Mt. Everest has long held the distinction of being the tallest mountain in the world. However, what if it isn’t? It is possible that, when looked at in a different way, Mt. Everest’s great size is significantly exceeded by others. That’s because geologists give mountains their height distinctions based on a single set of criteria. But if the criteria changes, the rankings change too.

Most common definition: Highest altitude from sea level

There’s no question that Mt. Everest takes the top spot when size is defined as having the highest amount of altitude. At 29,035 feet above sea level, it’s the tallest if measured from the seafloor and no other landmass reaches further into the earth’s atmosphere and few mountains are as well known.

With its worldwide fame, adventurers come in droves to overcome the challenge of scaling the mountain’s heights. A climbing adventure requires overcoming dangerous rock structures, cold temperatures, risky weather, thinner air, and more. First summited in 1953, the challenge of reaching the top is catnip for experienced climbers. Despite hefty pricing that reaches as much as $25,000 per person, climbing expeditions to reach the top are often full and the mountain’s slopes can be surprisingly crowded.

A second definition: Tallest from base to top

If the size of a mountain is determined by a different measure, based on the height from the mountain’s base to its top, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea beats Mt. Everest by a significant amount. After beginning at its natural base on the ocean floor, the mountain rises to more than 33,000 feet.

First coming into existence as a volcanic mountain, Mauna Kea presents itself more as an island than as part of a land-locked mountain range such as the Himalayas, the Andes, or the Rockies. Because the mountain has a lower altitude than some of its other counterparts, its area is more accessible for human use. As a result, there’s a lot of varied activity on Mauna Kea. The mountain’s higher areas get a lot of snow and are well used by skiers and snowboarders. In lower elevations, the mountain attracts its fair share of hunters, hikers, and campers.

Because of its clear skies and closeness to the equator, Mauna Kae also fills another important function for the planet, it serves as a world-class astronomical observation site. The mountain is home to 13 telescopes including the largest single-mirror telescope in the world. This observatory has played a key role in important scientific and atmospheric research about our planet and the areas beyond.

Other distinctive mountains

In addition to height, there are other ways that mountains throughout the world stand out from their counterparts. For example, at almost 21,000 feet, Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo isn’t as tall as Mauna Kea or as high above sea level as Everest is. However, it is just one degree south of the Earth’s equator, making it the highest mountain that is closest to the center of our planet.

Another mountain, K2, has the unenviable distinction of coming in at number two for altitude above sea level. While it is pretty undistinctive to come in at number two for any kind of size contest, K2 holds the respect of mountaineers and adventurers worldwide. Its climb is considered more technically difficult than Mt. Everest with significantly higher fatalities. Its sides are steep and pyramid-like, some of them are unscalable with its height and the elements complicating matters.

Mountains are also distinguished based on a place that they hold within their own continent or their own country. For example, the iconic Mt. Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest peak and is known for its beauty, its height, and its place in literature. Correspondingly, the highest peak in North America is Alaska’s Denali, the highest peak in Great Britan is Ben Nevis in Scotland, and the highest mountain in South America is Mt. Aconcagua.

Mountains distinguished for their looks

Other mountains in the world may not hold a place in the record books based on their height, but they are distinguished based on their beauty. The nearly symmetrical Mt. Fuji in Japan, a volcano, is a classic example of a singular snow-capped peak rising gracefully into clouds. Its beauty has made it a favorite subject of painters, photographers, poets, and other artists.

Switzerland’s Matterhorn is beloved for its looks yet for an entirely different reason. Where Mt. Fuji is jagged, the Matterhorn is a rough set of teeth rising from the land. Its sheer sides make it an incredibly difficult and deadly climb. In fact, when the mountain was first summited in 1865, four members of the climbing party perished. That expedition has only set the tone for the challenge faced by every other group of climbers who attempted to reach the top.

FitzRoy in the Andes mountain is a third example of how beautiful a mountain formation can be. Similar to the Matterhorn, the mountain is also tooth-like and jagged, presenting climbers with an intense challenge. In this case, many climbers begin to doubt their technical skills when considering the climb and ultimately, choose to try something else.

Mountains distinguished by their history

Some mountains are iconic because of their place in history.  This is never truer than for Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius, the volcanic mountain which erupted during Roman times and buried the entire city of Pompeii. Another mountain of the ancient world, Mount Olympus is distinguished by its place in literature. While virtually all of the world’s greatest mountains appear to be reaching into the realm of gods, Mt. Olympus is known as the home of 12 gods. Despite its legend, it isn’t known to be an exceptionally difficult climb and many climbers have ascended it and consider what its heights have meant to civilization.