Outdoors

Badass Mountains with Badass Names: Power Rankings Edition

19 minute read
by Jake Case

badass mountain names

Is there anything more disappointing than an awesome specimen of a mountain with a name that’s just downright lame?

On the flip side, isn’t there something inherently satisfying when a badass mountain has a badass name too?

As a bit of a mountain nerd myself, I’ve put a lot of critical thinking into analyzing the relationship between the stature and names of world’s most incredible mountains. Here I’ve compiled the definitive top-10 power rankings of mountain-naming badassness.

The criteria, beyond having a badass name: the mountains must be beautiful, famous, and of world-class stature. As such, I determined the rankings by weighing the infamy surrounding each mountain versus how well the name represents that infamy.

Three of them are members of the Seven Summits club of continental high-points, two are 8-thousand meter peaks, one of Colorado 14er fame, and three are volcanoes that catastrophically erupted during the course of human history.

The others are sheer crags of lore in mountain climbing circles whose beauty and prominent display translated into world notoriety.

Certainly, there are plenty of obscure peaks with badass names too, but I’ll delve into those at another time. This list is simply a top-10 countdown when it comes to the most infamously badass mountain names.

Denali National Park

#10 – Denali

The only North American peak over 20,000 feet in elevation, Denali is one of the coveted Seven Summits. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, this high mountain is notorious for hosting some of the most extreme winter storms on the planet, even in the middle of summer.

As such, alpinists preparing their summit bids are often bogged down for days and days, waiting out the weather in the safety of their four season tents. While the climb is essentially a “walk-up”, Denali’s storms make the peak a worthy opponent for even the most experienced mountaineers.

Because of Denali’s extreme conditions, about half of its climbers are forced to turn away from the summit — sometimes due to inclement weather, sometimes due to altitude sickness — with some succumbing completely to the mountain’s wrath. As is typical of such a desolate and storm-swept body of earth, Denali has killed over 100 people over the course of its climbing history.

A highly regarded mountain among the Native Americans of Alaska, Denali is an Athabaskan name meaning “the tall one.” An undeniably strong name, there is something powerful yet soothing about the way Denali rolls off the tongue. It’s also the name of a burly SUV made by General Motors, and if that doesn’t solidify it as badass to the ears of Americans, I don’t know what will.

Mount Vesuvius Pompeii

#9 – Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius is perhaps the most notorious volcano in the history of humankind. In AD 79, Vesuvius took the lives of at least 1,000 people (and likely many times more) via a catastrophic series of eruptions. The Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum suffered massive destruction in the process.

Pyroclastic flows ran down the slopes of Vesuvius and scorched the villages with temperatures exceeding 500 degrees Fahrenheit and buried Pompeii in a 9-foot deep blanket of volcanic ash.

This infamous disaster inspired the term Plinian eruption, an especially explosive outburst discharging a column of ash upwards of 50,000 feet into the stratosphere. The term is named after Roman writer Pliny the Younger who witnessed the AD 79 eruption and described the blast in a letter to Roman historian Tacitus.

While the AD 79 eruption is its most famous, Vesuvius has erupted numerous times since, including one in 1906 that killed more than 100 people and another in 1944 that produced lava flows that destroyed multiple nearby villages.

While the giant is now sleeping, the volcano will inevitably awake in another furious roar. With about 3 million people living in and around the nearby city of Naples, Italy, a major eruption would devastate the mountain’s residents.

In an area decided to be of the greatest risk of pyroclastic surges in the case of an eruption — the red zone — there are a whopping 600,000 people in residence, all of whom would need to evacuate immediately if an eruption was deemed imminent. Undoubtedly, Vesuvius is one of the most potentially deadly volcanoes on the planet.

Vesuvius is a decidedly beautiful name that has taken on an ominous connotation given the mountain’s propensity for destruction. The origin of the name itself is cloudy at best, with the possible Greek, Oscan, and Latin translations ranging from “smoke” to “hearth” to “Son of Zeus” to “hurling violence”. No matter which origin you put faith in, each is fittingly badass.

