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Q&A

Exploration of a 50 mile high mountain

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My friends and I are building a world with a 50 mile high volcano on it. The mountain is the result of some bored god deciding to play a joke on everyone. Or, some other god got angry and decided to really, for realz this time, bury an unruly city. The legends aren't especially clear on how it got there or how it stays up. It's just there.

A 50 mile high mountain is approximately 10x the height of Mount Everest and 4x the height of Olympus Mons. 5 miles is approximately the edge of human endurance, even with supplemental oxygen. Make that volcano another 12 miles high and it will meet the internationally recognized definition of outer space. It is a shield volcano with starting with 2° slopes at the base but no steeper than 10° at the top.

While humans have been living at altitudes around 10,000 ft (3048m) for millennia, the first recorded ascent with equipment was 1492 in France. It would take another five hundred years for humanity to develop the techniques, technology and gumption to ascend the highest peak on Earth. Hillary and Norquay summited Everest in 1953.

It seems clear to me that no one is going to try to ascend this 50 mile volcano while the surrounding cultures are in a pre-science mindset. I also imagine various groups attempting to make ascents then turning back because they can't breath.

It took the development of rockets and airplanes on Earth to get to near vacuum atmosphere. People on this planet can walk there. Starting from a early 1920's technology level would their development of technology for living in a vacuum be accelerated by their ability to simply walk into one?

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This post was sourced from https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/96872. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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The Niven Ringworld has such a mountain. Enabled by the god like Ringworld Engineers when they made ... (2 comments)

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TL;DR

  • You'll see the development of both aerial vehicles and the means to survive in harsh spaces.
  • Technology will develope faster in this world - at least, technology related to this mountain.
  • All of that will in turn accelerate the drive to go to space. Going to space might be necessary to summit the mountain.

I'm imagining that this mountain is certainly going to draw in people who want to summit it. Right off the bat, several groups come to mind:

  • Religious groups, who view the mountain as a holy place (especially if a god truly did build it!). Mount Everest enjoys such a status. Some sects may encourage pilgrimages, both to the base and eventually to the summit. Others may view the mountain as hallowed ground, and oppose any attempts to climb it, but I suspect they will be in the minority.
  • Scientists, who realize that this mountain should not, according to geophysics, exist. So how did it form (well, we know this)? How old is it? How high does it go? Many of these questions will draw summit attempts, and certainly expeditions to various parts.
  • Professional climbers and climbing enthusiasts, who know that this is The Big One. Tall peaks aren't necessarily the most technically challenging to climb, but 50 miles of mountain certainly is.

So, you've got at least three distinct groups with stakes in getting to the summit. They will probably attempt to take different approaches, at least in the early years - first trying to figure out what the best way to get to the top is, if there is a way.

Now, I was wondering before if everyone will know how high the mountain is. After all, with 1920s technology, they can't just fly up in an X-15 or something and get a good view from above. However, I think that with ground-based surveying, this might be possible. The height of Mount Everest was known to within a good margin by the middle of the 19th century. This mountain's ten times as high, but that doesn't mean it can't be surveyed. It will stand out from the other mountains around it - if there are any. On a very, very clear day, it's possible that the top could be seen from the ground. If not, then lower limits can be placed on its height.

Group 1: The climbers

From surveying, would-be climbers will figure out that it's at least 50,000 feet[citation needed], maybe more, even if they can't get a good estimate. If they've gone up any significant peak - say, 25,000 feet or above - then they have a good idea of the limits of the human body. Nobody is going to try to summit on the first attempt, and nobody is going to try to do it with only basic technology. Those who do will die. Quickly.

So, instead, you're probably going to see a period of technological development with partial attempts to establish camps at different elevations, like the system currently used on Mount Everest and elsewhere. Mount Everest obviously was not summited on the first attempt; there were many attempts made over many decades. I say it take 50 years - at a minimum - to reach 40,000 feet. And that's nowhere near the summit.

It's possible that the climbers are going to eventually give up going by foot. Perhaps they (minus the climbing purists) will try vehicles, like cars, when they become rugged enough. But even custom-built vehicles will have problems, and there will be points where they can't cross. In 50 miles of mountain, you'll have places like the Hillary Step that almost certainly would need to be crossed on foot.

