Deep space climb

Illustration by Kristin Marine

So you’ve bagged the Seven Summits — the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Great. You’ve crushed the most difficult bouldering problems. Bravo. You’ve even scaled 5.15 and are now pushing the grading system even higher. Right on.

There are mountains and cliffs that stand taller than Everest, boulders the size of buildings and craters miles deep that have yet to be climbed. This is the stuff of climbers’ wet dreams, and they all exist … on other planets.

The Earth’s moon is the closest location for deep space climbing. With gravity reduced by 60 percent, the climber could easily scramble over the 12-mile deep craters — so easy that it’s probably best-suited for a novice climber.

“The problem with the moon is it’s very boring,” says Fran Bagenal, professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “There’s not much vertical relief.”

Bagenal admits that the bouldering might be worth the three-day trip, but the climber would have to be very careful with dynamic moves.

“If you put yourself up on a boulder, you might accidentally send yourself into orbit,” Bagenal says.

The planets nearest the Earth both boast solid mountain formations, but the climate makes for challenges far more difficult than the climb. Venus, a mere 25 million to 160 million miles from Earth depending on where it is in its orbit, is the second planet from the sun. With pressure 100 times that of Earth and temps soaring to 860 degrees Fahrenheit, it may be a bit uncomfortable for climbing.

The highest mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons, towers above the surface of Mars. The peak of this shield volcano stands 16.7 miles high, three times the height of Everest. Although the height of the Martian mountain is very alluring, the approach requires serious patience.

After traveling six months via rocketship, a climber gathering her gear at the base of Olympus Mons would not even be able to see the peak. According to the NASA website, the diameter of Olympus Mons stretches 374 miles, roughly the size of Arizona.

In addition to the heinous hike, climbers would have to battle Mars’ average temps of minus 9 F and fine-grained basalt, reminiscent of the loose rock conditions of the Canadian Rockies. Shifts in the martian crusts, dubbed “marsquakes,” may also hinder the climbing process, though NASA has yet to measure the seismic movement on the planet.

After scaling Olympus Mons, a climber can hop the next rocketship to Valles Marineris, the “Grand Canyon” of Mars. At nearly 2,500 miles long, 124 miles wide and more than four miles deep, Valles Marineris dwarfs its Earth cousin. Huge blocks of volcanic rock are sure to whet the appetite of any big-wall climber, and the fluvial material of the floor suggests water is responsible for the massive canyon. And if water exists, ice exists. Picks and crampons anyone?

If Mars proves too tame, climbers could move farther out in the solar system to the moons (also known as satellites) of Jupiter and Saturn.

“Io [the third-largest satellite of Jupiter] has huge mountains,” Bagenal says. “There’s one really serious problem, though. The radiation is so high, you’d fry in about 10 minutes.”

Io’s atmosphere is 90 percent sulfur dioxide. Active volcanoes spewing sulfuric deposits contribute to Io’s atmosphere, making it one of the most dangerous and hostile environments in the solar system.

“It makes Hiroshima look like a picnic,” Bagenal says. Climbers hoping to avoid Io’s sharp, steep cliffs and harsh conditions could head to Jupiter’s sixth-largest moon, Europa. With a surface temperature of minus 260 F, Europa sports large, vertical cliffs made entirely of ice, some 19 miles thick.

Saturn’s satellite Titan is also a prime playground for winter sports enthusiasts. Huge dunes, composed of ice ball bearings, surround the methane lakes on Titan.

“Forget the climbing [on Titan],” Bagenal said. “Go water-skiing. It would be like water-skiing on liquid propane. The frozen lakes would be ideal for ice skating.”

Big-wall climbers need to look no further than Miranda, a satellite of Uranus, 1.6 billion miles from Earth. The terrain is a mixture of deep canyons and ridges, some three miles high. And while only the world’s most talented climbers can scale cliffs like El Cap once or twice in a day (read: Tommy Caldwell), a climber might be able to climb the big walls of Miranda several times in an hour due to the lack of gravity. Of course, surface temperatures hovering around minus 335 F might slow down even the most seasoned climber.

While NASA is not currently taking bids from private citizens for space travel, the average cost of sending one human into space is $10 billion. Add to that the cost of space suits, extra oxygen, food, water, sun block and Tang and, well, maybe you should pass on the latest Sharma DVD.