Mount Everest Is The Highest Mountain Only On A Technicality

3 Other Mountains Also Have Legitimate Claims To Being The Biggest

July 30, 2019

We all know that Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, right? Well, let’s not be so hasty. When it comes to assessing a mountain’s bigness, there are a few ways we can measure it, and it can yield surprisingly different answers?

When we talk about mountains, we tend to think about height. This is the vertical dimension of something between wherever we consider its top and bottom. When it comes to mountains, where we consider the top to be is obvious, but the bottom is less so.

In fact, could we even say that Mount Everest is tall? Because asking how tall something is would be to ask, usually, how high it reaches relative to the ground. Mount Everest, and all other hills and mountains, are ground.

“That’s just a silly technicality,” I hear you say. But the thing is, the fact that the concept of height is relative means that such technicalities are kind of important. And Everest, dare I say, is only winning the highest mountain label on such a technicality.

Mount Everest Has The Highest Elevation of Any Mountain

When we measure it’s height from sea level, which is what we normally term elevation, Everest wins hands down. However, the concept of sea level is widely misunderstood.

Mount Everest is nowhere near the sea. If you were standing on the nearest coast – at the Bay of Bengal – Everest would actually be sitting below the horizon to the North West. So, we instead measure Everest’s height from a theoretical sea level – i.e., where the sea would be sitting if it was under Everest. This is taken as a global average accounting for fluctuations in tides, waves, and ripples.

As an aside, as sea levels rise due to global warming, Mount Everest’s should logically be shrinking, along with all other mountains. However, Everest has been growing at about 4mm per year due to the same tectonic plate mushing that created it, which is still just faster than the roughly 3.5mm per year that sea levels are rising… for now.

But who is to say that this theoretical sea level is the one correct place from which to measure the height of a mountain anyhow?

Mount Chimborazo Is Higher Than Everest, Relative To The Centre Of The Earth

Let’s instead measure the height of a mountain relative to the centre of the earth. Doesn’t this sound fair?

But if we were to flatten the world down to sea level, you would not have a perfect sphere. You’d have a squished sphere, where the sea level at the poles is 21 kilometres closer to the centre of the earth than at the equator.

By this measure, Mount Everest is the 10th highest peak on earth. Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador has much more stuff under it, as do 7 other mountains in the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes, as well as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Mount Kilimanjaro above the plains of Tanzania, and further from the centre of Earth than Everest is. Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash
Mount Kilimanjaro above the plains of Tanzania, and further from the centre of Earth than Everest is. Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Aconcagua Is Technically More Prominent Than Everest

We often use the word prominence when referring to people favourably – “she’s a prominent writer,” or “he’s a prominent architect,” or “they’re prominent zombies.” Essentially, we’re saying that they stand out, in some important but often unnamed quality, above their peers. This term is taken directly from topographic geography where we use it to describe the extent to which a mountain sticks out vertically above others around it.

However, the technical definition of prominence is a bit more complicated: The prominence of a peak is the minimum amount that one would need to descend from that peak before being able to ascend to a higher peak.

When applying it to Everest, it doesn’t make sense because you couldn’t descend any distance to climb a higher peak because there simply isn’t any higher peak (relative to sea level).’s dodgy hand-drawn diagram of mountain height terminology’s dodgy hand-drawn diagram of mountain height terminology

Interestingly, K2 is considered the second tallest mountain in the world, but it has a prominence of only 4,020 metres because it shares the Himalayas with Everest. This is less than the prominence of Mount Kinabalu, which isn’t even the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. Given that every other mountain in the Himalayan range is kind of clumped together like K2, the title of the highest mountain by prominence goes to Aconcagua – the highest point in the Andes, the second highest mountain range at 6,962 metres.

Mauna Kea Is More Sticky-outy Than Everest

Yet, if we really want to get nit-picky, the minimal descent you need to make to get from Aconcagua to Everest would have you crossing either the Pacific or Atlantic ocean. But if we follow the terrain down to the bottom of the sea, you only have to descend 55 metres into the Bering Strait to bridge from the Americas to Asia before ascending into higher points in the Himalayas. Aconcagua would have a “dry prominence” of 7,017 metres.

But to get to a higher point from Mauna Kea – the 4,207 metre high volcano in Hawaii – you would have to descend 5,125 metres under sea to get to the nearest higher peak, giving it a whopping 9,330 metres of dry prominence. This beats the height, elevation, altitude, or climbing height of Everest by around 500 metres.

Sunset from the top of Mauna Kea. Bruce Irving on Unsplash
Sunset from the top of Mauna Kea. Bruce Irving on Unsplash
Aconcagua Chimborazo elevation Everest height Kilimanjaro Mauna Kea prominence terminology