The distinction between “hill” and “mountain” has not been consistent in the UK. Most definitions go back to the 19th or early 20th Centuries. For example there is the 1 000 foot summit definition cited in The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill, But Came Down A Mountain. A summary of the storyline is given in the following Channel 4 excerpt.
In 1917, English surveyors Reginald (Grant) and George (McNiece) arrive in a small Welsh town to calculate the precise status of Ffynnon Garw, proudly described by the locals as “the first mountain in Wales”. Unfortunately, Ffynnon Garw is found to be somewhat short of the requisite 1 000 feet. Cue a less than ethical attempt by the locals to extend it, then persuade the surveyors to measure it again. “If it isn’t a mountain,” says one, “they might as well redraw the border and put us all in England. God forbid!”
However the current story views a “mountain” as being a summit above 2 000 ft. For example the BBC says
Mynydd Graig Goch in Snowdonia was originally put at 1 998ft (609m), just short of the magic 2 000ft (609.6m) that qualifies as a mountain.
But the walkers found its true height is six inches over 2 000ft (609.75m).
Many Scottish walkers though would regard “real mountains” as those summits over 3 000 ft listed by Sir Hugh Munro in 1891. In comparison, summits of 2 000 ft or 1 000 ft may seem puny.
In fact there is a wide variety of lists of peaks with a confusion of corresponding criteria. Sir Hugh’s famous Munro list is restricted to Scotland, the Hewitts (Hills in England Wales and Ireland over two thousand feet) and most other lists are based on heights of summits in feet. Many of these lists suffer from being disconnected from modern Ordnance Survey maps which have used metric contours since the early 1970s.
In commenting on today’s story, firstly credit should be given to John Barnard, Myrddyn Phillips and Graham Jackson for re-surveying Mynydd Graig Goch which is a thoroughly worthwhile activity. Similar activities have been undertaken by mountain enthusiasts in Scotland and England too. However, why is the 2 000 ft summit height so significant? Other people have historically seen 1 000 ft or 3 000 ft as more important.
For 21st century walkers a metric criterion would make sense as it would fit with the OS maps that have major contours every 50 metres and minor contours every 10 metres; feet are totally obsolete and awkwardÂ in this context. The official Goverment definition of a mountain is any land over 600 metres, so Mynydd Graig Goch was already officially a mountain even before the survey!
Lairig Ghru the highest pass through Cairgorms seen from Aviemore station
However most people envisage a “mountain” as being more than simply land over a certain elevation. For example, in the Cairngorms one of the lowest points is the Lairig Ghru pass at about 830 metres. Nobody would regard a mere hillock in that area as a “mountain” simply because of being above 2 000 ft or even 3 000 ft. In the Cairngorms the peaks rise above a high plateau. On the other hand on islands, all hills rise from almost sea level with 500 metre rises being not uncommon. Is a 500 metre hill rising out of the sea on say the Isle of Lewis any less worthy of the “mountain” title than a 1 000 metre high hillock in the Cairngorms?
Returning to the current news on Mynydd Graig Goch I wonder if we are asking the right question. It is great to have a more accurate reading of the summit but the Government already regarded it as mountainous terrain; the “magic height” was really 600 metres not 2 000 ft. The Government – like OS maps – has moved on from feet and inches in mapmaking three decades ago! But the really important question is whether Mynydd Graig Goch is a distinct peak.
The point is that not every peak with the same summit height is equally prominent. In the diagram above, three peaks are shown each with a summit height of 600 metres. However the summit on the left with a prominence of 50 metres is relatively speaking a “bump” on a mountainous landscape compared with the one on the right which is -with prominence 200 metres – quite distinct and with a significant dip to the neighbouring peaks that descends much closer to sea level. The latter better merits the “mountain” title.
For too long in the UK we have classified peaks by summit height alone and ignored the equally important topographic prominence or distinctiveness of that summit. Classic lists of summits such as the Munros, Hewitts, Donalds, etc have tended to focus mainly on summit height. A new 21st Century classification of summits based on both height and prominence in metres is needed.
[Contributed by Roddy Urquhart]