What other technology might the climbers come up with? Supplemental oxygen, obviously. They won't turn back until they've tried that. Other things they might create:

  • Better insulated clothing. I can see space suits maybe evolving from this, because there comes a point where a person needs to be completely shielded from the environment. Space suits are a logical extension of layers of climbing gear.
  • Shelters. A camp system will be instituted, obviously, and given the extreme conditions above 25,000 feet, it will eventually become necessary to seal off sleeping or resting climbers entirely. Airtight tents might be a bit much at first, but as shelters become more sophisticated as the mountain infrastructure grows, it could happen.
  • Food/water storage. There are no grocery stores high on mountains, and no real vegetation to be found.
  • Robotic equipment. Hear me out on this one. If it's going to take five decades to get to even 40,000 feet, then technology will progress. Computers are going to become a thing - albeit very unwieldy. The field of robotics could see a surge as the climbers sent scouts ahead - rovers, you could say. We already send robots into volcanoes, right? Accelerate robotics by a few decades and maybe you've got something.

Let's forget the climbers now. They won't make it to the top any time soon.

Group 2: The scientists

The scientists might also start on foot. A lot of expeditions have historically been motivated by glory, but many have also been motivated by scientific discovery. There are questions to be answered, and countless geologists would love to solve the puzzle of this mountain.

Going on foot will soon be discarded by the scientists. Unlike the climbers, the problem isn't only about the journey; it's about the destination. That will eventually include the summit. But how can they get there? Traditional planes and helicopters are out. You can land a helicopter on Mount Everest, but it's dangerous. Going 50 miles in the sky is impossible in such a device. Landing on the mountain is not going to happen.

What about jumping? High-altitude ballooning was possible in the 1950s . . . from maybe only 20,000 feet. Even Felix Baumgartner hasn't jumped from 50 miles up. Plus, they'd need extreme accuracy, whether jumping from a balloon or an aircraft. If you miss this peak, you're going to die. Also, it might be a suicide mission - although people are willing to go to Mars and never come back.

So, you can't get to the summit by going up. You can't get to it by flying straight across the sky. Can you get to from . . . space? Maybe! Something like a space elevator could be useful (depending on the latitude of the mountain). Simply put a satellite in geostationary orbit and build down to the top of the mountain. The big drawback? We're almost a century past 1920, and we haven't figured that one out. But then again, we haven't had the impetus to do it. This might be the only way to get to the summit.

Some interesting developments will come out of all of this:

  • High-altitude vehicles will be designed and built, to get a look at the mountain higher up, if not to reach the summit. Surveyers and climbers on the ground can only go so much; to really study the mountain, you need to fly. I expect that balloons, however, will become popular; rocket-powered places won't necessarily take the lead. Balloons may be more useful for scientific study.
  • Robots - again. Once again, automated vehicles are often better than humans. We sent computers to space before we went ourselves. Admittedly, flying around a mountain is harder for a computer than just staying in orbit. But still.
  • Propulsion might go in exotic directions. I've already tried to justify accelerated balloon development, but you're going to see rockets being developed, too, because people will always want to get to the top. Things like the X-15 will be developed ahead of their time - and again, this will take place over decades. The great thing about the development of high-altitude vehicles is that they're a natural step towards spaceplanes and other vehicles used to get to low orbits.
  • Space travel might actually become a thing, if people decide to go all the way up to try to come down. Again, this will take a while, but people will have a reason to do it. And that's going to accelerate technological process.

Group 3: The religious

These people are pretty much a wild card, insofar as they could oppose or help attempts to climb or explore the mountain. I honestly don't know what they'll do. We have nothing like this mountain - in terms of spiritual significance - in our global society, and yet this mountain will have global effects. So we don't have a whole lot of data for what this does to people, socially.

I don't think that religious groups will develop technology so much as encourage its development, and perhaps procure funding. In return, climbers and scientists may dedicate part of their missions to the religious group. Will that lead to clashes of various kinds? Yes. But it will also fuel the attempts to conquer the peak.

At the end of the day . . .

. . . you've got developments in a variety of fields:

  • Aerial vehicles, including balloons, high-altitude airplanes, and rocket-powered planes.
  • Protective structures and shelters.
  • Clothing designed to withstand terrible conditions.
  • Advances in computers and robotics.
  • Possible attempts to go to space itself, to access the mountain.

Is this useful to space exploration? Of course. You've got most of the elements you need. Is it useful to do the kind of space exploration they'll begin with (i.e. orbital exploration and satellite development)? Yes. Will it take away from efforts to go to space? No, because you might have to get to space to get to this mountain. At any rate, they'll follow the progress of early space programs - building high-altitude vehicles - while also making developments on the mountain to help live in space.

You might wonder why I'm so optimistic. Well, this target is like going to the Moon. And we did that! But the difference here is that this mountain is more tangible. It's there. You can walk to its base and look up. The Moon's far away, and maybe not something people can relate to as much. But this mountain? That's right here on Earth. And that's quite an encouraging target. People will develop technology to reach it, accelerating technological development in many areas.

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