When is a mountain really a molehill?


For some of us, the determination of what makes two peaks on the same massif count as separate mountains in one case, but as one "true" summit plus a minor false summit in another, is quite an interesting topic. For the Colorado 14ers, there has been a healthy dose of what we scientists call "chi by eye"; i.e., a subjective judgment based on what looks right. However, the criteria for counting lower peaks as separate have tended to be more analytic, if still somewhat arbitrary.

The 300-foot rule

The 300-foot rule works as follows, using Colorado as an example. There is a higher peak than every Colorado peak somewhere. For Mount Elbert you have to go all the way to Mount Whitney in California, but in general one can find a higher peak within Colorado. In any case, find the route that stays the highest that connects you to any higher peak, and along that route locate the lowest saddle. If your peak rises at least 300 feet above that saddle, you have a "ranked" peak and it qualifies for the usual Top 100, Top 200, etc. lists in Colorado.

The 300-foot rule of deciding what is a peak and what is a false summit is more or less arbitrary. It is based on some people's aesthetic of what looks like two separate peaks as opposed to one peak with a real summit and an insignificant summit. In part, the 300-foot rule seems to have been chosen to provide the best approximation to the then accepted list of the 14ers. There are actually 2 "official" 14ers that do not satisfy the 300-foot rule (North Maroon and El Diente), both of which have rugged semi-technical ridges separating them from their closest higher ranked peak.

However, the 300-foot rule is more than just a personal preference, it is the de facto definition of what counts a separate mountain. Driving a 4WD high up an old mining road is one thing, but climbing every boulder on a ridge and claiming the ascent of new mountain when you "summit" each boulder is another! If you've ever looked closely at a topo map, you will immediately see that it would be more or less impossible to climb every point in the state with a closed contour at the 40-foot contour interval of the USGS maps! (Gerry Roach has put together such a list for all points above 14,000 feet.) Nor would that be a satisfying definition of a mountain. One more or less has to pick some metric for defining a "true" summit, although the metric to pick can be of one's own creation.

"Soft" ranks

As discussed by Gerry Roach in his guidebooks, there can be a problem with using the 300-foot rule or any rigid criteria for separating peaks. In general, saddle elevations are not precisely determined, and even some peak elevations are not precisely determined. In those cases you have to estimate the true elevation of the saddle and/or peak by looking at the elevation contours. The most precise maps for the entire state are the USGS 7.5-minute series which have 40-foot elevation contours. Thus, if a peak has a highest closed contour of 13,760 feet, the true elevation is somewhere from 13,760 and 13,799 feet. Generally one assumes an elevation right in the middle, or 13,780 feet in this case. The same thing applies to saddles; take the highest contour that does not cross the ridge and also add 20 feet (or subtract 20 feet from the lowest contour that does cross the ridge). People new to Colorado mountaineering are often surprised at the large number of high peaks without official elevations!

The problem is that the uncertain saddle and/or peak elevations lead to situations where a peak may or may not truly satisfy the 300-foot rule. For example, before the 1999 revision of the geoid, Iowa Peak had a listed elevation of 13,831 feet. The saddle between it and Missouri Mountain has an elevation somewhere between 13,520 and 13,559 feet, which is usually taken as 13,540 feet. Thus the nominal rise from the saddle is just 291 feet. However, the true rise could be anywhere from 272 to 311 feet! A peak like this is given a "soft rank" in Roach's lists of peaks to indicate that it could actually be a ranked peak, but is not counted as such. In addition to Iowa Peak, Drift Peak, and "North Mount Massive" have soft ranks and would be high enough to qualify for the state's Top 100 list.

It is important to note that there are some peaks that are generally considered ranked peaks that might not satisfy the 300-foot rule if the saddle height broke the wrong way. Among the Top 100 peaks in Colorado we have Mount Bross, Challenger Peak, and "Thunder Pyramid".

Other criteria

As noted earlier, one doesn't have to use the 300-foot rule. Some people prefer to use something like a 1000-foot rule to identify the most significant summits. It turns out that among the 637 ranked 13ers and 14ers using the 300-foot rule, only 110 satisfy the 1000-foot rule. A 2000-foot rule cuts this list to just 41 true mountains and relegates the other 596 peaks to mere false summits. Interestingly, the 14ers hold up pretty well to the 1000-foot rule, with 37 ranked peaks at this level, but just 22 at the 2000-foot level. Of further interest, the 1000-foot rule eliminates many of the more difficult 14ers, such as North Maroon, Little Bear, and Crestone Needle. In fact, a 500-foot rule eliminates those peaks, too, and this rule would mostly eliminate "difficult" peaks in cutting the 14ers list down to 46!

Of course, what some people have done is put together lists that are just based on the saddle rise ("prominence") and make that the list of peaks to climb instead of climbing based purely on summit elevation. However, in Colorado and in most places, most people still abide by "the higher the better".

People have also tried to incorporate separation distances into the "what is a peak" criteria. Gerry Roach tried a "power" index formed by multiplying saddle drop and distance, but it never caught on. That was not the first attempt at a two-criterion system, either. The idea being that if the nearest higher ranked peak is far enough away, even with a small saddle drop it may be fairly difficult to climb both summits at once. One might also incorporate the difficulty of the traverse between two peaks; that's certainly why El Diente is counted as a separate 14er from Mount Wilson despite a saddle drop of less than 300 feet. This would tend to eliminate "walk ups" with modest saddle drops and preserve things like El Diente.

Another aspect of this is named vs. unnamed. Because peaks tended to get named based on visibility from settlements and nowadays it is very difficult to get a peak named, there are quite a few significant unnamed peaks. This is true even using the 1000-foot rule. In fact, 7 out of the 100 highest peaks in the state that satisfy the 1000-foot rule do not have official names! [Actually, this isn't true anymore as the Board of Geographic Names has approved names for some of these peaks in the last few years.] Conversely, there are some pretty pathetic named peaks that happen to be easily visible, but have miniscule saddle drops.

Often, lists of peaks will include both ranked peaks and unranked named peaks. For example, I've climbed all 17 ranked peaks (at the 300-foot level) above 13,740 feet in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range, plus the unranked peaks Gemini Peak, Traver Peak, Mount Cameron, and McNamee Peak, and the unofficially named "Drift Peak" which has a "soft rank". Thus, I feel comfortable in claiming that I've climbed all "named and significant" peaks above 13,740 feet in the range, even though "significant" is in the eye of the beholder. The 300-foot rule is rather inclusive as far as that goes; many favor much more exclusive standard. But, what kind of mountaineer would complain about having too many peaks to climb?

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