Ultras? A blog on football fans known for ultra-fanatical support? Often with violent tendencies? No, this is about ultra-prominent mountains, or “Ultras”.
WHAT IS A MOUNTAIN?
One of the great mountaineering goals is to climb all of the Earth’s 8000m peaks. There are 14 of them. Only 40 people have ever, indisputably, climbed all 14. Everest’s South Summit lies at 8749m metres in elevation. But the list of 14 does not include it. This is the case notwithstanding the fact that there is no higher summit on the Earth’s surface, other than the summit of Everest itself.
Why is this? The answer is that when descending from Everest’s main summit to return down the Nepalese side of the mountain it is only necessary to re-ascend 11m in order to pass over the South Summit. In other words this summit is a mere pimple on the side of Everest.
So somewhere along the line a judgement is being made as to what should constitute a separate mountain. In the case of Everest’s South Summit that judgement is because its lack of prominence, it has insufficient definition in its own right to be regarded as a separate mountain.
So should these judgements be subjective or objective? In other words should a fixed physical and measurable criterion be used to determine what constitutes a mountain (and by extension a hill)? If so, what should this be?
Returning to the UK (or more accurately Scotland) for a moment, by the 1930s three hill classifications had been developed. Each used different criteria to determine whether or not a particular summit merited inclusion in the classification. The summits included in these classifications became known as the Munros, the Corbetts and the Donalds.
The Munros are a list of summits in excess of 3000 feet, but do not include all such summits. Indeed the compiler of the list, Sir Hugh Munro, did not leave us with guidance on how he came up with his categorisation beyond the minimum height requirement of 3000 feet and the fact that there had to be “sufficient separation” from neighbouring peaks. So he split his list into “mountains” and subsidiary tops. Indeed he stated “the exact number of mountains could not be determined owing to the impossibility of deciding which were the most distinctive peaks”.
The Corbetts are a list of summits of at least 2500 feet in height but less than 3000 feet in height. However, the compiler, John Rooke Corbett, required his summits also to have a drop all round of at least 500 feet. This is a prominence criterion to which I return.
The Donalds are defined as elevations in the Scottish Lowlands of at least 2000ft in height with a drop of at least 50ft between each elevation and any higher elevation. Furthermore, elevations separated from higher elevations by a drop of less than 100ft are required to have “sufficient topographical merit”. The compiler of this list, Percy Donald, did not define what he meant by that phrase.
So there we have three different ways of categorising mountains or hills. Only one, the Corbetts, uses wholly objective criteria. The others are a combination of absolute height, subjective assessment and (in part) drop.
I return to the question “what is a separate mountain”? The answer must combine absolute height and some distinguishing feature of the summit one is considering.
In the UK we tend to think of any summit in excess of 2000 feet or 610 metres as being a mountain. Of course, that elevation would count for nothing in the Alps or the Himalayas. But the elevation gain from Wasdale to the summit of Scafell Pike is 2½ times that of the Eiger by its easiest route. Is the Eiger therefore not a mountain?
Elevation must be seen in the context of the surrounding land form. Absolute height cannot be the sole determining factor as can be seen from the Everest South Summit example. If subjective criteria are not to determine the categorisation, then there is really only one objective measure that really works. This is the concept of “prominence”.
It is arguable also that “isolation” is relevant. In other words how far a particular summit is away from its nearest higher neighbour. But that cannot be the sole determinant, otherwise a remote island atoll would meet the necessary criterion for a mountain. Think of an island in the Maldives for example.
Prominence is a term that represents the elevation of a summit relative to the surrounding terrain. It is defined as the elevation of a summit relative to the highest point to which one must descend before re-ascending to a higher summit.
In other words, prominence is calculated as the difference in elevation between a summit and the highest saddle that connects that summit to any higher terrain.
Put yet another way, prominence is the elevation difference between the summit and the lowest contour that encircles it and no higher summit. It is the minimum height by which one would have to descend from a summit along a ridge in order to re-ascend to a higher peak.
The concept of prominence has gained a large degree of acceptance in the world of peak bagging. In the UK Alan Dawson published in 1992 “The Relative Hills of Britain: Mountains, Munros and Marilyns”. Here he listed what in Britain were hills that were relatively high by reference to their surrounding terrain. There was no absolute height requirement. All he did was to adopt a prominence criterion of 150 metres (roughly 500 feet). He called these hills Marilyns as a play on words with Munros. There are 1557 of them in the British Isles (excluding the Republic of Ireland).
