In 1986, American businessman Richard Bass landed in the record books by becoming the first person to climb the “seven summits,” the highest peaks from each continent. On that list are some of the most iconic mountains in the world: Denali in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and of course Mount Everest.
But mountain climbers aren’t the kind of people who just let records rest. For many mountaineers, it’s the seven second summits — aka the second highest peak on each continent — that are considered a more significant feat.
The rest, though, are anything but household names.
Ojos de Salado (“Salty Eyes”) on the Chile-Argentina border is the highest volcano on the planet. Mount Tyree in Antarctica is relatively easy to climb by mountaineering standards, but the challenges of getting to the White Continent and coping with its weather conditions mean that only about a dozen climbers have ever made it to the top.
Only one person has officially climbed all seven of the second summits, but there’s someone hot on his heels to complete the set. And she isn’t what most people think a mountaineer looks like — she’s a mom of seven who lives in Utah and didn’t start climbing until she was in her thirties.
Throwing down the challenge
Meet Jenn Drummond. Drummond has always been athletic, and she loves a challenge.
With her 40th birthday on the horizon in 2020, she decided to take her hiking skills to the next level.
That year, she hired a climbing coach, with the goal of summiting Ama Dablam, a mountain in Nepal.
But after completing it, the coach presented a new challenge — the Seven Second Summits. “He said, ‘you have seven children, there are seven continents,” she recalls.
But climbing mountains requires a lot more than physical training. Covid threw the whole world into disarray — suddenly, Drummond had to home school her kids, and international border closures made it impossible to travel.
So far, she has climbed Dykh-Tau, Mount Kenya, Mount Tyree and most recently Mount Logan in Canada. K2 is planned for summer 2022.
Drummond’s quest to climb the seven second summits has turned into a slightly longer project due to some disagreement about which peaks count as the official seven.
If you only consider the continent to be the country of Australia itself, the second summit there is Mount Townsend in the state of New South Wales.
But for geographers who consider Australasia and Oceania part of the continent, the second summit is Sumantri in Indonesia’s West Papua province. To make sure her record is indisputable, Drummond plans to climb both.
Because it’s there
In an anecdotal story, someone once asked the explorer George Mallory why he was so desperate to summit Mount Everest, the mountain that eventually claimed his life.
“Because it’s there,” he responded.
Although it’s not clear whether Mallory actually uttered those words, they have long been a touchstone for other climbers who struggle to explain why they risk life and limb to summit the world’s most challenging mountains.
Drummond agrees. She likes to climb mountains for the sake of the act. But she also knows that records mean something.
“if I had a Guinness World Record, my kids would actually think I’m cool,” she laughs.
She also wants to address some of the inequalities that exist in the small, rarefied world of mountaineering. For years, the image of a mountain climber was someone like Reinhold Messner or Edmund Hillary — bearded, serious, ice-ax-toting white men from Europe or North America.
Mountain climbing can be exceptionally dangerous. People can die from altitude sickness, falls and the cold. But it’s not only the mountains themselves that provide challenges.
At the base of Sumantri, two rival tribes are at war over who has the rights to the mine there. And the ongoing conflict in Russia has resulted in many airlines stopping flights to the country, which means that Dykh-Tau is challenging to reach.
It is also expensive and time-consuming.
Simply getting a permit to hike Everest costs $11,000. That doesn’t include airfare, local transportation, gear and guide fees.
Plus, it can take weeks or even months to scale some of the world’s highest peaks due to the acclimation process.
For Drummond, being a woman on a mountain is an asset, not a weakness.
“There’s definitely people who approach the mountains as me versus the mountain,” she says.
“For me, it is so much more an experience of being with the mountain. If you go into Everest and you’re in the Himalaya mountain range, that mountain range in my opinion is very feminine. It’s very loving. It’s enormous. It’s beautiful. The people are unbelievable. They honor life. They pray before they climb the mountain.”
Her climbs have also become a way to connect with her children, who range in age from 9 to 15. Some have joined her on climbs, while others prefer to hang out on lower ground.
But they’ve all been watching their mother pursue her goal. Drummond has used her mission as a way to motivate the kids in their own lives.
“We’ll look at Mount Everest,” she tells them during a homework session, “but first you’re going to do your math.”