“What has roots as nobody sees | Is taller than trees | Up, up it goes | And yet never grows?” The answer is a mountain, and yes I stole that riddle from the Hobbit. Whether in ancient history, modern times, or even fantasy, the tallest of natural landmarks have always had a hold over the imagination. We’ll take a look at the 10 most iconic mountains in the world – from the tallest to the harshest to the most dangerous.
10. Ben Nevis
Location: Lochaber, Scotland | Range: Grampian Mountains | Height: 1,344m
Okay we’ll be honest. There’s probably a lot of other mountains we could have picked instead of this one. Britain’s highest peak is one of the shortest on this list and isn’t a particularly difficult climb. Still, it resembles a massive plateau (which is pretty cool) and is found in the heart of the staggeringly beautiful Scottish Highlands.
Really though, it’s on here because we’re biased. So we’ll use this entry as a place to do a shameless plug for our two-part Highland hiking adventure (part 1 | part 2). This all being said, the view from the top is quite something, and the peak serves as a worthy end to the renowned West Highland Way.
9. Mount Washington
Location: Sargent’s Purchase, New Hampshire | Range: Presidential Range | Height: 1,917m
The highest mountain in the northeastern United States may not be all that tall or distinctive. It’s relatively small even when compared to the Rockies and can be somewhat lost amongst the other peaks in the wilderness of the White Mountain National Forest. So why is it on the list? If we wanted to give America’s first President his due, we could’ve have picked Mount Rushmore instead.
What Mount Washington does have however, is extremely erratic weather. By erratic we don’t mean just a sudden rainstorm when you thought it’d be a nice day (though that’ll probably still happen), but instead some of the most extreme weather and wind speeds on earth. Until recently, the summit of Mount Washington was home to the strongest gust of wind (372 km/h) ever recorded. You have to admire a mountain that punches above its weight in that respect. There’s also a famous cog railway and nearby Bretton Woods (where the Allies decided how to run the world economy after WWII).
8. Mount Olympus
Location: Thessaly-Macedonia Border, Greece | Range: Olympus Range | Height: 2,919m
What other mountain can claim to be the home of twelve gods? Since we can’t think of any, Mount Olympus absolutely deserves a place on this list. Most of the climb today isn’t overly difficult (though some parts are for experts only), however the mountain still holds a certain mystique. Of course, you likely won’t end up like Bellerophon (obscure reference) should you attempt to summit it, however, you’d be remiss to not appreciate the impact the peak had on one of the most important historical civilizations.
The foot of the mountain has seen its fare share of conflict and events. Whether during the time of Ancient Greece or the Ottoman Empire, the surrounding area has been fought over for centuries. Still, most people will know Olympus for the Greek gods, and when a bearded man who angrily pounds the earth below with lightning calls the place home, what else really matters?
7. Fitz Roy
Location: Patagonia between Argentina and Chile | Range: Andes | Height: 3,405m
This isn’t one of the world’s highest mountains but one look at it is likely to provoke the reaction of “how the heck am I supposed to climb that”? Like many of the mountains found in Patagonia, Fitz Roy seems to be a sheer vertical mass of rock as opposed to an actual peak.
Compared to Mount Everest, only a handful of climbers make the trek to the top. Throw in some less than stellar (and highly unpredictable) weather and you have the recipe for what is an extremely dangerous and arduous climb. Luckily, Fitz Roy and the surrounding peaks look pretty fantastic from the ground, so we’ll just stick to taking pictures from there.
6. Mount Vesuvius
Location: Naples, Italy | Range: Campanian Volcanic Arc | Height: 1,281m
Known for absolutely obliterating the Roman city of Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius is one of the most iconic mountains by sheer destructive force. While there have been larger and more powerful eruptions, not have had the cultural and historical impact of this one. The ruins of the city and eerie plaster casts of long-dead victims remains to this day, a reminder of just how lasting the impact has been.
