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The Ultimate Mountain Adventure

Mount Rainer from Puget Sound (in 48 hours)
Story by Peter Marsh
published on in 1999

Sea-to-Summit: A Brief Explanation

You don't have to risk your life in the Himalayan "death zone" to have an epic, mountain adventure! "Sea-to-Summit" (climbing mountains from sea level) makes even the safest route extremely challenging. Of course, it is not an original idea, it's the way most of the mountains in the world were climbed until the 20th century. Try to explain this to your friends and you will probably get blank stares! It's no easier with most mountaineers, who are accustomed to taking cars, cablecars, snowcats or helicopters as high as possible. "Why make a climb so hard?" they invariably ask. "It's not meant to be easy!" is my answer.
To prove my point, here are some recent human-powered circumnavigations that re-define the meaning of "commitment:
"Around the World by Bike: Alastair Humphreys (UK) 50,000 miles, 5 continents, 50 countries in four years. No buses, no hitching, no support vehicles.
Around the World on Foot: Karl Bushby (UK)set off in 1998 and has completed over 17,000 miles. With 19,000 miles to go, he hopes to be home by 2012....
Meanwhile, two Canadians set out to be the "First Around the World by Human Power:"
Expedition Canada (Colin Angus) split up with
Vancouver to Vancouver (Tim Harvey). Both returned successfully to their starting point.
Expedition 360 (UK) started in 1993, and taking the long-term view..........
Erden Eruc (US) from Seattle is attempting an equally ambitiuous long-term goal: The Six Summits while rowing around the world! He has already climbed Denali from his house in Seattle hauling all his gear by bike both ways, Aconcagua, and rowed the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

My Personal Experience: I have attended lectures by many adventurers, including Alastair and Colin in Portland, and interviewed Erden and two other ocean rowers for NW Yachting magazine. You can read those stories on my boating story page. And here is my own record that makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality! S-t-S Climbs by Peter Marsh--dedicated to the memory of the great Bill Tilman.

The Tilman Voyages

When the great Himalyan mountaineer Major H.W. "Bill" Tilman turned to sailing expeditions after his reconniasance of Everest in 1952, he began climbing remote islands in the high latitudes as a deliberate and long-term goal. He made many voyages to the Arctic (one of which I joined), and also sailed to Patagonia and the Kerguelens. These were all S-t-S climbs--although he never used that term in the seven sailing books he wrote. H.W.Tilman on the ice with one of his pilot cutters
HW Tilman sailed to Patagonia, the Kerguelen Islands, Spitzbergen, and Greenland
many times in a series of old wooden Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters. His climbing and sailing exploits seem to have attracted more interest in the 21st century than the 20th. (Tilman crew Bob Comlay's excellent site.)

1971 was a typical Tilman Voyage: Crossing of Myrdahlsjokull (Icelandic icecap), from Lymington UK, by Max Smart and Peter Marsh.

DVD and web site on "The Life and Times of Bill Tilman."

Sea-to-Summit--Your Questions Answered.

The expression "S-t-S" was used by Tim Macartney-Snape to describe his route across India and up Everest in 1990, but the idea didn't find much acceptance in the outdoor community. In the mid-90s, S-t-S was re-invented by several individuals in the U.S., New Zealand and Australia--all apparently unaware of each other until the growth of the worldwide web in the late 90s.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
Q. Are You Guys Crazy or What?
A. Maybe--but no form of mountaineering can be called logical.

Q. What is the greatest Sea-to-Summit climb ever?
A. How about the Shackleton Expedition's traverse of South Georgia in 1916? It was unplanned, the men had no climbing gear, it came at the end of a harrowing open boat voyage, and the lives of all the men left on Elephant Island depended on its success.

Q. Has Mount Everest been climbed from sea level?
A. Yes it has—by Tim Macartney-Snape in 1990 and Goran Kropp in 1996.
(See Next Page: Sea-to-Summits of the World)
The British Everestmax Project from the Dead Sea was completed in 2006!

Q. What other big challenges are there left in S-t-S ?
A. Several people have climbed a few of the Seven Summits from sea level, but no one has yet found a sponsor prepared to stick with them for the long haul. Starting from below sea level-where possible-adds an element of difficulty. (Sean Tracey has climbed Denali, Alaska, from Death Valley, California.)As I predicted here in 2000, a team is now after the last great goal: The Everestmax Expedition left the Dead Sea on Dec. 21, 2005.

Q. What about easier climbs?
A. The field is wide open! (None of the climbs on my list are higher than 5000m. If you live far from the sea, try “base climbing” your local peaks from a lake, river, or town on the lowlands. (If this sounds too easy, you can carry ALL your gear, ALL the way!)

Q. Are there any rules?
A..Just these: use only your own energy, start at the bottom (it's traditional to dip your feet or wheels in the water), enjoy the trip, and finish at the top.

