How cheaply can you climb the 7 summits?

There are many articles and discussions about how expensive it is to climb the 7 summits. And it certainly can be: if you have a tight schedule, book guided climbs and want to fly in the front of the plane and sleep in big comfy beds.

There are also many things that can work in your favour if you want to climb them ‭more cheaply.

Kilmanjaro, the Barranco, heade down.
Kilimanjaro, helping a porter with a dislocated knee down the hill. Our largest expense was ensuring his hospital and recovery were paid for at the end of our climb. Photo: Joe Blackburn

Many of the peaks are located in countries where costs for local travel, food and accommodation are much lower than where most of us live. Local wages are often very low if you can negotiate direct with porters, mule drivers and are willing to arrive at high altitude and be ready to bargain on Yak rates.

International air fares provides lots of options and routing that can make flights cheaper than ever. And if you do want some on-mountain services, local companies offer a host of options to get you over the hurdles if you don’t have the time, inclination or just can’t quite work it all out for yourself. But you will only need to buy what you really need.

The key is balancing how you want to use your time, factor in your experience and skills and then fit it all into your budget.

If you are an experienced climber, who is comfortable at altitude, is happier in crampons than out of them, already has double boots and your weekends are spent trad climbing or on your highest local mountains, many of the summits can be done on your own if you want to put in the time and effort.

If the 7 summits are about having a great adventure, doing it on the cheap will only make it more so.

A very big caveat: doing the 7 summits in any form is a big challenge. As you look through some of my numbers you may compare these with guided services. What you get from a good commercial operator with a professional guide is usually in a different league from what I describe here.

I’d hope that some peaks can even be done for less – and apologies in advance as prices change or you find different prices – this is really about the approach you use, how you define your adventure, options beyond the ordinary for the experienced climber. My prices are in US$.

Guiding companies face a huge amount of uncertainty and have a lot of liability.  Organizing the logistics and finding reputable operators is all done in advance. That their trips may cost 3 to 5 times as much is in most cases pretty fair. Organizing the 7 summits on your own, you will have unexpected costs, lose your way occasionally and end up carrying your porters down the hill if need be. All that and more will be up to you to pay for and fix.

My experience with doing the peaks cheaply was on my first round of the 7 summits, when I was fortunate to have sponsorship from British Airways, and also plenty of time.

Traveling with just my photographer Joe Blackburn, we would often fly into a country with little prepared and sort out the details on arrival. Obviously with Everest and Vinson, they need a lot of preparation, but for most peaks now it is simply a matter of packing your bag, doing a bit of online research and getting on the plane.

We organized everything we could on the ground, in country; and at the lowest price we could find for what we needed. Even on the North side of Everest we booked only the minimum number of Yaks, then did a deal at Base Camp for what we really needed at 1/3 the price, saving 1,000’s of dollars.

On Kilimanjaro, we wandered through the streets of Moshi, Tanzania talked to a number of companies, picked a route and hired some porters. Many climbers may not have this flexibility, and you’ll need to be prepared to be challenged long before you reach the heights.

Your gear budget

Many lists for the 7 summits allow $10,000 or more for gear. I’m talking to experienced climbers, so you have your gear. Yes we all want more new shiny things. But this is about the summits, not shiny outfits.

Your budget for gear is zero – if you need big boots buy them on the way into the cold peaks from someone who has just finished their 7 and never wants to climb again. Or convince them of your worthy endeavor and encourage them to give them to you. Or go down into the back alleys of Thamel in Kathmandu and barter for them.

My prices below could be off a bit (perhaps quite a ways off?) – but overall I don’t think experienced climbers with less resources should immediately discard the idea of the 7 summits if they really want to do them.

If you don’t like crowds, or waiting in line, every one of the peaks has alternative routes – you can make the 7 as hard as you want. The new route possibilities on Carstenz alone are mind boggling. And just switching from the South to the North side on Elbrus opens up new possibilities.

I haven’t factored in international travel – kayak is much better at doing that for you – but for most leaping off points, you should be able to get there for $1,500 at the most if you pick the right season. And combine a few peaks and you will save even more.

