12 iconic mountains (under 29,035 feet)

CNN  — 

Mountains. How on Earth do we get our heads around them? And not just literally, although they do block a lot of space.

The planet’s highest, grandest structures have always inspired us to do odd things to overcompensate for our natural wordless wonderment. From waxing poetic or rewatching old Bob Ross episodes, to buying crampons and – get this – singling out the world’s dozen most iconic mountains.

How does one even begin to do that?

First, by acknowledging that every mountain on Earth is a miracle of nature, time and tectonics – even if the Greek gods didn’t live there or the stone tablets came down some other crumbly slope.

Then by disqualifying 29,035-foot Everest. (Yeah, we know, unforgivable. But can we all agree that this mountain has received more than its fair share of press at this point?)

Then by sincerely apologizing to Annapurna, Mont Blanc, Whitney, Waddington, Kirkjufell, Kanchenjunga, Aoraki, Half Dome, the Dolomites, all 282 Scottish Munros, the Rock of Gibraltar and every other singular summit out there.

And then presenting the following 12 mountains that totally rock our world.

Towering above several 8,000-meter neighbors in the Karakoram Range, the world’s second highest peak was famously dubbed the “Mountain of Mountains” by climbing legend Reinhold Messner after a 1979 ascent.

Famous for its sheer beauty, utter remoteness, nasty weather and unsettling climbing stats, K2 is solid proof that reaching the second highest summit on any given continent or planet may be an even taller order than bagging the first.

Just over 300 elite alpinists have made it to the elusive crest of K2, compared with more than 4,000 high-fivers on marginally higher but less technically demanding Everest.

According to SummitPost, K2 claims about one life for every four summiters.

K2 also begs the obvious question: How did such a formidable rock get saddled with a name befitting a back Walmart aisle?

That honorific comes from the British-led Survey of India in 1856, during which the area’s prominent peaks were all expeditiously labeled with a K (for Karakoram) and a number, before eventually getting better names.

K2 being the ultimate exception.

Briefly named Mount Godwin Austen in honor of an English surveyor, K2 would pitch that name off its backside and stick with K2. Because that’s how this mountain rolls.

Is there a more classic symbol of Japan than this perfect pyramid hulking behind a foreground of blazing red pagoda tiers and/or flowering cherry blossom boughs?

Just over 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, the country’s highest peak is one of the world’s most scaled mountains, drawing more than 200,000 annual climbers up its steep, exposed, oft underestimated volcanic slopes that last saw an eruption on December 16, 1707, and have since inspired a local proverb:

“He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man. He who climbs it twice is a fool.”

Most do the bucket list ascent during July and August – aided by milder weather, over a dozen overnight mountain huts open along the popular Yoshida Trail, and the crowded camaraderie of summer throngs all pushing for that sunrise summit selfie.

For more solitude (and snow), shoulder seasons and winter are their own peak periods for alpinists, skiers, snowboarders and winter campers who (relatively speaking) have the whole mountain to themselves.

Sometimes electric-yellow rape blossoms take the place of cherry blossoms in Mount Fuji snapshots.

Few lone peaks attract as many varied superlatives as Africa’s highest hill.

The dormant volcano is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain, its transitional slopes home to more ecological zones and exotic, endangered fauna (elephants, leopards and Abbott’s duikers!) than likely any other mountain in its weight class.

Kilimanjaro can now also claim to be the site of the highest ever cricket match, played with great enjoyment by an international group of cricketers on a level crater at just under 19,000 feet a few years ago.

Kilimanjaro has also recently hosted some of the fieriest alpine global warming debates about how long its shrinking snowcap will last in this heat.

In the meantime, somewhere between half and two-thirds of the mountain’s 25,000-plus annual climbers make it all the way up to a still very icy summit, welcomed by East Africa’s most spectacular panorama.

Once considered unclimbable (some might still want to argue that point), the most instantly recognizable craggy peak in the Alps is now lined with 25 routes to the top and gets the nod from National Geographic as “the birthplace of the sport of mountaineering.”

Painfully so, when four members of the seven-man climbing team logging the Matterhorn’s first ascent in 1865 fell to their deaths on the way down.

Straddling the Swiss/Italian border like ____ (choose your metaphor here: famed French alpinist and “Men and the Matterhorn” author Gaston Rébuffat called it an “arrow of stone, pointing towards the sky;” others see a giant dorsal fin), the storied peak is the defining landmark for its pair of famous mountain resort neighbors: Switzerland’s Zermatt and Italy’s Breuil-Cervinia.

Hovering over the Aegean coast near the Macedonian border, Greece’s highest peak (aka the “Mountain of the Gods”) is also, of course, its most mythical.

A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and home to the nation’s first national park, Mount Olympus, with its numerous craggy subpeaks, deep gorges, forested flanks and signature cloud-bathed summit, seems a natural fit for the fabled home of the 12 Olympian gods of Greek mythology.

