Posted by & filed under Mountains & hills, Science, April 28 2009.

Mount Everest, right?

However, this is not as simple as it looks. It turns out, upon closer examination of this question, that there are at least six other mountain peaks with claims to that title:

  1. Mount Logan, Canada. This mountain has the largest volume, and is hence the most massive mountain in the world – if measured from global mean sea level.
  2. Mount McKinley (or Denali), Alaska, USA. This mountain has the highest rise in the world – if measured from global mean sea level. It is 5500m from its base (i.e. closest relatively flat ground surrounding the mountain) to the summit. In many ways this is the most relevant measure of a mountain, because if you wanted to scale its summit, you’d have 5500m of climbing ascent to get there. There are some claims also that the air pressure on Mount McKinley is significantly lower than Mount Everest at equivalent elevations above mean sea level, due to its higher latitude.
  3. Chimborazo, Ecuador. The summit of this mountain is the furthest point from the centre of the Earth (due to its close proximity to the equator, and the Earth not being a perfect sphere).
  4. Mauna Loa, Hawaii, USA. This mountain has the largest volume, and is hence the most massive mountain in the world – if measured from its base and you ignore global mean sea level.
  5. Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA. This mountain has the highest rise in the world – if measured from its base and you ignore global mean sea level.
  6. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. This mountain is often described as the largest ‘freestanding’ mountain in the world, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear definition of what ‘freestanding’ means in this context. It rises 4600m from its base, significantly less than Mount McKinley, but it may cover the largest surface area of any mountain on Earth though (although how you measure the boundaries of a mountain is a problem – where does the mountain start? Mount Logan is another contender for this title).

Who decided that global mean sea level was the yardstick by which mountains should be measured? Sea levels vary across the earth with tides, atmospheric pressure etc, so it’s hardly a useful measurement point.

This is not a meaningless technical argument about definitions and numbers – people are so uniquely obsessed with Mount Everest that they are prepared to scale it at all costs, including getting themselves killed, losing their humanity, and polluting a pristine environment.

Everest has become a metaphor and a symbol for the ‘largest’ obstacle in the world, the ultimate challenge to be overcome, and something that will provide you with the biggest boast and feelgood factor, should you get to the top of it. Look at it closely though, and this obsession seems pretty pointless, and some claims of achievement in getting to the top of Everest ring hollow on closer examination.

19 Responses to “What is the largest mountain in the world?”

  1. Eddie

    A quote from Ranulph Fiennes on this BBC news website article:

    “This is the closest you can get to the moon by walking.”

    This just isn’t true – as stated above, Chimborazo in Ecuador is the point on the Earth’s surface farthest from the centre of the Earth, and hence closest to the Moon (there are probably other factors involved too, like proximity of the point to the equator, the centre of the Earth-Moon gravity system, and the inclination of the moon’s orbit around the Earth).

    This is only of interest to a science geek you might say, but what’s the point of nearly killing yourself trying to climb a mountain if the reason you’re doing it doesn’t stand up to close inspection?

    • David Smith

      Hi Eddie. Saw your blog after a friend recommended it. Your point about Chimborazo being closer to the moon made me wonder how the moon passing over affects the weight of someone at the top of a mountain. The higher you go the lighter you are. Wonder what a climber’s weight would be at the tops of various mountains at during moon phases, and times of the day and year, i.e. when the sun is at different distances from our mountaineer, either adding to the weight (night) or adding to it (day) for the same place close in time. The day/night thing doesn’t hold for extremes – during summer in the northern hemisphere, (24-hour daylight above various latitudes depending on date), a climber could be farther from the sun during the day than her twin in the southern hemisphere at night – tilt of the earth’s axis. Thanks for the entertaining blog.

  2. Eddie

    I don’t much like the idea of putting biblical quotes on my blog, but this one sums up what I’m trying to say so neatly it has to be included on this posting:

    “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

  3. Dave

    For a solitary mountain by volume (largest not highest) it has to be Mt. Elgon (14,000 ft) in Kenya. It might not be as tall as Kilimanjaro but its base is much larger (over 50 miles in any direction). It also has one of the largest calderas on the planet (over 13 miles). This mighty mountain is believed to have been the highest volcano on earth in it’s former glory (upwards of 25,000 feet). The main island in Hawaii is actually more then one mountain. Mt. Mckinley, Mt. Logan, are a series of mountains in a range.

