After writing the series of articles on the Highest Peak in Each Country (Part 1, 2 & 3) I was fortunate enough to be contacted by Eric who has had some pretty incredible adventures and along with his brother Matthew, has scaled 82 of the worldwide country highpoints. Below is an article telling a little about their background, their project and a few great stories from experiences they’ve had along the way. To see what else they’ve achieved, check out their website: http://web.mit.edu/egilbert/Public/CountryHighPoints/
Pico Turquino, Cuba
We’re both recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), having finished up our PhD degrees in mechanical engineering in the summer of 2014. We’ve been at MIT for ten years, from undergraduate through graduate school, and worked on some pretty interesting engineering projects. Matthew developed a force controlled ultrasound probe, and Eric developed a safety valve for offshore oil wells. Since graduating we’ve taught mechanical engineering to graduate students at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, Russia.
When not working on engineering projects, we’ve taken up the goal of climbing the highest mountain in every country on earth. So far we’ve climbed the highpoints of 82 countries spread across six continents. As far as we know we’re the first to climb the highest mountain in all 23 countries in the continent of North America, finishing on Pico Turquino in Cuba in June, 2015 after five years and sixteen days of effort. Eric has also climbed the highpoints of all
countries in Europe except Russia, mostly climbing as part of long-distance bicycle tours. Our interest in country highpoints started more locally, first with family backpacking trips to the Smoky Mountains when we were kids, then to peakbagging challenges as weekend trips in the White Mountains of New Hampshire near MIT, then expanding to all 50 state highpoints of the USA (finishing in 2012 after 15 years). The next logical step up was to work on country
highpoints. [Note: we recognize a country as a United Nations member state or observer state, so there are 195 countries in the world.] This project is a great motivator to visit every country on earth, and is interesting because nobody has ever climbed all of these mountains. We’re often asked how we can get the time and money to climb mountains in so many countries, and the answer is a combination of frugality and stealth camping. We try to live in the cheapest apartment, don’t eat out often, and repair our own gear. We sign up for airline credit cards to get
free flights, go on long bicycle tours to avoid paying for ground transportation, and if at all possible never pay to sleep. This is what we call “stealth camping.” Over the years we’ve discovered that as long as you keep a low profile and nobody finds you, there are almost unlimited stealth camping opportunities throughout the world. Even though as graduate students we only got a small stipend every month for food and housing, we’ve been able to stretch it pretty far.
We also never pay for guides unless it is required by local law. So big/technical mountains like Denali (USA), Mt Logan (Canada), Aoraki/Mt Cook (New Zealand), or Mt Kenya (Kenya) that many people pay big money to be guided up are, for us, not actually that expensive. We’ve been lucky enough to have friends in the MIT Outing Club (MITOC) teach us the skills necessary to climb peaks like this. Many of our MITOC friends have joined us for these climbs.
Graduate school also provided quite extensive travel opportunities. Several times a year there were international conferences where we could present our research results to our peers in universities around the world. So if we made good progress on our research, we could present our work in Brazil or China or Germany, and climb some mountains on the side.
A Few Stories…
Every country is unique, and climbing the highest mountain is rarely easy. A few trips stand out:
One crazy adventure involved getting caught in the middle of a taxi strike in rural Honduras. We were driving from Tegucigalpa (the capital) to the small city of Gracias to climb Cerro Las Minas, and came around a corner to find a few cars stopped in the road. We stopped, walked around them, and saw a lineup of ten 3-wheeld motortaxis nose to end blocking the road in front of us between two roadside fences. Talking to some locals in front of us we learned they were on strike for better wages or something.
There was basically no side road around. According to our GPS it would add 10 hours of driving to get around. One local walked up to the taxi drivers and asked if we could pay them to let a few cars through, but they said not for one million dollars. After an hour some official government person from Tegucigalpa arrived in a big SUV, followed by a truck full of armed military men.
