Comparison of heights of Mars' Mount Sharp and some of Earth's tallest mountains
Comparison of heights of Mars’ Mount Sharp and some of Earth’s tallest mountains

Ready for a real mash-up of explorer-history-science-mountaineering yack? A tale of two mountains on two planets? You have been forewarned…

The comparison between Earth-side mountain exploration and the planned expedition by the Mars rover Curiosity came to my mind as I read a book my family got me over the holidays: Last Climb, the story of the legendary Mount Everest expeditions of George Leigh Mallory.

I knew that it is quite a physical feat to summit that 29,029 foot terrestrial rooftop, but the detailed narrative of the arduous climb by the earliest Everest-peak-seekers, with their 1920’s technology and the fact that they were treading where in all likelihood no one had tread before, really put 1924 Everest onto another planet, in my mind.

And now the first ever robot mountaineer is poised to begin its uphill climb—if not summit bid—on Mount Sharp in Martian territory. NASA’s Curiosity is still at the bottom of the mound of sediment that it is planned to explore, 16,000 feet below the summit. Since landing on Mars in August 2012, it has only traveled about half a mile, taking its time checking out its systems and instruments and exploring the geology at the foot of the mountain. It’s already revealed some intriguing geological features, including a layer of gravely material that shows all the hallmarks of having been laid down by running water in Mars’ past.

Back to Everest in the early 1920s. At that time the Himalayan mountains — and particularly Mount Everest — were not unlike places on another planet, largely unexplored (by western explorers at least) and unknown territory. Satellite surveillance wouldn’t exist for many decades yet, and armchair exploration with Google Earth was the better part of a century away. And, frankly, the first successful ascent to the summit was still two decades away through the icy mists.

Step by painstaking step the expedition team members moved their way toward Everest, and then up its slopes, establishing supply lines and a string of support camps along the way. Not only was Everest then about as remote as Mars is today, it was also like another planet in terms of the environment: at Everest’s lofty summit atmospheric pressure is about a third of that at sea level, temperatures dip far below freezing, solar radiation is harsh, and wind can cut like an icy knife. Another planet indeed, in some ways not unlike Mars.

If only those explorers had been as well equipped as Curiosity: nuclear-powered, designed to withstand far more harsh conditions than even Everest and gripping the ground stably on six giant metal-treaded wheels. Makes me wonder if NASA, or anyone else, has ever considered an extended expedition of Everest using a robot like Curiosity, which would have far greater staying power to dwell at those heights, conduct geological experiments and maybe search for the frozen remains of dozens of unfortunate climbers who make up Everest’s all-time fatality statistic.

Apparently many of the bodies are still up there, it being too difficult a feat to bring them down, including George Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine. Mallory was found in 1999, and so far Irvine remains missing—along with the camera they took with them, which if ever found could shed some light onto these explorers’ final hours on Earth.

If you read all the way through this, thanks for indulging me. The other-worldness of that early Everest expedition just struck me as chilling and enthralling, just as the modern other-worldly investigation of distant Mount Sharp does, and the treasure trove of Martian geologic history that Curiosity will attempt to read as it climbs, wheel-turn by wheel-turn, up those mountain slopes.

And to make one final chilling comparison, Curiosity’s ultimate fate, even after a successful mission, is similar to Mallory and Irvine’s in one way: when it stops moving and communicating with Base Camp Earth, it will remain on that cold mountain forever.

Mars Mountain Climbing Mashup! 11 June,2013Ben Burress


Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor