Sometimes at Gunpoint, Twins Discover New Highpoints Around The World

In an age of super-computers and GPS satellites, it’s easy to assume that humans found the highest mountain in every country a long time ago.

But two brothers have discovered that’s not the case.

Twins Eric and Matthew Gilbertson have spent years climbing highpoints around the world. In their quest to reach the highest point of every country on Earth, they’ve racked up more than 130 summits.

Yet these two mountaineers are also mechanical engineering graduates from MIT, and they’re putting their education to work in far-flung places around the globe. By hauling heavy equipment into the high mountains, they’ve discovered several previously unknown highpoints.

It started in 2018 in Saudi Arabia, where they discovered that Jabal Ferwa — not Jabal Sawda — was the country’s true highpoint at 3,001.8m (about 3m more than Sadwa). It was tough work, involving bureaucratic hurdles, extensive logistics, and heavy GPS equipment. But as a result, the Saudi Climbing Federation changed its official ranking.

Since then, the Gilbertsons — sometimes just Eric — have identified new highpoints in Togo, Guinea-Bissau, and Gambia. It’s tough work, combining the difficulties of reaching remote mountains with the engineering know-how to measure them.

Now they’re bringing the same philosophy to the U.S., identifying highpoints in Washington State and updating the official information.

“This project overlaps very nicely with our backgrounds in mechanical engineering,” Eric Gilbertson said. “Using the survey equipment and analyzing the results is basically a mechanical engineering research project.”


Eric and Matthew Gilberson taking measurements of Jabal Ferwa in Saudi Arabia in 2018. Photo: Ryan Olson


Adventures in Africa

In December 2021, Eric Gilbertson decided to make a trip to West Africa. He’d heard that several highpoints in the region might need an update.

So he borrowed a survey-grade GPS rig from Compass Data, a company that used one of the devices to survey Denali in 2015. Eric brought along Serge Massad, a frequent climbing partner, and Kahler Kranz, a U.S. college student who signed on to help.

Kranz soon discovered that traveling to remote mountains in Africa is neither easy nor simple. Upon reaching Togo’s Mount Agou West, nearby military guards became upset at the team’s surveying work.

“They got out their guns and started pacing around trying to figure out what we were doing and quickly told us that we needed to stop,” Kranz said. “Our driver delayed the soldiers enough so that we would get a 30-minute measurement, which would be good enough. This first mountain would set the tone for the rest of the trip with many more instances of things like this.”

togo mountain

Eric Gilbertson on Mt Atilakoutse, Togo’s highpoint, with his survey equipment, on Dec. 13, 2021. Photo courtesy of Eric Gilbertson


Beware baboons

In Guinea, the team’s vehicle got T-boned at an intersection. In Senegal, the group quickly retreated off a mountain when threatened by baboons. They couldn’t be sure what the disturbance was at first, but when it became clear, they wasted no time.

“I turned to Serge and asked him what he thought it was and he told me it was likely baboons,” Kranz said. “I, of course, had to ask him if they were dangerous, to which he replied, ‘Only if you get close to them.’ ”

In Guinea Bissau, the team established Mount Ronde as the highest point at just under 304m. Upon returning to the country’s border with Guinea, they found their driver held at gunpoint by two members of the Guinea National Police (GNP).

“Eric and I just stood there and listened to the yelling until we were instructed to pull out 400,000 Guinea Francs for the GNP officers to turn a blind eye,” Kranz said. “This was the most scared I was on the trip even though it was only about 20 minutes. This was certainly not the only bribe we paid, but it was the largest by far [about 46 euros].”

Eric Gilbertson on Luna Peak surveying East and West Fury with the theodolite in Washington’s Cascade mountains on Oct. 23, 2022. Photo: Nick Roy

Working in Washington

As most climbers know, mountains often have more than one summit.  But identifying which summit is the actual highpoint isn’t as easy as it sounds.

So recently, Eric Gilbertson has been applying his newfound surveying knowledge to peaks in Washington State. At Sherpa Peak, he determined that the western summit is .6 metres taller than the balanced rock summit. At Buck Mountain, he found that the central summit is actually the highest, not the northern summit, as previously thought. He made a similar discovery at Mount Berge.

Then there’s Mount Buckner, which “was a mystery for a long time,” Eric said. Most climbers go for the southwest summit on Buckner, but many climbers believed the northeast summit might be higher.

mount buckner

Eric Gilbertson hauls the survey equipment up Mount Buckner on Oct. 1, 2022. Photo: Steven Song


So Eric tapped fellow adventure seeker Talon Johnson to help him haul the climbing and surveying gear into the Cascade Mountains and find the answer. Once reaching the mountain, they worked together to take the measurement. Johnson soloed to the northeast summit while holding a metre stick as a reference point for Eric, who dialed in the theodolite, a tool for precise measurements.


“I’m sure people are able to sleep at night now the results are out,” Johnson said. “It’s no easy feat getting out there with all the gear we carried.”

Not to waste a climbing opportunity, they also established a new first ascent on the west face of Lick of Flame — after finishing the survey.

“Made our way back to the parking lot and was dark when we arrived, feeling very accomplished from the adventure we had,” Johnson wrote. “One of the more fun trips I have had.”

Eric’s surveying work has changed mountain ranking around the world — but he’s not done yet. He’s already got his sights on Myanmar and Colombia, which may both have new highpoints to discover.

Wherever the Gilbertsons travel, one thing remains certain: Mountains don’t give up their secrets easily.

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.