Oh Mons! The First Ascent of Olympus Mons

Text and imagery ©copyright 1993, 1996 By Keith Cowing

NOTE: This article appeared in an ever so slightly different form in the November/December 1993 issue of The http://www.nss.org/">National Space Society's magazine Ad Astra and is reprinted here with the permission of NSS. This article also served as the inspiration for this issue's cover. Click on the image for a hi-res version from NSS.

The 2111 Foundation is actually offering a prize if you can climb Olympus Mons on or around 2153 - the 200th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest. I managed to do it a century earlier in my little story .... I recently wrote an article for the Foundation's newsletter Tranquility Base, "Roger Houston. On Belay" which addresses many of the technical issues involved in extraterrestrial climbing, some of which pop up in my story.

Oh Mons!
The First Ascent of Olympus Mons

26 November 2026

Several centuries of mountaineering have left climbers with a rich variety of routes and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tales to tell. Given enough opportunity, and a generous dose of luck, every climber usually gets a chance to do something extra special at least once in their climbing career. Once in a generation a very few climbers get the chance to do something extraordinary. Then there is that once in a century climb. Fate and fool's luck chose us for this one...

19 May 2026

Our ascent will take 10 to 14 days. 250 km or so up, 250 klicks down. With several days rest and loitering at the summit we plan an equal amount of time for the descent. Should we have the strength, there is the option of a rappel down into the caldera of O. Mons. Another potential for the record books There is the climb back out of course - to be done using mechanical ascending devices.

We have planned our ascent team to consist of 4 climbers - an optimum balance between climbing/bivouac gear to be carried and life support logistics needed to support the team. We will leave a support team of 5 at base camp.

20 May 2026

Camping at the foot of Olympus Mons is not simply indescribable - it is fundamentally so. Indeed, standing at its foot, you cannot see its summit: it is over the horizon of the planet. Your brain never quite gets the knack of relating to such utterly large things as Olympus Mons - "Oh Mons" (we were soon calling it). 480 km across at its base, 27 km high. Atop this implausible mountain is the equally stupendous caldera composed of nested craters 80 km across and 3 km deep.

For almost its entire circumfence, O. Mons is encircled by a series of cliffs and scarps ranging in height from 4 to 6 km. O. Mons is most impressive when approached on a suborbital shuttle wherein its entire bulk can be viewed in a planetary context. However, you can be most adequately awed much lower down. Even as we approached the mountain at an altitude of 7000 meters I was reminded of the drives I'd made up to El Capitan in Yosemite, and the venerable Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC - immense, eye-riveting THINGS in the distance that stay the same size and don't seem to grow as you continue to approach. I eventually reached those things on Earth after a few minutes. Hours of flying and O. Mons just sits there waiting to jump up and out at me.

Eventually it does start to grow - such that its summit moves out of view. Just looking up at the thing you get the feeling that the entire planet is pear-shaped and swells to a point directly in front of you. I'm out of superlatives. Imagine standing at the foot of a 51 km high mountain on Earth and you begin to get the idea. Begin.

The mass of this thing is substantially greater than that of both of Mars' moons put together. Indeed, the Tharsis bulge which contains this and several other massive volcanoes has caused this planet's spin axis to shift over the eons. These volcanoes didn't move around over time as did those on Earth. Instead they stayed out and spewed out lava for more than a billion years and deformed the entire planet.

29 June 2026

Got some really gorgeous photos this morning as we started just before sunrise. Air temp was -130C. Stretched out ahead of me in the photos were the other eight members of our party. Our suits had yet to receive enough sunlight to force a color change in their outermost photovoltaic layers. Hence, we were ghostly, almost phosphorescent purple-white figures along a steep arching mountain ridge set against a deep blue-purple sky. The sun was just close enough to the horizon to cause the CO2/H2O hoare frost on the ground to reflect back the same hues as did our suits. Some light frost higher up on O. Mons was even more gaudily colored as it caught the sun's rays blasting unfettered through the uppermost regions of the atmosphere. The closest artistic rendition of a phenomenon like this I have ever seen was a Maxfield Parish painting from the early 1900's. And to think that this happens everyday up here.

