- There are treks for every skill level, ranging from hardcore junkies to couch potatoes
- Ecuador's Cotopaxi, a frequent pre-Everest test, is the third largest volcano in the world
- Don't underestimate the altitude and chilly conditions of While Mount Elbrus' most popular route
Climbing pioneer George Mallory scaled some of the world's biggest peaks "because they're there." But with so many mountains and so little time, how does a climber know where to start?
We've taken some of the guesswork out of picking the perfect peak, so whether you're the next Sir Edmund Hillary or more of a mountain man wannabe, you can focus on reaching the summit.
1. Hardcore junkies: K2, Pakistan/China
"So, who wants to go first?"
Everest may be taller, but real mountaineers know no peak on the planet beats K2 for sheer intensity. If you need an introduction, odds are you should stick to admiring it from afar.
This 8,611-meter Himalayan giant, dubbed the "Savage Mountain," is considered the world's toughest, with routes harder than Everest's and weather that's even more brutally cold and unpredictable.
For every four climbers who reach the summit, one dies trying, and female climbers beware: the peak is said to be "cursed," as three of the five women to conquer the summit died on the descent.
If that doesn't scare you off, you're either good enough to belong, or crazy enough to try anyway. Succeed, and you'll have earned the right to tell aspiring climbers that Everest is for wimps. If you're a cheater, head for Mount K2 instead, a decidedly friendlier Canadian peak with a name that will fool your less savvy friends.
Where to start: No question here -- any serious K2 summit bid will be with an expedition, who'll take care of the details. Be wary if they sign you up for a winter ascent, as it's never been successfully climbed when the weather turns even more brutal than usual. Unless you're just that hardcore, that is.
Adventure Peaks; +44 (0)1539 433794; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.adventurepeaks.com/expeditions/k2.htm
Amical Alpine; email@example.com; www.amical.de/expeditionstagebuecher
2. Couch potatoes: Bromo, Indonesia
You could even climb it twice if you wanted.
Who said climbing a mountain has to involve breaking a sweat? If the mere thought of hiking sets your heart pounding, head to Indonesia's Bromo-Tengger National Park, where catching a glimpse of the volcano's lunar-like beauty requires barely more effort than it would to pull up a photo on your laptop.
At 2,782 meters, the slightly taller Panajakan, which offers the best view in the Bromo area, may not have the stature of other peaks on this list, but when you can hire a four-wheel drive to take you within five meters of the summit for a sunrise view of the steaming Bromo National Park volcanoes and surrounding Sea of Sands, all while enjoying tea and barbecued corn on the cob at a peaktop warung, who's going to quibble about a few thousand meters' difference?
Where to start: Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is most often accessed from nearby Cemero Lawang, the closest village and park entry point, where you'll need to pay 25,000 rupiah (US$2.80).
Cemero Lawang and other nearby villages have good hostel accommodations -- try Lava View Lodge or Café Lava -- but tours are easily arranged in many East Java cities as well. Try to avoid weekends, when easy access means big crowds.
Global Adventure Indonesia; (Café Lava and Lava View Lodge); +62 354 391163; firstname.lastname@example.org;http://globaladventureindonesia.com/cafe-lava
Bromo Iljen Tours; +62 333 774 5081; www.bromoijentours.com/tour
3. Purists: Matterhorn, Switzerland
So good, they modeled a chocolate bar after it.
Some say the Matterhorn has been overcome by tourism as guiding companies made the peak accessible to anyone. But if you want to go back to the birthplace of mountaineering, this 4,480-meter Swiss peak -- the most recognizable in Europe, jutting high above the surrounding Alps -- is the place to be.
Climb with any of the guiding companies on the peak today and you'll be roughing it a bit less than the first ascenders (think real gear and well-maintained huts along the Hornli Ridge with food decidedly more attractive than your standard freeze-dried trail dinner), but you'll still be following in the footsteps of the hardy few who created the sport.
To get a feel for the long mountaineering history you'll be joining, check out the Matterhorn museum at the base, but save it for after your successful ascent -- it contains nearly as many homages to failed Matterhorn attempts as the Zermatt Cemetery.
Where to start: Zermatt is your base camp for a Matterhorn climb, and it's easy to find a guide or any equipment you need in this town, which may not feel as traditional as purists would like, but caters to the skier/climber crowd perfectly.
Take a cable car to Schwartzsee and spend the night in Hornli Hut on Hornli Ridge before rising early for a long but single-day ascent that will leave you time to explore the rest of the Swiss Alps. To avoid feeling like you're being herded up the mountain, avoid the high season from mid-June to late-August.
Adventure Consultants; + 1 866 757 8722; email@example.com; www.adventureconsultants.com
Alpine Ascents; +1 206 378 1927; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.alpineascents.com/matterhorn.asp
4. Aspiring Ansels: Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, Argentina
Don't forget your camera, and don't forget to use it.
