Scaling new heights or overcoming the insurmountable have become cliches associated with the achievements of MIT students. But for Matthew and Eric Gilbertson (both PhD ’14) those phrases apply almost literally. In just over five years the twin brothers have scaled the highest peaks of every single country (23 to be exact) in North America. In an interview with The Tech, they reflected on their incredible journey — from the hours of careful planning, to treading surreptitiously on the edge of perilous cliffs, to the sheer exhilaration of reaching the summit and the realization that they are the only breathing human beings in a quarter-mile radius with nothing but tranquility and snow for company.
The sense of adventure had been instilled in their early childhood: “Our dad would take us on backpacking trips. As a family we tried to visit as many states as possible,” Eric recalled.
At MIT, the Gilbertsons joined the MIT Outing Club (MITOC) where they teamed up with fellow hiking enthusiasts to embark on a number of expeditions throughout the country.
“We got inspiration from other club members’ travel experiences, [and from members] who encouraged us to travel to other countries,” Matthew noted. “In fact, we are still part of MITOC. We were working on climbing the highest points of each state. We finished in 2012. That is when we started thinking seriously about going for every country in North America.”
Being graduate students had both its perks and challenges when it came to meeting their ambitious target.
“We lived on graduate student stipends so we had to live frugally. We rarely ate outside and saved as much as we could for our trips,” Eric said.
On the flip side, there were plenty of opportunities for traveling as the brothers frequented numerous research conferences.
“We would try to visit the highest peak of a country when we went to a conference. If we had a stop-over while returning, we would try to scale the highest peak of that country too. I got to visit Japan and India this way and Eric managed to visit Brazil and the Netherlands,” Matthew said.
Planning ahead was a significant part of their endeavor, and one they relished. “We used Google Earth a lot and read travel reports of fellow climbers,” Matthew said.
While gathering as much information as possible was important, it was also essential to be physically prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. “We would climb the stairs of the Green Building and run around the Charles,” Eric added.
But despite the meticulous planning, as the brothers frequently discovered, ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.’
On a trip to St. Kitts and Nevis to scale Mount Liamuiga (3,793 ft), Matthew recalled, “We got to the end of the trail that was supposed to lead to the summit and it turned out it was only the edge of the crater rim of the mountain with the obvious summit on the opposite side. We thought we could just bushwhack through the jungle along the rim to the summit, but that turned into an epic battle with unclimbable mud cliffs, dense ferns, downclimbing, vertical bush traversing, and a few near falls. By sunset, after eight hours of thrashing through the jungle and only covering two miles, we had just about given up and were ready to bushwhack down to the ocean through the night when we stumbled upon an old trail that miraculously led to the true summit.”
It was not always the treacherous trails or nature’s traps that proved to be a bane. Sometimes, as the brothers discovered, it was other human beings that challenged them.
Eric reminisced on the time they were in Honduras to climb Cerro Las Minas (9,347 ft) and encountered a road blocked due to a group of people on strike. “After an hour some government official from Tegucigalpa arrived in a big SUV, followed by a truck full of armed military men.” The SUV broke through the barrier, and they managed to follow closely behind. “There is no telling how much longer that road was blocked, but we luckily we made it through and climbed Cerro Las Minas that afternoon,” Eric said.
Of the twenty-three peaks they conquered, on only four of them did the brothers seek guides. St. Lucia and Cuba legally required escorts, while Honduras posed the risk of landmines. In Belize, they sought protection against armed Guatemalan gold miners.
The brothers consider USA’s Denali (20,310 ft) and Canada’s Mount Logan (19,551 ft) to be the most challenging of the 23 high points, both of which required “ski plane travel on and off the mountain, plus two weeks of arctic high-altitude glacier travel over heavily crevassed terrain to reach the summits.”
With the myriad of physical challenges, the rush of adrenaline and perhaps even a modicum of apprehension, the most cherished aspect of climbing could often be cerebral. Eric Gilbertson, now a mathematics professor in North Seattle College said the most satisfying feeling was seeing all the hours of planning and ironing out the minute details come to fruition when he is on the summit of a mountain. For Matthew, one of his most memorable trips was when his wife Amanda accompanied him to the highest point in Dominica, an island nation in the Caribbean.
Having conquered the highest points in North America, the brothers have set their sights on scaling the highest points of every country.
“On our website countryhighpoints.com, we have a color-coded world map that works as follows: if we have not visited a country it is white, if we have visited a country but not climbed its highest peak it is red, and if we have ascended the highest point of that country, it is blue. I always have this map on my mind when I am climbing and the thought of turning a red to blue keeps me going. Currently, 85 countries are blue and 10 are red.”
The two have applied for a Guinness World Record. “After pretty extensive research,” Eric said, “we have come to conclude that we are the first people in the world to climb the highest point in every North American country.” They aim to be recognized in the next edition of the renowned record book.
The journey to the highest peaks of 195 countries began with a single peak for the Gilbertsons. The conquest of all twenty-three North American high points definitely represents a commendable achievement. But for them the journey continues. After all, when the prize is standing atop a peak with no human being in sight, just snow and tranquility, the temptation is just irresistible.