Glossary: summit, peak, etc

Glossary: summit, peak, etc

Page Type Page Type: Article

Purpose of this Article

This 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 Big One  looming over...
Mount Everest, Tibet (China) / Nepal, 8850 m

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.

A view of Driskill through...
Driskill Mountain, Louisiana (USA), 163 meters

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)


A look at Brunswick s summit...

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).


map of Presidential Range
A range is a group of mountains. It may be a huge group ("Appalachian Range") or a small one ("Willey Range").

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]
Le Dru from Montenvers


- [Fr: "needle"] A tall, narrow spire of rock.


- [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."


[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.


[Kazakh] - An arc-shaped dune. Mostly used for sand dunes but sometimes applied to snow dunes as well.

Bergshrund below Gooseneck Pinnacle


[Ger: "hill-gap"] - A crevasse that forms the upper edge of a glacier, separating it from the fixed ice-cap above it. Compare moat.

Elephant Butte as viewed from...


- [Fr.] - a steep-sided, flat-topped hill, smaller than a mesa.


[Fr: circus] A bowl-shaped valley high on a mountain, usually of glacial origin. Synonyms: cwm (Gaelic), corrie (Scots Gaelic)


[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.

interesting form


[Fr., from "horn"] - Overhanging build-up of snow formed by wind passing sideways over a ridge or cliff.


[Scots Gaelic: kettle] - see cirque

Javier leading the second...


[Fr. passage, corridor] a steep gorge or gully in a mountainside. Couloirs are good places to find uninterrupted snow and ice.


- [gaelic] - a rocky outcrop

The imposing South Horn from...


- [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.


[gaelic: valley] see cirque

Potato Knob from the...


[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.


- A peak having that shape.


[Gaelic "ridge"] - a hill formed from glacial debris. See also moraine.


[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]


[Ger. "sea of rock"] - Terrain of fractured rock formed in place by frost action. Compare talus.

Mont Blanc massif: from the...


- [Fr. "man-at-arms"] A steep-sided rock formation along a ridge (metaphorically "guarding" the summit).


- [Fr.] - Year-round ice covering a large area. Formed from snowfall, glaciers will slide very slowly downhill.


[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.


- vertical ("wall") or near-vertical section of slope at the uphill end ("head") of a valley, ravine, cirque, etc.


- 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.

Adobe Mesa as seen from...


- 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)


- [Ger.: "island mountain"] - a mountain with no other mountains nearby.

K-O Other Mountain Terrain Vocabulary

[A-E] [F-J] [K-O] [P-Z]
From midway up up the trail...


- A peak or hill having that shape.


- small round hill.


- [G. "twisted wood"] - bonsai-like dwarf trees that grow at treeline.


- A narrow, (more-or-less) flat spot along an otherwise (mostly) vertical face. Synonym: "shelf".

Areas you don t want to walk...


- [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."


- Gap along the side of a glacier, separating it from the rock of the valley wall. Compare bergschrund.


- [Abenaki: "Lone Mountain"; the name of a mountain in New Hampshire, USA] - inselberg.


- [Savoyard Fr: "hill"] - A mound or ridge of dirt, rock, etc deposited by the edge of a glacier. See also drumlin".

The Toilet bowl sucketh


- [Sp. "table"] - a large formation having steep sides and a large flat top.


- A tall, narrow spire of rock.

Glacier de la Vallée Blanche (Monte Bianco)


[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]


- 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.

Snowpatch Spire at Dawn


[Sp: penitents] - Spiky ice formations caused by uneven evaporation/melting of ice in sunlight. See also sun cups.


[Fr. "serving plate"] - any area that is higher than (some of) its surroundings and fairly flat when considered from sufficient distance.


1. 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.


- [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


- A formation having that shape: high and broad at each end, lower and narrower in the middle.


- [Rus. "grooves"] - ripple-like forms with sharp corners formed in hard, windswept snow. Compare barchan.

Sun Cups
sun cups


[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.


- the horizontal distance between two points. Sometimes used in deciding whether two points "count" as separate peaks or mountains.

Glacier de la Vallée Blanche (Monte Bianco)seracs


[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.


- a lateral protrusion on a mountain, or a point on the mountain where the slope changes, forming a convex shape.


- 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.

Snowpatch Spire at Dawnspire


- a tall and narrow rock formation, resembling a steeple.


[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 Cupssun cups

sun cups

- uneven surface of snow or ice caused by uneven evaporation/melting in sunlight. See also penitentes


[Fr. "earthwork"] - Jumble of boulders at the base of a cliff from which they've fallen. Compare felsenmeer.


- 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.


- [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 Links

If 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)

Other Languages

"Mountain / Mount" in other languages

Romance Languages:
  • French: montagne / mont
  • Spanish: montaña / monte
Slavic Languages (thanks to Kamil, czekan, and PeterN):
  • 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 & Scandinavian Languages (thanks to PeterN and Lolli):
  • German: Berg (nouns are always capitalized)
  • Swedish & Norwegian: fjäll or fjeld (means a mountain that rises above timberline)
Celtic Languages (thanks to DadnDave)
  • Welsh: mynydd
Himalayan Languages (thanks to Scott Patterson):
  • Nepali: Ri (small mountain)
  • Tibetan: Feng
East Asian Languages
  • 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
'Horičková kopa')

Some Welsh words by DadnDave


a cliff (pronounced clogwin)


a 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]


high altitude peak (blunt)


high altitude peak (steep)


very steep summit, cliff






hill w/o trees


small head-shaped hill








Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 34

NewDayRising - Feb 18, 2006 7:06 am - Voted 10/10

good start

this page would be very useful for myself and others if it included photos to your definitions. In addition, expanding your list of glossary terms to include other mountaineering terms.


