Everest mountaineer, George Mallory, poet William Wordsworth and fellwalker and guidebook creator Alfred Wainright all engaged in exploring wild mountain places. Whether their motivation was seeking challenge and adventure, finding creative expression or searching out solace, the powerful, soulful inspiration and humbling perspective that comes from getting onto the world’s higher ground touched each of them.
2002 was the United Nations’ International Year of the Mountains; an attempt to focus attention on the important role that mountains play in our lives and our environment, and how the lives and cultures of the peoples living among them are under continued threat. It is also an opportunity to encourage others to get out into the mountains to enjoy themselves, and to soak up some of the positive energy that comes from exploring the Earth’s wildest places. So, to help you get higher in life we take a look at some classic and some not-so-well-known mountain hotspots to see what makes their appeal so enduring.
The grandfather of all mountain ranges, the Himalaya, stretches for over 2,415km from Pakistan’s Indus River in the east, through India, Nepal and Bhutan to Tibet. It includes the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, at 8,848m, and eight other mountains over 8,000m high. Famed for its trekking and mountaineering opportunities, the Himalaya, and Mount Everest in particular, has captivated a host of explorers, travellers and mountaineers since the beginning of the 20th century. Mallory and Irvine performed truly heroic feats trying to conquer Everest in 1924, before Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary finally stood atop its summit in 1953. These days, hundreds of expeditions and trekking tour companies operate there every season and it is even possible to pay (a cool US$50,000 or so if you are keen) to be guided to the summit of the world’s highest peak. Blended in with the stunning mountain scenery are the ancient cultures and spiritual ways of the Himalayan hill tribe people, who eke out an existence from these harsh environs.
Trek Nepal’s Annapurna Sanctuary and the Khumbu region, where Pokhara and Kathmandu are good bases for heading out on treks of all levels. Bhutan is in high demand for trekking tours too but visitor numbers are restricted and you are only allowed to enter the country on an organised tour.
Climb Excellent entry-level mountaineering peaks include Mera Peak and Island Peak in Nepal. They do not require high levels of technical skill but are substantial undertakings for trekkers. Serious mountaineers are even more spoilt for choice with the recent opening of access to scores more high Himalayan peaks.
Mountain bike The Himalayan foothills around the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal provide challenging but sublime mountain biking routes, taking in many mountain villages.
Ski The only established ski resort in the Himalaya is at Manali in north-west India. Downhill facilities are very poor but ski-mountaineering and heli-skiing options are good.
Take it easy For a close-up view without any effort take the local Kathmandu to Pokhara flight in Nepal and sit on the right-hand side for a cheap view over the Himalaya’s highest peaks.
Much closer to home but nonetheless impressive, the European Alps spread their ramparts into France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Dominated by Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak at 4,807m, the Alps are well developed for trekking, skiing, mountain biking and a whole host of other adventure activities. Other famous mountains in the range include the Eiger (3,970m), with its dark and menacing pyramidal north face that has seen some epic ascents, and the shark-fin-shaped rock mass of the Matterhorn (4,478m). With their many alpine villages and towns, you are never too far away from a cosy chalet or good restaurant, but there is still plenty of wild space where you can feel isolated and free.
Trek In summer, the myriad international trekking trails known as Grande Randoneé (GR) provide beautiful ways of escaping into the hills. A popular long distance route is the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, which takes in spectacular high mountain scenery.
Climb Apart from obvious places in the heart of the Alps, good rock climbing can be found in the Dolomite Alps in northern Italy. For less technical challenges follow the via ferratas, old wartime routes that utilise iron ladders, chains and stakes to enable you to scramble up rock faces.
Mountain bike Great off-road routes run throughout the Alps area, including Morzine in France where there are over 1,000km of tracks, and you can often use ski lifts in summer to access downhill trails.
Ski Take your pick! The Alps is ski heaven, with each country boasting numerous resorts with good facilities. A classic place with challenging red and black runs is Argentière, near Chamonix, while the fashion-conscious crowd hang out at St Moritz in Switzerland.
Take it easy Settle your nerves and take a ride on the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi in the Chamonix Valley. At 3,842m high, you get an intimate and beautiful view of the Alps, including Mont Blanc.
Stretching from New Mexico in the southern United States through Canada to Alaska, the Rocky Mountains remain surprisingly unexplored considering the countries they occupy. It is possible to find true mountain wilderness areas where you may still be the first person to tread, even within a few hours of the major cities along their length.
As you would expect, the nature of the range changes dramatically from south, where it is drier and hotter, to north, where the Alaskan climate takes grip. In between is a playground for almost any outdoor activity you care to imagine. They boast some of the world’s best skiing spots, a well-established network of hiking trails and exquisite mountain biking tracks. Throw in the ever-warm welcome from the local people and a dose of the pioneering spirit that settled these areas, and you will be hard pressed to find a more accessible place to experience high mountains.