The locals motioned for us to get in our car quickly and follow them. The taxi men grudgingly opened a small gap for the military men to come through to negotiate. The car in front of us pulled right behind the military truck, and we drove inches behind that car. After the military truck pulled through the taxi drivers tried to block off the road again, but the car squeezed through. I [Eric] was right on its tail. One taxi driver tried to cut in front of me to block me off, but I knew my car was bigger than his motortaxi, so I accelerated through the gap and he backed off. He knew I would win in a collision. One more truck squeezed through behind me, and then the taxi drivers moved back in and re-established the blockade.
Everyone who made it through was yelling and honking and cheering at our success. There’s no telling how much longer that road was blocked, but we luckily we made it through and climbed Cerro Las Minas that afternoon.
In St Kitts we got to the end of the trail that’s supposed to lead to the summit, and it turned out it was only the edge of the crater rim of the mountain with the obvious summit on the opposite side. We thought we could just bushwack through the jungle along the rim to the summit, but that turned into an epic battle with unclimbable mud cliffs, dense ferns, downclimbing, vertical bush traversing, and a few near falls.
By sunset, after eight hours of thrashing through the jungle and only covering two miles, we had just about given up and were ready to bushwack down to the ocean through the night when we stumbled upon an old trail that miraculously led to the true summit.
After tagging the summit we followed the trail back down to a road, hailed a local bus, and got back to our starting point. But the day wasn’t over yet. We had to sneak through a construction site to get some gear stashed at the other trailhead that morning. But on the way out we found three police cars surrounding our car with bright blue and red lights flashing. We explained our situation, showed our lacerated arms and legs from the bushwhacking, and luckily weren’t arrested.
Mt Liamuiga, St Kitts and Nevis
In New Zealand we were the first climbers to attempt Aoraki/Mt Cook in the fall 2012 climbing season, so nobody had any idea what the conditions would be like. We climbed about 12 hours up from Plateau Hut, past a few rock and ice pitches until we reached what we thought was the summit. At least, we reached the point where all the “summit” photos were taken from trip reports we’d seen. But there was a point obviously higher a little over a rope-length farther on the ridge. We had to hit the true highpoint, and soon discovered why most people considered the secondary summit good enough.
The remainder of the ridge was the true definition of a knife-edge traverse and it was almost all solid blue ice. If you shrunk the ridge down to something you could fit in your hand, you could probably shave with it. I carefully walked along the top of the ridge at the beginning, tiptoeing along the 1-foot wide snow section between solid ice on the right and cornices on the left. As the gap narrowed I started crawling on all fours, and then put an ice screw in. At least the ice was solid enough for bomber ice screw placements, even if that made the climbing harder.
Now the gap was narrow enough that I could no longer crawl – I had to traverse. I planted my ice tools in the snow and carefully kicked my crampons into the ice beneath the screw. The ice was very hard, and I could only get my points in maybe half an inch, but that was sufficient. I started traversing sideways – kick right foot in far to the right, plant right ice tool in, kick left foot in farther right, move left ice tool right, repeat. The snow on the top of the ridge got thinner until my ice tool poked through to clear sky on the other side. There was a 1-foot cornice now on top of the sharp ice ridge.
Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand
I tried a few times to swing my tool into the ice, but then discovered it was much easier to merely hook the top of the ridge with the pick, since the top was so sharp anyways. I continued delicately traversing across this way, putting a few more screws in until I was just about off the icy section. But before I could make it I felt a tug on the rope – I had reached the end. I looked down between my legs at 5,000 feet of mountain falling steeply below.
I peered over the edge in front of me at a similar view, and knew this would not be a great place to build and anchor and hang out til Matthew came. I yelled “SIMULCLIMB” at the top of my lungs, and Matthew and I continued climbing in unison. This is a little riskier than pitching out a climb, but in this situation seemed safer.
