A Mountain is a Mountain - isn't it?
Well yes and no. Like all these things, it is all a matter of definition.
Most UK mountains do not rise majestically to a single (snow capped) point before gliding smoothly back to the valley floor. More often than not, they stumble up in a series of lumps and bumps, follow an undulating ridge in a series of peaks and troughs before returning untidily to the valley floor.
For example, the Helvellyn ridge in the Eastern Lake District starts (or ends) at Rydal, just North of Ambleside, where it rises first onto Nab Scar and then up onto Heron Pike. It descends briefly before rising again to Great Rigg, where it descends briefly again before rising again to the summit of Fairfield. A more pronounced descent drops to Grisedale Tarn (which itself is at some 1800ft above sea level) before rising again to cross Dollywaggon Pike and Nethermost Pike before finally reaching the summit of Helvellyn - the highest point on the whole ridge. Then it crosses White Side, Raise, Stybarrow Dodd, Watson's Dodd, Great Dodd and finally Clough Head before descending to the valley floor near Threlkeld. A linear distance of some 18km (approx. 11 miles).
Striding Edge, Helvellyn, Swirral Edge, Catstye Cam, White Side, Raise and Stybarrow Dodd from Hole-in-the-Wall. Photo: Alan Wainwright
Now is the whole ridge one single mountain called Helvellyn?
The descent at Grisedale Tarn is quite pronounced so perhaps it is two mountains - Helvellyn and Fairfield?
But when does one mountain stop and the next one start?
What about the mountains that branch off the main ridge - like Striding Edge, Catstye Cam, St Sunday Crag and Hart Crag?
For this reason, mountains in the UK are classified using two factors:
- the height of the summit above sea level - in the UK and Ireland mountains must be over 610m (approx 2000ft) to be called 'mountains', and
- the amount of re-ascent required on all sides from a neighbouring mountain to reach that summit is at least 30m (approx 100ft) or 152m (500ft) depending on the system adopted
In England and Wales these qualifying mountains are also sometimes known as English Hewitts and Welsh Hewitts. In Scotland they are called Murdos, Corbetts or Grahams depending on the height of the summit above sea-level.
There are some exceptions to this basic rule:
- Donalds use a complicated formula that includes the linear distance between any two summits,
- Alfred Wainwright included a top if he thought it would make a pleasing chapter in one of his books, and
- Munros are 'elected' to have Munro status by The Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC).
NB. Given the above criteria, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Dollywaggon Pike, Helvellyn, White Side, Raise, Stybarrow Dodd, Watson's Dodd, Great Dodd and Clough Head are all separate mountains - as are Striding Edge, Catstye Cam, St Sunday Crag and Hart Crag. Nab Scar, Heron Pike and Nethermost Pike however are merely subsidiary tops.