diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 27, 2021

We don't have hills in East London, as I blogged last April in a mournful post called I miss hills. I may be able to wander far and wide to north, south, east and west, but my vertical movement is considerably more restrained. Nowhere in Tower Hamlets or Newham is more than 16m above sea level, the City tops out at 22m and Hackney only exceeds that around Stoke Newington. If I lived in a taller block of flats I could at least climb the stairs and go higher but I don't. Instead I've spent almost of 2021 so far less than 20 metres above sea level.

But I did finally beat that at the weekend when I walked the length of bus route 812 in Islington. The area around the Angel breaches the 30m contour, which is one reason why the escalator at the station there is so long. The peak, such as it is, comes just to the north of the big Sainsburys opposite the Islington Business Centre. It's no coincidence that the Regents Canal passes (in tunnel) directly underneath. My phone told me I was 42m above sea level, and the OS map concurred, so that's my 2021 elevation record.

I did better last year. I reached 50m in Cornwall at Saltash and Mount Edgcumbe and climbed to 60m by the cathedral in Lincoln. I barely broke a sweat in the centre of Swindon, which just happens to be around 100m, while the stone circle at Avebury delivered 150m. Better still I walked along the main road between Chesham and Amersham stations and the spot height there says 163m. But my 2020 record came when I went to the Sussex town of Crowborough where a bus stop by the A26 in the middle of a residential area peaked at 240m.

But I've managed a lot better than 240m in my time, which got me wondering...

What's the highest I've ever been?

I shall be asking you this question shortly, so pay attention.

For most of us the highest we've ever been was in an aeroplane, but at some unspecified time on some unspecified flight. Unless you've been paying extra-special attention, or were in the cockpit, you probably have no idea precisely how high it was. Long haul aircraft normally fly at a height of around 35000 feet, which is an astonishing 7 miles (or 11 kilometres) off the ground. That's an order of magnitude higher than anywhere you or I have been to on the ground, indeed well above the summit of Mount Everest. So we need to disregard plane flights, otherwise we're all going to have much the same record as each other.

So, importantly, what's the highest I've ever been without leaving the ground?

Tall buildings sound promising. I've been up the Shard, for example, which still is the tallest building in western Europe at 310m high. But visitors only get as high as the observation deck on the 72nd floor and that's 244m high instead. Sounds good, but it's beatable if you climb something that isn't officially a building. I beat that in April 1980 when I took the lift to the third stage of the Eiffel Tower which is 276m off the ground. Take that London. The Berliner Fernsehturm TV mast is higher, at 368m, but the restaurant where I dined in June 2016 is down at only 207m.

It ought to be a slamdunk for the Eiffel Tower but I have in fact been up the third tallest freestanding structure in the world - the CN Tower in Toronto. It was the tallest when I went up in 1976, five weeks after it opened, as part of the trip of a lifetime to see Mum's Canadian penpal. The main observation deck is 346m high, which wins already, but an extra SkyPod near the top of the pinnacle hits an amazing 447m. Unless you've been to China, Taipei (449m), Seoul (486m) or up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (556m) you cannot beat me. The world record for the highest observation deck belongs to the 118th floor of the Shanghai Tower at 562m and this (currently) tops the lot.

But I've been higher, and you probably have too, if you measure elevation in a different way.

Heights can be measured above ground level, which is what we did with tall buildings, or above sea level, which is what we normally do with hills. The two measurements give different answers. The bottom of the Shard is 4m above sea level, for example, which lifts the elevation of the observation deck from 244m to 248m. This turns out to be important because the highest ground in London (at Westerham Heights) is 245m above sea level, and that extra 4m makes the Shard fractionally higher. But if you happen to live in the adjacent livery stables then good news, your upstairs bedrooms are higher than the Shard's observation deck (just with not quite such a good view).

I'd like to argue that the highest I've been depends on height above sea level and not height above the ground. That's AOD (above ordnance datum) rather than AGL (above ground level). Paris is about 35m above sea level which puts the Eiffel Tower's top deck at 35+276=311m AOD. Toronto is about 75m up, which puts the Sky Pod at the top of the CN Tower at 75+346=421m AOD. These are undoubtedly massive... but are easily trounced by big hills.

The highest hill near London is Leith Hill at 294m, which comfortably beats the observation deck at the Shard. So do Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh (251m), the Cotswolds (330m) and the Malverns (425m). Walking boots are not always necessary to hit such heights, for example the centre of Buxton in Derbyshire is 300m above sea level. If you've ridden the Settle to Carlisle railway you'll have reached 356m at Ais Gill, and if you've driven the M62 across the Pennines you peaked at 372m. Both of these are beaten by the railway between Glasgow and Inverness at Druimuachdar (452m) and Snake Pass in the Peak District (512m). If you're measuring up from sea level, Snake Pass is two Shards high.

If you like serious hill-climbing you'll have beaten all these too. The summit of Kinder Scout is 636m, the Cheviot 815m and Scafell Pike - the highest peak in England - reaches 978m. Been there climbed that. But six Welsh mountains beat it, three of which I've conquered, including the highest of all which is of course Snowdon. At 1085m AOD it's the highest place I've ever been in Britain while still connected to the ground. The date was 18th September 1985, the view was entirely obscured and I got absolutely drenched.

If only I'd done some Scottish mountaineering I could have trounced that. No fewer than 56 Scottish mountains are higher than Snowdon, topped off by Ben Nevis at 1345m. But even that's beatable if you've climbed a higher mountain abroad. Your skiing holiday may be an easy winner, and without even leaving the resort. Zermatt's at 1608m, for example, Val d'Isere 1850m and Val Thorens 2300m. If by chance you've been to the top of Mont Blanc that's 4809m.

It seems that 'What's the highest you've ever been?' equates to what's the highest mountain you've ever been up, which in my case is Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont. I went up two weeks before I went up the CN Tower, when I was just 11, aided and abetted by there being a Gondola Sky Ride from the car park at the bottom. The cablecar only got as far as a restaurant at 1105m, not the full 1340m, but that's as high as I've ever been. An American viewpoint in 1976 beats Snowdon in 1985 beats Scafell Pike in 1982.

And you may have beaten all those mountains with some quite ordinary global sightseeing. Denver is at 1610m, Johannesburg at 1750m and Nairobi at 1800m. Meanwhile Mexico City is at 2310m, Bogota at 2600m and La Paz at 3850m. If you ride the Teleférico cablecar around the Bolivian capital you should be able to top four thousand. High can mean urban rather than wild.

So I have three questions for you. Think carefully before you answer, and measure from the right base. You can access OS maps here and topographic maps here and here. No planes or helicopters, thanks.

What's the highest you've been this year? comments
(it's probably local) (measure from sea level)
The easy winner so far is Will who lives in 'travel-unrestricted Switzerland' (2630m)

What's the highest you've ever been above ground level? comments
(it's probably a tower or tall building)
Two of you have been up to the Shanghai Tower observation deck (562m)

What's the highest you've ever been above sea level? comments
(it's probably a hill, mountain or elevated city)
James C and David C have climbed Uhuru Peak on the rim of Kilimanjaro (5895m)

If you're not sure, or if you have any other elevated comments, please use the normal comments box below.

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