I am not bound to please thee with my answer.
– William Shakespeare
What is a Peak?
|The question about what constitutes an official peak and what is just a false
summit has plagued mountaineers for decades. Most mountaineers know all about
false summits. When you reach what you think is the summit and discover that
the peak you are trying to climb is still farther and higher, you are on a
false summit. For many mountaineers, this is all they need to know, and the
following discussion may seem banal.
|The traditional list of Colorado fourteeners has varied from 52 to 55 peaks
over the years and has always been based on a healthy degree of emotionalism.
Peaks have come and gone from the list of fourteeners for sentimental reasons.
In this high-tech peak-bagging age, however, many climbers are interested
in peak lists based on a rational system. These climbers are interested in
the discussion about what constitutes a peak because the answer determines
the list’s contents and, hence, their climbs.
|For some time in Colorado, a single, simple criterion has been used to determine
if a summit is a peak or a false summit: For a summit to be a peak, it must
rise at least 300 vertical feet above the saddle connecting it to its neighbor.
If just one criterion is going to be used, this is a good one. There is nothing
sacred about 300 feet. It is just a round number that seems to make sense
in Colorado. This criterion serves most people most of the time, and the peak
lists on this site use it.
|– Gerry Roach
When is a Peak Climbed?
|After grappling with the question of what is a peak, we need to think about
the question: When is a peak climbed? Most people would squirm if you drove
a vehicle to within a few feet of a summit and then walked the last few feet
to the summit, and most people would squirm if you did not reach the highest
point at all. Two necessary conditions seem to be that you must reach the
highest point under your own power and that you must gain a certain amount
of elevation. The crux question is how much?
|An obvious answer is that, to climb a mountain you must climb from the bottom
to the top. Although the top of most mountains is well defined, the bottom
is not. One definition is that the bottom of all mountains is sea level. This
flip definition makes little topographic sense, and it means that few people
have ever climbed anything.
|In Colorado, there has been a long-standing informal agreement that one should
gain 3,000 feet for a “legal” ascent of a fourteener. Of course, there is
nothing sacred about the number 3,000. It is approximately equal to the vertical
distance between treeline and summit, and it represents a nice workout, but
other than that, it is just a one-number estimate for defining the bottom
of a Colorado mountain. Even people who are careful to gain 3,000 feet on
the first peak of the day, often hike the connecting ridge to the next peak
and claim a legal ascent of the second peak after an ascent of only a few
hundred feet. Most people who climb Colorado peaks do this.
|A good minimum criterion for climbing a peak is that you should gain a vertical
height under your own power equal to your peak’s rise from its highest connecting
saddle with a neighbor peak. If you do less than that, you are just visiting
summits, not climbing mountains. Beyond this minimum gain, you are free to
gain as much altitude as your peak-bagging conscience requires. The greater
your elevation gain, the greater your karmic gain. Except for ridge traverses,
3,000 feet seems to satisfy most people.
|– Gerry Roach