Trek Limitless possibilities exist throughout the Rocky Mountain range. If you want a quieter area outside the better known spots like Banff, then head to the nearby Kootenay National Park, with its superb valley footpaths and try the three- to four-day Rockwall Highline Trail.
Climb A lesser-known spot for great mountaineering and climbing is the Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park in British Columbia, where you can explore scores of remote and spectacular peaks.
Mountain bike The Jasper and Banff National Parks in western Canada contain superb mountain bike trails, while Colorado in the USA is a mountain biking Mecca with over 3,220km of off-road tracks. Breckenridge is a good base from which to explore.
Ski Canada’s Whistler ski resort is acknowledged as one of the best ski spots around, though Aspen in Colorado is a close second. The conditions are generally colder than Europe but you get deep powder snow to play in and super efficient ski lifts to compensate.
Take it easy If you want to soak up the high peak atmosphere with minimal exertion head for the Kootenay region and enjoy one of the many hot spring spa resorts, all set among beautiful mountain scenery.
Second only to the Himalaya in their loftiness, the Andes stretch the entire length of the west coast of South America, from Venezuela and Colombia in the north, to Patagonia in the southern reaches of Chile. Blessed with a geographical and cultural diversity second to none, the Andean mountains offer a rich adventure travel experience.
The Incas built their ancient empire here, with the striking Machu Picchu ruins in Peru being their most famous legacy, while today the Aymara and Quechua Indians continue a strong tribal lifestyle. With 6,959m-high Aconcagua on the Chile/Argentine border being the highest peak in the western hemisphere and scores of other 6,000m plus peaks in the central range, there is plenty of scope for exploring on foot. Further south in Patagonia, the Torres del Paine National Park is, perhaps, one of the planet’s most awesome trekking destinations, with its towering granite spires and glacial lakes. If you prefer a drier climate then the bizarre mountain moonscapes of the Atacama Desert, on the Bolivian/Chile border are worth a visit.
Trek Simply don’t miss the four- to five-day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. Up north, tackle a challenging trek to Venezuela’s highest peak, Pico Bolívar (5,007m) or hike up Ecuador’s Mount Cotopaxi volcano. In Bolivia and Peru, there are countless low and high level treks on offer. The six- to eight-day trek around the Torres del Paine National Park is superb, though shorter hikes are available too.
Climb Peru’s Cordillera Blanca range is a major mountaineering drawcard with its numerous unclimbed 6,000m plus peaks. In Ecuador, an ascent of Mount Chimborazo is a good way to cut your mountain climbing teeth, while Patagonia holds legendary status in the big wall climbing world, but is only for the experienced.
Mountain bike Perhaps the best biking in the Andes is based out of Mérida in Venezuela and from La Páz in Bolivia. Both locations have good local tour operators and tough but thrilling trails to ride. For the ultimate fun ride, head from the Andes down into the Amazon Basin – the world’s longest downhill.
Ski Bolivia boasts the world’s highest, lift-served ski resort, at 5,545m high Chacaltaya, near La Paz, but the best skiing in the Andes is to be found in central and southern Chile. There are several well-serviced ski resorts that, with their opposite season to the northern hemisphere, attract many European and American skiers.
Take it easy Getting high in the Andes is easy if you take a ride on Mérida’s cable car in Venezuela. It is the highest and longest cable car in the world, climbing from 1,557m in town to Pico Espejo at 4,765m in around one hour. It climbs through cloudforest, wild paramo and into the snowline. Beware of the rapid altitude gain.
This range in Central Asia runs for more than 2,415km from the Pamirs in Tajikstan to the China/Mongolia border, with the highest peak – Pobeda Peak – at 7,439m. Their relative isolation and inaccessibility means they remain largely unexplored, though mountaineering expeditions are heading there more frequently these days.
Extending from the southern part of east coast Canada down through the USA to Alabama, this range contains one of the world’s longest trekking trails, the 3,474km-long Appalachian Trail. Taking in the beautiful, rolling forested hills of the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Catskills Mountains, the range is well-developed for hikers and bikers. With the highest peak, Mount Mitchell, being a moderate 2,005m high, the Appalachians are accessible to most trekkers.
They may be located in the UK but the beautiful Cairngorm Mountains in northern Scotland are still relatively unknown. With sweeping rock faces looming over icy lochs, the wild and remote plateaux, and dramatic, glaciated valleys, the Cairngorms are the best bet for a true wilderness experience on your own doorstep. The range contains some of the country’s highest peaks, including Ben Macdhui, which at 1,309m is the UK’s second highest summit. Good skiing facilities have improved with the new funicular railway to whisk you up the slopes.
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