MOUNT EVEREST IS THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN in the world, right? Well, sure. Sort of. No other mountain rises higher above sea level than Mount Everest, which stands at 29,035 feet. But if you were to use another standard — say, the point on earth that’s closest to the moon or outer space, or the point on earth that’s the farthest from the core of the planet — then Everest falls behind Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. But Mount Chimborazo only stands 20,548 feet above sea level. It’s not even one of the 10 tallest in South America. So how could this be?
The answer, according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, has to do with the shape of the earth. Our planet is not a perfect sphere. It bulges a little bit in the middle, thanks to the rotation of the earth. This means that people who live along the equator are a bit further from the center of the earth — and a bit closer to outer space — than people at the poles. On a global scale, this difference is not huge. If you’re standing at sea level on the equator, you are 13 miles further from the center of the earth than someone standing at the poles.
But because Mount Chimborazo sits only a single latitudinal degree south of the equator, it gets a bit of a boost from the shape of the earth. So if you measure from the moon, Chimborazo is 1.5 miles closer than Everest.
By this standard, a lot of what we think about the world changes. For example, the Dead Sea (the lowest point on land on earth) is further from the core of the earth than Mt. McKinley, the highest point in North America.
Visiting the tallest mountains
Everest wins “tallest” in terms of altitude. But it’s a really difficult place to visit. It’s a notoriously difficult climb that has claimed the lives of a lot of accomplished alpinists. So a less experienced climber might want to try Chimborazo instead. But even the Ecuadoran Mountain is a technically difficult (if easier) climb.
Fortunately, there is yet another mountain taller than Mount Everest that you can go to with minimal difficulty. Measured from base to summit, the tallest mountain in the world stands at over 33,000 feet. And you can drive your car right up to the top.
It’s Mauna Kea, the volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. About 20,000 feet of its height is underwater, so you won’t have to deal as much with the altitude as you would on the other mountains. And you can go up and down in a couple of hours.