Purpose of this ArticleThis is to provide a reference and standardized answer to the frequent confusion arising over terms such as "mountain", "peak", and "summit." I realize that local usage will sometimes differ, but it may be useful to have a standard glossary for SP purposes.
I have done my best to verify my definitions using authoritative English-language dictionaries. Please provide corrections or interesting local variations in comments to this page.
This page covers toponymy in English, with a few brief notes on a handful of other languages. A joint effort is now underway on Summitpost to build a multilingual dictionary covering toponomy, gear, and other areas.
The most elemental term is also the hardest to define precisely. A mountain is like a hill, but bigger. Some governments or hiking clubs will define a mountain as having a minimum elevation, or a minimum prominence, but these standards vary widely. For our purposes, if it's got "mount" or "mountain" in the name, or if it's massive enough that, by local standards, it could, then it's a mountain.
It's not always clear where one mountain ends and a neighboring mountain begins. Local tradition governs.
The word "mountain" comes from roots meaning, roughly, "big pile." Related English words include "mound" and of course "mount". As the very learned brenta points out, "mount" is a noun and "mountain" was derived from it, originally as an adjective.
Nowadays the distinction between "mountain" and "mount" has largely vanished, but "mount" is still slightly preferred to "mountain" when used as part of a name, as in "Mount Everest". "Mount" is common for mountains named after people ("Mount Lafayette"), whereas "Mountain" is often used for descriptive names ("Granite Mountain"), but there is no fixed rule. Whether "mount" or "mountain" appears in a name depends on whatsounded better to the person doing the naming. But there does seem to be a topographic pattern as well. (this paragraph suggested by JScoles)
The summit is the highest point.
In theory, every mountain has exactly one summit. In practice, mountaineers will in many cases talk about multiple summits (eg Everest South Summit), thus blurring the distinction between "summit" and "peak" (see below).
Sometimes as you're climbing you'll approach a spot that looks like it might be the summit, only to discover it's a "false summit".
The word comes from Latin "summus", meaning "highest".
In the 19th century, "summit" was also applied to other kinds of highest points, such as the highest point reached when crossing a pass.
A peak is a point that's higher than all other adjacent points. In mathematical terms, it's a local maximum, the point with slope of zero along a convex-up curve. The thing to understand about this definition is that it is entirely localized: there may be some higher point not far away, but if you can't get there without going downhill first, you're standing on a peak.
In other words, most mountains will have multiple peaks.
Hiking clubs usually have criteria (prominence, sometimes separation) to separate the peaks that "count" from those that are too small to bother with, but these are not essential to the definition and will vary from region to region.
In common usage, a "peak" is pointy, otherwise it may be called a "knob", "crag", "bald", "dome", and so forth.
The word is probably related to words such as "pike" (a long spear) which describe something sharp and pointy. (Also, French "piquer" to jab as with a needle, Spanish "picador", spear-man).
Deciding where one range ends and another begins is not always clear, and local usage should be deferred to. The basic idea, though, is that a range consists of a distinct group of mountains joined together by high ground - higher than the ground that connects them to some other range. Ranges will end at rivers, oceans, valleys, or where the hills become too small to qualify as mountains.
The word shares a root with "arrange" and with "rank" - it's an organizing group, and carries a connotation of lining up in a row.
A-E Other Mountain Terrain Vocabulary[A-E] [F-J] [K-O] [P-Z]
aiguille- [Fr: "needle"] A tall, narrow spire of rock.
altitude- [L: "height"] Height. Aircraft pilots always distinguish between "absolute altitude", which is height above the ground surface, and "true altitude", which is height above sea level. In the mountains, the difference between the two numbers can be dramatic and fatal. See also "elevation."
arete[Fr: "spine" or "fish-bone"] - 1. A narrow ridge. 2. In glaciology, a narrow ridge remaining after glacial erosion from both sides. 3. In rock climbing, a vertical ridge or junction of walls at a convex angle in a rock face.
barchan[Kazakh] - An arc-shaped dune. Mostly used for sand dunes but sometimes applied to snow dunes as well.
bergschrund[Ger: "hill-gap"] - A crevasse that forms the upper edge of a glacier, separating it from the fixed ice-cap above it. Compare moat.
butte- [Fr.] - a steep-sided, flat-topped hill, smaller than a mesa.
cirque[Fr: circus] A bowl-shaped valley high on a mountain, usually of glacial origin. Synonyms: cwm (Gaelic), corrie (Scots Gaelic)
col[L: neck] the low point on a ridge joining two peaks. Glaciologists reserve this term for gaps of glacial origin, but others use it much more generally.
cornice[Fr., from "horn"] - Overhanging build-up of snow formed by wind passing sideways over a ridge or cliff.
corrie[Scots Gaelic: kettle] - see cirque
couloir[Fr. passage, corridor] a steep gorge or gully in a mountainside. Couloirs are good places to find uninterrupted snow and ice.
crag- [gaelic] - a rocky outcrop
crevasse- [Fr. "crevice"] - A crack in a glacier. Formed by stresses on the moving ice. A major navigational difficulty for mountaineers, and a major hazard when hidden by recent snow.
cwm[gaelic: valley] see cirque
dihedral[Gr.: two planes] - In rock climbing, a junction of two vertical walls at a concave angle (compare arete). In geometry, the angle between two planes.
dome- A peak having that shape.
drumlin[Gaelic "ridge"] - a hill formed from glacial debris. See also moraine.
elevation[L. "lifting up"] - Height, measured as vertical distance above sea level. In artillery or astronomy, "elevation" is measured as an angle above horizontal.
F-J Other Mountain Terrain Vocabulary[A-E] [F-J] [K-O] [P-Z]
felsenmeer[Ger. "sea of rock"] - Terrain of fractured rock formed in place by frost action. Compare talus.
gendarme- [Fr. "man-at-arms"] A steep-sided rock formation along a ridge (metaphorically "guarding" the summit).
glacier- [Fr.] - Year-round ice covering a large area. Formed from snowfall, glaciers will slide very slowly downhill.
gully[middle Fr., "throat"] - a channel caused by erosion, especially by water running down a slope. The distinction between "gully" and "valley" or "canyon" is one of scale - a gully is usually less than a hundred meters in width. (It is also at least a meter wide; anything smaller would be a ditch or runnel.)
hanging valley- A valley whose lower end is high on a sheer wall of a larger valley into which it flows.
headwall- vertical ("wall") or near-vertical section of slope at the uphill end ("head") of a valley, ravine, cirque, etc.
highpoint- The point of highest elevation in a given area, eg country, state, or county. A highpoint need not be a summit (or even a peak): The highpoint of the state of Connecticut is on the slopes of Mt Frissel, whose summit is outside the state.
horn- a peak having that shape. In glaciology, a horn is defined as the sheer-sided peak remaining after glaciers have removed at least three sides. (thanks to lostman)
inselberg- [Ger.: "island mountain"] - a mountain with no other mountains nearby.
K-O Other Mountain Terrain Vocabulary[A-E] [F-J] [K-O] [P-Z]
knob- A peak or hill having that shape.
knoll- small round hill.
krummholz- [G. "twisted wood"] - bonsai-like dwarf trees that grow at treeline.
ledge- A narrow, (more-or-less) flat spot along an otherwise (mostly) vertical face. Synonym: "shelf".
massif- [Fr. "massive"] - a range or plateau; a "mass" of peaks or mountains. Carries an implication that the peaks or mountains are bunched together, but not in a neat line. Borrowed from French. Like "range", can be applied on extremely varied scales, from "Massif Central" to "Massif du Mont Blanc."
moat- Gap along the side of a glacier, separating it from the rock of the valley wall. Compare bergschrund.
monadnock- [Abenaki: "Lone Mountain"; the name of a mountain in New Hampshire, USA] - inselberg.
moraine- [Savoyard Fr: "hill"] - A mound or ridge of dirt, rock, etc deposited by the edge of a glacier. See also drumlin".
mesa- [Sp. "table"] - a large formation having steep sides and a large flat top.
needle- A tall, narrow spire of rock.
nunatak[Inuit: "lonely peak"] - An ice-free peak that sticks up through a glacier.
P-Z Other Mountain Terrain Vocabulary[A-E] [F-J] [K-O] [P-Z]
pass- Any route from one valley, over higher ground to another valley. Usually, a relatively low point along a ridge. Many regional synonyms, such as "notch" in New England.
penitentes[Sp: penitents] - Spiky ice formations caused by uneven evaporation/melting of ice in sunlight. See also sun cups.
plateau[Fr. "serving plate"] - any area that is higher than (some of) its surroundings and fairly flat when considered from sufficient distance.
point1. Any location. 2. A small peninsula, or a formation resembling one. 3. A peak, prominence, or spur not considered worthy of the name "peak", or simply not yet named. In the absence of any other name, a peak or benchmark may be referred to as "point xxx", where xxx is its elevation.
prominence- [Latin: "forward projection"] 1. The quality of rising above or projecting beyond one's neighbors. 2. A peak or outcrop. 3. A measure of how far a peak rises above its neighbors: the minimum vertical distance one must descend in order to travel (on the ground) from a peak to any higher peak. See Wikipedia for more
saddle- A formation having that shape: high and broad at each end, lower and narrower in the middle.
sastrugi- [Rus. "grooves"] - ripple-like forms with sharp corners formed in hard, windswept snow. Compare barchan.