NewDayRising - Feb 28, 2006 8:28 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: good start

much improvement from my first visit!!


nartreb - Feb 18, 2006 5:16 pm - Hasn't voted

I agree

I agree about the photos, I'll try to get around to that next week.

There are two reasons why I haven't expanded it to cover related topics (rock climbing, knots, ice climbing, terrain terms like "bergschrund", etc). One is, I'm no expert in many of those areas. Another is, I'm worried that as it gets bigger it will need to be more thoughtfully organized (with a true alphabetical index, and maybe a category index) in order to be useful, and right now my time is limited. But if anyone wants to contribute, please PM me and I'll give you admin privileges.

Brad Snider

Brad Snider - Feb 18, 2006 7:06 pm - Voted 9/10

Good idea!

Thanks for adding this to SP. Interesting read. I agree that it could certainly be expanded, perhaps with help from other experts in the various subjets.


kamil - Feb 20, 2006 9:53 pm - Voted 9/10

very good idea!

Maybe some time words in other languages will be added too, I've seen ppl in SP asking what some word means in some local name in another language. E.g. mount(Mt.) = wierch,szczyt(Polish) = vrch,štit(Czech/Slovak) = vrh,kuk(Croatian/Serbian) = vrv(Macedonian) - simple but useful :)

I wouldn't agree with your definition of summit - e.g. 'Everest South Summit' is used as well as 'E. S. Peak'.



nartreb - Feb 21, 2006 2:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: very good idea!

Everest is not the only example of a major world mountain with multiple "summit"s. I've decided to soften my definition.

I think a multilingual lexicon would be very useful. I've suggested that each other language could have its own page like this one, but I could also add translations to at least the major sections of this page.


SawtoothSean - Feb 21, 2006 6:13 am - Voted 10/10


I'll be using Gendarme more often- thanks


brendon - Feb 23, 2006 9:58 am - Voted 10/10


Add this one.


Scott - Feb 23, 2006 10:42 pm - Voted 10/10


- A tall, narrow spire of rock. Pinnacle is also used for this, at least in this part of the country. Lone Man Pinnacle and The Pinnacle are two great examples.

- a tall and pointy rock formation, resembling a steeple.

Often round or flat topped here, instead of pointed, but always very thin.

Tower-often used interchangably with spire, but often (but not always) thicker and more massive than spires. Fisher Towers are examples).

Fin-a tall, narrow, but long protusion of rock.

Also, headwall, point, and base, could be added if you would like.


brianhughes - Feb 24, 2006 10:58 pm - Hasn't voted

get to the point ...

I like what you've done so far. You might expand the definition of "point" to include a location from which you can look down on a large area, i.e vantage point. Maybe synonomous in this sense with "Overlook". Two examples that would be familiar to many people here are Glacier Point at Yosemite and Plateau Point at the Grand Canyon.

Nigel Lewis

Nigel Lewis - Feb 26, 2006 2:32 pm - Hasn't voted

A few more

Cwm (as in Western Cwm on Everest) a Welsh word that means Valley, but in this context describes a Corrie ( Scottish) or Cirque (French). Essentially, the head of a valley surrounded by a crescent of steep faces, caused by a glacier falling away from the original ridge.

Col. The lowest part of a ridge. Usually describes a pass between two valleys that crosses a ridge at it's lowest point. (Again using Everest, the South Col is the saddle between Lhotse and Everest). A Col is known in the Himalayas as a 'La' and in Welsh as 'Bwlch'

Last but not least, Llyn (Welsh) Loch (Scottish) and Lake (English) all mean the same thing.



NewDayRising - Feb 28, 2006 8:42 pm - Voted 10/10


turret (used for castle peak in tahoe peaks) first i heard of it.


nartreb - Mar 1, 2006 3:47 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: turret

"Turret" just means "small tower". (Or it did, in medieval times. Nowadays it can also mean a pivotable gun emplacement (eg, on a ship, airplane, or tank), even one that's not tower-shaped.) Metaphoric terms like this should be self-explanatory. I've already got "needle", "spire", and others listed, but if "turret" is only used on one mountain then it should probably stay off the list.


NewDayRising - Mar 1, 2006 4:56 am - Voted 10/10

wiki list of climbing glossaries

check this link for other climbing glossaries:


dadndave - Mar 4, 2006 10:16 am - Hasn't voted


(Welsh) a cliff

pronounced clogwin


dadndave - Mar 4, 2006 10:17 am - Hasn't voted


(Welsh) a mountain, ( the "y" is pronounced somewhere between "i" and "u", and "dd" is pronounced "th" as in the english word "the"


dadndave - Mar 4, 2006 10:17 am - Hasn't voted


(Welsh) A crag


JScoles - Mar 4, 2006 8:56 pm - Hasn't voted

Mount vs Mountain

Differance between Mount and Mountain. None really it is how the mountain is called. A Mountain that is name after some one is usually called a Mount.

ie Mount Everest
Mount Logan
Mount Marcy

A mountain that is named after something is usually called a Mountain ie

Black Bear Mountain
Big Slide Mountain
Wolf Jaw Mountain

It is also a matter of iliteration and a good example is
Panter Peak and
Pike's Peak Just sounds better than

Mount Panther or
Mount Pike
This is the general


PeterN - Mar 5, 2006 7:04 am - Voted 10/10

Mountains in other languages

Some good info in there

You could add those to the mountain in other language section:

German: Berg
Russian: гора (gora)


Scott - Mar 5, 2006 7:35 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Mountains in other languages

Also Ri is hill or small mountain in Nepal. Feng is the name for mountain in Tibet.

Viewing: 1-20 of 34