Chimborazo...the “Highest” Spot on Earth?

Mount Everest at 29,035 feet is the highest spot above sea level on Earth. But, what if instead of looking for the highest spot above sea level you wanted to find the spot on Earth closest to the moon, the stars, and outer space (not a bad reason to climb a mountain). You’d probably still head to Everest, right? Wrong.

It turns out that the Earth is not a perfect sphere. It’s an “oblate spheroid,” which means it has a bulge circling the Earth just below the equator. So if you stand in that part of the world you’re already “higher,” or closer to outer space, than someone not on the bulge—13 miles closer than someone at the North or South pole. Head to a mountain on that bulge and you’re even higher.

So if you want to get to the spot farthest from the center of the Earth, and closest to the stars, climb to the top of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, located just one degree south of the equator. Chimborazo is 20,560 feet above sea level, but when mathematicians calculate in that bulge it’s 1.5 miles closer to outer space than Everest.

I learned all of this in a fascinating story on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” this morning. You can see the full story at NPR.

It would be interesting to see a second type of “highest” summits list. After all, for how long have people been climbing mountains to get closer to the stars?

Filed under: Places


Bill S
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April 7, 2007 at 2:36 p.m. (EDT)

The NPR article/broadcast is a bit behind the times. The fact that Chimborazo is the farthest summit from the center of the Earth (which is the same as saying "closest to the Sun, Moon, stars, and outer space") has been known for at least my ancient lifetime (I first heard this before I was 9 or 10 years old). I think it may even have been in the old Ripley's Believe It or Not.

But the air density on top of Chimborazo is not as low as on Everest, thanks to the bulge of the atmosphere caused by the rotation of the Earth. At the poles the air is thinner at a given physical altitude than at lower latitudes. I checked this during my Antarctic trip last Dec and Jan, and found at the Vinson High Camp (highest measurement I made), the air pressure was equivalent to 1500 feet higher than the surveyed physical altitude above sea level (13,500 from the Standard Atmosphere Tables, compared to 12,000 from the carefully surveyed GPS altitude.

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