Google Earth: A New Tool for Mountaineering

Google Earth: A New Tool for Mountaineering

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Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Scrambling, Canyoneering, Skiing has just come out with another wonder called Google Earth. As I understand it, this free download software uses actual satellite photographs taken within the last few years and overlays them onto basic topographic information. The result is a three dimensional representation of the entire planet! Knowing this made me wonder, "How would a simulated landscape compare to the real world?"

Mount Shuksan Actual Photograph

Mount Shuksan Simulated View
© 2006 Google Earth

The technology that makes this program possible was first released under the name of Keyhole. After purchased the rights, they proceeded to make many improvements. What does this have to do with Summit Post, you ask? I titled this article “A New Tool for Mountaineering” because future versions of Google Earth technology have great potential for the trip planning stages of expeditions. The way it is now, before mountaineers go into a remote area that is unknown, they spend time reviewing topographic maps to get a better understanding about the lay of the land. Google Earth can provide a better idea of what the terrain looks like in 3 dimensions. It would not be surprising to see Google Earth links or the equivalent appear underneath the Topozone Map links currently included on Summit Post mountain pages.

Three Fingers Actual Photograph

Three Fingers Simulated View
© 2006 Google Earth

One of the best features of Google Earth is the degree to which it is interactive, although some of the controls are still a little difficult to use. A user has the ability to zoom in and out (even to outer space), pan here and there, and click and drag. With a good internet connection, the program will download increasingly detailed photographs the closer you zoom. There is also a feature that allows you to type in the place name or address for automatic viewing. Another feature enables the use of lat/lon coordinates to find your area of interest automatically. This is especially handy for mountaineering interests considering that the names of wilderness areas and mountain ranges are not included in the database. My personal favorite in terms of capabilities is the placemark option. If you want to save a specific location, like Mount Kilimanjaro (see image below), so that you can find it quickly from 50 miles up in space, using one of the drop-down menus, it is easy to do.

Mount Kilimanjaro Simulated with Placemark
© 2006 Google Earth

You may notice places of high interest including large cities have much greater detail than mountainous or forested areas. A lot could be said about viewing populated areas but I will not cover that here. The lack of finite detail makes Google Earth worthless for inspecting technical rock or ice routes, except the approach. Sorry climbers. Another thing you will notice is that the majority of the topographic structure is extremely simplified and under-exaggerated. To see an example of this, take a look at the small hill that is the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As Scott Patterson has pointed out, there are also some areas left, like the North side of Easter Island, which contain almost no detail whatsoever. Both photo-definition and topographic detail should continue to increase in the future. Google Earth is a work in progress and just a prototype of technology to come. There are two upgraded versions available for a price, one of which incorporates the use of GPS, the other intended for commercial use.

Eldorado Peak Actual Photograph

Eldorado Peak Simulated View
© 2006 Google Earth

To gain basic foresight into an unknown landscape is invaluable information. This principle has made topographic maps an essential. When considering Google Earth, it will be up to the individual to determine it’s potential value in mountaineering. You can download it here. Explore, have fun and be sure to let me know what you think of it.

Last of all, I must voice a concern about posting this article. It would be a shame if SP became flooded with Google Earth images. I think most users will agree, there is absolutely no substitute for pictures of the real thing. Please respect Summit Post by not filling image galleries with computer-generated pictures. I will lead the example by not submitting all these Google Earth screen snapshots as individual images to Summit Post.


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Viewing: 1-20 of 43

cgrisha - Dec 17, 2006 6:34 pm - Voted 10/10


some time I use Google for finding good places to hiking, and I wait for more improvement of detail of the mountains and routs and trails :D


gimpilator - Dec 17, 2006 6:51 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: nice

It is a good tool and has much potential, but also has a lot of room for improvement. Thanks for the comment!

Mark Doiron

Mark Doiron - Dec 18, 2006 1:32 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice Article, But ...

I said: "I placed the Google Earth map coordinates on the page and if someone copies and pastes them into Google Earth ..."

Well, with my son's help I've improved on that. Now I have a clickable link such that the reader will have Google Earth open and be taken to the view I suggest for that area. Here's the one for Marmot Rocks.

It was cranky to figure out exactly how to get the bookmark I wanted. Once I did, I saved it to "My Places", then FTP'd the saved .kmz file to my ISP's web server. After that it's a simple link to the .kmz from the SP web page. Pretty nifty!

--mark d.


gimpilator - Dec 18, 2006 3:54 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice Article, But ...

Mark, it's great to hear that you were able to find such a good use for Google Earth already. I'll try to make some edits tonight. Thanks for your comments and suggestions. Adam


Scott - Dec 18, 2006 3:10 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice, but not the entire planet

The result is a three dimensional representation of the entire planet!

I have noticed however that it really isn't comprehensive and only covers certain areas. Some areas in the world aren't even covered at all by Google Earth except for very small or non-existant resolution, and as you know even some of the more remote areas in the lower 48 don't have clear images, nor even close, and no useful 3-D can be generated. Many places in the world aren't covered at all, so it's really not the entire planet.

On the areas that are covered however, it is awesome!