El Capitan Yosemite

#8 – El Capitan

Of the 5 million or so visitors to Yosemite National Park in a given year, almost every single one will gawk in awe at the sheer granite face of El Capitan. A legendary wall among rock climbers, it also happens to be a visual anchor in arguably the most iconic view in the American National Park System. As such, it would be safe to assume that El Capitan is one of the most photographed and admired mountains on the planet.

For decades, climbers considered El Capitan’s terrifying cliffs unclimbable. That is, until the first ascent of the 3,000 foot tall south buttress in 1958. Following that virgin expedition, rock climbing on the crag’s southern faces increased exponentially.

As a centerpiece landmark in a major National Park, El Cap has a knack of making newspaper headlines for climbing feats taking place on the mountain, from tabloidesque stories like a successful summit bid by Ozzy Osbourne’s son Jack in 2005 to legitimate conquests like Alex Honnold’s harrowing first free-solo sans protective equipment in 2017.

Undoubtedly, El Capitan maintains a special place in the heart of nearly every person that lays eyes on it, but beyond the stunning beauty and physical challenges, its name is just as memorable. For Americans at least, its bold Spanish flavor has an air of mysteriousness and soothing masculinity akin to the personality of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World.

Tracing its Native American roots, El Capitan is a reasonably accurate translation of the Miwok name Too-Tock-Awn-oo-Lah, meaning “The Chief.” It’s not hard to imagine the mountain as a stoic war hero watching dutifully over Yosemite Valley – yes, El Capitan is a deeply appropriate name for the beloved granite monolith.

Mount Massive Colorado Sawatch

#7 – Mount Massive

In a US state nearly synonymous with the word mountain, Mount Massive is a mighty 14er, looming ominously over the town of Leadville, Colorado. The second highest peak in the state, Massive is less than a dozen feet shorter than its next-door neighbor, Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest point.

While Elbert is impressive in its own right, Mount Massive has a huge fan club, and one with the opinion that Massive is a superior peak to Elbert. In a duel between the two mountains — they are approximate equals in every category — perhaps the most convincing argument in favor of Massive is that its name fits the appearance of its hulking mass to a T, while Elbert sounds more like the name of the grumpy old man than a mountain worthy of awe.

Elbert also gets a bad rap for being exceedingly popular among the hoards of peak-baggers that ravish the trails of Colorado’s 14ers every summer, if only because it is the state high point by the matter of a few feet. As such, proponents of Massive have piled boulders at the mountain’s summit in an attempt to artificially inflate the peak’s elevation above that of Elbert.

As retaliation, members of the Elbert fan club climb Massive for the sole purpose of kicking over the man-made boulders piles. This beef is not a recent development either, the Massive-Elbert feud has been raging among Colorado’s mountaineers for decades.

For our purposes — seeking out the most badass and appropriate mountain names — Massive takes the edge in this beef. A resident of the Sawatch Range, Mount Massive is the most voluminous massif in a collection of some of the burliest mountains imaginable. It even beats out Mount Rainier for the title of the mountain with the most land area over the elevation of 14,000 feet in the Lower 48.

When viewed from Leadville, Massive looks something akin to a bodyguard whose shoulders are so broad, and his torso so robust, one hardly even notices his comparatively diminutive head. To choose any word other than Massive for its name would not be reasonable or prudent.

Mount Kilimanjaro
(Photo Credit: Sergey Pesterev/Unsplash)

#6 – Mount Kilimanjaro

Rising 16,000 feet above the grassy plains of the African savannah is Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain on the continent. A dormant stratovolcano, it is much older than the other volcanoes on this list and has not had a major eruption for some 350,000 years. As such, it is something of a gentle giant: the likelihood of a catastrophic eruption is exceptionally slim.

As an undisputed member of the Seven Summits — the highest points on each of Earth’s continents — Kilimanjaro is a mountain climbing destination. While it’s big and beautiful, the mountain lacks vertical cliff faces and major glacier fields, so technical climbing is not required to make a summit bid. A relatively easy “walk-up” summit, Kilimanjaro is climbed by approximately 25,000 people every year. Compare that to the 4,000 or so people that have ever set foot atop Mount Everest — the trek to the top of Kilimanjaro is a superhighway.