No ascent is complete without the victory shot that proves you made it to the top, but climb Fitzroy and Cerro with a photographer and they'll get so caught up in these Patagonian peaks' otherworldly scenery you'll have to remind them you're here to climb the peaks, not just stand back in awe.
You'll have to work for the perfect shot -- not only is Patagonia's weather notoriously fickle, Fitzroy is no walk in the park. Technical climbing skills for rock and ice are a must on any route, and if its 3,375 meters make it a relative dwarf, it's still no trophy peak.
Catch a view of the granite spires reaching skyward, though, and it will more than make up for the challenge. For those who are more photographer than climber, nearby Cerro Torre offers scenery nearly as epic, with none of the technical work.
Where to start: You'll rack up some flier miles getting here -- Buenos Aires to El Calafte, though LADE, an airline operated by the Argentinian air force, offers cheap flights if you book far enough ahead. Hop on a bus from in El Calafte and enjoy the adventurous four-hour ride to El Chalten, the most common home base for Fitzroy ascents. You'll also need to pick up a (free) climbing permit at the national park office in El Chalten.
Andes; +44 1556 603929; email@example.com; www.andes.org.uk
American Alpine Institute; +1 360 671 1505; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.aai.cc
5. Families: Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
You may even spot Simba from the top.
Kilimanjaro's family-friendly draw isn't the safari surroundings, though "Lion King" lovers young and old will no doubt delight in the wildlife sightings.
If you're planning to bring the whole family on your next mountain adventure, Kilimanjaro has a relatively low minimum age -- 10 years -- compared to other summits of its stature, and though the thin air at 5,895 meters is a challenge, multiple walk-up routes make it a good pick for budding mountaineers.
It's also the top pick for sheer diversity in the sights along the way. You'll travel through five different climactic zones en route to the "roof of Africa" and if you follow the Machame route, you'll likely see a wide range of wildlife too -- although many guides also offer safaris as an end-of-climb addition that will appeal to all ages.
Where to start: Anyone climbing Kilimanjaro must use a local guide, but with literally hundreds of companies offering expeditions, you should have no trouble finding one that fits your needs. This is a trip to plan ahead for -- you'll need a hefty dose of vaccinations and a visa to enter Tanzania, but one-of-a-kind Kilimanjaro is worth it. If you're a stickler for the details, make sure you reach the top of the highest of the highest of the three extinct volcanoes that form the peak, Uhuru.
Adventure Consultants; +1 866 757 8722; email@example.com; www.adventureconsultants.com
6. Weekend warriors: Grand Teton, United States
One day up, one day down, a lifetime of bragging.
If you're short on time and trekking experience, few peaks make it as quick and easy to get classic scenery and name appeal as Wyoming's Grand Teton.
It's the iconic mountain of the American west, and views of its jagged summit have a "wow factor" belying its relatively short stature that will leave your ignorant friends back home in awe of your newfound climbing chops.
You won't even have to miss much time at the office -- other big-name peaks take a week, at least, to climb, but the Grand Teton's 4,179 meters make it doable in two days (one if you're in superhuman shape and ready to work).
With several flights a day landing in nearby Jackson Hole, it's a packed but feasible long weekend, even if you tack on the two-day introductory course most guiding companies offer before the summit bid. Make it back in time to do a little bragging before your meetings -- and the real world -- intrude again.
Where to start: There are several guide companies to choose from, but Exum sets the standard. They're the oldest, having guided the peak for 80 years, and due to an official relationship with the park, have the highest campsite on the mountain, on the saddle between the Middle and Grand peaks.
Most climbers will ascend the classic but beginner-friendly Owen-Spalding Route (but watch out for the thrilling but vertigo-inducing Belly Roll pitch).
Exum Mountain Guides; +1 307 733 2297; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.exumguides.com
7. Gourmets: Dolomites, Italy
Best way to work up an appetite.
Mountain climbers may not be known for living the high-class life, but Italy's Dolomites elevate trekking above its backpacker stereotypes.
The range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Le Corbusier called them "the most beautiful architectures in the world," but for serious foodies, the appeal is as much in the valley villages between the peaks, where a long day of trekking is richly rewarded with Italian cuisine.
The peaks' average height is around 3,000 meters, and the tallest, Punta Penia, is just 3,343, but deep valleys mean you'll work up an appetite to justify extra helpings of homemade pasta and gelato at the guesthouses along the way (there's no need to rough it here).
Routes range from easy hikes for those who are more gourmet than climber to 20-pitch big wall climbs, including the north face of Cima Grande, considered one of the best walls in the Alps. And for a true Dolomites experience, be sure to check out the "via ferrata" -- as long as you're not scared of heights. These routes, formerly supply lines from Italy and Austria's pre-World War I rivalry, are so exposed they've been protected with cables and ropes, but offer the best views and are some of the most popular routes in the entire range.
