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Peaks high enough to thrill the climber with ambitions

By Henry Wismayer
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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To the average armchair adventurer, scaling a mountain 3 miles high may seem an inaccessible pastime - the exclusive preserve of the superhuman, the mega-rich, or the slightly mad. But not all high places require a rock climber’s physique to reach and a banker’s salary to finance. This list is just a small selection of the world’s most rewarding “trekking peaks,’’ nontechnical climbs of over 4,000 meters that can be tackled by anyone with the right gear, a reasonable level of fitness, and a knowledgeable guide.

This is not to say these are cakewalks. Reaching lofty climes invariably means a brush with extreme cold, physical exhaustion, and the ever-present perils of acute mountain sickness. But for the wannabe Willi Unsoelds out there, such discomforts are worth it for the life-affirming experience of battling uphill until there is nowhere left to go. Whether climbing to raise money for charity, to seek transcendence, or, in the spirit of George Mallory, just because it is there, these are treks that can put us mere mortals on top of the world.

GRAN PARADISO, Italy Though not the tallest of mountain ranges, the jagged aspect and infamous north faces of the Alps, Europe’s biggest range, make it a challenging playground. One rare exception is Gran Paradiso, the highest peak located wholly in Italy. Many mountaineers climb it as a warm-up before tackling Mont Blanc, but it’s a fantastic ascent in its own right. Approached with a four-day, hut-to-hut walk, the final stretch is particularly exhilarating, taking climbers along a spectacular and exposed ridge to the summit, where a small statue of the Virgin Mary awaits the successful. The surrounding national park’s extensive network of mountain trails and refugios provides options for combining the climb with a longer trek for an extra sense of adventure and accomplishment. Based in Chamonix, France, High Mountain Guides (www.highmountainguides.com) provides English-speaking, professionally-accredited services for around $560 per day.

MOUNT KINABALU, Malaysia Accessible and achievable, Kinabalu has become an irresistible act of pilgrimage for visitors to the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the northern tip of Borneo. Around 100,000 reach the apex of this UNESCO World Heritage Site each year. The ascent is akin to spending two days on a StairMaster, a consistently steep slog that begins with a humid heave through equatorial rain forest before breaching the tree line onto the granite ramparts of the mountain’s upper reaches. Technically, it is very straightforward, though there are fixed ropes bolted into the rock to help hikers haul themselves up the final approach. The aim is to reach the oxymoronically-named Low’s Peak in time for a summit sunrise. Guides are not essential on the main route, but adrenaline junkies can take their Kinabalu experience one step further with Mountain Torq (www.mountaintorq.com), purveyors of the world’s highest via ferratta, a route with fixed cables and ladders.

JEBEL TOUBKAL, Morocco Starting out of the picturesque hillside village of Imlil, 40 miles from Marrakech, determined climbers can be up and down North Africa’s highest mountain in a weekend. A long first day will get you to the Refuge du Toubkal (3,200 meters), effectively denoting base camp, where you can catch some oxygen-deprived sleep before setting off for the top in the early hours. The twilight trudge over year-round snow is amply rewarded on the summit plateau, where there are spectacular views of the High Atlas buttresses tapering down toward the western shores of the Sahara Desert. Descend fast enough, and you can be back amidst the mayhem of the Marrakech souqs that same afternoon. Atlas & Sahara Tours (www.atlasandsaharatours.com) offers a two-day climb, including all transfers to and from Marrakech, for around $173 per person.

MAUNA LOA and MAUNA KEA, Hawaii With a combined volume enough to fill up the Grand Canyon 25 times over, these are the largest mountains in the world. Measured from the ocean floor up, they’re the tallest too, with Mauna Kea trumping Mount Everest by over 4,000 feet. Dramatic as the dimensions may be, however, they don’t present the most daunting mountaineering challenge. Defined as “shield volcanoes,’’ owing to their shallow profile, the gentle slopes offer a range of fair-weather trekking options, from one-day summit hikes to the 43-mile Mauna Loa Trail, which encompasses a four-day round trip over endless plains of rust-colored lava. Both mountains can be climbed without guides. Visit the Volcanoes National Park website (www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit) for information on trails and accessibility.

COLORADO’S “FOURTEENERS’’ The Rockies have their share of big peaks, from British Columbia’s wind-battered fastness to the northern sierras of New Mexico. But it’s Colorado that is the amateur peak-bagger’s dream. The state once dubbed “The Switzerland of America’’ by Teddy Roosevelt is home to 55 peaks holding their heads above 14,000 feet. Of these, broad-shouldered Mount Sherman is the easiest and the most visited, though the high starting point of many mountain trailheads means that several others offer viable summit treks for those who don’t know a crampon from a karabiner. Climbers should be prepared for the notoriously quick changes in weather; sudden storms can turn even the simplest ascent into a treacherous one. Many Colorado trails can be tackled without a guide. For further information, www.14ers.com offers a comprehensive rundown of hiking options.

IZTACCIHUATL, Mexico The Aztec legend goes that this extinct volcano some 45 miles southeast of Mexico City was once a princess, who died of grief after mistakenly hearing that her warrior lover had been killed in battle. In death, she turned to stone and ice, while the neighboring cone of still active Popocatepetl - the incarnation of her bereft beau - smokes with anguish for his lost love. Latin America is particularly abundant in this type of mountain. Known as stratovolcanoes, their method of formation - built up over millennia by the eruption and cooling of successive layers of lava - produces iconic profiles but also steady gradients relatively free from hairy precipices and technical pitches, and perfect for the novice mountaineer. Tierra Dentro Expeditions (www.tierradentro.com) offers five-day guided climbs setting off from Mexico City for $550 per person.

MOUNT KILIMANJARO, Tanzania One of the world’s most famous mountains and an enduring icon of the Tanzanian savannah, the fabled “Roof of Africa’’ looms as large in the traveler’s imagination as it does over the Moshi plains. This means you will be sharing the trails with plenty of other climbers: About 25,000 people tackle Kili each year, drawn by its reputation as the easiest of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent. The heavy traffic and expensive entrance fees have led some to bemoan its commercialization, but with six routes to choose from spread over an area of 1,500 square miles, there’s still plenty of mountain to go round. For something more original, Mount Kenya (17,057 feet) poses an equally epic, and less congested, challenge. An eight-day group tour on the An eight-day group tour on the less-busy Rongai route costs $2,055 per person with Peak Planet (www.peakplanet.com).

HUAYNA POTOSI, Bolivia The highest peak on the list offers the head-spinning prospect of breaching 6,000 meters within 24 hours of departing urban civilization. Towering high above the Bolivian altiplano, Huayna Potosi is just 15 miles north of La Paz, providing straightforward access to the trailhead and the automatic acclimatization that comes from starting out of the world’s highest capital city. Don’t expect an easy ride, however. Those who want to join the 6,000-meter club will need to dig deep to conquer the 200-meter basic ice climb that leads to the mountain’s corniced summit, for the unforgettable sight of dawn over the Cordillera Real.

A two-day ascent with Climbing South America (www.climbingsouthamerica.com), including English-speaking guides, costs $310 per person based on a group of four.

Henry Wismayer can be reached at www.henrywismayer.com.