Despite its deceptively gentle nature, Kilimanjaro can figuratively and literally be a killer. The climb might not require ropes and ice axes, but it does require one’s body to perform under a severe lack of oxygen. Kilimanjaro hopefuls often forget that the peak tops out over 19,000 feet above sea level, almost a full mile taller than the highest peaks of Colorado. As such, most hikers fail to properly train for the high elevation and at least one-third turn away before the top, almost always due to altitude sickness.

Of the deaths that occur on Kilimanjaro, about 50% are caused by advanced high-altitude related illnesses. On average, about two people die due to HAPE or HACE on the mountain’s slopes every year. This is an exceedingly high number considering Kilimanjaro is supposed to be an “easy” climb – easy that is compared to the eight-thousand-meter peaks of the Himalaya.

Kilimanjaro’s dangers may be deceptive, yet the phrase “kill a man” can be heard right there in its name’s first few syllables. What is the true meaning of its name in the languages of Africa? The known origins are fuzzy at best. But to English-speakers, Kilimanjaro sounds like a death threat, and it’s hard to get much more badass than that.

Mount St Helens
(Photo Credit: Sean Estergaard/Unsplash)

#5 – Mount St. Helens

In a game of Family Feud where the category is “ultra-destructive volcanoes”, the top response in the survey is undoubtedly “Mount St. Helens.” Lifted to infamy by its colossal 1980 eruption — the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in US history — St. Helens became etched in the minds of Americans as they watched news footage of the mountain lose its shit on a massive scale.

Once a nearly symmetrical stratovolcano, St. Helens took the nickname the “Fuji-San of American” in reference to its stark resemblance to Japan’s Mount Fuji. However, the 1980 event changed its silhouette forever as a massive landslide on the north slope blew out the side of the mountain and unleashed a massive pyroclastic explosion. The once symmetrical peak became a U-shaped volcanic crater.

The blast was the equivalent of 24 Megatons of TNT and leveled some 230 miles of mixed conifer forest nearby — killing 57 people and reaping one-billion dollars worth of property damage in the process. The explosion also unleashed a vertical ash plume 80,000 feet into the stratosphere, pumping volcanic tephra into the upper atmosphere for twelve straight hours. When the discharged material eventually fell out of the sky, it rained down on eleven US states, dropping layers of ash five inches thick in some places.

Prior to 1980, St. Helens was just another beautiful Cascadian stratovolcano, but after it rained fire and brimstone on national TV, it was the ultimate symbol of natural disaster, and its name fit the bill perfectly.

In a punny way, the first two syllables read as Saint Hell – conjuring up images of Old Testament-style judgment day destruction. Named after a British Diplomat, the name’s origins have nothing to with gloom and doom, but the newsreels of the 1980 eruption certainly make the Biblical character of the name St. Helens seem as if it was pulled straight from the book of Revelation.

Anak Krakatoa Eruption

#4 – Krakatoa

Crack! That powerful sound is found in the first syllable of Krakatoa. And it’s quite fitting, considering that Krakatoa’s powerful eruption in the spring of 1883 produced a blast so loud it could be heard 1,900 miles away in Perth, Australia. The crack was so deafening, it still measured 180 decibels by the time it reached the location of modern-day Jakarta — almost 100 miles from the source — constituting the loudest sound heard in human history.

The event produced multiple explosions, pyroclastic surges, and tsunamis which ultimately resulted in the death of over 36,000 people, mostly from the massive 100-foot-plus-tall tsunamis that ravaged the coast of Sumatra.

Considering the violent history of Krakatoa, the 1883 event was just another spurt in a long series of spectacular eruptions. Much of its present-day complex of volcanic islands were once connected as a singular, taller, more massive cone. In AD 416, this ancient behemoth of a Krakatoa blew its top in a massive discharge that collapsed the mountain into its current configuration as a five-mile-wide caldera.