Q. OK, but what is considered “good style” for S-t-S climbs?
A. S-t-S climbers set out to experience all the changes in climate, geography, vegetation and culture as they ascend free from the confines of motorized transport. This can be interpreted in various ways, depending on the time available, one’s physical abilities, and the significance of the climb, whether personally or geographically. That still leaves a lot of options: you could walk all the way and swim the rivers, use a bike to carry some or all your gear, sail across oceans to reach your goal etc.

Q. So can I have some support from a car?
A. Sure, if that's what it takes to get you off the couch!--as long as you go all the way under your own steam you’ve done an S-t-S (But that wouldn’t rate as high as someone who was completely self-supported.) This is not a cut-and-dried matter. Self-sufficiency is a fine goal, but "no man is an island."

Q. Has this got anything to do with Adventure Racing?
A. I hope not! Sea-to-Summit is always an adventure, sometimes a race but never an "adventure race!"

Q. Why are there no women on your list?
A. I hate to admit it, but there may be more useful things to do with your life.....

Q. Who were the first S-t-S climbers?
A. Most of the big peaks outside of Asia were climbed before the 20th century and the advent of motor travel, which is one of the inspirations for S-t-S (The Incas climbed to 22,000’ in the Andes for some rather brutal ceremonies, the conquistadors climbed 17,800’ Popocatapetl in Mexico for sulphur.) It’s possible, but not probable, that any of these climbs were made on foot from sea level, since native peoples didn’t usually range that far, and the Spaniards had horses.

S-t-S Climbs by Peter Marsh

Sea-to-Summits of the World

Highpoint Lists and Information--Everything You Ever Wanted to Know!

Find Comprehensive Mountain Lists at Peakbagger
List of the world's Top 50 prominent summits
What is "Prominence?" (The height of a mountain compared to its surroundings.)

Pioneers in the Pacific Northwest

In my own region, the northern Rockies and Cascades were first mapped in 1805 by the Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis & Clark--after they had hauled their boats against the current of the Missouri River for hundreds of miles. The first ascents of all the high Cascades volcanoes were made in the late 1800s essentially from sea level, at a time when horse and wagon were the only means of travel. Despite their lack of experience, poor equipment and the need to cut their own trails, the pioneer climbers reached every summit without motorized assistance. They were men (and women) like Henry Pittock (photo), an English-born pioneer who arrived in Portland and started the Oregonian newspaper. He was in the first team to climb Mount Hood in 1867 and also started the first Portland cycling club. It is reported that he once said: "The man who sits down never reaches the top."

1868: First Ascent of Mount Baker, Washington, U.S. (near the Canadian border). On his third try, Edmund Coleman, an educated English sportsman, succeeded in canoeing up the North Fork Nooksack River with a team of four local men, thence by foot to the 10,778' summit. (The use of canoe rather than horse for the approach makes this ascent truly "human-powered" and unique among western peaks.)

1897: First recorded speed climb from sea level in the US on a glaciated peak. Four Portland men rode 58 miles from Portland to Government Camp on dirt roads on the typical bikes of the time, hiked to timberline and camped, climbed with the guide O.C.Yocum to the summit in 4:30 the next morning, descended to Gov. Camp in 2:45 and returned to Portland for a total time of 38:10. Incredible!

1897: First ascent of Mount Saint Elias (Yukon) by the grand expedition of the Duke of Abrizzi, the brother of the King of Italy. (But did he start at the coast?)

We can do the same, using a bike in place of a horse, and share their triumph of climbing mountains, unassisted, from the ground up.

As far as justifying this approach, you could just as well ask the same question of the tough, young men of the new generation who continue to push the limits of alpinism on ever-harder routes, or with ever-purer style. Their goals are to climb without oxygen, without support, without stopping, etc. Since this obscure concept of "style" seems so important in modern mountaineering, my question to them is: "How come it is never applied to the approach?"

It certainly appears as if the well-worn claims of climbers concerning self-reliance, independence or personal discovery don't apply until some kind of motor vehicle has relieved them of the need to climb the lower part of the mountain--as much as 2/3 of the toal height! This encroachment of Progress into the wilderness poses issues not just of style, but also fairness and honesty.

It's not only a question of whether wearing plastics and eating freeze-dried food makes our achievements somehow less than those of earlier times (of course it does!), but of where the mountain, the climb or the route actually begins........ is it at sea level, the lowlands, the foothills, or wherever the bulldozers are forced to halt their assault on the environment?

Climbing any mountain from sea level or just from a low elevation presents new physical and mental challenges. You can approach it as a bike-and-hike, "mountain duathlon" or mini-expedition. You can race or stroll to the top. The only rule is to be self-sufficient. Let me know how it goes.....