I continued off the icy section onto a more snowy knife-edge, marched up the next local maximum, and found myself the highest person in New Zealand. “WHOOOOOOOOO” I yelled, waving my ice ax in the air. I pounded an ice ax into the snow, clipped in, and belayed Matthew over. But it wasn’t quite that simple…
The wind had been relentlessly blowing our climbing rope over the ridge, and now a large section was looped over a cornice. Matthew passed the last ice screw, stepped onto the snow section, but was then stopped when the ropes plummeted onto the other side of the ridge. We tried in vain to swing them back over, but it was no use. The wind was too strong. Matthew was a mere snowball’s throw from the summit, but couldn’t make it there because of the dang cornice!
“Let’s just saw the dang cornice off!” I suggested as a last resort. We pulled back and forth on the ropes and it actually started to work. The ropes gradually worked their way through the snow until – plop – the cornice fell off and the ropes were free. I belayed Matthew up the final few feet and we both basked in the glory of the true summit of Mt Cook.
We post pictures and trip reports of all our country highpointing trips online at
Right now we’re working to save up more money for trips, but some ideas are bike touring through Africa climbing mountains, and island hopping across countries in Oceania.
Our world is of limited size and by this day and age, practically everywhere has been explored. I often feel a little disheartened to know that there are no truly new discoveries left to uncover (on Earth). Only 400 years ago there were continents left undiscovered and unlimited possibilities as to what may lie over the next horizon. That doesn’t exist for us in our modern world, which means we have to be creative in coming up with new ways to do things and to get around.
Below are some people who have truly excelled at this, often being the first to achieve feats of extraordinary endurance and fortitude. To me, being an adventurer doesn’t necessarily mean being the first to do something. It simply means pushing the boundaries & taking risks in the pursuit of extra-ordinary physical challenges. This is what being a great modern day adventurer entails.
To me, Mike Horn is the greatest modern adventurer, accomplishing more in a greater variety of fields than all other on this list (except perhaps the bloke below..). Mike has circumnavigated the Earth at the equator, walked to the North Pole in the depths of winter, navigated the length of the Amazon and climbed 8,000m peaks amongst other things. Pretty incredible individual.
“When Arctic and Antarctic explorer Ranulph Fiennes wife first suggested he go round the world from top to bottom instead of side to side he replied:
“No sane person even tries to do it. If it were possible it would have been done. All oceans have been crossed west to east, north to south, solo, on rafts, backwards and sideways. All major mountains have been climbed and all rivers traveled up to their source and back down again. People have gone round the world by horse, bicycle and probably by broomstick. They have parachuted from over 30,000ft and gone paddling to the deepest spots in the deepest seas. Quite apart from strolling around on the moon.”
She was unimpressed. “You’re saying it can’t be done because it hasn’t been done. Is that it? That’s pathetic.”
Not only does Ranulph Fiennes achieve incredible feats of endurance, he does it all to raise money for worthy causes. Described by Guinness as “the worlds greatest modern explorer”, Sir Fiennes has raised over $20,000,000 for numerous charities.
Has broken adventure world records and climbed 167 country high points amongst other pursuits. Check out this interview with Ginge Fullen for everything you need to know.
Renowned as a polar explorer, Eric completed a world record ‘Save the Poles’ expedition where he reached the South pole, north pole and Everest all within 365 days. He has made multiple other expeditions to the poles and may have covered more polar miles than anyone else.
Now purely in terms of adventure, Sir Branson probably doesnt belong on this list. What he does achieved adventure wise however; hot air ballooning across the Atlantic, kite-surfing across the English channel, record-breaking atlantic crossings, in addition to founding and running one of the largest private enterprises in the world, is truly incredible. Yeh, I’m a big fan. (His book is a must-read)
From his website bio, pretty much sums it all up;
Jason Lewis is an award-winning author, adventurer and sustainability campaigner specializing in human-powered expeditions. He is recognized by Guinness World Records as the first person to circumnavigate the Earth without using motors or sails: walking, cycling, and inline skating five continents, and kayaking, swimming, rowing, and pedalling a boat across the rivers, seas, and oceans. Taking thirteen years to complete, the 46,505-mile journey was hailed “the last great first for circumnavigation” by the London Sunday Times.
