Man on mission to climb highest mountains in 100 different countries
PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 October 2017
As ambitions go, Lee Humphries’ is an unusual, if lofty, one – to ascend the highest points of 100 different countries. As he crests the halfway mark in his quest, he explains all to Julian Shea.
In 1923, when climber George Mallory was questioned about the motivation for his ill-fated Mount Everest expedition, famously he replied: “Because it’s there.”
In 2017, climber Lee Humphries can only dream of being able to give such a succinct answer. His goal is to climb not one highest point, but those in 100 countries, including all of Europe.
The simple motivation, though, is similar. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated by extremes in the Guinness Book of Records – I always wanted to know how far things could go,” he said.
“One day, my dad took me up a point outside Wolverhampton called Beacon Hill, and on the horizon, dominating the skyline, I could see the Wrekin. As it was taller, I wanted to climb it – and so it started.
“After doing loads in Wales, my first overseas one was Spain’s highest point, the Pico de Teide in the Canary Islands, then Carrauntoohil in Ireland. I did more isolated ones, without any plan, then one day realised I’d got to 15 and thought ‘I can make something of this’.”
So far, Humphries has managed 54, with recent conquests including Bosnia (Maglic), Kosovo (Rudoka) and Liechtenstein (Grauspitz), with all journeys logged at 100countryhighpoints.com. Others already done include Morocco (Jebel Toubkal), Japan (Fuji), and Malaysia (Kinabalu), but Europe dominates the list.
“I’ve done 13 in Asia so far, and will go anywhere, but obviously Europe is most convenient,” he said. However, even that is not straightforward, so Humphries uses a book called Europe’s High Points as his definitive list.
“My priority is to do 100 then maybe, after that, a few more countries which aren’t quite so clear. With Turkey, for example, there’s a European high point and the actual high point, in Asia, so I’d always want to do the actual highest one, to be sure.
“Another case is Kosovo – not everyone recognises it, but most of the UN does, including the UK, so that’ll do me. I’d rather do it anyway to cover my tracks. No-one can say I cut corners.”
The 34-year-old self-employed roofer from Wolverhampton has always been a completist – “if it’s a feasible list, I want to do it all” – but insists he is not masochistic.
“It’s challenging, but it’s controlled and within my capability. I’ve been climbing for over 20 years so it’s deep seated. I stopped for a while but every weekend I’d think ‘I should be climbing’ – it drew me back.”
No matter its height, if it is the highest a country has to offer, Humphries will ascend it – and the lowest high so far was in an unlikely place. “The Vatican’s highest point is only 75m, in the Pope’s garden,” he said. “I had to join an organised tour and go off the path to find it. There were three points, any one of which could have been it, so I did them all to be sure. It was a thorough tour.”
As Humphries has learned, sometimes the biggest challenge is not the ascent but the getting there.
“Bahrain was one of the toughest – it was only 134m, but it’s a military site behind barbed wire, with dogs protecting it, so it had to be a stealth one, but I did it. Next was Qatar – a military firing range. Nine times out of 10 people can’t get up it, but when I was there, luckily it wasn’t in use.”
Another problem is planning so many trips.
“I’m self-employed, so I have flexibility – working fulltime, it would be impossible,” he explained. “I plan to do about 20 a year, which will get me to 100 pretty quickly. If I can do three or four in one trip, that’s ideal. Macedonia and Albania was a bit of luck; they share a highest peak on the frontier (Korab) so I walked around the top and voila – two done!”
Travel schedules have to be ultra-tight. “I like flights that land late or take off early so I can sleep at the airport and save on accommodation, to fund my next trip,” he said.
“I try to be as frugal as possible because I have to plan ahead. If anything goes wrong, that’s ruined, but so far the worst that’s happened was missing a train which stopped me getting back to my hotel, so I slept at the station – no big deal.”
Already an experienced traveller before he began – “there’s only about six countries I’ve been to so far which I’d not visited before” – his schedules leave little time for sightseeing, but one country he visited recently, Bosnia, left a huge impression.
“It was absolutely beautiful – one of the few places I’ve been where I could imagine myself living,” Lee said.
“It was incredibly relaxed and the people were so friendly. It’s a lovely place, the scenery looks like Scotland. It’s extremely westernised and so close. If they really got into tourism it would really take off.”
