Sixteen Places that Honor our Connections to the Universe: the Earth, Moon, Mars Challenge

Dr. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on Mars. From The Martian, 20th Century Fox.

Today is Earth Day, 2019: a moment when we should honor the importance of the Earth in our lives.

Let’s swim to the moon, uh huh
Let’s climb through the tide
Surrender to the waiting worlds
That lap against our side
— Moonlight Drive, The Doors

In 2016, in honor of Earth Day, I  wrote Eight Experiences that Honor the Forces of the Ocean,  based on Point Break and the concept of the Ozaki Eight. Since then, major ventures into the remote depths of our oceans and solar system reminded me of our rapidly changing future. As we probe new unknowns and carry the ethics of our planet’s destructive culture with us, we first need to pause and bask in the raw beauty of our unspoiled places: our mountain tops, deep ocean, and solar neighbors For as we have learned, once discovered these precious habitats are irrevocably changed. As a preface, I examine how far we have come before I look to where we are going.


Thrill of the Mountain

Humanities repeated diasporas out of our African birthplace underscore our basic adventurous nature. But extreme accomplishments, such as climbing the highest mountains in the world, are in another category.  What’s the attraction? Here’s one answer by Thomas Olde Heuvelt on the Thrill of the Mountain:

When I am on a mountain summit, I can experience the full extent of this life. The meaning of birth, life, and death over this unimaginable, unmeasurable space of time, and I put my own life against it like a pebble in the palm of my hand. This experience is purely overwhelming. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and transcending and life-changing at the same time.

As a culture, we’ve been seeking experiences at the ends of the earth for a long time. In 1366, before we fully understood the reaches of the known world, Francesco Petrarca was reported to be the first to climb a mountain (Mont Ventoux 1912 m (6,273 ft), the highest in France) just for the view.” So began challenges to climb the highest peaks on the planet, driven by a multitude of desires: scientific achievement, a spirit of curiosity, a lifelong dream, or spiritual enlightenment. Early explorers simply wanted to be “closer to God.” Subsequently, the highest peak in western Europe, Mont Blanc (4807 m, 15,770 ft), was summited in 1786, the treacherous Matterhorn (4478m, 14,692 ft) in 1865, the impossible north face of the Eiger (1800m, 5,900 ft) in 1935, and after 30 years of attempts, the highest peak on the planet, Mt. Everest (8848 m; 29,029), was reached in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Today 300-400 people a year climb Mt. Everest, and the death-defying achievement is now almost passé (although 1.3% die, about 4-5/ year). Conquests of these mountains gave rise to the next challenge, the Seven Summits Challenge, a mountaineering ordeal that requires summiting the highest mountains in each of the seven continents.  First achieved by Richard Bass in 1985, since then over 118 have met the challenge with 17 adding an arduous trek to the North and South poles to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. Clearly, the spirit of adventure and drive to explore our physical extremes is alive and well and humans are seeking new places to venture. Enter the ocean.

Voyage to Inner Space

This year explorer Victor Vescovo is seeking a new accomplishment: after completing the Seven Summits, he’s aiming to reach the deepest reaches of the five oceans with the Five Deeps Expedition. In a TEDx presentation, Vescovo compares mountaineering to deep diving:

“… diving is the opposite of mountain climbing, but both require “calculated risks.” In mountain climbing “… you are completely subjected to the weather and you feel freer because you’re surrounded by a lot of open space. You feel the biting cold and you feel the wind.” But deep-sea diving is a “far more technical mission [It’s] “kind of like the SpaceX of ocean exploration, but I pilot my own vehicles.”

From my own experiences in submersibles, which can be both terrifying and exhilarating,  the deep sea is sublime. Drifting through pitch black water feels like outer space until a beautiful creature swims by and reminds me I’m surrounded by tons of water and in a new dimension — inner space. The deep sea comprises 65% of our planet yet it is a frontier of largely unexplored terrain known to harbor forms of life hundreds or even thousands of years old. It’s a place where the number of species is so high it rivals the diversity of coral reefs but remains an ecological enigma. As Vescovo has pushed into uncharted depths of our planet, the fact that he has discovered 3-4 new species on every dive reminds us that our oceans remain our biggest unknown, and will be far into the future, even as we venture into outer space.