So at the very bottom end of the scale, lets see what it could cost you to do the 7 summits if you shaved it all to the bone.

Australia – Kosciusko – at some point in everyone’s life, you should visit Australia anyway right? Can one go all the way through life without seeing a Kangaroo in the wild? So getting there should be part of a holiday anyway.  And you can climb it any time of year.

So rent a car in Sydney (AUS $30 day) zoom down to Thredbo and gallop up the peak. Camp in the local campground (free, with your park entry of AUS$17 day), buy good food from the supermarket. Drink Fosters (perhaps the largest part of your budget, depending on your inclination). If you want to do some fun skiing, go in the Southern Winter. It is unlikely to be powder, but carving through the gum trees above the Australian hills will be pretty memorable.

Kosciusko: $160.00 + a lift ticket in winter.

Oceania – Carstenz Pyramid – Now it gets tricky. When the rebels aren’t in action, you can walk in through the jungle. And this could cut your budget in half. But local permits, porters and leaches may put you off anyway. However, you can go direct to local operators to cover helicopters, food, accommodation and local guides.

Sumantri, palua, indonesia
Two peaks for the price of one. Once you have anted up for the helicopter flight in, you can do Carstenz and also the infrequently climbed and very adventurous Sumantri, the second tallest peak. Chris, Peter, George, Alex, Robert and Brook atop Sumantri.

Depending on the size of your group, local costs will be about $9,500.00 from Bali. In Bali you can stay at a hostel on Kuta beach, surf until the weather is good, catch the plane over to Timka in Indonesia and summit a few days later.

Allow for your purchase of a penis sheath (75 cents) and local art ($1.50). It is an extravagance, but if weather socks you in, go for a round of golf at the Freeport Mine Country Club, $48 for 9 holes, including your club rental. It’s an ideal cure for delayed flights to the heights.

Carstenz Pyramid: $ 10,500.00 from Bali.

Africa – Kilimanjaro – yes you can sleep in the Serengeti, be served afternoon tea on the terrace overlooking the wildlife paradise of Ngorogoro crater and walk with Lions at the game park. Just make sure and climb Kilimanjaro first so you can enjoy it.

Being brave, you fly to Kilimanjaro International airport, get a taxi to Moshi, find a place to stay and the next day go for a wander though town. Find someone you trust, book a minimal staff contingent, as you are required to have a guide, and set off the next day. If you want to know how to find people to trust in far away places, this is not a good option for you, and you should book a tour from home.

While the Western Breach route keeps falling down, it actually is a very good scramble up high through some improbable looking terraces – then you traverse the top and can slide quickly down the scree on the other side. It’s unlikely you will see many people and going up one side and down the other is certainly preferable and more fun.

Cost: US$1,150.00 from Moshi. With a few friends you can probably do this cheaper.

Europe – Mt. Elbrus – at some point, you will probably either be in Europe or you live there to start with. So work out the side flight over to Moscow which can normally be booked for a few hundred dollars, if not less.

Internal flights in Russia are pretty inexpensive, and there are both mass transit options to get you close to Terskol, the primary village close by the base of Elbrus. From here you have low travel charges – a taxi to the chairlift, a $15 ticket up, or be a bit more stalwart and walk (you can certainly walk down), free camping options in your tent or barrel huts tucked up under where the route starts, for $12 a night. Allow a few days for weather and to make sure you are acclimtized of course. There is far more detail at Stingy Nomads.

Elbrus: US$450.00

South America – Aconcagu – Fly to Mendoza, Argentina. This is home to some of the worlds’ best wines, budget accordingly. At $4 a bottle you can’t go too far wrong.

And you can actually find rooms in Mendoza for $10 a night, though they may be on the sketchy side. For a bit more you can live quite well.

Before you arrive you can scout around and find prices for a local operator to get you from Mendoza up to the mountain, accommodation at the base and mules for your route of choice. They will also include the permit fee.

Permit fees have escalated greatly and now cost close to $1,000.00. If you purchase a few services the operators will help with this, otherwise expect to deal with a process that changes, and only seems to go up.