Climbing conditions can vary as much as the height. “For comparison, if you take Mount Snowdon as something most people can do easily, terrain-wise, about two-thirds are tougher than that,” he said. “In many cases, though, the challenge isn’t the climb, but the logistics, like Bahrain. Not every peak is somewhere simple.
“I avoid things like cable cars. I like to make the ascent interesting, but I pick routes where I can get up, down and back in the quickest time.”
The reactions he has encountered en route are as varied as the places he has visited.
“Some Forestry Commission employees in Cyprus gave me a lift in a rain storm,” he said. “When I told them what I was doing, they couldn’t get their heads around it and looked at me like some weirdo and said ‘why?’. But that’s climbing – you get it, or you don’t.”
Despite the world of climbing being a community, Humphries’ exercise has been largely solitary, but he said this makes life easier.
“I don’t mind that, it means everything is within your own control. That suits me as I’m the sort of person who plans everything down to exact minutes,” he said.
“The only time I’ve been with a large group was in Albania where it was hard to get to Korab, but once a year a local hiking group do an organised trip, so I joined them.
“I’ve met people along the way, too – when I was in Greece climbing Mount Olympus, I helped some Israelis get to the top and one of them invited me to stay as a thank you, so I did Har Meron whilst I was there.”
Although the ultimate goal of each trip is the peak, Humphries thinks his travels have revealed plenty about each place he has been – and himself.
“Usually the high point is somewhere remote so having been to lots of countries before as a tourist, it’s nice to see a different side,” he said.
“So many cities are similar, you get a truer sense of what a country’s really like in the countryside. You realise how things like turning on a tap and water coming out, or walking to the shop, are so far away from these people, how much disparity there is – and how it needs addressing.
“Doing this, you have to learn to communicate by whatever means necessary with all kinds of people. I used to keep to myself a lot more, but I’ve really grown to enjoy interacting with people.”
Humphries’ next targets include Ukraine, then more of the Gulf states as he strides towards 100.
“The highest point in Europe is Mount Elbrus in Russia, and I also plan to do Africa’s highest point [Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania] before hopefully going to South America’s highest, Aconcagua in Argentina, for my 100th.
“I’ve always wanted to go to there, and it’ll need some time, so if it’s my 100th I’ll make a proper trip of it.”
Which leaves the big one, Mallory’s inspiration – Everest.
Don’t expect to see Humphries there in a hurry, though.
“Ability-wise, after doing 100, I reckon I’d be up to it, but it costs £35,000 and there’s the staggering statistic that one in three people either come back early or not at all,” he said.
“It’d be a huge risk, so I would definitely need sponsorship. Over the years I’ve accumulated loads of gear but financial help is always handy.
“The best thing I’ve got recently though was from a navigation phone app called OSMAnd – that gave me everything I needed.”
For all his globetrotting, however, it was something extremely close to home that made Humphries appreciate what he has done – and continues to do.
“I was at a Wolves game at Molineux recently, and looking at the people around me, thought ‘how many of them have been to 52 countries?’,” he said.
“People miss out on so much going on such generic holidays. There’s a fascinating world out there to see and explore. It’s a shame more people don’t try.”
Follow the quest for 100 on 100countryhighpoints.com/ or @leehumphries100
• EUROPE’S HIGHEST POINTS
Mount Elbrus, Russia, 5,642m
In the Caucasus Mountains, this dormant volcano is the highest peak in Europe and tenth highest in the world. It was the scene of fighting in the Second World War and Hitler is said to have been enraged by a team of Germans who climbed to the top to plant a swastika, branding the mission a stunt
Mont Blanc, France / Monte Bianco, Italy, 4,810m
France’s highest mountain is also Italy’s. Ownership of the summit has been debated since the French Revolution and there are still disagreements between Italy and France over the border
Triglav, Slovenia, 2,864m
The mountain features on the Slovenian flag and was a symbol of resistance in the Second World War. Local partisans wore a distinctive piece of headgear called the Triglav cap
Gerlachovsky stit, Slovakia, 2,654m
Over the course of the 20th century, the mountain has been the highest peak in the Kingdom of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Slovakia