Magnificent Desolation

The other unknown is space, a rapidly expanding frontier. It’s evitable that as we explore our nearest solar neighbors, future explorers will seek similar challenges and experiences. Walking on new worlds, we’ll marvel at pristine places with a newfound appreciation. As Buzz Aldrin said after stepping onto the lunar surface, we’ll come to appreciate a new kind of beauty, one of “magnificent desolation.”

Sputnik I, the first artificial earth satellite in space on October 4, 1957. Sputnik began the space race culminating in Apollo’s 11 moon landing. Photo: Getty.

My lifetime is literally defined by our progress in space. I was five months old when Sputnik, Earth’s first satellite, was launched into orbit. As a child, I grew up watching the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions on TV. In 1969, only 11 years after NASA was created, I was riveted and inspired watching humans on the moon. After that, I believed, like many, that we would be on Mars within the next decade. Despite my disappointment, I now see renewed interest in the moon and Mars with human landings are on the near horizon.

In recent years, the world had made remarkable progress: the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, the advances of private space corporations like SpaceX, the international expansion of space programs (there are 72), and lunar landings by China and Israel. Once the technological doors to these worlds are open, intrepid explorers are sure to follow; the Hillary and Shakelton of this and the next generation.

The Earth-Moon-Mars Challenge


Thus, looking forward, I created sixteen extreme adventures for now and the next century, the Earth, Moon, Mars Challenge. The task is to complete each adventure and finish standing on Olympus Mons — a massive Martian volcano  (21,287 m, 69,841 ft) and the highest volcano in the solar system.  In the spirit of my earlier post, these experiences are physically and technologically challenging. They represent a broad range of physical skills and economic abilities and a way to experience the stunning beauty of our planet and nearby worlds. The goal of each accomplishment is to stand in splendor before our magnificent universe. Ultimately, it is my wish that these ordeals will motivate individuals to protect these pristine habitats for future generations.

Earth Challenge: The Seven Summits and Five Deeps

Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on earth and the greatest climbing challenge.
Comparison of the seven summits

Seven Summits

Although there are several possible definitions of the Seven Summits Challenge, I choose the Pacific Plate version to begin the journey to honor the significance of Mauna Kea. There is a large amount of information available for each mountain, and a classification system for difficulty,  Here I summarize their essential challenges and rewards. They are listed in descending order of difficulty.

  • Pacific Plate – Mauna Kea: 4207 m (13,803 ft).  An easy, non-technical climb that can be accomplished in a single day. As you bask in the spectacular Pacific view, you are standing on the planet’s largest volcano — it’s 10,000 m (33,000 ft) above the seafloor — the world’s greatest astronomical observatory, and a mountain sacred to native Hawaiian areas. Be respectful.
  • African PlateMount Kilimanjaro: 5895 m (19,341 ft). A major trekking destination. Requires 5-8 days. Easy – mostly on well-worn trails but the altitude can be difficult
  • Australian PlatePuncak Jaya: 4884m (16,024 ft). The highest summit of Mount Jayawijaya in New Guinea. A 5-day hike but the politics can be challenging..
  • South American PlateAconcagua: 6960 m (22,837 ft). Located in the Andes in Argentina, it is the highest non-technical climb in the world.
  • Antarctic Plate – Mount Vinson: 4892 m (16,050 ft). The climb offers little technical difficulty beyond the remoteness and severe weather hazards of Antarctica
  • North American Plate – Denali: 6190m (20,310 ft). Major challenges are the long trudge through cold, furious weather. A proving ground for the Himalayas. Generally takes 2-4 weeks to be climbed.
  • Eurasian Plate – Mount Everest: 8848 m( 29,029 ft).  The greatest challenge of the seven summits. For highly experienced climbers only.

