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The Mountain Meets The Viper: Could “It” Happen?

Who hurt you George R. R. Martin? Why do you subject us to such pain, such violence?

Alright, deep breaths. We will get through this. Maybe we can use science to save a character emotionally, if only to make us feel a little better? Don’t get your hopes up.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Do not read if you haven’t seen the most recent Game of Thrones episode.

The latest episode of Game of Thrones ends with a duel to the death between “The Mountain” Gregor Clegane and “The Red Viper” Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell. Oberyn quickly gets the upper hand, jumping and twirling around the much slower Gregor, eventually slicing and piercing The Mountain enough to bring victory into view. However, The Red Viper misjudges Gregor’s dire injuries and, while demanding a final confession, literally gets his skull exploded by The Mountain’s giant hands.

The incredibly graphic scene was as hard for us to watch as it was for the now-doomed Tyrion Lannister. What kind of man does it take to inflict such injury? What would it take to crush a human skull with your bare hands like The Mountain?

game-of-thrones-the-mountain-and-the-viper

As you can probably guess, an ethical skull-crushing experiment would be difficult to devise; the subject is not terribly well studied. But there is an analog we can use to estimate the forces required: helmet research. To neutralize incoming dangers to your noggin, scientists first have to know what it takes to damage it. When testing bicycle helmets, for example, one way to figure out the cranium-crushing limit is to take the skulls of the dead and smash them against stuff. And that’s exactly what scientists have done.

In 2012, a study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics used cadaver skulls outfitted with children’s bicycle helmets to test how the helmets resisted smashing and crushing injuries. How the helmets performed is interesting in their own right, but what we want to know is how the controls — the human skulls with no helmets — handled the testing.

The researchers soaked cadaver skulls in water for a day to approximate the squishy environment of the human body, and filled them with four pounds of BBs to get the weight right. Then, like The Mountain, they subjected the analog skulls to a compression test — using a diabolic pneumatic air cylinder and a steel plate, instead of their bare hands.

The result? “Catastrophic failure [of the unhelmeted skull] during testing… experiencing a maximum load of 520 pounds of force.”

So without actually popping any heads, we have an upper limit on skull strength. If The Mountain could press past this limit, he would be quite the foe indeed.

Looking to NASA, the Air Force, and even to the MythBusters, all the data that I could find points to an average static push strength of a medium-sized white male of a little over 200 pounds of force, or nearly 1000 Newtons*. This is less than half of the required force to crush a human skull analog according to the bicycle helmet study. A bare-handed crush without pushing doesn’t really work either, with recorded grip strengths barely exceeding 150 pounds of force.

However, The Mountain is not a medium-sized male. He is the human equivalent of, well, a mountain. He cut a darn horse in half! Could Gregor Clegane really be more than twice as strong as the average white male? It’s plausible. In The World’s Strongest Man competitions, where Clegane would feel right at home, athletes regularly manipulate forces easily in excess of 500 pounds. (Oh, by the way, the actor who played The Mountain–Hafþór Júlíus–is the world’s second strongest man.) If Clegane put all his strength into his dying skull-crush, the Viper’s cranium would surely crack if not splatter.

TheMountainMockingbird

We should have known better than to get too attached to the charismatic and noble Prince Oberyn. But his death was not in vain—it served to highlight the greater theme of the episode. Oberyn was just another beetle to be crushed by a man who was simply a crusher of beetles (the “beetle” Tyrion expounds on was a pill bug, by the way, a terrestrial crustacean). Vanity, a desire for revenge, and The Mountain’s incredible strength got the better of Oberyn and he paid for it dearly. Did you really think The Red Viper would get his own Inigo Montoya moment?

*Both NASA and the Air Force collected data on how hard subjects could push with two hands against a force plate. (The MythBusters tested how hard you can press your hands together.) I figure that if you could turn this pressing force inward, as you would while attempting to crush a skull, these numbers would be fair approximations.

Kyle Hill is the Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

Parts of this post were adapted from one of the author’s previous posts published at Slate.com.

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102 comments

  • I am only coming to NERDIST.COM for my news from now on. I just realized that the article on TheWashingtonPost titled “No, you can’t crush a man’s skull with your bare hands” mistakenly changed 500pound-force to 500kgf basically doubling the force measured in the study he cited. Then i click a link someone posted below for the InternationalBusinessTimes where they use the WashingtonPosts misinformation as a counterpoint to the correct measurments from the study that the WashingtonPost was supposed to be getting its information from. lmao. Try Copy&Paste if you dont understand what you are reading/writing.

  • […] prost in lupta cu “The Mountain” Gregor Clegane, desi avea un mega-avantaj in fata lui. Cat de “accurate” este strivirea craniului lui Oberyn, din punct de vedere al stiintei? Sau, trecand la alte cestiuni arzatoare, stim ca unul din trei oameni de pe planeta e obez, […]

  • What is wrong in your article is assuming he only pushed. Hafthor can deadlift 410kg, that is 900lbs(too lazy to convert properly). I had the same discussion with a friend. Maybe he did other movements during the crushing scene, like ripping appart, crushing with the hands and pushing agains the head. Applying force in 3 directions, a man of 180kg and that strength could surely crush a head.

  • The thing i dont understand is, the red viper stabbed the mountain 2 times, and sliced the heel 1 time. “Master of poision”, used poison on the spear.

    So the poision should limit the mountains movements(as he lays on the ground after the second stab in the stomache). How could he muster such strenght to crush his skulle? How could he move even by little, to get ontop of the red viper?

    Didnt the poision affect him at all? I’ve read the books, but still.. with his poision skills the mountain should be paralyzed by 2 stabs and 1 cut.

  • […] prost in lupta cu “The Mountain” Gregor Clegane, desi avea un mega-avantaj in fata lui. Cat de “accurate” este strivirea craniului lui Oberyn, din punct de vedere al stiintei? Sau, trecand la alte cestiuni arzatoare, stim ca unul din trei oameni de pe planeta e obez, […]

  • […] prost in lupta cu "The Mountain" Gregor Clegane, desi avea un mega-avantaj in fata lui. Cat de "accurate" este strivirea craniului lui Oberyn, din punct de vedere al stiintei? Sau, trecand la alte cestiuni arzatoare, stim ca unul din trei oameni de pe planeta e obez, […]

  • It’s all about the grip technique, in the eye sockets, that gives a good leverage, not just about crushing with a downward force like in a overly simplistic compression test. A pneumatic cynlinder and a steel plate is not the same thing as something having a thumb opposable to 4 other fingers, opperated by dozen of muscles and bones.

  • You fail to consider the fact that pushing the thumbs through the eyesockets would create an internal pressure in the skull that would make the skull explode in the sutures. Outward force directed inward towards the domed skull would need to be considerably larger to crack the skull than the force working from inside and out. 

  • I just read an article were a the writer asked some doctors and professionals and they all said at least 1100 pounds of force would need to be exerted to implode a human skull. Even if he were standing on his head it wouldn’t implode. (if he jumped on it it surely would, that would have been kinda strange…)

  • Im not mad that prince Oberine had his skull crashed, his pride and his lust were his deadly sins which were always telling me hi will be punished by the goods. Im angry because HBO made a prince so fakin awsome that I almost  turn bisexual. Fuck you HBO.

  • I hate how people clain that stab would kill The Mountain right away. What the hell? I thought Oberyn got him THROUGH his fucking awesomely thick armor??? So the penetration was not really extensive. Btw, a man of Thor’s size could crush a mans skull I think, he is like 4 times as strong as a normal human male. And he was probably enraged by the injury Oberyn inflicted him. So, plausible it is.

  • Sorry guys have to comment, in the books the stab wasn’t as deep as in the show, also he stuck his thumbs in his eye sockets. Thus being able to grip on the temple which is one of the weakest parts of the skull, it wouldn’t splatter but it would do job. Plus I have to mention that hound is just less than foot shorter than his brother. imagine Shaq standing next to average person, now put a foot on that.

    • I am guessing they couldn’t find actors with that kind of height and muscle definition. if they had people wouldnt be questioning this, as most of you would just think he is a giant.

  • well, the upper limit of force to crush a skull is said to be 520 lbs. the Mountain, being 400 lbs, not to mention probably about 100 lbs of heavy armor, directly above oberyn, all he would have to do is put all his weight on his hands, and if Oberyn’s skull was even slightly weaker than the strongest of skulls, the weight alone would crush it between the mountain and the stone beneath. it’s not even a question of the mountain’s strength, but rather a matter of sheer weight and gravity, particurly if oberyn’s skull had sustained any kind of fracture or weakness from its initial impact with the stone. Fantasy world or not, I think it was at the very least, plausible.

    • He didn’t have his full weight bearing down on Oberyn because he couldn’t get up due to having been stabbed in the gut.  The blood loss alone would have been it difficult.  It was a cool, badass end to the fight, but I doubt it would be possible even for the Mountain.  Plus the ability to lift a certain weight doesn’t mean you’d have that same strength in your hands.

  • This is a lesson to all you revenge seeker out there: stab the dude a couple more times to ensure that he’s incapacitated.    And don’t come close until you’re sure he’s near death.

  • I have no idea whether it’s possible or impossible, but the evaluation of whether it’s possible or impossible can’t be made based on the test you performed.  Being able to dead lift or bench press 500 pounds does not necessarily indicate that you are going to be able to steadily apply over 500 pounds of compressive force to an object.

