45 days (including pre-ascent preparations, a long tromp to base camp, and crucial acclimatization periods on the mountain before an average four-to-five-day summit push) and an ante of anywhere from $40,000 to over $100,000 for a spot on a commercial expedition.
From the Nepal side, the Southeast Ridge is by far the most popular passage to the summit, among nearly 20 other climbing routes at present. Last year, over 800 climbers and support guides reached the top — a new record.
Marvel from below: Barring a long bus ride, the most chilling part of the suggested two-week roundtrip trek to Everest Base Camp is a quick flight from Kathmandu to a harrowingly short mountain airstrip in Lukla. From there, the 40-mile ascent past mountain villages, Buddhist monasteries and bell-clanging yak traffic to the 17,600-foot-high base of the world’s highest peak is often shortlisted as one of the world’s greatest hikes. And a great place to smile and turn around.
Alternative alp (for Himalayan realists): 20,285-foot Imja Tse (commonly known as Island Peak) holds the unofficial distinction of being one of the most climbable “trekking peaks” (basic mountaineering skills and gear still necessary) in the Everest region — with bonus views of neighboring giants Mounts Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu and Ama Dablam.
Denali is undeniably imposing.
NPS Photo/Daniel A. Leifheit
Elevation: 20,310 feet
Location: South Central Alaska
North America’s highest peak (formerly named Mount McKinley) may max out at an elevation barely above Himalayan low camps, but never mind all that. Few bits of tectonically bent granite are as impossibly enormous as Mount Denali, which rears nearly three-and-a-half vertical miles up above its relatively low 2,000-foot starting point.
From base to summit, that’s over a mile taller than Everest.
The crown of the 600-mile-long Alaska Range is big enough to create its own weather patterns. Like, for example, 150 mph winds and -93°F on an especially brutal day.
The vast majority of climbers attempt to reach the summit via the popular West Buttress route, which can see as many as 600 people on it at any given time during peak season between late May and early June.
Marvel from below: Boarding a tour or transit bus during temperate summer months along 92-mile Denali Park Road provides incredible views of the famed peak and numerous wildlife photo ops in a six-million-acre park and preserve inhabited by nearly 40 different mammals and 172 recorded bird species.
Alternative alp (for Denali trainees): Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). Washington state’s highest peak, a glaciated volcano encased in over 35 square miles of snow and ice, remains one of the most popular rites of passage for alpinists with even higher Alaskan, Andean or Himalayan sights.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the top of Africa.
Elevation: 19,340 feet
Location: Northern Tanzania
Even for a lone cone as spectacular as this jumbo geological marvel plunked in the East African plains, how does even the coolest-looking, -sounding, -residing mountain retain its rightful mystique once the annual climber rate surpasses the 50,000 mark?
Probably just by being Kilimanjaro — the world’s tallest freestanding peak, a dormant (but still simmering) volcano, and a not-so-microcosmic world unto itself.
Meandering through numerous ecological zones (tropical rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, etc.) from savanna to snowcapped summit, hardy climbers here might be fooled into thinking they’re tromping across half the planet. But that would be too easy.
Reach for the top: A non-technical “walk up” climb with several established routes to choose from, Kilimanjaro is far too susceptible to being minimized as a multi-day hike. Reality check: Less than 30% of climbers manage to complete the entire journey on the most popular 5-day Marangu “Coca-Cola” Route plan, according to local guide service Ultimate Kilimanjaro.
A better bet: Losing the hasty crowds and adding a few extra days of acclimation on one of the longer, slower, undulating routes to combat altitude sickness — the main reason hikers bow out here.
Dry season (late June to October) is the preferable time to tackle Kilimanjaro, with September being the prime climbing month. Permits are essential to enter the park, and all climbers must use a guide and porters.
Marvel from below: Summit fever aside, don’t forget where you are — in prime African safari territory. Making time to see the Big Five and other amazing creatures in nearby Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater is a rivaling high point during any Kilimanjaro climbing expedition. Many guide services can build these visits into the itinerary.
Mount Elbrus is perched on the European side of the Caucasus Mountains.
Elevation: 18,510 feet
Location: Southwest Russia
Perched on the European side of the Caucasus Mountains — which forms a continental divide with Asia — twin-peaked Mount Elbrus edges out Mont Blanc (see below) and all those glitzier alps to the west by at least a half-mile of perma-frosted vertical, making it Europe’s (and Russia’s) highest hill.
There’s literal mythical status on the dormant volcanic slopes of Elbrus — where Zeus reportedly chained Prometheus’s arms as punishment for stealing fire from the gods.
Those flames have long been extinguished on an enormous icy mound adorned with over twenty glaciers, deep verdant valleys and raging rivers below. Plus a steady circuit of adventure-seekers arriving with crampons, skis and hiking poles.
Reach for the top: During summer climbing season, the most popular passage to the summit of Elbrus’ west peak (the higher of the two) is along the Standard Route via the mountain’s south face, where a cable car can take climbers as high as 12,500 feet.
From here, the ascent often takes between six to nine hours (descent about three hours) during a long and strenuous but technically undemanding climb that’s best done with an experienced guide and after at least a week of proper altitude acclimation.
