When does a hill become a mountain? It's a question that is often asked and rarely answered satisfactorily, much to the annoyance of school children just wanting a straight answer from their geography teacher.
In the 1995 movie The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain, Hugh Grant played a young cartographer sent to re-measure a peak in Wales. When his initial calculations ‘lowered’ the summit below the 1,000-foot threshold required in Britain at that time for mountain status, cunning locals waylaid him while they set off in their hiking boots to add soil and rock to the summit, effectively rebuilding their hill back to a fully-fledged mountain.
This fictional story highlights the pride that communities take in living next to a mountain and that walkers feel upon reaching the summit. Anyone can climb a hill, but it takes a certain fortitude to shoulder a backpack and climb a mountain! However, in this example, the Welsh "mountain" was merited on height above sea level alone. Surely there are other criteria, such as a peak's profile, its prominence, its isolation, its terrain, its steepness, its ability to hold snow and so on and so forth...
So, when does a hill become a mountain, exactly? There’s no official, universal definition of what separates a hill from a mountain. A towering peak in one part of the world could be no more than a pimple on another continent. Let's see what different authorities have to say on the matter.
When does a hill become a mountain according to the dictionary?
Consult the American-English Merriam-Webster Dictionary and it will tell you that a mountain is: "a landmass that projects conspicuously above its surroundings and is higher than a hill." Aha! So, prominence is important. A mountain must first "project conspicuously" and then it must also be of greater elevation than a hill... However, the kindly folk at Merriam-Webster have neglected to define how high a hill can be before it becomes a mountain. They state that a hill is: "a usually rounded elevation of land lower than a mountain." So, as you can see, we are rather like a cat chasing its own tail, still very much in the grey area.
Ask the Oxford English Dictionary, and a mountain is: “A natural elevation of the earth’s surface rising more or less abruptly from the surrounding level and attaining an altitude which, relatively to adjacent elevations, is impressive or notable.” Again, we have this idea of prominence and now we're getting hints of steepness in our criteria too. No mention of exact height though. Or of hills for that matter...
The idea or concept may be clear, but perhaps the definition should be left to geographers rather than lexicographers. Even among physical geographers, though, there’s no consensus on the dividing line between hill and mountain.
When does a hill become a mountain in the US?
"Hills are easier to climb than mountains. They are less steep and not as high," say the fine folk at National Geographic. So, perhaps it's to do with the challenge of ascending the thing. If you need trekking poles or an ice axe, you're probably on a mountain, right? Well, the problem here is that one person's Everest is another person's easy amble. How hard won a summit is depends on fitness, age, the conditions on the day and myriad other factors.
The US Geological Survey do us no favours, stating that there's no official difference between hills and mountains. At one time, both the United States and the United Kingdom defined mountains as summits over 1,000 feet in elevation, however this distinction was abandoned in the mid-twentieth century.
When does a hill become a mountain in the UK?
In the UK, the government uses a height of 2,000 feet (610m) as the threshold beyond which a hiker steps from hill to mountain, although in global terms this altitude is the equivalent of ankle-height to the NBA players of the Himalayas. Yet, this definition seems unsatisfactory. Take the rocky fist of Haystacks in the English Lake District, a great fortress of crag in the national park's mountainous heart that welcomes countless pairs of the best hiking shoes to its summit every year. It is 13 meters shy of the government's stated height, yet is much more of a mountain than many gentle, grassy uplands in the region, that just so happen to have much loftier summits. The point here is that there can be high hills and low mountains.
As you can see, we are getting nowhere trying to define a mountain by height alone. A mountain must also have a certain amount of prominence, its sides must be sheer, its terrain rugged and its summit set apart from others. Suilven, in the far north of Scotland, is a good example of this. It falls short of the two most commonly used Scottish mountain classifications: it's not a Munro (a mountain over 3,000 feet) or a Corbett (a mountain between 2,500 feet and 3,000 feet). Instead, at 2,398 feet (731 m), it has to settle for being a Graham – most Grahams are considered hills. Yet Suilven rises so defiantly from the surrounding landscape, with such savage architecture that it defies you to call it a mere hill. What we are dealing with here is a mountain, make no mistake about it.
What does prominence have to do with it?
So, a mountain has less to do with height and more to do with prominence and character. A clear illustration of this is the Bolivian city of La Paz, the highest capital city in the world at 11,942 feet (3,640 m). This is much higher than many countries' highest peak, but we're not suggesting the 750,000+ population of La Paz live on top of a mountain. This is because the city is built on lower ground than much of its surroundings and is dwarfed by the distant Mt Illimani, which towers to 21,122 feet (6,438 m) above sea level. Now that's a mountain!