    • The average male at my gym can bench a max of 180 lbs.  The Mountain can bench 550.  By the same ratio, if an average male can compress 200lbs, the Mountain can compress 600, which is enough to crush a skull.  Maybe not with as much splatter effect as the movie, but enough.

      • There are a lot of real wimps at your gym.  But it doesn’t work like that anyway, strength doesn’t increase by the same rate.  If it did, at the highest level in Olympic or any other kind of lifting it would always be the biggest guy who would win.

    • Exactly.  Thing is, he could easily have broken the Viper’s neck or something, maybe, but not crushed his skull.  If he’d just slammed his head against the ground a few times (like when Dan Dority fought The Captain in Deadwood), that probably would have done it.

      • Everyone is talking about the application of the force of 500 lbs  the obvious point of the wounds, etc.

        Now, I don’t believe that because someone can bench three times what the average person can, that they can necessarily have three times the grip strength.  I don’t think thumb muscles have the same potential for growth as biceps or triceps.

        So I believe to generate that force, it has to come through the rest of his body, so this force has to go through his thumbs.

        Wouldn’t his thumbs shatter before the other guy’s skull does?

  • ok but if you drop a 10 pound ball 4 feet (48 inches), and it stops in a quarter inch, then the force at the bottom of the fall is F = \frac{48}{0.25}10lbs \approx 2,000lbs.k which basically means that the mountain COULD have crushed the skull because he not only was applying squeeze pressue but he also raised the head and slammed it into the ground thus giving great acceleration and fall as well so yeah it totally could happen actually. :D

  • Dragons, totally believable, people projecting their mind into animals real, undead ice people , thats fine, giants ok, women birthing demons out their vagina, seen it before, wild fire thats real too, wizards that can multiply, thats fine too, but a head popping…. no freak’n way.

    • It’s about keeping the rules of your fantasy world consistent.  He’s established that Dragons, etc., are possible but otherwise the physics of this world are the same as in ours.  If you start to break the internal rules of an invented world, everything within it becomes meaningless.

        • He’s described as nearly eight feet tall, but no one ever measured him.  At one time, a “giant” in a circus sideshow had his height overbilled by quite a bit.  Even if the Mountain was eight feet tall it’s not likely he’d have the strength to crush a skull.  Being able to lift three times a normal man doesn’t mean you’d have three times the hand strength.

  • gregor had already lost energy in the fight as well as blood loss to at least 3 wounds – with poison, hald concious on the ground unable to get up – yet he had the force to do this? Oh and Oberyn not squirming or trying to get away? Yer i dont think so.

      • Adrenaline and rage effect do not repair a sliced up abdomen, massive internal damage and possibly a severed spine. Just piss poor writing. He wanted the last word written in, so he broke his own universes rules. 

        • You haven’t read the books.

          The Mountain couldn’t get up in the books (he actually tried and failed). He killed Oberyn while lying down.

          And he doesn’t crush the skull with both hands. He punches Oberyn with his big steel fist multiple times until there’s a sickening crunch  after a last punch. Oberyn was wearing a helm but his face was exposed.

          If you want to criticize the writer, read the books. You can only criticize the show writers if you only watch the show.

  • Also remember that this is based on a Book where the Mountain is Approximately 7 to 8 feet tall. Add in the poison and adrenaline responses of the body and… Even I am afraid of what he could do.

    • Strength doesn’t keep pace with size.  He would certainly have been far stronger the Viper, but probably not strong enough to crush a skull, especially considering he’d have lost a lot of blood already by that point.  In our world, anyone nearly 8 feet tall would probably be walking with a cane, especially since Gregor probably has acromegaly.  It would have been enough for him to smash the Viper’s head against the ground, killing him that way, but that’s just not as cool as actually crushing a man’s skull.  GRRM’s fantasy world isn’t all that consistent.

      • You clearly haven’t read the books. In the books, The red viper doesn’t get his skull crushed like the show. He gets pummel fist after fist until his head crunches inside the helmet. The fact that he’s getting punched by a big steel hand and the back of his head is on the helmet’s metal, results in a crunch.

        GRRM didn’t write the show scene.

  • One of the things you forgot in your analysis was that The Mountain had just had a two foot long blade by about 3-4 inches wide thrust into his thoratic cavity.  The muscle and organ damage alone would have prevented him from sitting up.  Even a little.  He would not have been able to move his arms nor his body to even put himself in the position to crush a skull.  This has nothing to do with strength.  This has to do with human anatomy.  The ending of the battle was not humanly possible.  Even within the rules of the GoT universe.  Very disappointing.

    • The way the mountain was portrayed in the books was a man even bigger than this new guy they cast to play. Also, during  a strenuous fight like this, there is a lot of adrenaline pumping through you that helps with covering up pain and still allowing you to perform physical tasks that you would normally not be able to.

