What’s More Important: Altitude or Attitude (Prominence)?

Garden of the Gods

Mount Washington, the highest summit in New England, rises 6,288 feet above sea level.

So does the parking lot of the Broadmoor Towne Center in Colorado Springs.

The coincidence has inspired a few Colorado-proud geography wags to call the area “Mount Washington Shopping Center.”

“It’s a typical heightist reaction, blindly looking only at altitude,” said Adam Helman, a computational chemist in California who is one of a growing number of people who rank mountains not by elevation, but by prominence.

In general, prominence is the measure of how high a mountain rises above its immediate surroundings. Under its rules, Mount Washington isn’t a pipsqueak that barely peeks above the burrito counter at the Towne Center’s Chipotle. It’s a giant towering 6,150 feet above New England.

“For all of modern times, the worthiness of a mountain has been strictly defined by altitude. The rules of prominence say ‘nay, nay, worthiness is based on vertical relief,’” said Helman, who wrote a book about it, “The Finest Peaks: Prominence and Other Mountain Measures.”

More and more amateur mountaineers across the country agree. They have spent years scrutinizing topographical maps to draw up lists of peaks based on prominence. Many are attempting to climb all these peaks with the fervor Coloradans usually save for bagging summits topping 14,000 altitudinal feet. In fact, even in this highest state in the Rockies, where climbers can spend their lives “blindly looking only at altitude” and still feel pretty good about themselves, appreciation of prominence is on the rise.

“Prominence seems to give you a more interesting, diverse list of mountains. Because they are out on their own, every one is a classic. It’s one of the truest measures of a mountain,” said John Kirk, a tech worker in Louisville, Colo., who runs a website about peaks and prominence and other hiking and mountaineering topics.

“The fourteeners list tends to overlook a lot of the state’s best summits while including some that are not all that remarkable,” he said.

For example, on the list of the state’s fourteeners, the crumbling hump of Mount Bross (14,172 feet), surrounded by higher peaks, is recognized, while West Spanish Peak (13,625 feet), which soars almost 6,000 feet above the prairie near Walsenburg, is not.

What’s More Important: Altitude or Attitude (Prominence)?

Mount Massive, 14,429 feet. Courtesy of Josh Friesema

On the list of Colorado’s most prominent peaks, West Spanish is ranked twelfth. Bross does not appear on it.

If you’re not a list type of person, it’s easy to scoff at slightly different summit inventories. After all, they are artificially imposed. They are imperfect. And they inevitably omit some wonderful high points. But every mountainous state has a dominant list. The Adirondacks region of New York has its forty-sixers (46 peaks higher than 3,800 feet). California has the local Sierra Club 100 Peaks. Colorado has the fourteeners.

And, artificially imposed or not, such lists have real consequences. The fourteeners are climbed on a daily basis during summer, while perfectly nice nearby peaks in the 13,990-foot category often go unvisited for months.

Coming up with a list that stresses prominence could introduce many people to some little-known peaks, said Ryan Schilling, who came up with the first prominence list for Colorado in 1999.

“This list finds worthy peaks throughout the state that aren’t usually covered,” he said. “It can get you out to corners of Colorado you wouldn’t normally get to.”

NEW PERSPECTIVES

Many people ranking peaks in this way are deep into science, computer software design or other number-crunching pursuits, giving rise to an insider joke: If you call people who measure by elevation “heightists” what do you call people who measure by prominence? Mathematicians.

“Through prominence, we have a rational way of measuring a peak. Unless you are willing to choose mountains randomly based on what excites your soul, prominence is the most logical metric for defining the worthiness of a mountain,” said Helman, who, aside from being a chemist and author, said he is someone who “appreciates order and lists.”

The “metric” for finding prominence is pretty simple at first. Prominence measures how much elevation is lost on a ridge between a peak and the closest higher peak. The low point between them is called the key saddle. For example, the key saddle between Pikes Peak (14,115 feet) and its closest higher neighbor, Mount Lincoln (14,286 feet), is an 8,600-foot high point near Lake George. Subtract the saddle elevation from the summit elevation, and Pikes Peak has 5,510 feet of prominence.