Certainly the most unique entry on this list. Erik has climbed the 7 Summits and solo kayaked the 277 Mile Grand Canyon earning him a nomination as National Geographics ‘adventurer of the year’. What makes his accomplishments even more remarkable? He is blind.
That’s right, he reached the summit of the worlds highest mountain without being able to see. He also holds the title of the worlds first blind solo paraglider. Living proof that you can accomplish your dreams, no matter what your condition.
You may not know the name but no doubt you will have heard of the exploits this crazy bastard gets up to. Nicknamed “The French Spiderman”, Robert is famous for free-climbing the worlds highest skyscrapers without any safety equipment, usually getting arrested immediately afterwards.
The list of building he has climbed illegally is far too long to list, you might want to check out his Wikipedia page.
Felix gained worldwide fame in 2012 when he skydived from the stratosphere, breaking numerous world records along the way. He reached a speed of 1,357.64 km/h, breaking the speed of sound, the first person to do so without vehicular power. He also broke records for exit altitude, vertical freefall distance without drogue, and vertical speed without drogue. Great addition to top off this list of modern adventurers.
Ginge spent over 20 years as a Clearance Diver in the Royal Navy. He has been a member of many different diving teams with a wide variety of roles including underwater engineering, Explosive Ordinance Disposal and deep and experimental diving. Awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for saving lives during the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster at Zeebrugge, he has also taken part in some of the world’s toughest courses such as the Commando Course for the Green Beret and he has also twice taken part in the Royal Navy Fieldgun Competition, generally regarded as the toughest team sport in the world.
A broken neck in 1990 whilst playing rugby and a heart attack in 1996 on Mount Everest has not stifled his zest for life, nor stopped him pursuing anything he sets his mind to.
The Highest Challenge is an ongoing Challenge to climb the highest mountain in as many of the 195 countries of the world as possible.
Already holding the World Records for being the first person to climb the highest mountain in every country in Europe and in Africa, Ginge Fullen is attempting to climb the highest mountain in more countries than anyone else to date, presently 167 countries.
Climbing the countries in Europe took seven years and saw many problems and hardships including muggings, knife attacks, having to avoid landmines in Croatia, avoiding Palace Guards in the Vatican City, being robbed by Chechen bandits, and bribing his way to the top of Mount Ararat in Turkey which had not been officially climbed in over 10 years.
In Africa Ginge saw wars, conflicts and military coups, the threat of landmines, the danger of snakes, lion and crocodiles, plus other occasional life threatening moments such as being held at gunpoint in Somalia, being arrested and taken for a mercenary in Liberia, being mugged by a gang of five in Kenya and coming within ten metres of a wild elephant blocking the path on Gabon’s highest peak.
The countries highlighted with blue are those which Ginge has climbed thus far.
|Benin||Dem Rep of Congo||Kenya||Namibia||Swaziland|
|Cameroon||Eritrea||Madagascar||São Tomé & Principe||Uganda|
|Central African Rep||Gabon||Mali||Seychelles||Zimbabwe|
|Chad||Gambia||Mauritania||Sierra Leone||South Sudan (2012)|
|Bahrain||Oman||Saudi Arabia||United Arab Emirates||Yemen|
|NORTH AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN|
|Antigua and Barbuda||Canada||Dominican Repub.||Jamaica||Saint Lucia|
|Barbados||Dominica||Haiti||St Kitts and Nevis||United States of America|
|CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA|
|Belize||Colombia||Guatemala||Panama||Trinidad and Tobago|
|AUSTRALIA AND THE PACIFIC|
|Australia||Marshall Islands||New Zealand||Samoa||Tuvalu|
|Kiribati||Nauru||Papua New Guinea||Tonga|
Vatican City was nice