    • It followed the book to the letter. The Mountain in the book is about eight feet tall, and as the article says, cut a horse in half. And kills Oberyn by crushing his skull after actually being pinned to the ground by the spear.

      It’s a fantasy story with dragons, witches, walking ice people, giants and girls who can’t be burned by fire.

      Get off thy high horse.

    • Let us not forget another thing, though – Gregor Clegane, according to the books was about 8 (!!!) feet tall and probably had some giant blood in him, meaning he wasn’t actually not only a regular human, he was basically not even a human at all…. :)

      • He couldn’t have had giant blood, they’re a different species.  People said that because, given it’s a medieval type society, they wouldn’t have a clue about genetics and shit like that.  It’s the reason in Greek mythology you can have half-human, half-animal hybrids.  They didn’t know it wasn’t possible.

      • Oh and lets not forget the fact that the blade is maybe Two-Inches wide, 3 if it is a Wave Blade Pattern. For a stab that is in that location we are looking at maybe a death range of around 30 to 60 Seconds after the injury.

        • It will take him some time to die.  But that’s not what I was explaining.  The severed muscles and organ damage would prevent him from being able to continue the battle.  See my other post below.

        • Let’s assume it was the gut.  Now, his abdominal muscles are severed as well as his intestines.  Look at the blood on the blade in the show, it runs the full length.  That means the whole blade went thru and hit the floor.  That means his back muscles were also severed and quite possibly his spine.  Either way he is not going to be able to move.  The ending is not possible.  I was pretty bummed they couldn’t have made it more believable.

  • You also have to take into effect the fact that The Mountain was above the Viper, pushing down on the skull and had compromised the skull’s integrity with the impressed eyes. So propping all that mass onto a small area, compressing and invading the skull probably got much more that 500lbs of downward force onto that little noggin. So yes, the Mountain could do that to a normal human skull. 

  • One of the things you forgot to consider is that “The Mountain” didn’t not crush his skull will just his hands. He was crushing Clegane’s head against the ground, with all his weight behind it. 

    • That’s what’s most relevant. They didn’t have a small-enough sample group to pair it down to males of Nordic ancestry, or better yet, males of Icelandic ancestry. IF you could, I think the mean force of two hands together would be significantly higher considering Iceland (an entire nation with a smaller population than my hometown) has produced a RIDICULOUSLY HIGH number of World’s Strongest Man contenders.

  • Keep in mind this is in a fantasy world where dragons exist and people with hands amputated and poor medical care survive. Is this the detail that’s  a deal-breaker? 

    • Actually it goes pretty deep into the hand thing in the books.  The Maester who lost his chain lost it because he was studying the decaying process. Plus they knew bread mold prevents infection (but not why) Really the Maesters are very good at their jobs.

    • Why are you talking about dragons when GIANTS are the most appropriate analogue (and they exist too). Hodor is said to have ‘the blood of giants’ and if he does Gregor Clegane does. 

      • He couldn’t actually have the blood of giants, they’re a different species.  Based on The Hound’s much lesser height, I’d put a pituitary disorder as the cause of his great height.  I’m not convinced the Mountain would have enough strength to crush a skull, though.   Strength doesn’t increase at the same rate as size.  If it did, even though in strong man competitions and Olympic weightlifting they’re all big guys, the sure winner would be the biggest, most apparently muscular guy and that’s not how it goes down.

        • Jim: Exactly what I was thinking when I saw it: no way after being stabbed so badly would he have the strength or energy to start punching the guy and then to crush his skull with his bare hands – even if he *hadn’t* been stabbed in the chest, I still doubt anyone could do that.

        • I’m aware the actor playing The Mountain is a strongman competitor, but you seem to believe for some reason that the difference in size means the same difference in strength.  And, the ability to lift in excess of 500 pounds doesn’t mean he’d have that kind of hand strength.  Plus, there’s the blood loss he’d have suffered.  I’ve never been stabbed in the stomach with a two foot long blade, but I imagine there would be significant blood loss – and you kind of need that for such a display of strength.  You know, blood going to those muscles.  GRRM wanted a badass end to the fight, so he bent the rules.  It works.  It was a cool fight in the book, and it’s cool (and grotesque) on TV but it ain’t possible.

        • The actor who plays the Mountain is a world champion in the actual “The World’s Strongest Man competition” for real. He actually *is* one of the strongest people in the world.

        • Considering the actor playing the Mountain can bench 550 pounds, and the average male at my gym (in very good shape) can bench a max of 180, the Mountain is about 3x as strong as the average male.  And if the average male can squeeze his hands together at 200lbs, then the Mountain surely can squeeze his to the point of 600 lbs by the same ratio.

    • How so? It mentioned in the article that the test was based on the average white male, so in keeping with that statement, it’s not racist at all. Ridiculous. Maybe males of other races didn’t want to try and crush things. Maybe everything isn’t about race.