Mountains have long mesmerised mankind.
Whether you are happy to stand at their bases and bask in awe at their summits slicing through the sky or you crave the challenge of conquering the highest peaks in the world, the majesty of mountains is unmatched.
But none have the magnetic power of Mount Everest. Nestled between China and Nepal, its sheer slopes appear to ascend to the heavens in an impressive spectacle visible from miles around.
Its 60-million-year-old shale, limestone and marble mass dominates the Himalayas, towering over its neighbours. Tibetan locals believe Mount Everest - named Chomolungma, which means Mother Goddess of the Universe - is the home of Miyolangsangma, the Tibetan Goddess of Mountains. To stand on top of her home, right on the peak, is disrespectful in their culture.
However, adrenaline junkies seek its snow-capped summit in their thousands every year so that they may say they’ve stood at the top of the world.
No doubt, the challenge is great. With a recorded measurement of 8,848m (29,029 feet) above sea level, disputed now and then by the ongoing expeditions of geologists and mathematicians, it is the highest mountain in the world.
As Everest boasts the greatest elevation above sea level, there is also no other mountain on Earth that has a higher altitude. But it’s not the tallest mountain in the world. Not by a long way.
When geologists measure how tall a mountain is, what they really mean is the total vertical distance between base and summit.
Should someone ask you what the tallest mountain in the world is, be sure to give credit where credit is due to Mauna Kea, a beautiful undulating volcanic mountain on the tropical island of Hawaii.
Mauna Kea – the Tallest Mountain in the World
Measuring 10,211m (33,501 feet) from base to summit compared to Mount Everest’s meagre 8,848m (29,029 feet), Mauna Kea is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcanic island whose million-year-old roots stretch all the way to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, about 6000m (19,685 feet) below sea level. Combine its underwater reach with its altitude above sea level of 4,207 meters (13,803 feet) and it stands over 1000m (3,281 feet) taller than Everest.
Purists will argue Mauna Kea is less worthy of our gaze as its altitude is about half that of Mount Everest. Still, at just a few hundred metres shy of the Matterhorn’s 4478m, the majesty of Mauna Kea is keenly felt by locals.
Not only has it claimed the title of tallest mountain in the world from Mount Everest but Mauna Kea is also home to Lake Waiau, the only alpine lake in Hawaii. Its slopes are considered sacred and seen as the region of the gods, a place where benevolent spirits reside on this ‘White Mountain’, named for its alpine climate and seasonally snow-capped summit.
However, due to its unique ecology - with its high elevation, dry environment, and stable airflow – the peak of Mauna Kea is one of the best places in the world from which to observe the sky. Since 1964, thirteen telescopes funded by eleven different countries have been erected at the summit, which sits above 40% of Earth's atmosphere. The Mauna Kea Observatories are now the largest facilities of their kind on Earth.
An equally impressive volcanic mountain that has, conversely, remained largely left untouched by mankind is Chimborazo.
Chimborazo – the Volcanic Mountain
An inactive stratovolcano with many craters, it is heavily glaciated and remains capped with eternal snow, standing sentry over central Ecuador in the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes.
Once mistakenly thought to be the highest peak in the Andes – the Argentinian mountain Aconcagua measuring 6,961m (22837 feet) – it does claim the title of the highest peak in Ecuador thanks to its domineering 6,310m (20,702 feet).
But there’s a title all the more ground-breaking that Chimborazo holds. It’s not the tallest mountain in the world, but it's summit might just measure up to be the most impressive of all the world’s mountains, as it is the farthest peak from the centre of the Earth.
You see, Earth's shape is not a perfect sphere. Instead, it is a slightly pear-shaped oblate spheroid – meaning that it is a few miles wider at its equator than locations north and south of the equator and a few miles wider below the equator than above the equator. That non-spherical shape makes it possible for the top of Chimborazo, which is located about one degree south of the equator, to be farther from the centre of the Earth than the top of Mount Everest, which lies a considerable distance north of the equator.
Chimborazo’s summit sits 6,384 kilometres (3,967miles) above Earth's centre – about 2km (1.2miles) higher than Mount Everest – despite Chimborazo being shorter and having a lower altitude.
In other words, the summit of Chimborazo is the furthest point from the centre of the Earth.
The Growing Mountain
With that said, Mount Everest is slowly but surely, catching up – because it is actually growing. Everest – and the entire range over which is towers – was formed during a collision between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates tens of millions of years ago, which crumpled the landscape and raised mountains. The collision rumbles on to this day – continuously contributing to Everest’s ever-changing altitude and mountain metamorphism.
Between the underground shifts that see India creep northward a few inches every year, sometimes causing earthquakes that can shake a mountain’s foundations, and erosion scouring away at the summit with wind and water, Everest is in constant flux. Scientists estimate this geologic interplay might push Everest to even greater heights, however slowly, by around a millimetre a year. That’s why there are ongoing efforts to measure and remeasure the highest mountain in the world; to satisfy the innate human need to understand a marvel in empirical terms we can label and quantify.
Against the backdrop of spectacularly changing skies, swirling cloud formations, and the slow plod of man, Mount Everest might look like the surest and most steadfast thing to grace our ever-turning world – stoic in the sands of time. But mountains are so much more than a mirror to the human psyche.
There is life in these humongous giants of Mother Nature yet.