The 1883 blast continued this pattern of self-destruction, collapsing an additional 30% of the mountain into surrounding ocean. Over the last century, the volcano has continued to erupt in smaller doses, building a new central island named Anak Krakatoa (Indonesian for “Child of Krakatoa”). Inevitably, Krakatoa will someday emit another mighty crack and Anak will fall into the sea, suffering the same fate as its volcanic ancestors.

Given the volcano’s propensity for destruction, Krakatoa is a powerful name beckoning the nature of the mountain itself. Used by Indonesians as well as the world at large, the origin of the name Krakatoa is essentially unknown, with only a few possible but diluted indications of its etymology. As such, it seems appropriate the name would contain an English onomatopoeia producing the approximate sound of a violent eruption. If a volcano was to have a perfect name, it would assuredly be Krakatoa.

Mount Everest Lhotse

#3 – Mount Everest

No other mountain on Earth is shrouded in as much controversy as Mount Everest. From stories of mountain climbers leaving others for dead, to the less than respectable treatment of Sherpas by climbers and guides, to the debate of whether or not “Everest” should even be its name, the world’s highest peak has no shortage of issues to argue.

Being put under a microscope goes hand-in-hand with being the top dog — just ask Lebron James — and it’s a testament to Everest’s stature that it attracts controversy like a red carpet attracts paparazzi. While a large segment of the mountain climbing world turns its nose up at Everest for being over-commercialized, the fact of the matter is: Everest is so formidable a challenge, it remained unclimbed until 1953.

Topping out at 29,029 feet above sea level, Everest’s upper 3,000 feet are within the “death zone” — an altitude so deplete of oxygen it puts even the most acclimatized human bodies under severe duress.

In the death zone, the human brain is literally starved of oxygen — a condition called hypoxia — severely limiting the ability to think clearly and make good decisions. To boot, the body’s metabolism slows to a crawl and becomes much more prone to frostbite in a place where the temperature never rises above the freezing point. That slow metabolism also means food is hard to digest, energy is hard to come by, and extreme exhaustion is constant — especially with sleep deprivation being the norm.

To climb Everest, even via the least difficult and most commercialized route — the Southeast Ridge — is certainly no easy task. Among other risks, the route requires navigating exposed traverses where one wrong step could turn into a free-fall off an 8,000 foot cliff. And Everest’s harder routes often require even longer approaches and more technically challenging climbs.

Situational awareness is essential at all times to avoid deadly mistakes, yet the hypnotizing effects of hypoxia are constantly pulling the mind away from focus. It’s no wonder that a dozen or so climbers die on Everest every year.

You gotta be one bad mother to climb Everest because its the baddest mother of them all. And while the name Everest has been controversial since it was decreed by Britain’s Royal Geographical Society in 1857, it seems too far gone to change it.

Given the drama that has surrounded the mountain for at least a century, Everest is a name now synonymous with high stakes, tragedy, and triumph. No disrespect to China and other nations that have their own names for the mountain, but Everest is a powerful name transcending beyond its origins of honoring a Welsh surveyor. The native designations describe a mountain only admired from a distance, Everest — or should we say Ever-rest —describes a mountain playing deadly games with those challenging it.

K2 Mountain
(Photo Credit: Stuart Orford/Flickr)

#2 – K2

The second highest mountain on the planet, K2 is considering by many to be the world’s most dangerous and challenging climb — even compared to Everest.

K2 has essentially the same deadly characteristics as its slightly taller brother: extreme weather, frigid cold, massive exposure, and an insanely high elevation protruding well into the death zone. Of course, K2 also has more technical challenges with a higher degree of true rock and ice climbing.

In terms of popularity, it pales in comparison to Everest’s top dog status, meaning far fewer people attempt to conquer K2. This adds additional risk to any K2 expedition: when disaster strikes, there may not be anyone else around to help. Even a minor error can quickly accelerate into a potentially deadly emergency, so the normally desirable solitude is often less of a good thing when it comes to mortality.

