Climbing the World’s Country Highpoints
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
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.
The Country Highpoints Project
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 99 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 after six years and 28 days of effort, 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.
St Kitts and Nevis
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.
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.
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 on this website. Just navigate to the “Home” tab or “Latest Trips” tab.
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.