Peak of Insanity? Dutch Dream of Building Artificial Mountain

Dutch journalist Thijs Zonneveld wrote a column proposing the construction of an artificial mountain in the flat Netherlands as a joke. But the idea has captured the country's imagination and Zonneveld is now looking into its feasibility. After all, he says, in the past the country managed to reclaim massive areas of land from the sea.

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The Netherlands is famous for being an extremely flat country. But now a Dutch journalist has attracted attention with a proposal for constructing an artificial mountain in the country -- and some people are taking the idea seriously.

Journalist Thijs Zonneveld became a household name in the Netherlands overnight with a short column that looked like something written to fill a slow summer news day. But his idea to build a 2,000-meter (6,560-foot) peak appears to have caught the public's imagination.

Zonneveld, a sports writer, wrote a few days later that, while the suggestion had initially been "een grap" -- a joke -- it had since turned into much more. "I have dreamed of having a mountain in Holland since I was 15," he says. "I drew mountains on our map."

The Dutch, says Zonneveld, are "obsessed" with mountains. "We spend all of our vacations there. We drive to Germany, France and Switzerland." They also go to the mountainous Sauerland region of central Germany to learn how to ski, sometimes making the journey for just a day. Given the effort and expense involved to make such a trip, it stands to reason that the Dutch would also pay to use a mountain in their own country.

"I didn't take it very seriously myself at first, at least until three weeks ago," says Zonneveld. But then came his July 29 column.

'We Can Do This'

The title of the small piece in which Zonneveld let off steam over the athletic and geographic handicaps of the Dutch could not have been clearer: "Mountain!" As a result of their country's natural disadvantages, Zonneveld argued, neither cyclists nor Alpine athletes would ever have the chance to win any medals. There are simply no mountains in Holland, he wrote. "The country is flat. Flat as a polder. Being flat is really useful for growing beets, raising cows and building straight roads, but it's a disaster when it comes to sports."

Take Flevoland, for example, the youngest and flattest of all Dutch provinces. The province, which was created starting in 1916, lies to the east of the IJsselmeer artificial lake, and much of it is below sea level. Cornelis Lely, an engineer, spent more than 30 years devising a plan to reclaim more land from the sea, in tried-and-true Dutch fashion. He wanted to drain the Zuiderzee, a bay with an area of more than 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles). The megalomaniacal plan succeeded, creating the IJsselmeer and Flevoland -- and the Netherlands gained an additional 2,412 square kilometers of land mass. And it couldn't be flatter: The highest elevation in Flevoland province is just 8 meters above sea level.

Compared to the feat of reclaiming that land, is building a 2,000-meter mountain on the soil of Flevoland such a challenge, Zonneveld asks? "We can do this," he writes. "We created half of this country ourselves. We just did not practise our skills for a very long time."

Joker or Visionary?

Zonneveld says he now seriously believes that all of this is doable and could also be attractive from a business standpoint. An artificial mountain could serve as a giant athletic playground for skiers and racing cyclists, kite flyers, mountain climbers and hikers. It could, in short, become a vacation destination, a beauty spot with a view, for people "from Paris to Copenhagen," a tourist attraction capable of generating healthy profits. And the region, he says, could use a mountain. Very much so.

Zonneveld says it was the feedback from readers, sports clubs and companies that turned the idea from a joke into a project. They don't see it as a way of filling space during the slow summer news period, says Zonneveld. "We're in the midst of an economic crisis. They have better things to do than kid around."

A virtual mountain, "DeNederlandseBerg," already exists in graphic form and as a spectacular 3D visualization in Google Earth. Zonneveld's employer has turned the idea into a campaign. Zonneveld is in great demand and is talking "to all the radio stations, TV stations and newspapers, including the foreign press."

In an appearance on "Knevel & Van den Brink," a popular TV talk show in the Netherlands, Zonneveld convinced seven skeptical people to seriously discuss the issue for 10 minutes. Initially describing it as a "bizarre idea," he went on to cite the advantages of the Alpine attraction. Zonneveld believes that it could be done for about €1 billion ($1.43 billion). Of course, he adds, raising this "costly mountain" would not be a job for the public sector, but for bold investors instead.

Hollow Mountain

He told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he planned to meet with experts and representatives of interested companies this week -- including, he said, six of the country's 10 largest engineering firms -- for a brainstorming session on the feasibility of the idea. Zonneveld insists that his Alpine challenge is surmountable -- for example, if the mountain was hollow.

A hollow mountain would save an enormous amount of material. If it consisted of a mass of reinforced concrete, the colossus would weigh an estimated 5.2 trillion kilograms. If it were built out of stone, the mountain would be even heavier, and more expensive. But lighter doesn't necessarily mean cheaper. Blogger Erik van der Zee has already calculated that building the mountain out of ordinary Lego pieces would be unaffordable, if only because of the astronomical wages it would require. At a rate of one Lego piece per second and worker, the superstructure alone would consume about 729 billion man-years. Put differently, the entire human population could be employed around the clock for the next 104 years.

Even Zonneveld knows that the mountain project won't be easy. "The only way to build something like this is to involve the entire Dutch construction industry." At least.

In Berlin in the summer of 2009, the idea was floated of erecting a 1,000-meter mountain on the grounds of the defunct Tempelhof airport. The plan was quickly dismissed as a gag. But in the Netherlands the idea of building a mountain awakens real aspirations. As crazy as it all sounds, even intelligent people are apparently giving it some serious thought.

The biggest problem, Zonneveld believes, probably wouldn't even be the structural engineering challenges or the money, but rather the people who would have to be resettled to make space for the mountain. It's also clear that current tourist attractions, like the Urk lighthouse hill -- which towers a breathtaking 24 feet above sea level -- would lose a significant amount of appeal.

But Zonneveld isn't going to give up his dream. "The mountain will come," he wrote in a column published on Friday. "Period."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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