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"Getting High - Confessions of a 7 Summiteer" by James Ogilvie, forester and mountaineer: Edinburgh meeting of 18 February 2020

James Ogilvie, forester and mountaineerd

James Ogilvie, forester and mountaineer.

© John Yellowlees 2020

Each of Earth's continents has an undisputed highest peak, but their names are not always what you might expect.

Thus although Mount Everest, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua are undisputed in their fame, Mount Kosciusko joins the list only if Australia rather than Oceania is taken as a continent.

Mount Vinson is the little-known highest point of Antarctica, the geographical as against political definition of Europe puts Elbrus above Mont Blanc, and North America's highest Mount McKinley is now known by its traditional name of Denali.

A love of the outdoors that would be fortified by his 35-year career at the Forestry Commission led James Ogilvie into a passion for climbing which beginning in Scotland led him to Svalbard and then Canada, with later diversions to Uganda and Morocco. The mountains had always been in his blood, for a great-uncle had been a member of an ill-fated group that fell to their deaths on The Matterhorn in 1948.

Walking the dog in the Pentland Hills near James's Edinburgh home always gives the opportunity to dream of greater aspirations. But to fulfil them the serious climber needs to be not only physically and mentally fit and with enough disposable income to travel and sign up guides but also an understanding family and a job that allows long periods of absence - nine weeks in the case of Everest.

Nearly 500 climbers have reached all 7 summits, fewer than 50 of them British, which compares with 7000 who have bagged all of Scotland's munros (summits over three thousand feet) and 4500 who have reached the top of Everest.

At 2228 metres Australia's Kosciusko named after a Polish freedom-fighter is the most munro-like, being in the trekking country of New South Wales's Snowy Mountains with brilliant sunshine that blesses the presence of kangaroos, koalas and also the ancestral spirits of the continent's first peoples.

Reached by a Russian Ilyushin jet from Chile's Punta Arenas, then a twin otter aircraft and finally a DC3, Mount Vinson at 4892 metres tops Earth's fifth largest continent with the greatest average elevation but one that is unlike any other, its 90% ice cover containing 68% of the planet's fresh water. A resident population of 5000 scientists are joined by summer visitors mostly on cruise ships who in 2016/7 numbered 45,000. Antarctica now boasts its own Lonely Planet guide, and despite having to be reached by climbing a wall of sloping ice, Vinson, named for a US Congressman and first climbed in 1966, is the only one of the 7 to have claimed the lives of no mountaineers : but away from the coast the continent is utterly devoid of any life.

Elbrus close to Russia's troubled frontier with Georgia in the Caucasus reaches 5642 metres, and is a treeless climb that claims 15 to 30 lives each year, perhaps because the apparent simplicity of its slopes appears conducive to a Top Gear approach. Soaring daytime temperatures make climbing by night a necessity, but the reward from ascending one of the breast-shaped peaks to the nipple at the top is a view of more peaks than from any other.

Kilimanjaro at 5895 metres as an extinct volcano has the greatest all-round drop, and was given to German East Africa following a plea from the Kaiser to his great-aunt Victoria. This was the first of the 7 for James, who was talked into going up by a group of climbers whom he met while staying nearby. Being the most equatorial, it is the summit that is best-frequented by celebrities and does the most for charitable fundraising.

Alaska's Denali (the "Great One") at 6194 metres is the furthest north at 63 degrees, and was first climbed in 1913. Its elevation gain from base to summit is unsurpassed, while the height gain from base-camp to summit is a thousand feet greater than the Everest equivalent. Crevasses were categorised by guides as ankle-biters, bottom-catchers, body-snatchers and team-swallowers.

Aconcagua at 6962 metres in northern Argentina is the driest and has the greatest daily range of temperatures, with mules on hand to transport baggage. Its apparently fell-walking appearance is deceptive, for there are ice features known as penitentes, and with strong winds less than one-third of the climbers who set out make it to the steep-sided top, with a dozen dying each year.

And so to Everest rising to 8848 metres from a lush shangri-la, whose unsung heroes are the Sherpas that must escort every climbing group in order to conduct them across such challenges as the ladders needed to transit icefields. For many years Nepal was closed to climbers, so that entry had to be from the Tibetan side. Only the most experienced of climbers are permitted to ascend, having to negotiate the awesome Khumbu Icefall, and the presence of 300 bodies belies the improving casualty rate, which now stands at 6%. A need to queue before reaching the summit brings a risk of falling asleep on one's feet, but the reward of standing on top of the world is self-evident as a myriad of lesser peaks swarms into view, the Earth's curvature becomes evident and one can stare down on stars.

The continent's second-highest summits like K2 and Mount Kenya are said to be more technically demanding than the highest, so the satisfaction of being a 7-Summiteer could be shortlived! As consolation meantime there are the words of Dire Straits:
And they sing as they march with their flags unfurled, "today in the mountains, tomorrow the world." Today in the mountains, tomorrow the world.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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