American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Highest Mountain in the World

  • Notes
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1942

The Highest Mountain in the World

A current article in the National Geographic Magazine about the Andes of Ecuador, makes the interesting observation that Cotopaxi is higher than Mount Everest. The reasoning is that the earth, not being a perfect sphere, but flattened somewhat toward the poles and bulging toward the equator, projects the summit of Cotopaxi farther into space than it does the summit of Everest.

In a perfectly “planned” world—the world which a supercelestial “brain-trust” would doubtless like to blue-print for us— the Geographical North Pole, the North Magnetic Pole, and the North Pole of Cold would all three, of course, be put right where they belong, namely, at the top of the world. And the highest mountain in the world would be the highest mountain in the world, and no nonsensical argument about it either. Instead of that we have the North Pole of Cold off in some improbable location in the midst of Siberia—nowhere near the Geographical North Pole. In a still different location we have the North Magnetic Pole wandering around in alarmingly unregulated fashion off the outer fringes of darkest Canada. And now, even more extraordinary, it seems the highest mountain is not the highest mountain after all.

In this whimsical world it now appears there are two ways of identifying the highest mountain. One way, of course, is to measure the altitude of a mountain above the level of the sea prevailing in its particular latitude and compare this with the altitude of some other mountain above the level of the sea prevailing in that mountain’s particular latitude. On this basis Mt. Everest, some 29,000 ft. above the level of the sea in its latitude (28°), wins hands down as the highest yet measured.

The other way of identifying the highest mountain peak is to find that point on the earth’s surface which actually projects farthest into space from the earth’s center. Using this method we first recognize the fact that the earth is actually an oblate spheroid whose departure from a perfect sphere amounts to about 1 part in 297. Its polar semi-diameter is approximately 13? miles less than its equatorial semi-diameter. That is, the pole is that much lower and nearer the center of the earth.

Assuming now that the earth is reasonably symmetrical and consistent in its oblate spheroidicity, it is clear that sea-level in the latitude of Everest will be about 22,000 ft. “lower,” nearer the center of the earth, than will sea-level at the latitude of Cotopaxi on the equator

. Thus the summit of Cotopaxi (19,500 ft. above its sea-level) actually projects some 12,500 ft. farther out into space from the center of the earth than does the summit of Everest.

Are there any peaks higher than Cotopaxi, using this absolute method of measuring height? Ruwenzori, Kenya, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Huascaran in Peru, and Chimborazo—Cotopaxi’s near neighbor in Ecuador—seem at first glance to be possibilities. The first two have a several thousand-foot lower sea-level altitude than Cotopaxi to begin with. Kilimanjaro, with a sea-level altitude about that of Cotopaxi, is some 4 degrees of latitude below it and thus actually several thousand feet “lower.” Huascaran, with a 2600-ft. higher sea-level altitude than Cotopaxi, lies 9 degrees below the equator and thus its summit is actually some 3000 ft. “lower” than Cotopaxi.

But Chimborazo, only 1° of latitude below Cotopaxi and thus 800 ft. “lower” for that reason, is a bigger mountain by 1000 ft., and thus, apparently is, by 200 ft., the highest point on the earth’s surface, measuring from the center as the point of absolute reference.

In the realm of mountaineering, as in economics and politics, it may well prove that the acceptance or non-acceptance of conflicting theories depends in the end on whose ox is gored. The writer, having just discovered while sitting quietly at home, that he has already climbed “the highest mountain in the world,” is now reported by his friends as being quite enthusiastic about the center of the earth as a reference point!

T. M.

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