It can take weeks of hard work to climb the dangerous summit of Mt. Everest, but at least at the end of the day, you can feel like a royalty knowing you were among the few to ever reach its peak. OK, I’m going to burst your bubble now. Not to be nit-picky here, but although Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level, it’s not nearly the tallest point in the world by sheer height.
World’s tallest mountain
Mt. Everest, which stands at 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) above sea level, undeniably has the “highest altitude” in the world. The distinction for the tallest mountain in the word, however, belongs to Mauna Kea which has an altitude of only 4,205 meters (13,796 feet).
The catch: it’s a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii which is about 19,700 feet below the Pacific Ocean. In other words, more than half of it is submerged. When you add everything together, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 meters tall or way taller than the 8,850 meters of Mount Everest – making it the “world’s tallest mountain.”
Mauna Kea is only a million years old, formed after the Pacific tectonic plate moved over the Hawaiian hotspot. Back then, a huge plume of liquid magma gushed from deep inside Earth and when it cooled, Mauna Kea was formed. The last time it erupted was 4,6000 years ago, though.
Mauna Kea is famous for another distinction: the home of the world’s largest astronomical observatory, the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. Besides the fact that at this elevation, the summit is above 40% of Earth’s atmosphere, the extremely dry and almost cloud-free conditions make it an ideal spot to make astronomical observations.
Technically, if you scale Mauna Kea, you’ve reached the tallest peak the world — and it’s such an easy climb. You don’t hear people talking too much about this probably because Mt. Everest is a lot sexier and challenging. Mauna Kea is also the tallest volcano on Earth.
World’s highest point
You see, our planet is not a perfect sphere — instead, it looks more like a beach ball that someone sat on. Because Earth bulges outward at the equator and flattens near the poles — something which mathematicians call an “oblate spheroid” — people in Ecuador, Kenya, Tanzania and Indonesia can be as much as 13 miles closer to the moon than people living on the North or South poles.
While Mauna Kea is essentially the world’s tallest mountain, it’s not the highest spot on Earth. Again, because the Earth is not a sphere, some places are naturally higher above the planet’s center at the equator. Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador — an inactive volcano located in the Andes — has an altitude of only 6,310 meters (20,703 feet), which makes it far shorter than Mt. Everest. It’s not even the highest above sea level in the Andes. However, because Chimborazo sits just one degree south of the equator, its apex rises the farthest, at about 21 million feet or 3,967 miles — making it the “world’s highest point from Earth’s center.” Everest, on the other hand, is 28 degrees north latitude, nearly one-third of the way to the pole and as far as peaks measured from Earth’s center go, Mt. Everest doesn’t even make it in the top 20.
It’s no clear how Chimborazo got its name, but according to some accounts, it could combine schingbu, which means “women” in the Cayapa language, with razo, which is Quichua or “snow,” resulting in “Women of Snow. Local natives, however, know the mountain as Urcorazo or “Mountain of Ice.”
According to local anthropologists, Chimborazo “has been venerated since pre-Columbian times” and is “still a sacred mountain where it’s thought to be close to God.” And despite it’s not as difficult to climb as Mt. Everest, it has its challenges. Climbing Mt. Chimborazo takes about two weeks with a one- or two-day hike after getting acclimatized. You should be aware that Chimborazo is heavily glaciated and subject to severe weather and avalanches, so be very careful if you want to climb what’s literally the highest spot on this planet.