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When does a hill become a mountain?

(Image credit: Brian Erickson)

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 for mountain status, cunning locals waylayed him while they set about adding soil and rock to the summit, effectively rebuilding their hill back to a fully fledged mountain.

The fictional story highlighted the pride that communities take in living next to a mountain and walkers feel in reaching the top. A hill is a second rate substitute at best, The Monkees compared to The Beatles, Ford’s Mustang II versus the sublime original muscle car.

But when does a hill become a mountain? 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.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 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.”

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. For some, it’s the absolute height of a summit above sea level. 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.

Even north of the border in Scotland there are 174 peaks taller than England’s highest point (Scafell Pike, 3,209 feet/978m), with the Scots classifying their mountains into three categories. A Corbett is a mountain peak between 2,500 feet (762m) and 3,000 feet (914.4m) above sea level; a Munro raises the bar to 3,000 feet; and a Murdo is a Munro whose summit has a minimum drop of 100 feet (30m) on all sides.

The prominence of a peak features in other definitions, too. Mount Scott in Oklahoma has bagged itself a mountain name by stretching 823 feet (251m) from base to summit, despite topping out at only 2,464 feet (751m) above sea level. In this context, Denali, Fuji and Kilimanjaro are arguably more mountainous than Everest, given that they soar from the plains rather than merely stand a little higher than their neighbors, like the NBA’s tallest player, Tacko Fall, during a Boston Celtics time-out.

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.

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.

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!