Marvel from below: Elbrus is merely the high point of picturesque Prielbrusye National Park, which draws hikers and nature lovers of all levels to one of southern Russia’s magnificent wilderness zones — filled with trails, mineral springs, ski runs and visitor amenities in the alpine village of Terskol.
Alternative alp (for Percy Bysshe Shelley readers): Western Europe’s tallest peak, Mont Blanc (15,781 feet) has been called the birthplace of climbing, high-end mountain tourism and alpine-inflected Romantic poetry. Soaring above France’s pristine Chamonix Valley, the mountain also sprawls into Italy and Switzerland.
Mount Aconcagua in Argentina was an active volcano on the edge of a dinosaur-era sea in an earlier life.
Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Elevation: 22,841 feet
Location: Western Argentina
The highest mountain in the Western and Southern Hemispheres with a base camp that claims to be the second busiest in the world after Everest, Mount Aconcagua was in an earlier life an active volcano on the edge of a shallow dinosaur-era sea.
Today, this subducted Argentinean peak’s glaciated slopes are an arid 150 miles from the nearest ocean, a stone’s throw from the Chilean border, and the prize ambition of every semi-sensible summit seeker leaving K2 for some other lifetime.
Reach for the top: Most climbers opt for the non-technical northern “Normal Route” during peak climbing season from mid-December to the end of January.
Cheaper and easier to scale than its distant Himalayan cousins, Aconcagua might be perilously confused for an “Everyone’s Everest.” According to Mountain IQ, at least 60% of the mountain’s estimated 4,000 annual climbers do not reach the summit — and many are completely unprepared for the challenge.
Aconcagua reputedly holds South America’s highest mountaineering fatality rate (about three deaths per year) plus numerous casualties of hypoxia and frostbite due to brutal weather at unforgiving elevations.
Marvel from below: Entry permits for Aconcagua Provincial Park must be obtained in person from the tourism office in Mendoza, 70 miles east of the mountain. The good news: this puts you smack in the middle of prime Argentina wine country.
Alternative alp (for Andean overachievers): Ojos del Salado (22,615 feet). About 400 miles north of Mount Aconcagua, perched on the same jagged spine dividing Argentina and Chile, is the continent’s second tallest peak. A popular non-technical climbing site on the edge of the Atacama Desert, Ojos del Salado also holds the distinction of being the world’s highest active strato-volcano and (fun fact) home to the highest point ever reached by a 4×4 vehicle. Last big eruption: about 1,300 years ago.
Elevation: 7,310 feet
Location: Southeastern New South Wales
If there’s one comfortingly moderate exception to Australia’s status as a “land of extremes,” it would be in the Seven Summits category, home to the lowest and most user-friendly of the bunch.
A revised Seven Summits list has technically replaced this mountain with a higher Oceanic peak (see “alternative alp” below) sharing the same broader continent. But Kosciuszko remains a classic version favorite for moderates and diehard fans of the 19th-century Polish-Lithuanian military leader for which the peak is oddly named.
Reach for the top: From the ski resort village of Thredbo, start with a scenic warm-up ride on the Kosciuszko Express Chairlift to the Kosciuszko Walk trailhead, where a four-mile hike past herbfields, alpine lakes and gradual inclines leads to the summit. Expect company during antipodean summers, when the mountain receives about 100,000 visitors.
Marvel from below: Mountain drives in Australia don’t get more dramatic than the winding roads of Snowy Mountains country. For close-ups of the highest peak, Alpine Way Drive provides a sufficiently steep and narrow 67-mile road trip between Thredbo and Khancoban in Kosciuszko National Park.
Alternative alp (for continental plate nerds): If Australia and Oceania (as purists point out) are joined at the plate, then the Seven Summits title instead goes to the crest of Puncak Jaya (16,024 feet) — a.k.a. Carstensz Pyramid — hiding in Indonesia’s Papua province. A rare glaciated peak in the tropics, it’s also considered one of most technically tough mountains to climb on this list.
Elevation: 16,050 feet
Location: 600 miles from the South Pole
The final frontier as far as Seven Summits go, Mount Vinson is about as close as a hump of ice-caked rock can get to a galaxy far, far away.
Simply recognizing the continent’s highest point — tucked on a plateau of peaks in West Antarctica’s Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains — was a milestone.
Vinson was the last of the Seven Summits to be successfully climbed (in 1966), and it would take years before another expedition made it back to repeat the feat. Over 1,200 climbers have since made it to the top, led by a handful of specialized commercial guides.
There’s a joke that simply getting to this mountain (four-hour cargo plane commute from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Union Glacier snow camp with a 50-minute Twin Otter hop to Vinson Base Camp) is the hardest part of the climb. But it’s just a joke.
Reach for the top: Vinson’s optimum climbing period is between December and February when Antarctica is bathed in 24-hour sun. The standard, non-technical route to the summit usually takes about five or six days with proper acclimation.
Alternative alp (for your next Seven Summits challenge): And now introducing Mount Sidley (14,058 feet) — Antarctica’s highest volcano, and CNN Travel’s sure-to-be-a-sequel Volcanic Seven Summits.
“Mount Sidley climbers should prepare for extreme temperatures (-40°C) and severe storms,” says private operator Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, which leads trips to one of the most out-there peaks on the edge of the earth — where “plenty of lines remain to be climbed.”