You can read about my journey around the English Marilyns here.
Of course that begs the question as to what the prominence value should be if prominence is to be the objective measure to be used to determine whether or not a particular summit is to be regarded as a separate mountain or hill. In UK terms we have a number of listings that use different prominence values – Nuttalls (15 metres of prominence and a minimum height of 610 metres), Hewitts (30 metres and a minimum height of 610 metres), HuMPs (100 metres, no minimum height), TuMPs (30 metres, no minimum height) – in addition to the Marilyns.
A significant piece of work on the concepts of prominence and isolation by Andrew Kirmse and Jonathan de Ferranti is available here. The paper mentions others whose contributions to research in this area should be noted.
That brings me to the purpose of this blog. Without determining what I might consider to be the appropriate measure to define what constitutes a mountain (because it is unlikely that there would be agreement on this), I come to the concept of Ultras.
As mentioned above, Ultras are the ultra-prominent peaks of the world. These are summits that have a prominence of at least 1500 metres (approximately 5000 feet). In other words, topographically, they are significant summits. Coincidentally there are around 1500 such summits (a few more in fact).
The table below compares the ten highest mountains in the world (which are all in the Himalayas or Karakorum) with the ten most prominent mountains in the world (which have a much wider geographical spread). Only Everest is in both lists.
K2, the second highest mountain in the world, is a lowly 22 in the prominence listings. High points of continents and of islands and volcanoes feature highly in this top 10.
|Rank by absolute height||Height||Rank by prominence||Prominence|
|Mount Everest (Nepal/China)||8848m||Mount Everest (Nepal/China)||8848m|
|K2 (Pakistan/China)||8614m||Aconcagua (Argentina)||6962m|
|Kanchenjunga (Nepal/India)||8586m||Denali (USA)||6140m|
|Lhotse (Nepal/China)||8516m||Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)||5885m|
|Makalu (Nepal/China)||8485m||Cristobal Colon (Colombia)||5539m|
|Cho Oyu (China)||8188m||Mount Logan (Canada)||5247m|
|Dhaulagiri (Nepal)||8167m||Pico de Orizaba (Mexico)||4922m|
|Manaslu (Nepal)||8163m||Mount Vinson (Antarctica)||4892m|
|Nanga Parbat (Pakistan)||8125m||Puncak Jaya (Indonesia)||4884m|
|Annapurna (Nepal)||8091m||Elbrus (Russia)||4741m|
There are no Ultras in the British Isles.
A whole host of information on the topic of prominence can be found at the peaklist.org website. I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the information there in producing this blog. Since the Kirmse/de Ferranti paper referenced above, further detailed analysis and the availability of satellite information has enabled the Ultras list to be updated.
Peak bagging in the UK is a well-known pastime now whether it is the Munros, the Wainwrights in the Lake District, the Marilyns or one of the many other lists.
But does peak bagging extend to bagging Ultras? Well the answer to this question seems to be yes. A couple of mega baggers have climbed in excess of 300 Ultras, though there is no complete list of people who have climbed numerous Ultras.
There is, however, an attempt to list those who target the top 50 most prominent mountains in the world. At the time of writing this blog, the “leaders” (at least so far as they are known) in this endeavour are:
Matthew Holt (UK/South Africa) with 36.
Jaime Viñals (Guatemala) with 33.
Gerry Roach (USA) with 30.
MJ Kim (South Korea) with 30.
Petter Bjørstad (Norway) with 30.
Geri Winkler (Austria) with 30.
Junko Tabei (Japan) with 28.
Bob Packard (USA) with 27.
Father Morgan Batt (Australia) with 26.
Gerhard Schmatz (Germany) with 25.
Rob Woodall (UK) with 24.
Ken Jones (USA) with 24.
In the list there is just one woman, Junko Tabei (the first woman to climb Everest). There is a Roman Catholic priest and a South Korean with the rest being European or North American but with a British South African resident leading the pack.
Research on and collation of the lists of those who have climbed significant numbers of Ultras (and other prominence categories) has over recent years largely been undertaken by Andy Martin of Tucson, Arizona with the help of climbers from around the world and other written sources. Much of the information for the lists comes from a few websites, though it is difficult to obtain information about Asian climbers because of the language and script barriers. So it is likely that certain individuals may have been missed from the lists.
Andy maintains his lists for inspection at his oldadit website. He is always happy to receive updates and corrections. This can be done direct or via me if any reader is aware of any person who merits inclusion on any of them.