Five Deeps

Next, we move on to plummeting to the deepest recesses of the worlds’ five oceans: the pitch-black oceanic trenches of our planet. All five are steep trenches, volcanic in origin, that extend far below the common ocean seafloor. Few have adventured to these depths (three have never been explored) so they represent new frontiers and challenges.

As undersea technology advances, the availability of deep-water submersibles will make it easier to visit these amazing places. As a reference, diving tours to the remains of the S.S. Titanic (3800 m, 12,500 ft) are set to begin this year for $105,129, so commercial technology is advancing. To accomplish the Five Deeps, Vescovo custom built a $48 million dollar submersible plus bore the cost of a supporting research vessel. By the end of the expedition, the sub will have descended through at least 72,000 m (236,220 ft) of water. The Deeps’ sites, in order of increasing depth, are summarized below:

  • Arctic — Molloy Deep.  5669 m (18,600 ft). In the Greenland Sea.
  • Indian — Java Trench: 7725 m (25,344 ft).
  • Southern Ocean — South Sandwich Trench: 8266 m (27,119 ft), 62 miles east of the South Sandwich Islands in the south Atlantic.
  • AtlanticPuerto Rico Trench. 8376 m (27,480 ft).
  • PacificChallenger Deep (Marianas Trench): 10,994 m (36,070 ft). The deepest point on Earth. Fewer people have reached these depths (3) than have walked on the moon (12).

Luna Challenge: Highest Mountain and Deepest Crater

Destinations on the moon to fulfill the Lunar Challenge.

The Moon may seem out of reach for now but access is rapidly changing. From SpaceX’s reusable rockets to NASA’s announcement of a lunar colony by 2022, the day when explorers will be hiking our satellite will happen this in this generation. Space Adventures announced you can visit the Moon (but not walk — yet) for $150 million. Over time, these costs will significantly drop. Once on the moon and jamming across the lunar surface in a rover, you can pull on your space suit and set records for the extreme elevations on the Moon. Since the gravity is only 17% of Earth (200 lbs = 34 lbs), you can bunny hop your way across the landscape, just like the Apollo astronauts.

Highest Lunar Mountain — Mons Huygens: 5,500 m (18,000 ft). While not technically the highest point on the moon (that’s a 10,786 meters [35,387 ft] flat plain near the lunar south pole), it’s the Moon’s tallest mountain in the Montes Apenninus mountain range near Mare Imbrium and near Apollo 15’s landing site. In contrast to Mt. Everest, which is 60 million years old, and Mauna Kea, at 1 million years, Mare Imbrium is 3.9 billion years old (!) and created by a collision from a massive object, perhaps a proto-planet, up to 402 km (250 mi) in diameter. Mons Hugens was created by the event.

Deepest Crater — in Antoniadi Crater9,178 m (30,111 ft) below the average lunar surface. The lowest point is on the far side of the moon in a small unnamed crater (about 8km, 5 mi diameter) on the floor of Antoniadi crater (140 km, 87 mi diameter), which in turn is on the massive South Pole–Aitken (SPA) basin (2,500 km, 1554 mi diameter). Thus, you have to trek to a small hole in a big hole in an enormous hole half the width of the US. The SPA crater is one of the largest, and oldest in the solar system and likely formed by an enormous asteroid impact. The low point in Antoiadi crater has been unofficially named “Point Trieste” after the Bathyscaphe Trieste, the first vehicle to descend to the Earth’s deepest trench.  

Mars Challenge: Highest Volcano and Deepest Crater

Mars arrows
Locations for the Mars challenge

Access to Mars is further in the future than the Moon but commercial space ventures, especially tourism, are pushing the timeline sooner. NASA has developed plans to land on Mars in 2033 but those are considered unfeasible until the late 2030s. SpaceX has more ambitious plans for a Mars’ cargo system by 2021-22 with colonies shortly thereafter, so the wait to visit the red planet may be 10-20 years in our future. Costs will be prohibitive at first but eventually it will be common to visit and go trekking. Here are two spots you must visit to complete the final challenge. Like the moon, Mars is smaller than Earth so the gravity is less (38%) so you can bounce around in a spacesuit with ease.