  4. MountainGuy

    t is 5500m from its base (i.e. closest relatively flat ground surrounding the mountain) to the summit”

    Incorrect. There is no side(north, west, east, south, etc) where the base on Denali starts at sea level.

    If you’re looking for mountains with the highest elevation gain from base to summit the best examples would
    be Nanga Parbat(south face which in some places almost 15,000 FT which is the most elevation gain in the world
    for a mountain face), Dhaulagiri(the west face has about as much elevation gain as the south face of Nanga
    Parbat and the wiki says “Dhaulagiri I’s sudden rise from lower terrain is almost unequaled. It rises 7,000
    metres from the Kali Gandaki River 30 km to the southeast. The south and west faces rise precipitously over
    4000 metres.”), Rakaposhi from the north (from the wiki “Rakaposhi is notable for its exceptional rise over
    local terrain. On the north, it rises 5,800 metres (19,029 ft) in only an 11.5 km (7.1 mi) horizontal distance
    from the Hunza River. “) and Mount St Elias(not all that far from Denali) according to the wiki “Mount Saint
    Elias is notable for being the highest peak in the world that is so close to tidewater; its summit rises only
    10 miles (16 km) from the head of Taan Fjord, off of Icy Bay”

    So the top 5 most massive mountains looking at the mountains from all sides I would say are
    Mount Logan, Denali(McKinley), Nanga Parbat, Rakaposhi and Dhaulagiri. Of those Mount Logan
    is probably the most massive simply because the summit plateau goes on for miles.

    Actually technically the shield volcanoes like Mauna Loa are supposed to be the most massive
    as you said but it just doesn’t have the steep studpenous rise that Nanga Parbat(from the south),
    Rakaposhi(from the north) or Dhaulagiri(from the south and west but especially the west).

    So when I think of huge impressive mountains I think of those 5 more than anything(Nanga Parbat,
    Rakaposhi,Dhaulagiri, Mount Logan and Denali(McKinley))

  5. Eddie

    Thanks for adding this useful information MountainGuy (& Dave, belated thanks for your comments from Jan 2012). Mount Elgon is one that’s new to me, but I think I should have mentioned Nanga Parbat, Rakaposhi and the Dhaulagiri massif in my blog posting.

    I guess this comes down to semantics, and the meaning of words and phrases like ‘elevation gain’, ‘rise’, ‘face’ and ‘base’. A lot of this is subjective, and just as with words like ‘wilderness’, there are as many definitions as there are people who venture into the mountains. My own definition of ‘base’, which I allude to in the blog posting, is the nearest relatively ‘flat’ ground near the mountain and is often where you have to start ‘hillwalking’ (as opposed to ‘trekking’), it’s often where you first put your boots on, and it’s often where you park your car in the nearest car park! It’s also often the most logical place for the site of ‘base’ camp. I use this definition because to me it’s what is important – it’s what you physically would experience if you attempted to climb to the summit of the mountain using nothing but your own two feet.

    A ‘face’, to me, is a large ‘wall’ on a mountain, defined by its near verticality and requiring climbing techniques and equipment. Measuring the elevation gain of a ‘face’ on a mountain is not the same thing as measuring the elevation gain from its ‘base’ to its summit.

    The south ‘Rupal’ face of Nanga Parbat may well be the largest ‘face’ in the world with a rise of 4600m , but the mountain itself doesn’t have the highest base to summit elevation gain – unless you consider the base to be the River Indus, 25km away (and then it’s a contender), but that definition of base is not one that really fits in with my own definition – yes, you could climb Everest from the Dead Sea (and someone has) for the highest elevation gain possible on the surface of the earth, but this is playing the game beyond what I consider to be relevant to the experience of climbing a mountain.

    The Wikipedia entry on Denali (Mt. McKinley) has this to say (and I know Wikipedia is not the final authority on anything, but it’s a pretty good starting place for research of any kind):

    “McKinley sits atop a sloping plain with elevations from 300 to 900 metres (1,000 to 3,000 ft), for a base-to-peak height of 5,300 to 5,900 metres (17,000 to 19,000 ft)”.

    The figure of 5500m I mention in my blog posting for Denali is not measured from sea level, but from this surrounding ‘base’.

    There’s a lot of scope for debate here! And I guess that’s what this blog posting is all about, it’s not enough to simplistically say ‘mountain X is the biggest/tallest/largest on Earth’, and it’s also not worth losing your life on a mountain or destroying its environment just so you can claim to have reached this point.