30 June 2026

As is the case with climbing terrestrial mountains, there is a most favorable season to climb on Mars (not that anyone really has taken advantage of this). The big, planet-wide storms tend to occur just after perihelion - during the late Summer in the northern hemisphere where O. Mons is located. We chose mid-Spring - a balance between tolerable temperature and risk of dust storm. We've lucked out - wonderful weather so far. Each morning, lowland fog is visible at the base of the mountain. Later in the day air warms and rises.

Around midday, the foggy air reaches us. By now the air is too cold to keep the water suspended as vapor and ice crystals will start to form. Thicker clouds will form and linger around us only to be gone by late afternoon. Even the thickest clouds are deceiving - the largest one you might ever see would be so ethereal that even condensing it into liquid water wouldn't fill the swimming pool back at the health club.

1 July 2026

We arrived at the Northwest escarpment of O. Mons late yesterday. Being well ahead of schedule, we decided to take a day off to rest in preparation for the big wall.

There were four humans and 150 kg of suits and gear to get up this wall. 4.2 vertical km of rock awaited - a smorgasbord of martian basaltic rock types. A vast expanse of cracks, fissures, and columns interrupted by several broad ledges - just the sort of mix that provides a blend of challenge and security. Our style would be a mix of an alpine tradition which could be directly traced back to the early 1950's and 60's in Yosemite, and tactics developed since including some antics you can only attempt much less perform at less than 0.38g. Like our forebearers, we used, ropes, carabiners, and belay devices. Climbing gear has a history of utilizing the latest in materials technology. Our gear was no exception: materials constructed out of polymerized buckyballs, polydiamonds, micro-g forged alloys, and bio-engineered polymers offered us the latest in weight-to-strength. While the ropes were composed of the latest fibres, you wouldn't have been able to tell them apart from ropes used 50 years ago just by looking at them. Human hands (even gloved ones) are still the same size.

Our efforts were significantly eased by having some climbing devices developed specifically for use on Mars: among them the ThunderBolt Gun. This device fires a diamond-tipped, buckyball-lubricated projectile (bolt) which will embed itself into any type of rock. Attached to the bolt is a loop to which we affix a variety of carabiners and ropes which, in turn, are affixed to ourselves. Whenever possible, we climb the cliff surface itself. This is the preferred, traditional way to climb. The bolts and ropes serve only to catch us if we fall. When there is nothing at all obvious or available to hold onto, we use "aid" (ThunderBolt) or artificial holds and grab whatever we can or simply walk up the ropes themselves using mechanical ascenders.

Living on a cliff exerts its peculiar effects to their fullest only when you are faced with the prospect of sleeping "on" rather, "hanging off of" a cliff owing to the amount of time needed to complete the climb. To bivouac or "bivy" on a cliff is to experience climbing at its most intense level. After a few days of vertical living, you can find yourself thinking about up and down in a totally different way. While down is always "down" in a physical sense, you can find your eyes playing tricks on you such that "up" becomes "ahead" and "down" becomes "behind" with the cliff becoming an endless expanse you somehow haul yourself across. Oh yes: the local value of "g" has little effect on your mind. Once you are above a hundred or so meters on any planet yet tread upon, a big fall and you're dead.

6 July 2026

The "John Carter's Dream Wall" (or "Dream Wall" as the original name mutated after 2 days of climbing) was conquered in five days. A Solar System record. One which will be broken much sooner and certainly more efficiently than I am capable of imagining right now. The climbing was suprisingly routine - with the exception of the fall yesterday. Susy was on lead and pulled a rock out with her hand. She fell a good 10 meters before the rope caught her. Smashed her face right into the cliff. Luckily, the day before we left base, we had anticipated this hazard and hastily constructed face guards ("hockey masks") which were positioned in front of our faceplates.