Where to start: No guides needed here -- and with so many peaks and regions to pick from, you really can't go wrong. The easiest way to reach the range is by car, as trains only reach the outer valleys. However, the Dolomitibus bus service offers good connections, though you'll have to be careful not to miss the stops, which hit each village just a handful of times per day. Accommodations are easily found online -- see dolomitesinfo.com for info on the whole region and suedtirolerland.it for the northern and western valleys.
8. Party people: Cotopaxi, Ecuador
It looks like a reflection, but after this much partying it could all be in your mind.
As a frequent pre-Everest test, Ecuador's Cotopaxi is a serious challenge -- all the more reason to reward yourself after bagging the 5,897-meter peak with a tour of South America's vibrant party scene.
Cotopaxi is the most popular high altitude summit in Ecuador and the third largest volcano in the world. The national park is just 55 kilometers south of Quito and Cotopaxi's perfectly shaped cone is instantly recognizable, giving you the willpower to pass by the party scene on the way to the mountains -- it will still be there when you get back, but good weather on the summit might not hang around.
For your victory celebration, Quito may be the most famous option, but other towns in the area -- accessible by car or trek -- offer plenty of choices. Check out Banos, which has something for everyone in your climbing party -- hiking, mountain biking, hot springs, cheap hotels, all-night discos and all the Spanish rap you can handle.
Where to start: Plenty of guiding companies offer Cotopaxi climbs, based internationally and locally. Be aware that you get what you pay for -- some local outfits may be a steal compared to overseas operators, but have also been known to be less than committed to getting you to the top. After reaching Quito, you'll have a choice between the north and south routes -- north has better views, but the ride will leave you a little more bruised than the southern option. No permit is needed, but there is a fee to enter the national park and a separate refuge fee jumped to US$42.70 as of June 1, 2011.
9. Ski bums: Elbrus, Russia
Never too cold if you remember to pack a flask of vodka.
The Alps may be home to Europe's most famous skiing, but real ski bums know to head east. While other European resorts worry about dwindling snowfall and shorter ski seasons, Russia's Mount Elbrus is above their fears -- literally.
The highest peak in Europe at 5,642 meters, Elbrus almost guarantees you some good skiing, and carries Seven Summits standing for an added bonus. The climb's most popular route is not technical, but don't underestimate the challenge of real altitude and chilly conditions.
Fortunately, the active rest days built into your acclimatization plan are the perfect excuse to break up your ascent with a few days of cat skiing before the final ski descent. And if you still haven't logged enough vertical meters by the end, the thousand-kilometer Baksan Valley offers the most developed ski resorts in the Caucasus range, with heli and cat ski tours on Elbrus and the surrounding peaks.
Where to start: Most climbers fly into Min Voldy before heading to Terskol, a town at Elbrus's base with two ski lifts and several hotel options, but you won't need to worry about the details if you join one of the many expeditions run by well-known international guiding companies, a good idea since the seemingly easy route can turn dangerous during Elbrus's violent storms. April, May and June are the best months for a ski descent.
Mountain Madness; +1 800 328 5925; email@example.com; www.mountainmadness.com
Pilgrim Tours; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.pilgrim-tours.com
10. Loners: Mount Khuiten, Mongolia
Don't need a guide, just a set of healthy lungs.
Make it to the summit of Mongolia's 4,373-meter Mount Khuiten, and you'll have the golden Altai range vistas all to yourself.
The trek is as much a part of the experience as the climb itself, with only the occasional horsemen interrupting vast skies and the empty expanse below. The climb itself isn't too challenging, although you will run into some 30 to 40-degree pitches of ice and snow whichever route you ascend.
Though you can make the ascent alone, climbers who are hesitant to cut off all links to civilization can join one of several guiding companies offering Mount Khuiten expeditions, based both in Mongolia and abroad, most of which offer the chance to try your hand at horse or camel riding, or take in a traditional festival in one of the few towns you'll pass on the way in.
Where to start: Ulaanbataar is the nearest major airport and is also the place to go to pick up any last-minute gear for your ascent, though you can also arrange a flight to Bayan Olgii in Western Mongolia, leaving just one more four-wheel drive transfer and a day of trekking before the start of the climb. Most climbers ascend Potin, Mongolia's largest glacier, but head up the southeast ridge for a more challenging ascent.
If you don't go with an expedition, be sure to arrange a local driver and translator -- you'll need to pick up permits from three different authorities in Olgii, make your way through several checkpoints on the way in, and navigating the remote, sometimes roadless areas is no picnic on your own, even for agoraphobes. Olgii's Central Mongol Altai Mountain Club can be a good resource as well.
KE Adventure Travel; +1 888 630 4415; email@example.com; www.keadventure.com