LIII: Mythbust Monday — The Tallest Mountain

Peak XV is certainly the most well-known mountain on Earth — depending on what name you use. It was christened “Peak XV” by the British in 1856, but it is also known as Sagarmatha in Nepali, Zhumulangma Feng in Chinese, Chomolungma in Tibetan, and recognized by the English-speaking world as Mount Everest.

And as the title of this post would suggest, contrary to popular belief, Mount Everest is not the tallest mountain on Earth.

In fact, Mount Everest isn’t even especially tall as mountains go. Although the elevation of its peak is 29,029 feet above sea level, Everest rises from a plain that is roughly 14,800 feet above sea level, meaning from base to summit, Mount Everest is approximately 14,000 feet tall — meaning if you placed its base at exactly sea level, Everest would come up just short of Colorado’s famous Pike’s Peak.

The key to this myth is the difference between the terms “tallest” and “highest”. “Tallest” refers to distance between a mountain’s base and its summit, known as base-to-peak height; the tallest mountain on Earth is the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea, with a base-to-peak height of 33,100 feet — more than thrice that of Everest. “Highest,” on the other hand, deals with elevation of the peak above sea level. Mount Everest’s peak is 29,029 feet above sea level, making it the highest point on Earth. The term “highest mountain” refers to the mountain with the highest summit. That makes Everest the highest mountain on earth, easily rivaling the 13,803 feet of Mauna Kea that stand above the surface of the ocean.

Named for the British Surveyor General of India Sir George Everest, who never even laid eyes on the mountain, Mount Everest was first measured in 1856 during the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. It was originally measured at exactly 29,000 feet, but the surveyor, thinking no one would believe this conveniently round number, listed it as 29,002 feet to make it more believable. The first attempt to summit Mount Everest was made by George Mallory and Guy Bullock in 1921; three years later Mallory would become one of the 248 casualties Everest has claimed. The first successful summit was made by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepali sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 via the South Col. Due to the way they were climbing, it was impossible for Hillary and Norgay to have reached the summit at the same time — whoever was climbing in front would have been the first man to summit Everest. However, Hillary and Norgay refused for many years to say who set foot on the top first, declaring it a group effort. Much later, Norgay stated it was Hillary who reached the top first, but Hillary has not confirmed this.

Despite not being a very tall mountain, it is an incredibly treacherous climb due not only to the altitude, which creates issues with temperature, weather, and oxygen levels, but also due to the geography of the mountain itself. Everest has claimed 248 lives, and the bodies of many of those unfortunate adventurers are still on the mountain. About 5,000 successful summits have been made by about 3,000 individuals.

And if you want to join me in feeling unaccomplished, this current college freshman reached the top when he was just 13 years old.

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