7 July 2026

After the wild climb up the Dream Wall, this portion of the climb seems more like a stroll. Monotonous chaotic terrain at a 4 to 6 degree slope. Once you get up to where we are tonight you really get a chance to appreciate the view. A quick check of my watch locator tells me that I am at 135 DEG 12 MIN 26.78 SEC W LAT, 23 DEG 24 MIN 45.91 SEC N LONG, ELEV 14325.23 M - 14 klicks above the average datum of Mars. The terraforming zealots have recently taken to saying "above sea level". Mars being smaller that Earth, is easier to see around. I can see almost 300 kilometers without the slightest effort. Indeed, at this height I can say with some personal authority that Mars is round.

8 July 2026

We came around a ridge this morning to find what struck us as a classic terrestrial colouir (sans ice). This place most obviously held lots of water ice and snow at one point however many billions of years ago. The parallels between Mars and Earth can be blatantly obvious at times and more eerily subtle in other instances. The more you have seen of Earth, the more you can understand about Mars. However, if you have seen TOO MUCH of Earth, the more uniquely Martian things you tend to miss here on Mars.

9 July 2026

Brian's suit went D E A D this morning about 10 minutes after we left camp. I mean it just plain shut down. This meant erecting an Inflat-O- Dome and getting Brian and I attached, inside the dome and then outside of his suit. 3 hours delay minimum. Problem solved in record time - a piece of a biofilter broke off and jammed a relay. Simple repair. We were back on the trail in 4 hours. Oh well. Those members of the team not involved with suit repair had a chance to play Martian volley ball for several hours. You need an acre to play this game properly. Being on a mountain at a 6 degree tilt is of little hindrance. No air and 0.38g = ultra wild serve shots.

These suits we use are slightly modified standard survey team gear: skin tight Pressure suit made of body-heat activated, reactive nano-fabric covered with a bulkier Thermal/Tear-proof layer, itself covered with an outer adaptive Photovoltaic layer. PTTP or "pee-two-pee" construction for short. In an emergency you can live for more than a week in one of these things. That assumes, of course, that you do nothing but sleep. We augmented these suits with larger air intakes and more efficient photovoltaic inputs/storage batteries for our climb. However, no matter how you design these things, they smell awful after a couple of days even though the manufacturer claims that 98% of waste is either recycled or "stabilized".

There are also some problems associated with regular movement in a 1/3g field. Your cg tends to be offset a bit from what you grow up with on Earth. The effects aren't as bad as they are on Luna where they hop around like bowlegged kangaroos, but they are present and irksome. A little practice and a properly weight-balanced suit and walking is easily done.

Climbing vertical surfaces in a pressure suit is another matter entirely. You are free to move your limbs almost without limitation. The gloves have a half century of design history behind them. While the dexterity is far from natural, this is more than made up for by the way in which the "living" fabric acts as an external skeleton of sorts. While using such artifical physical aids is considered foul play by terrestrial climbers, there is no alternative with the frigid near-vacuum that passes for "weather" here.

All told, these suits weigh in at 19 kilos here on Mars. Add all of the other equipment (Inflat-O-Domes, food, gear, etc.) and each team member carries roughly 36 kilos. When you consider that each of us weighs 1/3 of what we weigh on Earth, yet have bodies designed to carry 3 times as much, this leaves us carrying 10 to 20 percent less mass than we would walking on a street on Earth. As long as you work to retain your terrestrial strength, climbing here becomes more a pursuit of persistence than of endurance.

12 July 2026

We picked up a standard MarSRAN (MarsSolarRadAlertNet) alert a few minutes ago. Standard solar flare. Looks like the nasty stuff will arrive here in a couple of hours. Slow particles - but still deadly none the less. Another delay. This time we have to do some real work. Mars is a complete wimp when it comes to weathering radiation storms. You kinda need an atmosphere to do that. Mars has the sort of atmosphere that only exerts an influence when it can piss you off i.e. duststorms, but does nothing to help you out when you need it i.e. radiation storms. Indeed, at 19,000 meters we are already in as perfect a vacuum as any scientist is likely to ask for in their lab. We have to stop in our tracks and get at least one foot of rock between us and the sky no sooner than local dawn tomorrow. Lots of digging.

