Reliving a Transcendent Moment

There It Was: Mount Chimborazo

This post originally appeared on November 12, 2016, shortly after I returned to Los Angeles from Ecuador.

The text is from Matthew 18:22: “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” It refers to how many times one must forgive transgressors. That inspired the Swedish author, Lars Görling, wrote a novel entitled 491, which was made into a film by Vilgot Sjöman.

This is a very roundabout way of remembering the route Dan and I took as we emerged from the twisted warren of unmarked streets which is Ambato, one of Ecuador’s largest cities. We were looking for the E-35, which is the Pan-American Highway. Instead we were on E-491, which took us through a number of towns and villages which were not on my map of the country. Nor, for that matter, was E-491.

Then, as we rounded a hill, quite suddenly, we saw the volcano Chimborazo dead ahead of us. The clouds had moved aside, allowing us to see the glaciers on Ecuador’s tallest mountain. If you measure altitude from the center of the earth rather than sea level, it is the tallest mountain on earth, looming in splendid isolation from the rest of the Andes.

A Herd of Wild Vicuñas

As we drew closer to the mountain, we espied a large herd of wild vicuñas on both sides of the road. Dan and I stopped to take pictures in the rarefied air, which must have been 15,000 feet altitude.

Throughout its length, E-491 was spectacular. Even the Indian villages along the route were more interesting. And then, as we approached the city of Riobamba, we crossed the Pan-American Highway. We spent the night in a spare, but scrupulously clean hotel near the railroad station. By then, we were on the “wrong” side of Chimborazo, which was now covered in clouds.

That was the end of our getting lost: The next day, we easily made our way to Cuenca in about five hours.

The Equatorial Bulge

Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador (19,347 Feet or 5,897 Meters)

The Earth is by no means a perfect sphere. If you are standing at either the North or South Pole, you are some 21 km nearer to the center of the planet than if you were near the Equator. The reason for this is that the rotation of the planet exerts a centrifugal force that makes of the Earth more of an oblate ellipsoid. The illustration below exaggerates this phenomenon, but gives you the general idea:

Earth as an Oblate Ellipsoid

One upshot of this phenomenon is that some of the mountains nearer the Equator are actually higher than any of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest. The so-called Equatorial Bulge calls for a more accurate measure of a mountain’s altitude than distance above sea level—especially as the bulge means that sea level is correspondingly higher. A more accurate measure is distance from the center of the Earth.

Using this measure, Mount Everest just barely makes the top ten list:

The Highest Mountains on Earth Measured by Distance from the Earth’s Center

According to this chart, the highest mountain is a virtual tie between Chimborazo in Ecuador and the South Summit of Huascarán in Peru. In fact, by this measure eight of the ten highest mountains in the world are in the Andes, the only exceptions being Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Everest in Nepal.

Tomorrow, I will repost a blog I wrote about my visit to Mount Chimborazo in 2016.

The Highest Peak in the World

No, It’s Not Mount Everest

No, It’s Not Mount Everest

There are some thirty-six mountain peaks in the Andes alone whose altitude is greater than Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo. Yet, Chimborazo is demonstrably the highest peak in the world. It all depends on how you measure it.

If the earth were perfectly round, there is no question that Mount Everest takes the prize. But the earth, far from being perfectly round, is an oblate ellipsoid.  Around the equator, there is a bulge that is significant enough that—if you measure altitude from the center of the earth rather than sea level—Chimborazo is taller.

According to Ken Jennings of Condé-Nast Traveler:

This bulge isn’t huge—a deviation of about one part in 300 from a perfect sphere—but it’s enough to mess with cartography. Chimborazo tops out at 20,702 feet, almost two miles lower than Everest. But that’s only compared to sea level. If we take the equatorial bulge into account—in other words, if we measure what peak is farthest from the center of the Earth—Chimborazo sticks more than 7,000 feet farther into space than any of the Himalayas do, since they’re located thousands of miles north of the Equator. So, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “what I told you was true—from a certain point of view.”

So if you climbed to the top of Chimborazo, you would be standing a mile and a half farther into space than the poor souls who brave the Himalayan peaks.

No, I have to plans to climb any mountain peaks. I will stand and stare in silent awe from the base of the peak, which is visible from the port of Guayaquil, ninety miles to the west.