scree[Nordic] - A surface consisting of small loose rocks which have slid from above and are likely to slide again when stepped upon.
sea level- Fictional surface formed by the average height of the oceans, ignoring tidal cycles, weather, etc, and extended underneath the land to form a continous surface. This surface is not spherical. Commonly used approximations include "ellipsoids" (slightly-squashed spheres) and "geoids" (bumpier); the latter reflect variations in the strength of gravity in different locations. In many places the various kinds of "sea level" differ from each other by tens of meters, so next time you hear someone recite the altitude of Peak X down to the nearest centimeter, make sure you ask what "reference datum" they're using.
separation- the horizontal distance between two points. Sometimes used in deciding whether two points "count" as separate peaks or mountains.
serac[Fr, "Cheese curd"] - A large block or peak of glacier ice which is separated by crevasses from the main mass of its glacier, especially a block that is tilted, upthrust, or overhanging.
shoulder- a lateral protrusion on a mountain, or a point on the mountain where the slope changes, forming a convex shape.
snowline- the elevation above which snow remains on the ground year-round, ie the lower boundary of a permanent snowcap. Sometimes also used to designate the lower elevation boundary of merely seasonal snowfields.
spire- a tall and narrow rock formation, resembling a steeple.
spur[from riding spur, a pointy tool for kicking a horse] - a part of a mountain that projects outward, laterally away from the main body
sun cups- uneven surface of snow or ice caused by uneven evaporation/melting in sunlight. See also penitentes
talus[Fr. "earthwork"] - Jumble of boulders at the base of a cliff from which they've fallen. Compare felsenmeer.
treeline- the elevation above which trees cannot grow. Varies with latitude, soil, and exposure to weather (especially wind). In most places trees don't suddenly cease but rather become gradually more dwarfish - see "krummholz". More-precise definitions (eg, trees below some particular height) may be used for various purposes but I am not aware of a uniform standard.
verglas- [Fr. "glassy ice"] - thin, clear ice formed by the freezing of rain or meltwater on a hard, smooth surface (ie, rock). Extremely slippery, and sometimes too thin to hold a crampon or ice axe.
External LinksIf you know of other dictionaries, especially specialized hiking/climbing ones, PM me and I'll add them here.
Miriam-Webster online dictionary
Wikipedia Climbing Glossary(thanks to Singstream)
Also includes some links to other glossaries at the bottom.
Wikipedia Glaciology page with definitions of a number of terms.
Illustrated Trilingual Glossary (English - Italian French) - they also have knots and rope gear (thanks to Livioz)
"Mountain / Mount" in other languagesRomance Languages:
- French: montagne / mont
- Spanish: montaña / monte
- Russian: гора (that's the Cyrillic spelling: in Roman letters it would be "gora")
- Polish: góra / wierch or szczyt
- Czech & Slovak: hora / vrch or štit
- Serbo-Croatian: vrh / kuk
- Macedonian: vrv
- German: Berg (nouns are always capitalized)
- Swedish & Norwegian: fjäll or fjeld (means a mountain that rises above timberline)
- Welsh: mynydd
- Nepali: Ri (small mountain)
- Tibetan: Feng
- Mandarin: Shan
- Korean: San
- Japanese: Yama or San
Note on Polish and Slovak by czekan
In Polish, the word 'mountain' is translated as 'góra' (or without polish
special letters 'gora') in slovak the word is 'hora' . So 'mountains' are
'góry' or 'hory'.
In Polish there is the same problem with peak/summit. I have checked
English-Polish dictionary and both 'peak' and 'summit' are translated as
'wierch' and 'szczyt'. What's more in Poland we have got one more word called
'wierzhołek' (or without polish letters 'wierzholek') which is also
translated as 'peak', 'summit', 'top'.
In now days we use:
'wierzchołek' is highest point ('summit')
'szczyt' is highest part of mountain ('peak')
'góra' it means mountain
'łańcuch górski' ('lancuch gorski') means 'mountain range' (BTW
'łańcuch' means usualy 'chain')
but in names of mountains we sometimes use words 'szczyt' and 'wierch',
so we have got 'Kasprowy Wierch' , 'Kozi Wierch', 'Mięguszowiecki
Szczyt', 'Wyżni Żabi Szczyt'.
What's more we have got words: 'czuba' and 'kopa' which are only used in
proper names of mountains so for example we have got 'Kondracka Kopa',
'Żabia Czuba', and 'Goryczkowa Czuba' (which in slovak is
Some Welsh words by DadnDave
clogwyna cliff (pronounced clogwin)
mynydda mountain, ( the "y" is pronounced somewhere between "i" and "u", and "dd" is pronounced "th" as in the english word "the"
Some Sapmi words by Soderkisen
[Sapmi is spoken in northern Scandinavia]