The Three Peaks Races

Bill Tilman was also the inspiration for a new sport!
1977: The British Three Peaks Race combined competitive sailing and mountaineering, sailing from N.Wales (Snowdon) along the NW coast of England (Scafell Pike) to Ben Nevis in Scotland non-stop. After 25 years the land course has been revised and now covers 29 miles cycling and 59 miles on foot, climbing 11,000 feet. (NB Web site changes with each new sponsor.)

1989: The Australian Three Peaks Race: first run in Tasmania--81 miles mountain running, climbing 8681 feet.The Australian Three Peaks Race is also a non-stop event, commencing at Beauty Point on the Tamar River just north of Launceston and finishing in Hobart on the Derwent River. En-route, teams have to scale Mt Strzelecki, Mt Freycinet and Mt Wellington.

1992: A Scottish Three Peaks Race was run for some years that covered 60 miles on foot, climbing 11,500 feet. The idea has also been tried in non-Anglo countries but hasn't caught on.

A Proposal for A Four Peaks Race in the Pacific Northwest

"Multi-sport racing" emerged as a distinct discipline in the early 1980s in races in New Zealand, Sacramento (California) and Yakima (Washington). Mountain climbs are part of several races, including:
1982: Speight's Coast to Coast Race traverses the South Island of New Zealand from the Tasman Sea to the Pacific Ocean. In this annual event, competitors cycle 140kms (3 stages of 55km, 15km and 70km), run 36km (including a 33km mountain stage that crosses the Southern Alps) and kayak 67kms of the grade two Waimakariri River through the "Grand Canyon" of New Zealand.
1994: The New Hampshire S2S Race runs from the Atlantic Coast, 12 miles up the Piscataqua River by kayak, then 90 miles by bike to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, then run/hike 8.5 miles to the peak of Mt. Washington (El. 6,288’) highpoint of the US east coast. No support provided--competitors must organize their own support teams!

More info on Sea-to-Summits of the World <> Sea-to-Summits by Peter Marsh Short History

1966 Monty Python sets the ultimate S-t-S standard by beginning their ascent in the living room!
1996 My rock-climbing partner Clay Nichols (5.11) introduces me to the internet. I sign up for e-mail and start looking for a way to mark my 50th birthday.
1997 My inspiration (when it came) drew from my 1971 voyage to Iceland with Bill Tilman, the Three Peaks Race which his cruises inspired, and vague reports of multi-sport mountain races in Europe. At that time, I was completely unaware of most of the magnificent, "first ascents" on the list (including those in my hometown). My Mt Hood sea-to-summit was strictly a once-in-a-lifetime affair, but the idea soon started to develop a life of its own.
More on my climbs 1998 I launched my personal web page into cyberspace.
1999 I added a list of my S-t-S climbs to my site. I began dreaming about a more comprehensive S-t-S site.
2000 Taught myself html and started improving my site.
2001 The one-hour 1991 film Everest-Sea to Summit was revived by the Banff Mountain Film Festival as part of its 25th birthday celebration, and played around the US-including Portland.

Media Coverage

1997: Jonathon Nicholas of The Oregonian (Columnist)-"Most men settle for a new haircut, perhaps a sports car. Not this guy. For his midlife crisis, Peter marsh decided to get high. On the eve of his 50th birthday he decided to climb the mountain. All of the mountain."

1998: Mike McQuaid of The Bellingham Herald (Outdoor Editor)-"Mount Baker is actually the fifth peak in the last year on which Marsh has used human-powered means to get from sea level to a significant peak. When he runs out of road he puts on his climbing boots and starts hiking for the summit."

1999: Terry Richard of the Oregonian (Outdoor Editor)-"Peter Marsh approaches the sport of mountaineering like few others. Rather than drive to a mile-high parking lot to begin a climb, he begins at sea level on his bicycle. Marsh might be the only person who is trying to reach the summits of each major, western peak by starting near sea level."

Outline for a Four Peaks Race in the San Juans

  • Bellingham-Olga on Orcas (Climb Mt Constitution: 15 miles 2,600')
  • Olga-San Juan County Park on San Juan (Climb Mount Dallas 1,000')
  • San Juan-Eagle Harbor on Cypress Island (Climb to summit 1,500')
  • Cypress-Wildcat Cove on mainland (Climb Mount Chuckanut 1,950')
  • Wildcat Cove (Laribee State Park) to Bellingham.

    Rules-subject to discussion

    1. As of now-no handicaps, no racing rules, (perhaps smaller boat has right of way?)
    2. Runners may utilise any form of non-powered boat to reach shore at official check-in.
    3. Engine allowed only within anchoring zone or while runners are ashore.
    4. Racers to re-group and socialize on Saturday evening.
    5. Start times and order of climbs subject to skippers' approval and wind and tide conditions.
    6. Prizes and recognition for everyone who finishes.
    7. Potential for a mountain biking class, if trail rules allow. Possibly two bike riders making successive trips per peak?)
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