Comparison between Olympus Mons, Mt. Everest, and Mauna Kea.

Highest VolcanoOlympus Mons: 21,229 meters (69,649 feet) above the average Martian surface. The highest and largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons is massive and 2.5 times higher than Mt. Everest. Moreover, it is 374 miles (624 km) wide, roughly the size of France. Even the caldera at the top is 50 miles wide. The volcano began erupting 1-2 billion years ago and may still be active. Once you climb up the steep 4-mile high escarpment, transgressing the 180 miles long gentle slope (5°) of the massive mountain will be a long, tedious journey. From the summit (the edge of the caldera), you won’t see much as the shorter curvature of Mars places most of the mountain and the planet below the horizon. The view of space, however, will be spectacular.

Lowest CraterHellas Impact Crater: 8,200 meters (26,902 feet) below the average Martian surface. As on the moon, the honor for the lowest point on Mars goes to Badwater crater, a small crater (about 24 km, 15 mi diameter) located within the larger Hellas Plain (2,300 km, 1,400 mi diameter). Thus, like the moon, the destination is a crater within a much larger impact crater in Mars’s Southern Hemisphere. The Hellas basin floor itself is about 7,152 m (23,465 ft) deep, almost 1,000 ft deeper than the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken basin. Badwater crater is located in the north edge of the basin. It’s named after Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California which is the lowest point in North America. Hopefully, Earth’s namesake isn’t an ominous portent.  

Although not part of the challenge, while on Mars you may be tempted to plunge into the Grand Canyon of Mars, the Valles Marineris,  gcvsvm which offer a 36,000-foot (almost 7 miles!) drop from the surrounding areas (the Grand Canyon has a 1-mile drop). However, since the atmospheric pressure of Mars is <1% of Earth, paragliding Valles Marineris will entail serious technological advances.


The Pale, Blue Dot

Many ask that since many of Earths’ challenges are currently beyond all but the wealthy, why bother? To me, it’s because we need something to dream about, to strive for. Fifty years ago the Seven Summits were just a dream but today hundreds have completed the challenge once thought impossible. Clearly, the sprint of adventure is strong on our planet and as technology marches along the ocean deeps, and the extreme reaches of the Moon and Mars will emerge as new places to explore and gain experience.

But why, you still ask? Why strive for these seemingly meaningless accomplishments when there are so many other critical and worthwhile issues facing the planet? To me, it’s the same question we’ve always asked about going into space. Part of the answer is that’s it’s what humans have done and always will do. We push the limits of the possible. We are driven to explore and experience new perspectives. We push ourselves and our technology to the limits because we believe it’s our destiny. Maybe it’s only because when you are standing on these distant worlds and see Earth as a pale blue dot, you’ll remember that our homeworld is precious, rare, and fragile. Maybe then we’ll commit to a better ethic towards Earth and all of its inhabitants.

Earth as soon from Moon during Apollo 8.

The Apollo astronauts gained a new awareness of how fragile our planet is to the touch of humanity:

As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.”

— James B. Irwin, Apollo Astronaut

Earth from mars2 Earth from Mars as seen by NASA’s Opportunity Rover. Can you see us? Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU

And if you don’t believe in those arguments, think about this: imagine completing the Earth, Moon, Mars Challenge and standing on Olympus Mons, the highest and largest volcano in our solar system. As you look at the sky and feel you can’t get any closer to heaven, the beckoning stars tell you our journey into space is only beginning.


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4 responses to “Sixteen Places that Honor our Connections to the Universe: the Earth, Moon, Mars Challenge”

  1. Hi Brian, Great article. I really enjoyed reading it. I’ve been thinking about you lately. I hope you are doing ok. Are you still having dialysis? Are you going to get another kidney transplant? Wishing you the best.

    Aloha, Donna Sent from my iPad


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