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Extremities of the Earth: Farthest Point from the Center of the Earth

If you were asked the location of the furthest point from the center of the Earth, you would likely be inclined to state the summit of Mount Everest as an obvious choice. Looking at the 1862 pictorial map below would seem to confirm that it would be in the Himalayan Mountains of Asia. Fascinatingly, due to the shape of the Earth, this is not the case, but instead it is the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, only the 39th tallest mountain in the the Andes!

Mountains and Rivers in Johnson’s new illustrated (steel plate) family atlas, with descriptions, geographical, statistical, and historical. Map by Johnson and Ward, 1862. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Chimborazo wins this prize due to the shape of the planet. The Earth is not a perfect sphere but rather an oblate spheroid. Due to the pull of gravity on the planet, the earth bulges in the center around the equator. Mount Chimborazo, while not even close to the tallest mountain from sea level, sits squarely on this bulging equator and so is 7,096 ft (2,163 m) farther from the Earth’s center than the summit of Mount Everest!

Located between the cities of Guayaquil and Quito, Chimborazo is in actuality an inactive volcano. It has four summits named Whymper, Veintimilla, Politecnica, and Nicolas Martínez, with Whymper peak being the highest point. Until the 19th century, it was believed by many that Mount Chimborazo was the highest mountain in the world and many attempts were made to reach its summit, including the French Geodesic Mission in 1746. While the team did not reach the top, their work did confirm the shape of the earth as an oblate spheroid. The map of Ecuador below, made in 1858 by Manuel Villavicencio, credits the information on the map as being gathered by this French mission as well as other early explorers, including Alexander von Humboldt.

Carta corográfica de la Republica del Ecuador : delineada en vista de las cartas de Don Pedro maldonado, el Baron de Humboldt Mr. Wisse, la de las sontas de las costas por M.M. Filzroy i H. Kellet i las particulares del autor. Manuel Villavicencio, 1858. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

A renowned explorer, geographer, cartographer, and scientist, Alexander von Humboldt traveled throughout South and Central America extensively between 1799-1804. He reached Ecuador in 1802 and attempted to reach the top of Chimborazo. On the ascent, at 15,600 feet, most of the climbing party refused to go any further. Humboldt continued with his traveling companion, Aimé Bonpland, and an Ecuadorian companion, Carlos Montúfar.

By dint of great exertion and considerable patience, we reached a greater height than we had dared to hope for, seeing we had been almost constantly enveloped in mist. In many places the ridge was not wider than from eight to ten inches! –Alexander von Humboldt

The explorers were able to reach 19,286 feet on June 23, 1802, an altitude higher than any European had achieved in recorded history. However, Humboldt’s party ultimately failed to reach the summit, stopping 1,000 feet short due to altitude sickness. After returning to Europe, Humboldt created an atlas of his journeys which includes the two pictorial maps below, one showing the perpetual snow line of various Andean mountains (Chimborazo on far left), and the other of Chimborazo with the types of vegetation present at various altitude levels.

Sheets from Atlas geographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent. Alexander von Humboldt, 1814. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

78 years later in 1880, Edward Whymper, famous for being the first to summit the Matterhorn in the Alps, reached the top of Mount Chimborazo with Italian guides Louis Carrel and Jean-Antoine Carrel, becoming the first to record this achievement. His route became known as the Whymper route, and the tallest peak is named after him. Because critics doubted his accomplishment, he ascended to the summit a second time later the same year. In 1892, he published his observations of his journey around South America, titled Travels amongst the great Andes of the equator, which is available digitally on HathiTrust. Included are several maps of his route, including the one below that also features sketches of Chimborazo.

Route Map to Illustrate Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator. In Travels amongst the great Andes of the equator. Edward Whymper, 1892. General Collections, Library of Congress. Image from Hathi Trust.

Mount Chimborazo continues to be a popular climb for adventurers from around the world as it looms dramatically over the surrounding landscape. For those willing to brave the ascent, they will be rewarded by standing on the farthest point of land from the center of the earth, not able to get any closer to the stars!

Ice-crested Chimborazo towering 20498 ft. towards the sun, north from road to Quito, Ecuador. 1907. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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