Aconcagua, Polish Glacier, Robert mads anderson
Carry half the load of a mule and save on the extra charges for the 3 day hike up the Vacas Valley. And you will be better acclimitized. Photo: Joe Blackburn

For getting up the normal route, around $800 gets you mules, for the Vacas Valley you may pay twice that amount. If you want to go cheaper, catch the bus up to Penititentes for a few dollars, and negotiate locally – best if your Spanish is passable.

After the permit, your biggest single charge on Aconcagua will be for mules – of course you can forgo if you want to carry a really heavy pack or are already acclimitized and plan on going much quicker and lighter. You’ll go slower if you carry a big pack, and then be better acclimatized, so the heights will be kinder to you – not necessarily a bad plan.

The only reason Aconcagua really takes as long as it does is acclimitizing and a bit of allowance for weather. And if you really think you are fast, check out Sunny Stroeer’s record for the circumnavigation – done with a 10 pound pack in 41 hours.  This may also be the cheapest way to do it, though she did get stung for a hefty extra permit fee along her run. And she had already spent the season working there.

Live cheap in Mendoza, take the bus to the trail head, carry your own gear and this takes all the major expenses out. Add in what will probably be a bit of very worthwhile mule time and you’ll probably spend around $1,200.00 after you land in Mendoza.

Aconcagua: US$1,200.00

North America – Denali – If you live in the U.S. at least this is a somewhat local flight. But what you save there is made up by a higher cost of living in Anchorage and Talkeetna.

With guided service costing from $9,000 and up, even Alan Arnette with all his experience and excellent advice is hard pressed to figure out why it is so expensive, commenting that with a bit of budgeting you could do the whole climb on your own for $2,000.00. The local concession practice of the National Park Service doesn’t allow much leeway in your options on the mountain, you are either on your own, or guided.

Denali, West Buttress, South face, Cassin Ridge
Low cost living on the Kahiltna glacier. Eating, sleeping, climbing, not a wallet in sight.

On Denali you have no porters, pack animals or drone service (yet). Big savings. Your food costs a bit more than you would spend at home assuming a normal western lifestyle, if you go to the Anchorage Costco and buy it all up in bulk for the mountain.

So consider your food free because you have to eat somewhere anyway.  And deduct your restaurant meals out and $5 lattes and you will find it cheaper living on Denali than staying home. To get to Talkeetna from Anchorage you can take the bus ($30) or enjoy the train, perhaps worth the bit extra as it is a classic ($50).

In Talkeetna, you will be challenged to find accommodation for much under $100 a night – so camping in the forest and being close to the bears is a much better option. Choose a camp with all the comfort of showers and you can budget $15 a day. Besides, you are going to be in a tent for 2-3 weeks anyway, why not get prepared and your camping systems in place, your stoves tested and your coffee brewing practice in? Save the $’s for the night out on the way back.

Unless you want to bushwhack like a crazy person, you really need the flight up to the Kahiltna glacier. You have lots of options and little room to negotiate, but the flight itself is magnificent. Allow around $400 per person.

As you probably know, you will need to register with the park service and pay their fee ($370.00), a not unreasonable cost considering the ranger support, and environmental regulations which keep Denali one of the most pristine of the 7 summits. And allow $10 for your park entrance fee.

After all these up front costs, there isn’t much else to spend on Denali – if anything. The travel to the peak and the air taxi to the mountain, along with registration cover it.

Denali: Super budget, $1,400.00 (no hanging out in Anchorage, take the bus to Talkeetna, no hotel in Talkeetna, you are in your tent, food from the supermarket in Anchorage)

With a bit of simple luxury, an occasional hotel, a celebratory dinner, budget $2,000.00.

Asia – Everest – There is more written about Everest than anyone could consume in a lifetime – including what it should cost. I’ll keep it simple. And while I mentioned it above, of all the peaks, you are more likely to die on Everest, so plan accordingly. This is not a kind environment and you aren’t allowed to make mistakes.

everest, North Face everest, north ridge everest. robert mads anderson
Everest, North Face from Pang La – in December. Special discount permit rates can be negotiated off season – just may be hard to put a team together for that.