To make the summit requires the skill, stamina, smarts, and determination only the strongest of mountaineers possess. As such, K2 tends to attract only the finest of alpinists, but even then, the “savage one” still has a fatality-to-summit ratio six times that of Everest. On K2, one person dies for every four that achieve the summit.

Out of the world’s fourteen eight-thousand meter peaks, K2 is the only one to go unclimbed during winter. Since the first ascent of K2 in 1954, only about 300 people have set atop the mountain’s summit.

As for its name, K2 was a notation given to the peak by Britain’s Great Trigonometric Survey in the middle 1800s. The Survey generally preferred to use the native names for the mountains, but K2 was located in such a far-flung corner of Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, it had no widely used local name. Therefore, the notation stuck and the mountain would forever be known as K2, even among the Karakoram locals.

According to many of mountaineering veterans, K2’s name perfectly suits its personality. A cold-blooded killer, K2 is an impersonal name well-matched for such a callous hunk of ice and rock. The crag lacks any and all sympathy for the human condition, like a soulless sociopathic robot esigned to attract the finest human specimens and then pick off the ones most vulnerable. If Gozer asked a mountaineer to choose the form of the destructor, visions of K2 very well may come to mind.

Matterhorn Clouds
(Photo Credit: Samuel Ferrara/Unsplash)

#1 – Matterhorn

Before Everest became widely known to the Western world, Matterhorn might have been the most famous mountain on the planet. More recently, inspiring a thrill ride at the Happiest Place on Earth can’t hurt for name recognition either.

Even if you never heard its name, just the sight of the claw-shaped crag is enough to behold it as a world-class mountain. Especially when reflected in the sparkling waters of Lake Stellisee, it’s hard to find a peak more photogenic, or more visually intimidating, than Matterhorn.

To be sure, Matterhorn is not the tallest peak in the Alps, or even its local neighborhood. Matterhorn’s nearest taller neighborhood is Weisshorn, a stunningly beautiful mountain a mere nine miles distant. Yet Matterhorn still manages to stand out as the gnarliest and most infamous crag in the Alps, despite being surrounded by a sea of gorgeous alpine peaks.

Attempting a climb the Matterhorn is a formidable challenge, to say the least. In fact, it was the last major peak in the Alps to be climbed. Its first ascent by a party of six lead by Edward Whymper marked the end of the Golden Age of Alpinism in 1865 — an accomplishment not without tragedy. During their descent, four members of the party fell to their deaths on Matterhorn’s sheer north face.

Despite the inherent danger of the climb, the Matterhorn summit remains a popular goal among peak baggers. Many world class alpinists have even become, for lack of a better word, comfortable on the mountain. As such, many insane climbs have gone down, such as Killian Jornet’s record-breaking speed ascent in 2013. He reached the summit less than two hours after departing the nearby village of Breuil-Cervinia — the fastest by any climber via that route.

For every strong and experienced mountaineer challenging the Matterhorn, there is another whose inexperience makes for a liability on the peak’s ice-ridden cliffs. Even for the experienced, a summit bid is never without risk, and an unlucky day on Matterhorn is nothing to be trifled with. Every year about twelve unlucky climbers end up dead, making for a lifetime death count far exceeding 500 victims.

Towering above the Swiss village of Zermatt, Matterhorn is not only an attraction for mountain climbers, but for outdoors lovers of all shapes and sizes. Unlike K2 or even Everest, over two million people visit the foothills surrounding Matterhorn every year. Skiers, hikers, mountain bikers, and sightseers visit from all over the world — most of whom are satisfied just to get a glimpse and some photos of the peak’s pyramid silhouette.

A name of German origin, Matterhorn comes across as a menacing growl, appropriate for a mountain deadlier than nearly any other. However, the name also has a dignified ring to it. Given the peak’s storied history and attractive yet gnarly appearance, it comes as no surprise that this badass mountain is a household name — even if half the time it’s uttered as a reference to Disneyland. But make no mistake, to climb the real Matterhorn is infinitely more terrifying than any roller coaster on the planet.

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