Vesuvius continues to have a place in modern life, whether as a tourist destination or the inspiration for loud 3D movies. The most terrifying part is that it’s still active. About 3 million people live in the immediate vicinity, hoping that the mountain doesn’t completely blow its top once more.
Location: Kilimanjaro Region, Tanzania | Range: Eastern Rift Mountains | Height: 5,895m
It’s the highest mountain in Africa, highest freestanding mountain the world, and a volcano to boot. Whereas tall mountains that are part of a range can sometimes be obscured or hard to spot, Kilimanjaro stands alone in the savannah. Unlike Vesuvius, this volcano is dormant so the nearby town of Moshi doesn’t have to live in perpetual fear of Kilimanjaro exploding.
Compared to some other mountains of similar size, Kilimanjaro is a bit of an easier climb (albeit still a difficult trek). We’re not saying you should grab a water bottle and set off, but with planning, a bit of practice, and good prepping – many are able to claim they climbed a continent’s highest mountain.
4. The Matterhorn
Location: Swiss-Italian Border | Range: Alps | Height: 4,478m
Another peak commonly listed as one of the most dangerous to climb, the Matterhorn is the most distinctive mountain in the Alps. The first successful summit (in 1865) claimed four lives, and the numbers have steadily gone up since then. The steepness of the peak leads to frequent avalanches with the patchy snow and ice presenting even greater hazards for climbers.
With the picturesque mountain town of Zermatt lying in the shadow of the Matterhorn, there’s a sleepy beauty to the whole area – if you don’t think about the treacherous cliffs above. There’s arguably no other mountain in Europe that’s as recognizable or as famous a mountaineering challenge as this one.
3. Mount Fuji
Location: Honshu Island, Japan | Range: It’s a lone wolf | Height: 3,776m
One of the most staggeringly beautiful mountains in the world, Mount Fuji is yet another volcano – an active one this time. The peak itself is a work of art, with an extremely symmetrical cone that is popular for photographers and painters alike. Throw in a convenient location (it’s only 100 km from Tokyo) and you’ve got yourself one of the most accessible major peaks in the world. Plus you can even see Mount Fuji from the city on a clear day.
The peak is a popular one to climb thanks to the variety of routes and way stations. That may somewhat destroy the illusion of accomplishment when you’re greeted by a crowd of tourists, but at least everyone can get a taste of what being a mountaineer is like.
Location: Pakistan-China Border | Range: Himalayas | Height: 8,611m
The world’s second highest mountain is just that – second. While Mount Everest has the allure and name recognition of being the world’s highest peak, K2 has to languish as always being the runner up. It’s a shame because the climb is actually considered much more technically difficult than Everest. The death rate is one of the highest for the world’s tallest peaks, and the climb has never been completed in the winter.
There’s no real easy way to ascend K2. Similar to the Matterhorn, the peak resembles a steep pyramid, meaning all sides are difficult to navigate. Throw in the fact that K2 is nearly twice as high as that European mountain, and you have a truly difficult task ahead. So while Everest might be the famous one, K2 will garner greater prestige amongst the mountaineering community for anyone skilled enough to climb it.
1. Mount Everest
Location: Nepal-China Border | Range: Himalayas | Height: 8,848m
All the talk of the world’s second highest peak aside, if someone came up to me and said they climbed Everest versus someone who climbed K2 – I know which one would impress me more. Just like winning the gold medal is better than the silver, reaching the highest point on earth is more impressive on paper than standing slightly below looking up – no matter who exerted more effort to get there.
Since Edmund Hillary’s first ascent in 1953, Everest has fascinated mountaineers, nearby residents, and people who spend time reading lists like this. If K2 makes Everest sound like a simple climb, it’s not. While Sherpa’s can more or less drag you up the peak nowadays, there are still tragedies and accidents that can occur. For those that do climb it however, there’s nothing else that can compare – no matter how much more difficult it might be.
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