What is a Mountain?

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

What height makes a landform that rises from its surrounding area a mountain?  

While there is a conventional understanding that a mountain is higher than a hill, there is no universally accepted definition of a mountain.

Does the United States Have a Definition of a Mountain?

In the United States, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names once held the position that what defined a mountain as opposed to a hill was 1,000 feet of local relief.  

This was abandoned in the early 1970s due to the lack of a board agreement on this definition.  


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Hills have a lower elevation than mountains.  A hill in the Italian countryside.  Photo: John J. Mosesso, USGS. Public domain.
Hills have a lower elevation than mountains. A hill in the Italian countryside. Photo: John J. Mosesso, USGS. Public domain.

Definition of a Mountain in the United Kingdom

Up until the 1920s, the UK Ordnance Survey defined a mountain as having a relief of more than 1,000 feet, a concept that formed the plot for the Hugh Grant movie, “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.” (affiliate link).  

Nowadays, the Ordnance Survey defers to local customs and traditions but generally defines a mountain (page archived from the Wayback Machine) as having a minimum height of 610 meters or 2,000 feet.

Making a Mountain out of a Hill

Ian McNeice and Hugh Grant played a pair of cartographers during World War I England in 1917. 

In the movie, the cartographers measure the height of the local mountain in the fictional Welsh village of Ffynnon Garw.  The cartographers discover the mountain is actually a hill, falling slightly short of the required 1000′ height measurement required to be classified as a mountain.  

This declassification spurs the villagers to delay the departure of the cartographers so they can add an earth cairn to the top of the mountain in order to push its height measurement up and get it designated as a mountain.

The film “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain” was set in 1917 in a small Welsh town.  Fast forward to 2008 where three walkers remeasured a local peak in Wales in order to reclassify it from a hill to a mountain.

Reclassifying Mynydd Graig Goch

The Guardian highlights the real life efforts of a trio of amateur cartographers who target hills and mountains just under or above the 609.6 meters which is the metric equivalent to the 2,000′ mark as designated by the Ordnance Survey.  Graham Jackson and John Barnard, along with Myrddyn Phillips, pooled their funds to purchase a $15,000 surveyor-grade GPS equipment in order to re-measure these hills.

Two thousand feet of height is what is required to be named as a mountain according to the Ordnance Survey.  For over two hundred years, that’s exactly what the classification of Mynydd Graig Goch in Snowdonia, Wales which until 2008, had an official measured height of 1,998ft which put it two feet shy of being ranked as a mountain.  

John Barnard, Myrddyn Phillips, and Graham Jackson launched an intensive survey of Mynydd Graig Goch (Welsh for ‘mountain of the red rock’) to remeasure the height.  The team borrowed equipment from Leica Geosystems to take 7,000 GPS readings over two hours. 

Jackson, Barnard, and Phillips were able to get Mynydd Graig Goch in Snowdonia reclassified as a Wales’ 190th mountain in 2008 after their measurements proved that the originally measured height of 1,998ft was in actuality 2,000 feet and six inches (609.75m as measured by their Leica GS15).

Reclassifying Thack Moor

The latest successful reclassification is Thack Moor in the northern Pennines near Renwick, Cumbria.  With an official measurement a mere 2 centimeters above the 2000′ mark at 609.62m, Thack Moor is now England’s 254th mountain.  

The trio have measured over a 100 hills and mountains to date with Mynydd Graig Goch and Thack Moor being the only two that have need reclassification to date.  A collection of videos about the trio’s hill measuring activities is available on the G and J Surveys YouTube page.

Redesignating hills as mountains is more than just a hobby to the local areas as tourism is boosted as a result of having a mountain nearby.  Hillwalking and mountaineering are immensely popular in the United Kingdom.

Reference

Zargar, A. (2009). Change in the Classification of a Landform Draws Attention to the Issue of Uncertainty in Geospatial Data. Geomatica63(1), 37-39. https://doi.org/10.5623/geomat-2009-0004

Dictionary Definitions of a Mountain

Many dictionary definitions of what is a mountain use qualitative rather than a quantitative approach to defining these topographical structures.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a mountains as “a natural elevation of the earth surface rising more or less abruptly from the surrounding level and attaining an altitude which, relatively to the adjacent elevation, is impressive or notable.”  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a mountain as “an area of land that rises very high above the land around it and that is higher than a hill”.

Chief Mountain in Montana rises to an elevation of 9,085 ft (2,769 m).  Photo: USGS, Public domain.
Chief Mountain in Montana rises to an elevation of 9,085 ft (2,769 m). Photo: USGS, Public domain.

Three Defining Criteria for a Mountain

Some academics have also tried to create a set of criteria for defining mountains.  Roderick Peattie who published “Mountain Geography” in 1936 argued that three main criteria for defining mountains.  

  • He argued that mountains should be impressive;
  • Peattie noted that mountains “should enter into the imagination of the people that live in their shadows.”  
  • Peattie also felt that mountains should have individual character and play a symbolic role in the local area.

What is a Mountain is in the Eye of the Beholder

In many regions, the concept of what makes a mountain is one of relativity.  In areas without a lot of steep topography, locals may refer to local rises in elevations as mount or mountains.  For example, the highest point in San Francisco is known as Mount Davidson, which has an elevation of 928 feet (283 meters).

Mount Logan is the highest in mountain in Canada at 5,959 meters (19,551 feet)
Mount Logan is the highest in mountain in Canada at 5,959 meters (19,551 feet). Photo: NOAA, public domain.

This article was first published on September 1, 2014 and was recently updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.