The route – it is cheaper to go to the North Side. It may be a bit harder, but you don’t go through the Khumbu Icefall and being an experienced climber, it is not that hard anyway and you may find it more fun.

It has been possible to organize your entire climb direct with the Tibetan Mountaineering association. If you have never visited Tibet or the North side Base Camp, you are entering a mine field, and this may be more than you want to take on. You want to negotiate the absolute minimum services and then arrive and do what you can direct with your liaison officer or the Chinese posted at the Base Camp. Their is no rule book for this and a lot of luck involved.

There are several Nepal companies who will get you onto the North Side, and you can negotiate for whatever services you feel you need – with permits, transport, some oxygen and a bit of support you can probably get by with $15,000 per person. There are also a few operators in Tibet, but more tour focused it seems, though they could be expanding their services.

However, to even begin thinking about this, you should be highly experienced, you should have done an 8000 meter peak before in Tibet and you should know you can be totally self reliant on the mountain. Expecting to climb as high as you can and getting rescued is both unethical and fool hardy.

Everest: from Kathmandu, US$15,000.00

Antarctica – Vinson – Currently there is only one realistic way to Vinson and that is through booking the flights and the mountain with ALE. From Puenta Arenas, Chile the 2018 price is $42,300.

vinson, union glacier, antarctica, ALE
Difficult but thrilling access, chartered jets, private ski planes – it all adds up quickly. However, the fact you can get there at all is remarkable in itself. Union Glacier, Antarctica

One can scream it is unfair. Or you can take the alternate tact and be thankful there is a way to get there at all. The liabilities for a flight on an aging Russian jet to land on a brick hard blue ice glacier in dubious weather isn’t something most companies would even consider offering. And that is before you even get to the mountain.

So perhaps do all the other 7 summits first. There is always the second mortgage on the house (yes, someone I climbed with did that, and has never regretted it). And maybe someday there will be a long range drone to get you there.

Vinson: $42,350.00

So here is how the 7 (8) stack up, in US$:

Kosciusko: $160

Carstenz: 10,500

Kilimanjaro: 1,150

Elbrus: 450

Aconcagua: 1,200

Denali: 1,400

Everest: 15,000

Vinson: 42,350

Total: $72,210

Airfare allowance, combining a peak or two, just being in the area for whatever reasons:

Airfare:$ 8,500

Perhaps, just perhaps, you could do them all for $80,000.00?

Your options: There are different ways to count the 7 summits; you can make a very valid claim as I did in my book for not doing Carstenz – so skip it and you save $10.5k. It is however a great peak, tie it onto a Bali holiday and it starts to look a bit more reasonable.

And if you then just take the first 5 summits and exclude Carstenz, without Everest and Vinson, you can do these for just $4,360. Almost sounds like a bargain, just have to find some very cheap airfares.

If Everest costs look daunting, put together a small group and costs will drop some, and you’ll want friends along anyway. Everest, despite all the press, is still a magnificent and wonderful climb. There are also off-season discounts and winter-specials if you want to brave deep snow (the monsoon) or colder temperatures (the winter).

For Vinson, you may need to get creative. If you have done the others, I think the perseverance and the inventiveness to get that far, will ensure you find a way to the last one. And it is certainly my favorite. To edit a famous fashion designers quote, “The experience will be remembered, long after the price is forgotten.”

A final word – as much as I completed the 7 summits round 1 and organized them all myself and never used guides, I now guide for both Jagged-Globe and ALE.

The logistics, the planning and the bookings are very hard work and take a lot of time. Having someone cover those things means you can really get to the heart of the climbing quicker and with less uncertainty, which I now enjoy more. That goes for whether you are guiding or being guided.

At the same time, if you find the idea of traveling the world as a climber and reaching the top of all the continents irresistible, there are other options and always less expensive ways to climb mountains.

Perhaps this opens up a few doors should you also wish to climb the 7 summits.

Reinhold Messner, Everest, 8000 meter peaks
Messner made a very interesting point about his success on the 8,000 meter peaks – with a small expedition, or even just two of them climbing alpine style, it was a lot cheaper than having a big expedition.