What’s More Important: Altitude or Attitude (Prominence)?

Even though Mount Lincoln is higher than Pikes Peak, it has less prominence because the drop between Lincoln and its nearest higher neighbor, Mount Massive, is only 3,862 feet.

From there it gets more tricky. Even though Mount Lincoln is higher than Pikes Peak, it has less prominence because the drop between Lincoln and its nearest higher neighbor, Mount Massive, is only 3,862 feet.

Mount Massive (14,320 feet), the second-highest peak in Colorado, has even less prominence than Lincoln because the ridge to its nearest higher neighbor, Mount Elbert, drops only 1,941 feet.

Elbert really confuses things. Since the 14,433-foot peak is the tallest mountain in Colorado, its next-higher neighbor is Mount Whitney (14,491 feet) in California. So anyone calculating Elbert’s prominence has to draw a line across Utah and Nevada before finally finding a key saddle near Death Valley that gives Elbert a prominence of 9,073 feet.

Andy Martin, a software engineer in Tucson, Ariz., and one of the prominence pioneers, said Elbert is misleading since it rises only about 4,000 feet above the surrounding valley. As the highest peak in the region, it also represents the one exception to the general definition of prominence, because the saddle it’s measured against is not part of its immediate surroundings.

Martin first heard about the idea of prominence in the early 1990s and was immediately intrigued.

“Prominence gets rid of all the boring stuff and leaves the really neat peaks,” he said. “The list matches up with how I’ve related to mountains since I was a kid driving around the West with my dad. Before I knew much about elevation, very prominent mountains just struck me. I think it gets to our innate way of looking at mountains. Prominent mountains just look really impressive.”

He’s not the first to notice. Several of Colorado’s most prominent peaks were considered sacred by American Indians. Blanca Peak and Hesperus Mountain were important markers of the Navajo homeland. The Utes living around Pikes Peak, which they called Tava, thought enough of this second-most-prominent peak in Colorado to name themselves the Tabaguache — basically “the Pikes Peak People.”

What’s More Important: Altitude or Attitude (Prominence)?

Longs Peak, 14,259 feet. Courtesy of Josh Friesema

Gerry Roach, a leading author of mountaineering guides in Colorado, said prominence is not a new idea. For years, fourteeners have needed at least 300 feet of prominence to officially be fourteeners (though some, such as North Maroon Peak, have slipped in anyway). But, he said, the interest in judging peaks purely on prominence brings attention to often overlooked summits.

Only 24 of the 100 most prominent peaks in Colorado are fourteeners; 23 are thirteeners and 22 are twelvers. The rest are under 12,000 feet.

In the back of the first edition of his guidebook “Colorado Fourteeners,” Roach included an essay on how to calculate “mountain power.” He imagined feeding “3D topography data and a what-is-a-peak algorithm into a computer” and printing out a list of ideal peaks. But Roach, a bit of a number cruncher himself, wondered what the right algorithm would be. He suggested that prominence multiplied by distance from a higher peak might be good criteria. But he included a “fudge factor” called the “peak constant” that each climber got to pick. Since there were no definite rules, there was no definite list. And in the next edition, there was no essay on peak power.

“I think it confused people. Prominence is much easier to understand. Is it the best list ever? Well, it doesn’t take into account steepness or difficulty or a number of other things.

“So I think people will always be looking for a perfect list. I’m thinking about drawing up a list, just out of my head, of the 50 most quality peaks. One of these days I’ll put it out there and let people argue over it.”

COLORADO’S TOP 5 PROMINENT PEAKS

  • Mount Elbert, 9,073 feet
  • Pikes Peak, 5,510 feet
  • Blanca Peak, 5,326 feet
  • Culebra Peak, 4,807 feet
  • Crestone Peak, 4,534 feet
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