The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Since then, it has become the pinnacle feat of any mountaineering career. And rightfully so: The dangerous ascent to the highest point on Earth should only be tried by the most skilled mountaineers, and still many of them have died in the attempt.
But in recent years, Everest has welcomed a new class of climbers — wealthy novices who, by hiring the best crew and buying the fanciest equipment, can get to brag that they stood on top of the world. But this massive increase in unqualified climbers has led to dangerously overcrowded and polluted conditions, and this year, at least 11 climbers have lost their lives as a result.
On a recent expedition, mountaineering world record holder Nirmal Purja captured the traffic on the way to the summit.
You’d expect to see lines like this outside a San Francisco Apple store during an iPhone release, not on a Mount Everest summit trek. And the crowds show a similar willingness to throw massive sums of money at a status symbol, as summit permits themselves cost $11,000 and fully-fitted expeditions can run from $35,000 to well over $100,000.
Unless you’re willing to put in the years of training required to become a skilled mountaineer, maybe Everest really isn’t for you. Here are five stunning mountain peaks around the world you can climb instead, where you won’t be waiting in line for selfies. And you’ll save enough money to buy a Lexus when you get home too.
If seeing Mount Everest is your priority, you get a fantastic view of it from the top of Gokyo Ri, along with three more of the 14 highest peaks in the world. At 17,575 feet, no oxygen, mountaineering equipment or professional experience is needed.
For amateurs, Everest Base Camp is a much more common destination picked mainly for name recognition without exploring other options. Gokyo Ri is a comparable hike with a far more rewarding payoff and fewer crowds.
You can also do both by crossing the Cho La Pass that connects the Everest Base Camp route to Gokyo. Or, if you have time, the best “beginner” option in the Everest region is the Three Passes trek that hits these highlights and plenty more. Best of all, it can be done incredibly cheap. Think: trekking in the Himalayas for as little as $30 a day.
Ojos del Salado is a pair of peaks split by the border between Argentina and Chile. The name means “eyes of the salty” in Spanish, and salty is just how the countries get when they debate which of the peaks is superior. Chile has long said their peak is taller, albeit by less than a meter, and Argentina has said it doesn’t really matter. At least, that was until another GPS technique was used and put Argentina’s Monte Pissis ahead of Ojos del Salado in elevation. Then, suddenly, Argentina cared about elevation again.
These days, Ojos del Salado is widely accepted as the second-highest peak in South America and also the Western and Southern Hemispheres. Chile’s peak is believed to be a few centimeters higher than Argentina’s, but it’s still a subject of debate between the countries when bickering over soccer and red wine gets old.
The experience of reaching the summits is decidedly different though, depending on in which country you begin your climb. Chile requires a free permit, has more facilities, and has a road that can drop you very high up on the mountain. From Argentina, no permit is required, and the trek is longer and more difficult. Most of the trek up to the 22,615 foot summit is without snow, making it one of the highest nontechnical climbs in the world, except perhaps for some scampering with ropes needed at the summit. The elevation is the main challenge here. Just because a vehicle dropped you off there, AMS is no joke.
Perhaps the most famous nontechnical summit in the world is Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. But a lot is misunderstood about a trek to Africa’s highest peak. For one, Kilimanjaro is a free standing volcano, not part of a mountain range, meaning it lacks the awesome views of other peaks and ridges. Also, while Tanzania is packed with game in other parts of the country, you’ll only see one animal species for nearly all of the climb: humans. And there are lots of them.
Mount Meru is Africa’s second highest mountain at 14,977 feet. But it’s often overlooked in favor of its towering neighbor just 43 miles away. However, the mountain sits in Arusha National Park, which has more opportunities to spot game than Kilimanjaro. And the four-day trek sees a fraction of the hikers and can be done for a fraction of the price. The best feature though is something its much more popular neighbor lacks: a view of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Even if you plan to climb Kilimanjaro, Meru is a great acclimatization hike. And be sure to see my guide on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
The third-highest mountain in North America is taller than any peak in the continental US, but remains largely a secret. Three-day expeditions from the 14,000 foot base camp to the 18,491 foot summit cost around $500, and you’ll have the route to yourself. While you’re there, spend some time exploring and adventuring for cheap in the hidden gem that is Veracruz, Mexico.
If you’re looking for more accessible options, Switzerland is in the heart of the jagged Alps with endless views of the surrounding peaks. I hiked up Mount Pilatus as a day trip from Zurich and documented it in this Instagram takeover. While the peak is packed with tourists who take a funicular or cable car up, the free hiking paths are relatively barren. And every new turn provides a stunning new angle.
There is really no shortage of hiking and gorgeous mountain peaks in Switzerland. While you’ll pay a bunch for lodging and fondue, most of the hiking trails and summits are free and can be completed in no more than three days. Some, such as Mount Pilatus, are doable in just one.
Of course, there are some mountains no amount of money will help you summit. Gangkhar Puensum is widely believed to be the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The 24,840-foot peak lies in Bhutan near the border with China. Bhutan has outlawed climbing peaks greater than 20,000 feet due to religious reasons. And with Bhutan’s tight restrictions on tourism and the major undertaking a summit of that altitude would entail, no climbers can slip by unnoticed.
If summiting Mount Everest is at the top of your bucket list, don’t be fooled. Throwing a ton of money at an expedition is not equivalent to years of mountaineering preparation — and the overtourism has led to severe traffic jams and unmanaged waste that have created an outright environmental crisis. The world is filled with mountain peaks that are equally as beautiful, far less crowded and expensive, and you won’t be putting your life (and the lives of others) at risk while attempting to claim the summit.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Featured photo courtesy of Project Possible / AFP / Getty Images.