King of the Seven Summits 

A Bitterrooter’s plan to conquer the world, one mountain at a time

Skip Horner likes to have things to look forward to. Perhaps that’s why his goal is to climb the highest peak in the Solar System—a 40,000-foot mountain on Mars.

It’s an understandable, if perhaps unrealistic, goal for Horner, one of the handful of people in the world who have climbed the Seven Summits, the seven highest peaks on the Earth’s seven continents.

Horner is an adventurer, one of a few rare humans who live to test themselves against the physical adversities of the planet for the satisfaction of learning if they are capable of meeting the challenge.

“That’s the essence of adventure,” Horner says. “Going off on a trip not knowing what will happen or what condition you’ll be in when it is over.”

For the past 30 years Horner has pursued adventure, first for himself and then as a career, helping others achieve experiences most people only watch on a movie screen or television. Now, he’s heading out again. At the end of this month, Horner will leave for a new six-month season of adventures. First on the schedule are two climbs up Kilimanjaro and treks through several African game ranges. Then he’ll take a group on a 12-day excursion through the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan, return to west Africa for a journey to the fabled city of Timbuktu and finally lead an expedition to the highest peak in Antarctica again in January.

It’s all part of a wanderlust that seems to have been in his blood forever. One of Horner’s earliest memories is of trying to escape from a playpen in the Maine woods on a camping trip with his parents. “I get my spirit of adventure from my father and my spirit of nature from my mother,” Horner says. “My dad charges through life. He’s finished every project he ever started. It took me a long time to learn that.”

In tribute to his mother’s love of the world around her, Horner grew up an avid birder. Finding a flock of oystercatchers deep in eastern Turkey, he says, where they are not supposed to exist “was as exciting as reaching the top of a new mountain.” One of his “life list” entries is to see 1,000 species of birds in their natural habitat. He’s seen more than 870 species already.

Just out of college in 1969 and unsure of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, Horner knew he wanted the joy of adventuring. He started guiding in 1970 and has never sought another career. From climbing the world’s highest peaks to being on the first expedition down the Zambezi River in Africa, Horner has shared his joy of adventure with others. His yet-to-be wife, Elizabeth, was also on the Zambezi trip. She found a necklace—a sting of crocodile teeth—on the riverbank during that adventure. Ever since, Horner has carried one of those teeth on a chain. “Wherever I go, I take Elizabeth with me,” Horner says.

Joy is a part of Horner’s daily life and his philosophy for living. There is the joy of accomplishing the difficult and dangerous, the joy of seeing sights few others have ever viewed, the joy of sharing each adventure with others.

“The challenge is not for me to get to the top of a mountain, it’s getting them [his clients] to the top, knowing they maybe could not have done it without my help. Taking people with ability and facilitating their climb lets me share their joy in succeeding,” Horner says.

Standing on the top of Everest or any one of the world’s other extreme summits, Horner says, he always feels, “This is just the best in the world.” It is made richer when there are others to share the feeling.

“Knowing the descent is yet to come doesn’t diminish my elation at the summit,” he says. “Going down is just another adventure. A friend told me climbing a mountain is like swimming halfway across an ocean—you still have a long way to go.”

Each of the Seven Summits has taught Horner a major lesson about life. Climbing the tallest peak in Antarctica for the first time was an unforgettable lesson because the first ascent was of the wrong peak.

“The purity of the air is so incredible, it plays tricks on perspective,” Horner says. “We were in the valley at the base of three peaks. We chose the highest one and climbed it, only to stand on the summit and realize the next peak was higher yet.”

The lesson from that trip was that “you can’t go through life without making some mistakes,” Horner says. “You just have to rectify the mistake as soon as possible. We went back the next day and climbed the highest peak. We were lucky; the weather was with us.”

Next year’s expeditions are already in the planning stage and will be completely new adventures, things Horner has never done before. “The key to remaining excited is to go new places and do new things,” Horner says. “We’re planning to ski down volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula and go rafting and climbing in the Brooks Range in northern Alaska.”

And Horner has recently set off on his greatest and “most daunting” adventure. He’s writing a book that he hopes to complete within the year. “I want the book to carry the feelings I had and the lessons I’ve learned and how I’ve applied them all my life,” Horner says. “I want to show the joy of going new places, to share the adventure. It’s a difficult thing to do.”

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