  6. Nuukeer

    The base of a mountain is not trivial to define, if it can be defined at all. You have to be very generous to claim that Denali rises 5500 m above its base (30 km horizontal distance). It is more like 4500 m, which is its rise from the north.

    The juvenile reasoning behind the persistent claim that McKinley is taller than Everest and therefore the tallest in the world fueled my interest in the big Hiamalayan/Karakoram mountains, just to illustrate how ridiculous it is.
    Consulting Google Earth is a very simple way to falsify the claim. When doing this, one should also note that GE generally underestimates the steepness and height of mountains due to topographic generalization, and the error increases with the steepness of the mountain.

    Mount Everest is far from being the tallest mountain in terms of rise above local terrain (Although Everest’s neighbour Lhotse has a hugely impressive south face, the combined height and steepness of which is unmatched by any mountain outside the Himalayas/Kakakoram).

    Certainly, Denali is an impressive mountain, but you can find bigger mountains in the Himalayas.

    Asides from obvious mountains like Rakaposhi, Nanga Parbat, Dhaulagiri and others found at the spire measure peak lists, here are some mountains that exceed Denali in relevant measures.

    Gauri Sankar rises 4800 m in 10 km.

    Langtang Lirung rises about 5300 m in 14 km.

    Yangra rises 5000+ m in 15 km.

    Chamar rises 5600 m in less than 15 km.

    Ganesh II rises 5900 m in 16 km.

    Annapurna II’s east face is very impressive at about 5000 m height. Annapurna II also rises 5500 m in 10 km from the south.

    Lamjung Kailas rises 5000 m in 10 km.

    Annapurna’s SW face is about 5000 m high.

    Annapurna Dakshin’s west face is 4600 m high.

    Namcha Barwa rises 5300 m in 13 km.

    Sanglung rises 6000 m in 19 km.

    Gyalha Peri rises 5600 m 12 km.

    Ultar Sar rises 5300 m in 9 km.

    Haramosh rises 6000 m in 14 km. Its north wall matches Denali’s Wickersham wall in height but is steeper.

    Machhapuchhare rises 5000 m in 6.5 km.

    Ngad Chuli rises 6500 m in 18 km.

    If you measure using greater horizontal distances, you will get greater numbers than this.

    Looking at it seems that there have been efforts to change the obviously false claim that McKinley is the tallest mountain in the world, but strangely enough the claim still remains on the wiki page. So please don’t refer to Wikipedia in this instance.

  7. Steve Fry

    Hi Eddie,
    In the early 1980′s I developed mountain definitions, how to draw geographic mtn boundaries, and measure the volume of any mtn on earth. I first presented my ideas at the Pacific Science Center, in Seattle, WA in Dec 1984 – Jan 1985. I wrote “Defining and Sizing-up Mountains”, based on my research, in Summit magazine, published in the Jan-Feb 1987 issue. Mauna Loa is the biggest mtn I measured, much larger than Everest, Matterhorn or even Denali or Logan, and twice as big as Kilimanjaro! Please see my simple website for copies of key articles.

    Steve Fry, Edmonds, WA

  8. Garen

    I struggle to see how Namcha Barwa isn’t taller than Everest. The peak is nearly 5200 m higher than its base, assuming the base is Yarlung Tsangpo river (which is a very reasonable landmark to use as the mountain’s base if you look at the topography).
    Fact of the matter is, if you look at Everest you are looking at 3700 m to 4600 m of mountain – depending on what side you are facing. Yet if you observe Namcha Barwa you are looking at 4900 m – 5200 m of mountain.

    While some arbitrary boundaries (one with which I disagree) may state Everest is somehow taller (???) if you observe the topography and/or the mountains themselves, Namcha Barwa simply is a taller mountain to behold – from base to peak.
    Topographic map:

  9. Bertie

    As an aside, I’m 72 and have seen in person or photographs thousands of mountains or ranges.
    Near me is what I feel is the “prettiest” or most aesthetically pleasing single mountain (volcanic) I’ve ever seen.
    It is Mt Hood; it is photogenic from any angle, and is especially nice in the winter, when occasional atmospheric conditions cause it to be pale pink, orange, or violet. So now we have something that is strictly an opinion, not based on any fact, but is nonetheless felt strongly.


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