15 July 2026

26,964.45 meters says my watch. The summit is theoretically within sight. My neck hurts too much to look that far up. Talk about being exposed to the elements. Pretty tame stuff - vesicular lava with a billion years of UV-induced oxidative frosting. Steady footing the rest of the way. 35 meters to the top. We took off our main backpack units and ran on reserve packs to climb a small 10 meter wall. After we got to the top we dragged the rest of our gear up on haul lines.

The sky here is jet black with a faint whisper of haze on the horizon. The planet curves away from me as I climb upwards - almost as if to push me on. For all intents and purposes I am in space. Funny thing - on Earth back in the 1900's, to get to the same relative height above one's planet required riding in an experimental rocket-powered airplane. Only when the altimeter read "50 MILES" (80 km), and at no small risk of injury, did one qualify for astronaut wings. Mars has half the diameter of Earth and a surface gravity of 0.38g. I have almost reached an equivalent level above Mars to qualify for those hard-earned wings simply by climbing a volcano. Wild.

They want to build a rocket sled up the side of Arisa Mons (located smack dab on the equator) so as to offer cheaper payload to orbit launch costs - more exports - more reasons to terraform. Gee. We've only been here a for 15 Earth years and we want to build Disneyland. I hope Redpeace obtains that court injunction. It is inevitable, I suppose, that we will awaken this world and mold it in reverent facsimile to the Earth we'd like to return to. Still, part of me hopes that we can bide our time and let the unique charm of Mars exert an effect on all who come here.

20 July 2026

We did it. The summit is indescribable. So there. Climb it for yourself, if you want a peek.

We spent most of our free time naming prominent features after famous mountaineers which quickly became a legends-of-climbing trivia contest: i.e. Mallory Promitory, Tenzing Colouir, Hillary Ridge, etc. After a while (and several celebratory squeeze tubes of rather flat champagne) it degenerated into a what-thing-can-you-name-after-your ex-girl/boyfriend/ family pet/favorite bar etc. endurance test.

The last of an almost endless stream of live (or pseudo-live) video feeds was concluded a couple of minutes ago. By now, most of Earth has gone to work or gone to sleep with the knowledge that someone has indeed capitalized on a once-in-a- lifetime, McLuhanesque notariety opportunity. The first news reports have also just passed the heliopause and are expanding outward. Too late now. Soon even ET will know of our stunt.

We are expecting transportation within the hour. No rappel into the caldera. Nor a down climb. No more fun today. You see, we didn't exactly have permission to perform this climb. As long as we depart safely with the Feds, and don't mock them on TV for what we slipped pass them while they weren't looking, we won't be charged the equivalent of 9 years of income for transportation or the equipment we "borrowed". Nor will we be fired from our day jobs.

I suspect that we won't hear the like until someone makes another absurd ascent. The wonderfully immense peaks on Venus are probably out of reach forever (unless the terraformers have their way). The only thing that comes to mind are the ice cliffs on Miranda. 17 klicks of methane/water ice cliffs at near absolute zero. Hmmm....

Got the itch just thinking about it.

You can view the Miranda cliffs in much greater detail at NASA's Planetary Photojournal
Keith Cowing is a biologist, climber, and former NASA civil servant, who develops various Internet applications at his company, Reston Communications. Among his more popular web creations are The Seneca Rocks Web, The Whole Mars Catalog, The Astrobiology Web, Genomics: A Global Resource, and NASAWatch.

Keith is also an occasional freelance writer who has written space/climbing articles for Climbing magazine ["Everest On Orbit"] Ad Astra magazine ["Oh Mons! The First Ascent of Olympus Mons"] and Tranquility Base Magazine ["Roger Houston; On Belay"]. Keith has also written a summary of his own personal climbing mini-epic ["My Ascent of the Petit Grepon and the Lingering After Effects"].