Now routinely climbed (once an unthinkable act), Olympus appears to have long been vacated by Zeus and the crew, who still routinely drop by for a harrowing winter squall or summer thunderstorm.

Shortlisted as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature in a global popularity poll, Cape Town’s beloved coastal landmark welcomes about 800,000 visitors to the table every year by foot and cable car.

Over half-a-billion years old, the 2-mile-wide sandstone plateau ranks among one of the world’s oldest mountains and is known (especially by botanists) for its nearly 1,500 floral species, several of them endemic to the hill.

Hikers, local and from afar, know this perch as the most stunning coastal vista at the bottom of Africa, when it’s not pummeled by easterly winds and veiled by an orographic cloud cover called the “table cloth.”

Cape Town's distinctive Table Mountain is a 2-mile-wide sandstone plateau.

Most palm-fringed Caribbean islands wouldn’t find themselves anywhere near an iconic mountains list.

Saint Lucia, with its hauntingly beautiful pair of volcanic spires – the Pitons – is the obvious exception.

Surging out of coral-encrusted waters near the sleepy town of Soufrière on St. Lucia’s southwest coast, the twin peaks of Gros Piton (higher, stouter, a popular climb) and Petit Piton (smaller, steeper, far dicier) comprise a UNESCO-preserved volcanic zone carpeted in lush rainforest and nearly 30 species of tropical birds.

The two mountains also grace the island’s local beer label (Piton Lager) and presumably 90% of its postcards and destination wedding photos.

Washington state’s highest peak, a glaciated volcano encased in over 35 square miles of snow and ice, is more than just nearby Seattle’s answer to Mount Fuji.

Or the lofty centerpiece of one of the country’s most popular national parks.

Or the premier North American training ground for Himalayan dreamers.

Mount Rainier is also home to one of the best places to walk around a big mountain instead of scaling it.

Undulating below the spotlight of the mountain’s flashy white summit and austere upper slopes, the aptly named Wonderland Trail covers its equally magnificent (but different) 93-mile base – forging through stunning old growth forest, flowering meadows, glacier fed rivers and every shred of proof that there’s more to life than simply reaching the top.

Mountains don’t get much holier than Jebel Musa/Moses Mountain/Mount Sinai – a sacred site to Christianity, Islam and Judaism perched in parched seclusion in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Here, it has been written, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. (But here is not where Mel Brooks received the 15 Commandments in “History of the World Part 1”.)

At the base of the mountain stands the sixth century Monastery of St. Catherine, a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest working Christian monasteries. At the summit, amid a complex of buildings, stands a simple, square 12th-century mosque.

At sunrise, hundreds of daily pilgrims from all corners gaze out at a glowing sepia landscape from the top of a sacred mountain now serviced by crews of local guides, camel trains and many, many stairs.

Hiding on the edge of Los Glaciares National Park near the end of the world, the signature spires of Patagonia’s poster-child peak (and namesake clothing label – those jagged lines on that fleece pullover are Fitzroy) define “arrival” for far-flung hikers and intrepid mountaineers.

Named after Capt. Robert Fitzroy of Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle expedition, the peak was originally mistaken for a volcano by aboriginal natives who called it Chaltén, “mountain that smokes.”

In fact, the “smoke” was just a thick cloak of cloud cover obscuring the summit – still a frequent sight in one of the more extreme climate zones on the outer climbing and trekking grid.

Argentina's Mount Fitz Roy tops out at 11,073 feet.

Being New England’s highest mountain may not be a huge bragging right even within the United States, unless you can trademark it with a little extra something.

Like being home to the “world’s worst weather.”

Famous for erratic conditions that can go from sunny to blinding blizzard in the span of half a day hike, Mountain Washington State Park’s namesake peak is best known for receiving more than 100 days of hurricane force winds each year and having measured a former record-setting wind speed of 231 mph on April 12, 1934, a speed that wasn’t surpassed for more than 60 years.

Summer is the most popular time to visit Mount Washington, when the mountain’s auto route and historic cog railway are open and the peak’s average wind velocity – about 35 mph – is but a relative breeze.

It takes a certain kind of rock to draw more than 250,000 annual visitors into the stunning void of the central Australian desert – 280 miles from the nearest real town.

Europeans first laid eyes on Uluru, Australia’s iconic inselberg (island mountain) in 1873, naming it after a prominent Aussie diplomat (Ayers) tens of millennia after the area’s Aboriginals first laid eyes and names on it.

Millions of years old, the surreal sandstone formation (co-existing as a sacred native site and a national park) is an isolated remnant of an eroded mountain range – and one of the world’s top bucket list sunrise/sunset photo ops, when its iron-rich walls glow like a 2-mile-long spacecraft.

Climbing Uluru is discouraged and frowned upon by the landowners (though still commonly done). A more respectful option: peacefully walking its 5.8-mile circumference.

*All mountain elevations from Britannica.com