High life of a couple who stood on top of the world

Jo and Rob Gambi have scaled the world's highest peaks in a record-breaking marriage. By Michael McCarthy
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Darby and Joan this isn't. A British woman climber and her Australian husband have become the first married couple to scale the seven summits: the seven highest peaks on the world's seven continents.

When Jo and Rob Gambi reached the 18,510ft top of Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus last month they achieved one of the ultimate feats in modern-day mountaineering. In scaling Mount Everest and six other peaks they set a string of climbing records that will take a lot of beating - and a lot of time, money, and fitness training for anyone who wants to try.

Starting with Denali in Alaska, the 20,321ft peak formerly known as Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, they tackled the highest summits in Africa (19,340ft Kilimanjaro in Tanzania), Antarctica (16,066ft Vinson), South America (22,840ft Aconcagua in Argentina), Australia (7,310ft Kosciusko) and then Everest (29,035ft, straddling the borders of Nepal and Tibet).

They rounded it off with Elbrus, which is now generally regarded as Europe's highest peak - if you include Russia in Europe - towering above the 15,777ft Mont Blanc.

Since the American businessman-cum-climber Dick Bass first dreamt up the idea of climbing the seven summits and did it himself in 1985, only 120 people have followed.

Jo Gambi, 35, a physiotherapist and fitness enthusiast from Penn in Buckinghamshire, and her husband, Rob, 46, an Australian fund manager and surfer who has lived in London for the past decade, did not know if they would succeed when they decided to take a mid-career break and do the seven summits.

They were even less sure when their first attempt at high-altitude training in Nepal had to be cut short after Rob suffered an obstructed bowel and his life was saved only by an emergency helicopter evacuation.

After months of recuperation for Rob, they started again and reached the top of Denali on 12 June last year. They climbed Kilimanjaro just over six weeks later and then headed for the Antarctic. Mount Vinson was scaled on 15 December, in temperatures of nearly 60 degrees below zero, and after skiing to the South Pole as part of an organised trip, theyscaled Aconcagua on 26 January - their hardest climb, when Jo fell ill and they nearly gave up.

Mount Kosciusko in New South Wales was by comparison a stroll. They reached the top on 5 March in a single day, and then set their sights on Everest, which they conquered on 24 May in what Jo says was the best - and also the most sinister - moment. To be on the summit was exhilarating in an almost surreal way, she said, but they had to pass close to the bodies of climbers who had died on the mountain.

"Being on top of Everest was like being in a dream world, it was like being in space," she said. "Everything is slowed down, your brain and your body are slower because there is less oxygen, and all you can hear is your own breathing inside your mask. But it is the most incredible experience to look out and see the curve of the earth."

When they reached the top of Elbrus on 20 July they set what they believe are various records. They believe that they are the first to climb all seven summits as a married couple, having reached each summit at the same time, and summited all seven on the first attempt.

They believe that they are also the fastest couple to complete the seven summits and that Jo is the fastest woman to complete the feat. The Gambis estimate that the climbs cost them more than £100,000.

1: Denali, N America, 6,194m (20,321ft)

"Denali" in the Native American Athabascan language means "the high one". Denali (formerly Mt McKinley) in Alaska is not only high vertically; because of its high latitude, close to the Arctic, it is extremely cold, and sometimes thought of as the coldest mountain in the world. In winter the stratospheric jetstream, with winds of more than 100mph, can descend over the mountain's upper slopes and combine with temperatures of more than 70 degrees below zero to produce dangerous and sometimes fatal wind chill: climbers have sometimes been "flash-frozen". At the centre of a vast national park of the same name, Denali was originally named by gold prospectors after President William McKinley, who was shot dead in Buffalo, New York, by a Polish anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in September 1901. Czolgosz was executed in the electric chair. The mountain was renamed Denali in 1980.

2: Aconcagua, S America, 6,962m (22,840ft)

This great peak in the Argentinean Andes, a huge rock mass near the border with Chile, is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere and the highest in the world outside Asia.

Impressive rather than beautiful, it dominates the sky west of Santiago, Chile's capital city, and is visible from the Pacific coast, 100 miles away.

Aconcagua is called the stone sentinel, because its summit and ridges are largely windswept free of snow, although large glaciers fill the valleys on the northern and eastern flanks. Some climbing routes are relatively straightforward, but Aconcagua has one of the world's highest death tolls.

Climbers tend to ascend too swiftly, with little respect for the elevation or the weather, which, on Aconcagua, can quickly become severe.

3: Mt Vinson, Antarctica, 4,897m (16,066ft)

Named after Carl G Vinson, a US congressman and an important figure in 20th century US antarctic exploration, Mount Vinson is on the south of the main ridge of the Sentinel Range in the Ellsworth Mountains, home to most of Antarctica's highest peaks. It was spotted in 1957 by US Navy aircraft, and climbed for the first time in 1966 by a US expedition from the National Geographic Society, the American Alpine Club and the National Science Foundation. Located 1200km (746 miles) from the South Pole, it is a massif rather than a mountain, 13 miles long and eight miles wide. Climbing Vinson - best done in December, January and February - is is not technically difficult, and mountain expedition companies regularly take clients there (for a very hefty fee) but Antarctica's extreme climate makes the ascent a serious undertaking.

4: Kosciuszko, Australia, 2,228m (7,310ft)

Mount Kosciusko in New South Wales is Australia's highest mountain. Located between Melbourne and Sydney in the Australian Alps, the popular hiking and skiing resort draws crowds from both cities. It is the lowest of the seven summits, and can be climbed in a day. Some climbers think it should be replaced in the seven summits list by the 4,884m (16,023ft) Carstensz Pyramid in Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), the highest mountain in Oceania.

5: Kilimanjaro, Africa, 5,895m (19,340ft)

An extinct volcano with three peaks, Kilima Njaro means "the mountain that glitters" in Swahili, and its snow-capped summit is an instant symbol of east Africa; Hemingway gave it a worldwide resonance with his famous story of a dying writer, "The Snows of Kilimajaro". Recently, however, there has been increasing concern that global warming is melting the snow and ice on the summit and it is now possible to stand on snow-free ground on the top. Looming large over the plains that spread out from its base, Kilimanjaro is Africa's largest volcano as well as its highest mountain. It is regarded by climbers as "non-technical", and is the easiest of the seven summits after Mt Kosciusko.

6: Mt Everest, Asia, 8,850m (29,035ft)

Everest, the greatest goal, and greatest killer of mountaineers, stands on the border of Nepal (where it is called Sagarmatha, "goddess of the sky") and Tibet (where its name is Chomolungma, "goddess mother of the world").

The mountain was given its English name to honour Sir George Everest, British surveyor general of India from 1830 to 1843. Its height was initially measured at 29,002 feet above sea level in 1852; the latest estimate, carried out in 1999 with satellite measuring devices, differs by a mere 33ft. It was first climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

7: Mt Elbrus, Europe, 5,642m (18,510ft)

Mont Blanc the highest peak in western Europe (4807m, 15,770ft), is not now routinely regarded as the highest in the continent.

The top five are all in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, and the twin-peaked Elbrus is the highest. The Caucasus is seen as the border between Europe to the north (Russia) and Asia to the south (Georgia) and Elbrus is on the northern side.

Getting there involves a trip by plane or train to the remote provincial towns of Nalchik or Mineralniye Vody then by road transport and, eventually, by cable car.