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SYFY WIRE geology

Why Mt. Everest May Not Be Earth’s Closest Place to Space

Wanna scrape the stratosphere? Head to Ecuador instead.

By Benjamin Bullard
A bundled up mountain climber raises his arms with a pickaxe in one hand in Everest (2015).

Everest is ;currently streaming on Peacock (watch it here), recounting the riveting high-altitude (and high-stakes) weather disaster that claimed the lives of eight climbers during their ill-omened 1996 push to scale what’s conventionally known as the world’s highest mountain.

Featuring an ensemble cast including Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, and more, Everest was filmed in part on location in Nepal, and plays as a gripping and visually spectacular ascent into the heart of the planet’s peculiar call to the mountaineering spirit. At 29,029 feet, the famous Himalayan peak is widely considered as Earth’s highest mountain — at least using the conventional criteria of measuring a peak’s height above the global mean sea level.

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But lesser peaks than Everest, of course, have also thwarted climbers’ ambitions with deadly disasters at dizzying heights. As it turns out, in fact, that mean sea level standard isn’t the only way that science assesses a mountain’s actual highest point in relation to a baseline, which of course got our space-brained minds to wondering: Is Everest really the top spot on Earth for getting as close as you can to the stars?

Why Mt. Everest isn’t Earth’s closest summit to outer space

As it turns out, Everest isn’t where you want to be if getting breathlessly close to orbit — all while standing on familiar terra firma — is the goal. For that, you’ll have to head to the planet’s equatorial region, where the irregular bulge of Earth’s imperfectly spherical mass pushes another peak farther away from its actual center.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the summit of Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo stands nearer to the stratosphere than any other point in the world, even though its height — at least when using the same criteria that measures Mt. Everest as the tallest — places it at 20,564 feet above mean sea level. And while any peak that rises 20,000 feet or higher is definitely nothing to sneeze at, it’s still a whole mountain’s worth of difference. If you’re keeping precise score, Chimborazo actually stands 8,465 feet nearer to the mean sea level than its famous Himalayan counterpart.

Anyone who’s kicked around in the western U.S. knows there’re tons of totally impressive-looking mountains throughout the Rockies that themselves rise no higher than 8,465 feet, so we’re talking about a pretty vast distinction in height between Everest and Chimborazo. So how, exactly, can Chimborazo get you closer to the void of space than a mountain that’s roughly a whole mile and-a-half taller?

It all has to do with the fact that Earth is nowhere close to being a perfect, mathematically precise orb. “Earth is not a perfect sphere, but is a bit thicker at the Equator due to the centrifugal force created by the planet’s constant rotation,” NOAA explains. “Because of this, the highest point above Earth’s center is the peak of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, located just one degree south of the Equator where Earth’s bulge is greatest.”

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Think of our planet as a lumpy, bumpy ball of imperfectly-sculpted dough and you’ll have the right visual idea for what NOAA’s getting at. If that misshapen round ball has a center, Everest is sitting at a point where there’s more of a close-to-center surface dimple than a bulge, while Chimborazo juts farther from the center along one of the sphere’s more protrusive points. Cover the whole thing in a clingy layer of water to approximate Earth’s oceans, and Everest will still stand higher above the waterline than Chimborazo will… but it won’t be poking you closer to anything in the surrounding outer atmosphere.

Of course there are more ways to measure a mountain’s height, including the classic base-to-peak method you might’ve learned in grade school that rates Hawaii’s Mauna Kea — all 33,500 feet of it, when you count the portion that sits beneath the Pacific Ocean — as the world’s tallest.

But if your one and only aim is to scrape the sky without taking an actual ride in a rocket ship, there’s only one place to go… and it’s Chimborazo in Ecuador. Even near the warm equatorial zone, you’ll still need to bring your snow and specialized climbing gear to make it to the top (as many climbing enthusiasts annually do). But unlike Everest, there’s a not-zero chance that things might get hot fast on Mt. Chimborazo: It’s an inactive volcano whose last eruption occurred only a relatively slight 1,500 years ago.

Stream Universal Pictures' Everest on Peacock here.

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