The prominence of a peak is defined as the elevation of a summit relative to its surrounding terrain. The city of La Paz, while at great elevation, has a negative prominence because it is surrounded by higher land, so it could never be called a mountain. Mount Scott in Oklahoma has bagged itself mountain status by stretching 823 feet (251m) from base to summit, despite topping out at only 2,464 feet (751m) above sea level. In this context, Kilimanjaro is arguably more of a mountain than Everest, given that it soars from the surrounding plains, rather than merely reaching higher than its subsidiary peaks. However, just like overall height, prominence alone does not forge a mountain. Everest is far more a mountain than Kilimanjaro thanks to all its other characteristics.
The characteristics of a mountain
The neatest definition may be to do with the character of a mountain when compared to a hill. A hill conjures up images of gentle, green slopes. Getting to the top of a hill should take some effort, but not pose too many challenges or take the best part of your day to achieve.
A mountain, however, should be a challenge, both physically and in terms of resources – you'll need your day pack at least. Its terrain should be craggy or forged entirely from rock. The classic image of a mountain is one of snow capped beauty, of deep, glacier-forged cwms, crashing waterfalls, tempestuous weather conditions and pointy summits. You can stand proud on a snow-kissed, wind-scoured summit in the far north that may be only a fraction of the height of a gentler but much higher upland regions in the south, yet you will be in no doubt that your feet are planted on a mountain. You could argue that winter can transform a hill into a mountain, adding a layer of challenge that is not present in the warmer months.
Call something that has the character of a mountain a hill and you may incur the wrath of those who love the wild places. The Cuillin Ridge on Scotland's Isle of Skye is the guts of an ancient volcano. The range is characterised by jagged peaks, black rock and dizzying exposure. The Cuillin are undoubtedly mountains, despite their relatively diminutive height when compared to the Rockies, Alps, Andes or Himalayas.
At some point, they became labelled as the Cuillin Hills, probably by someone who didn't know any better. In his book, 'The Cuillin – Great Mountain Ridge of Skye" Gordon Stainforth lambasts this error, saying: "the originator of this travesty should have been swung on the end of a long rope from one of the many high and very un-hill-like points that are to be found on the Main Ridge."
The distinction between a hill and a mountain can make people very passionate indeed...
Beyond sea level...
Definition pedants may even question why sea level matters. The tallest mountain on Earth measured from toe to top is Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano in Hawaii, which reaches skywards for 33,474 feet (10,203m). Does it matter that only 13,796 feet (4,205m) of Mauna Kea rises above the Pacific Ocean ocean? Well it probably does to the summiteers of Mount Everest, the acknowledged highest point on Earth at 29,035 feet (8,850m).
Yet in this poker game of height, Olympus Mons on Mars sees Everest’s peak and raises the stakes to 69,459 feet (21,171m). Now that altitude would seriously be climbing in the death zone. As everywhere in life, in this peak pissing contest there’s always something bigger, better and more impressive.
When does a hill become a mountain? The verdict (or lack of...)
Perhaps the most comprehensive set of mountain definitions come from the United Nations Environment Programme, which established different topographical criteria for a landmass to meet. Basically, any peak above 8,200 feet (2,500m) is a mountain; as is any outcrop of 4,900-8,200 feet (1,500-2,500m) with a slope of at least 2°; as is a peak of 3,300-4,900 feet (1,000-1,500m) with a slope steeper than 5° or a local elevation range above the surrounding area of at least 300m for a 7km radius. Even a hill of 1,000-3,300 feet (300-1,000m) that stands proud of its surrounding area by 300m can claim mountain status.
However, an attempt to define exactly what makes a mountain will always be flawed. It is subjective and a blend of various competing factors: elevation, prominence and character. Above all, unlike Hugh Grant, the message is clear – whatever hill you climb, remember when you get back to tell people it was a mountain!
After spending a decade as editor of Country Walking, the UK’s biggest-selling walking magazine, Jonathan moved to edit Outdoor Fitness magazine, adding adrenaline to his adventures and expeditions. He has hiked stages or completed all of the UK's national trails, but was once overtaken by three Smurfs, a cross-dressing Little Bo Peep, and a pair of Teletubbies on an ascent of Snowdon. (Turns out they were soldiers on a fundraising mission.)
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