Nice article though. A 10/10.


gimpilator - Dec 18, 2006 4:05 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice, but not the entire planet

You have a point here. In my exploration I did encounter some areas that had very low definition and could not be of much use, but I didn't find anywhere that was blank. I might have to re-write the introduction. I read somewhere that the Google staff is constantly making improvements and updating the information on their database that connects to the program on our computers. And as Mark mentioned, there is and improved version for sale. I look forward to the future and an increase in quality. Thanks for the comment.


Scott - Dec 18, 2006 4:33 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Nice, but not the entire planet

In my exploration I did encounter some areas that had very low definition and could not be of much use, but I didn't find anywhere that was blank.

If you're curious and want to see one applicable to Summitpost, try my page below:


Notice the error message. You can actually zoom way out and get a dot, but nothing of use. Some of the other sizable Pacific Islands and some other areas don't show up at all at any resolution. Some other areas in various places in the world are completely blanked out due to cloud cover.

Just in case you were curious.


gimpilator - Dec 19, 2006 4:10 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice, but not the entire planet

I can see what you mean. It looks like they didn't finish the photos of the island. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.


Scott - Dec 19, 2006 4:31 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Nice, but not the entire planet

I can see what you mean. It looks like they didn't finish the photos of the island.

Yep, most of the smaller Pacific Islands don't show up. Other problem areas are the Andes Mountains of Colombia and Ecuador. The vast majority are blanked out from cloud cover, or just blank. Much of the Guiana Highlands as well.

Still, a good tool for much of the world. Once again, good job.

Ammon Hatch

Ammon Hatch - Dec 19, 2006 11:19 am - Voted 10/10

Love Google Earth

I've been using it for years now. Once upon a time it was called "keyhole" and was developed by nvidia. Back then it was a subscription and I only played with it for a trial period. One very fine day, google bought the technology and made it free :)

Last fall I was in a geology class at the University of Utah, and my professor pulled up google earth to demonstrate areas of interest (one point in specific is the plate margins just west of northern california, oregon and washington). Needless to say, I was very stoked.

One sunday I was bored and placemarked all of the California and Colorado 14ers. I have all of the western state highpoints as well.

With GPS data and the help of, you can create a 3D overlay of a route you've taken! I did so on Rocky Mouth Canyon Peak, and Gobblers Knob. Someone else had done it for Lone Peak already. I believe you can also do it with google earth premium.

I've used it to figure out where I was when I didn't go where I was supposed to. I've used sketchup to make 3D representations of buildings in Salt Lake and the outlaw cabin in the Lone Peak area. I am a Google Earth addict. Excellent Article.


gimpilator - Dec 19, 2006 4:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Love Google Earth

When I decided to write this article I didn't expect to learn so much. Now I am learning from you readers. I sure would like to try the GPS route feature of the upgraded version. I think it's only $20. Thank you for your experience and knowledge. I have used it to update the article.


desainme - Dec 19, 2006 1:27 pm - Voted 10/10

I use this all the time

Fom simulating a drive to looking at Mtns on SP. Baxter Park in Maine and the Elk Mtns and much of New Hampshire have impressive definition. Annapurna and the Matterhorn need some real attention.

viewfinder - Jan 18, 2007 1:11 am - Hasn't voted

Re: I use this all the time

When did you last check out Annapurna and Matterhorn? Both were substantially improved by a terrain update on November 23.


desainme - Jan 18, 2007 2:52 am - Voted 10/10

Re: I use this all the time

Thanks- I have noticed the upgrade at the Matterhorn and Annapurna and quite a few improvements in the Rockies too.


MoapaPk - Dec 19, 2006 2:25 pm - Voted 10/10

Good article, imperfect tool

I've a couple beefs with Google:

1) the photos are often really misregistered, so if you plot a gps track, it may be off by 200 meters. That makes it hard to pin down which drainage one takes, etc. They could use a local "nudge" tool.

2) the underlying DEMs (digital elevation models) are coarse, so cliffs on steep mountains are deceivingly muted.


swm88er - Dec 19, 2006 4:22 pm - Voted 10/10

Good article!

I think that Google earth can be a very helpful tool, especially in seeing how accurate topo maps are. From my (limited) experience it seems as if topo maps can be a little mis-leading at times. From what it sounds like (correct me if I’m wrong), as they continue to update the (digital) topo maps from 100k to 24k, our topo maps will be more accurate and google earth will only get better!


CBoldt1010 - Dec 19, 2006 5:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Great Article

I use it all the time and have been for years. The upgraded versions offer a lot for GPS route planning and such. Just recently they have started adding trails and routes for US State and National parks. Others are sure to follow for places all over the world!

I think it is a great tool for what it can offer and can help plan for better trips. Great article!


gimpilator - Dec 20, 2006 1:58 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Article

I have not yet seen the upgraded versions but it's exciting to hear that routes and trails are being added. Thank you for your comment/compliment. And my thanks goes out to everyone else for such a positive response.


gimpilator - Dec 20, 2006 1:53 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Yeah..good stuff.

I'm glad you mentioned them. I thought about saying something about them in but decided against it to stay on topic. If anyone hasn't seen them, it's worth checking out. There are some nice volcanos worth climbing on Mars. Google Mars, Google Moon


GerryS - Dec 20, 2006 5:32 am - Voted 9/10

I Hate Google Earth

With all the sleep it's cost me ... almost as bad as SP.
Resolution of the Maroon Bells is tremendous.

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