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: 21-40 of 43

herbie - Dec 20, 2006 11:28 am - Voted 9/10

Enhance Google with overlays

I just want to mention, that you can enhance areas with bad resolution by overlaying them with better satellite- or topo-photos.
E.g. if you look at Austria's Tuxer Alps up to the mountain Olperer, you will be disappointed.
If you download and open this file with Google Earth instead of just looking at the default image, you will think you fly over the mountains in an aeroplane: is a great community regarding GE, and I encourage you to join.
Cheers, Herbie


gimpilator - Dec 20, 2006 9:28 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Enhance Google with overlays

Wow! That does look a lot better. I'm going to have to spend some time poking around Cheers and thank you!


vapor0278 - Dec 20, 2006 7:48 pm - Hasn't voted


awsome article, i checked out google earth a few year ago and i am happy to see the reolution has improved. i'll have to check out my favorate mt's now and see how they look. i'm curious how everest looks now! it was pretty rounded when i checked it out before!


gimpilator - Dec 20, 2006 8:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: great!!!!

I was just looking at Everest this morning and it's not too bad. Thanks for the comment.


MtnGuide - Dec 22, 2006 4:06 am - Hasn't voted

Flyovers and FlyThroughs

If you have a WiFi or broadband link, the data should stream fast enough to for low-level fly-overs.

Try the Alaska Coast Range. From Juneau use the pilot's dashboard to tilt over to an oblique angle of view. Then fly as low as possible, northward up the coastline.

At Auke Bay or Berner's Bay, bank Eastward up one of the glacial canyons. They rise, so you're going to have to pull back on the rudder stick to climb up the Mendenhall Glacier, or others, to the Juneau Icefields.

Keep climbing, steering clear and banking past the granite walls of towers and ridges!

Then watch out before breaking clear, and over the dropoff into the next glacial canyon on the far side! Vaughn-Lewis Glacier and others will knock your socks off.

Try the same to the Northwest, over in Glacier Bay National Monument, and North of there, up the Alsek & Tatshenshini canyons, by the Brabazon Range, and Northward to Mt. Saint Elias, and Prince William Sound, Denali, Brooks Range, etc.

Alps, Andes and Himalayas should be fun flights too.

mauri pelto

mauri pelto - Dec 22, 2006 12:54 pm - Hasn't voted

map changes

Good thinking on an article. It is great for exploring remote areas Peru, etc that lack poor maps. Google earth is great for changes in the map. For example around the Juneau Icefield of the nineteen major glaciers 11 have retreated more than 1 kilometer, in several cases leaving new lakes behind, that your USGS map will not show. A comparison of maps and google images is found at Juneau Icefield


gimpilator - Dec 22, 2006 8:04 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: map changes

Truly remarkable. Thanks for including that link.


osatrik - Dec 23, 2006 11:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Well done, Gimp

I posted some Mt. Rainier placemarks a bit over a year ago. As a confirmed cartoholic (map addict) I too found I was spending way too much time in GoogleEarth and other virtual spaces chasing my real and imagined past and future adventures around in my PC. If you can get by the occasional annoying bogus, erroneous, and misleading postings, GoogleEarth is a nice tool. Before going to the Grand Canyon earlier this month, I bought the National Geographic National Parks Explorer 3D CDs, but the Google Earth virtual-experience was much more realistic preview for the trip.


noneskull - Dec 24, 2006 12:14 am - Hasn't voted

Holy Blanketyblank

Ah yes, Google Earth. This thread reminds me of the day I discovered it, following a link from Google News about this "new" whiz-bang program that provided users the God-like ability to go anywhere, virtually "seeing" and even navigating through the whole enchilada. I had my doubts, but was sufficiently curious to check it out. Let's just say that after my initial 'hair on the back of the neck' realization of this thing's capabilities, I was hooked. With tears in my bloodshot eyes and a healthy growth of stubble, I said to my wife: "I've waited my whole life for this." She was mildly freaked out, then annoyed, as hours became days, then deadlines for thesis rewrites started flying past...I needed help. These days, I limit myself to an hour of GE at one time, and treat it as a reward for accomplishment of preset goals. Sound silly? Maybe, but left to gawp at Zambezi Falls or the Craters of the Moon or the West Face of Lhotse or the till-plastered ancestral bed of the preglacial Teays River unchecked, I can't imagine the cumulative effect it might have upon my life. Google Earth good. Google Earth bad. Any way you slice it, I'm a different person because of it. Moderation in all things. Works for me. Cheers.


gimpilator - Dec 24, 2006 4:50 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Holy Blanketyblank

Doesn't sound silly to me. You just about described my first experience. I see you are a new member of Summit Post. Welcome.


johnm - Dec 24, 2006 6:27 am - Voted 10/10

Good visual tool in Lieu of Topo's

I have been using this tool for some time now. It gives a good visual perspective of how high a summit is from a saddle or trailhead in case you don't have access to maps or topo.

I also like to use it to confirm longitude/latitude/altitude (I know its not precise but for my needs it serves its purpose). I noticed that the quality has improved overtime as well. Still a little slow at times when you zoom or change perspective.

joosts - Dec 30, 2006 3:58 pm - Hasn't voted

Thanks for this great article. I use Google Earth to plan my trips, incl. mountaineering. The quality and global coverage is getting better and better.

I have developed a website, that lets you upload GPS data and photos in order to visualize your trips using Google maps and Google Earth. When you click the "Google Earth" at the top-right the GPS tracks and photos are downloaded into Google Earth. The site is work in progress and I'd love to get feedback from fellow mountaineers and travelers in order to make it better. If you have feedback, just send me a PM or leave a comment here.


ronald - Dec 31, 2006 5:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Google Earth associated website

Google Earth can be a great tool for outdoors activities by using website like Local Weekender.

On this website you can put place marks that pinpoints exact locations on Google Earth, and makes it easier to plan outdoor trip. Check this out.

Mark Doiron

Mark Doiron - Feb 3, 2007 1:15 pm - Voted 10/10

Thought You'd Like to Know ...

Gimpilator--I thought you'd be interested to know that I've upgraded the U.S. National Parks list with a Google Earth hyperlink to each NP high point. --mark d.


gimpilator - Feb 3, 2007 3:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thought You'd Like to Know ...

Mark, that's great! Good thinking and nice work.


gimpilator - Jul 18, 2007 9:08 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Good Article!

Thanks for the comment and thanks for the link! I didn't know about Panoramio before.


gimpilator - Oct 12, 2007 8:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good Article!

You're right! I can see they have added a lot of detail to that whole area. Three Fingers looks pretty good too.

Josh Lewis

Josh Lewis - Jan 26, 2011 12:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Nice page Adam!

Google Earth is a neat tool to use, especially now days! I use it in combination with google maps. Notice my route page of Arrowhead, it has a map with the route which I drew with google earth. As for this page when you get the time might I suggest updating some of the images because google earth's quality has gone up with most of Washington's peaks. Cheers Josh Lewis.


gimpilator - Jan 27, 2011 6:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice page Adam!

Thanks Josh. Nice route page! You're right, I should update some of these pics. Now I just have the find the time to do it.


fjes6 - Mar 31, 2011 5:13 pm - Voted 10/10

Oh Yeah

I personally have spent hours of a time using google earth for research. Of course it can never be a replacement for the real thing but for my excursions in the North Cascades, it works just fine although it is very handay to have a topo of the area for names etc. And regarding the photos of the North Cascades is that Shuksan from Yellow Aster and Eldorado from HLP's true summit?

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