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Climber Is Youngest to Scale Highest Peaks on Seven Continents

On December 9, 2000, Joby Ogwyn stood on the top of Antarctica's tallest mountain, Vinson Massif, and looked out onto a thousand miles of jagged ice peaks. After three days of scaling the mountain in the coldest weather he had ever experienced, the 26-year-old Ogwyn had just become the youngest climber to scale all Seven Summits—the tallest peak on each continent.


Joby Ogwyn's climbing team is dwarfed by the mist-shrouded peak of Antarctica's tallest peak, Vinson Massif.
Photograph courtesy of Joby Ogwyn

At 26 years old, Ogwyn has already accomplished more than most climbers do in a lifetime. As of last spring, only 52 people had climbed the Seven Summits, which was first accomplished by American mountaineer Dick Bass in 1985.

Vinson was the last peak on Ogwyn's list. The formidable 16,067-foot (4,897-meter) mountain, which is renowned for its remoteness and extreme temperatures, with 70-mile-an-hour (112 kilometer-per-hour) winds—was not to be taken lightly. But the young mountaineer knew that the climb might be more difficult emotionally than physically; Vinson would mark the end of an eight-year quest that began the summer after his freshman year in college.

The Seven Summits

Ogwyn climbed the first of the Seven Summits—Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro—in 1993 at age 18. His interest in climbing was clearly not a direct result of his environment. Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana—a topographical pancake—there were few mountains to explore. Ogwyn found his interests rapidly diverging from those of his friends and classmates.

While his peers flocked to Fort Lauderdale for spring break and summer vacation, Ogwyn began to sign up for trips to Guatemala, Kenya, and Bolivia. "I was always known as the guy who was doing his own thing," says Ogwyn. The first success on Kilimanjaro, a curiosity in intercultural experience, and a budding interest in photography lead him to set the Seven Summits goal.

After Kilimanjaro, he went on to climb Mount El'brus (18,510 feet/5,642 meters) in Europe, Mount Aconcagua (22,834 feet/6,960 meters) in South America, Mount McKinley (20,320 feet/6194 meters) in North America, Mount Everest in Asia (29,028 feet/8,848 meters), Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) in Oceania (16,502 feet/4,884 meters), and finally Vinson Massif in Antarctica.

With his Everest climb on May 12, 1999, Joby Ogwyn also became the youngest American climber to ascend the world's highest peak. He climbed each summit on his first attempt.

More Mountains to Climb

"In some ways it is a really huge relief to have finished the Seven Summits," he says. "It's been a project in my mind I've been working on for so long. Now I have to move on to something else."

Expert climbers have recognized Ogwyn's natural talent for mountaineering and encouraged him to do more. Physically, he seems to be immune from altitude sickness, and mentally, he is gaining a reputation for being one of the toughest climbers around. On the 1999 Everest expedition, he was the only one from his group to climb to the summit.

While his friends and family may have hoped that the Seven Summits would mark the end of Ogwyn's mountaineering career, he says he has no plans to stop climbing— in fact, he has "more ideas than ever." His ideas include climbing Pakistan's K2 and perhaps another circuit—the seven highest island peaks.

In the wake of his success, funding for new expeditions is coming more easily for Ogwyn. Since his return from Antarctica, he has lectured for the MacGillivray-Freeman film series (producers of the IMAX film Everest), worked with the National Geographic Society on a series of new projects, and accepted an invitation to visit the White House.

In between meetings and lecture appointments, Ogwyn continues to reflect on his experience of the last eight years. "I did this at such an early age," he says. "I started at 18 and finished at 26. I am a totally different person than when I started."

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The Seventh Summit

There is some controversy over which mountain is the "seventh" peak.

Dick Bass, who first climbed the Seven Summits, considered Australia's tallest mountain, Mount Kosciusko, the seventh summit. Most climbers, however, agree that Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) is the highest peak in Australia and Oceania.

Puncak Jaya is in Indonesia, and is therefore part of Oceania—the group of islands scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean.

There is little doubt in Ogwyn's mind that he has accomplished what he set out to do.

"If I felt there was any debate, I would've just gone over and done Kosciusko too," he says.