On an all-time high
(Filed: 04/05/2002)

After climbing Europe's highest peaks in record time, Rod Baber is pursuing an even greater goal. Gary King met him.

'I've already climbed to the highest point in every country in Europe, so it was a natural progression to want to climb to the highest point in all the other continents," says Rod Baber, explaining why he wants to be the first person to the reach the highest point of every country in the world.

Rod Baber is already the Guinness world-record holder for ascending the highest summits of all 47 European countries in the shortest time, having beaten the old record by four-and-a-half years. The Highest Challenge, as his expedition was known, was completed on August 25, 2000 and took 835 days. "I was originally on schedule for six months, which would have meant one peak every four days - but because of the war in Kosovo and Kurdish rebels in Eastern Turkey, there was an enforced two-year gap," he says.

Inspiration for the Highest Challenge struck in November 1995 while Baber was on course for a financial career in the City and was climbing in his time off. One night, relaxing in a bar with friends, he was asked which mountain he would climb next. "All of them," he said, through a tequila haze. And thus the course of his life changed for ever.

Now 31, he is currently planning the South American leg of the Highest Challenge, scheduled to start in July. Reaching the 12 peaks will take seven months, in which time he will cover 34,000 miles in planes, cars and canoes, and also on foot, hiking and climbing in some of the world's most inhospitable terrain.

"The main difference between Europe and South America is the jungles. I have never done any jungle trekking, and in some countries the nearest airstrip is 16 miles from the mountain that we'll be climbing," he says, pointing to a map on the wall of his Oxfordshire HQ. Pins and coloured string mark a circuit that begins in Suriname and ends in Argentina.

Just as demanding as the expedition itself are the months of preparation, including an endless round of meetings with potential sponsors and presentations to chief executives. "There is this romantic notion of explorers and mountaineers as men and women of mystery who swan off to far-flung destinations, when in reality raising the finance becomes a challenge in itself. I certainly spend more time in my suit that I do in Gore-tex," he says.

"We're still actively looking for a core sponsor to cover the 140,000 cost of the expedition. Land Rover have supplied us with a Discovery, but I'm still spending a lot of my time wooing possible backers."

His co-climber is Mark Anstice, a veteran of the jungle who has recently returned from the Amazon, where his latest expedition was chronicled in the BBC television programme Crampons and Cannibals. During the 80 days Anstice was in the Amazon, he contracted malaria and was nearly washed off a rope bridge.

'I will be doing a jungle survival and medical course," says Baber. "If I fall ill, I have relatively little to worry about, because Mark is an expert in this field. I need to be able to return that expertise."

Besides tropical diseases and inhospitable terrain, the pair will have to contend with extreme weather, glaciers, crevasses and all manner of poisonous creatures. People, too, are a problem. In Colombia, the greatest challenge will be getting past guerrilla bands and gaining permission from the mysterious Kogi and Aruhaco tribes who inhabit the lower slopes of the mountain Cristobal Colon. The Kogi in particular have often chased mountaineers away with machetes.

"Yes, that is a bit of a concern," says Baber, scratching his chin. "In the last year they have relaxed enough to let a trickle of expeditions through. But other than taking the right selection of gifts, we can do little to prepare for it. Everything will depend upon our diplomacy and personal skills."

In Europe, 27 of the 47 highest points were in fact accessible by road; in South America, by contrast, eight of the 12 peaks will be proper climbs, the highest being Mount Aconcagua in Argentina at 22,900ft (6,980 metres).

More people die from altitude sickness on Aconcagua than on the highest mountains of Asia, so the team will be employing the "climb high, sleep low" system to alleviate the problem. This system involves climbing higher every day, then coming part-way back down to sleep. This "ramped" ascent helps the climbers' bodies to acclimatise.

With only three months to go, the Highest Challenge team is moving into the final phase of its planning. Both team members have embarked upon a diet designed to increase their body mass (Anstice lost four stone the last time he was in the Amazon) and are subjecting themselves to a gruelling fitness programme. Points of contact are being established in every country the expedition will visit, and the route is being scrutinised yet again to see if it can be bettered. At the same time, Baber is already planning the American Highest Challenge, which is scheduled to take place in February 2003. It will visit 24 countries, including six tropical islands, and will include the coldest mountain on Earth, Mount McKinley in Alaska.

"I want to be the first person to climb to the highest point in every country in the world," he says. "Fifty years ago, when Everest was first conquered, mountaineers couldn't even contemplate the kind of multiple challenges that we are setting ourselves today. With all the new equipment and advanced climbing technology, the impossible is now within our grasp."


Taken from telegraph.co.uk

Roderick David Baber born 15th November 1970 is of London, England.