I Know What A Foot Is!!!

I Know What A Foot Is!!!

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Mixed, Scrambling, Canyoneering
How should we measure our mountains...meters or feet? I have grown up in Colorado and I’m partial to my American units, but even though I live in America, I’ve been using SI units ever since entering public school. Not long ago I was reading Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners
Colorado Fourteeners
guide book and found, in the appendix, a few paragraphs titled In Defense of Feet. As I read the article, I found myself laughing in agreement.

The metre, or meter, came about in the late 1700’s (in and around the time of the French Revolution). At this time, the units of measurement in France were an absolute mess, with standard lengths of measurement varying from city to city. The French realized their dilemma and decided to try to fix the problem, leaving the issue in the hands of the Academy of Science in Paris.
How We Got The Meter
They came up with several proposals, but none of them were very popular and the Academy left the decision to a bunch of scientists. That group decided to set the distance they called a metre as one ten-millionth of the distance from the pole to the equator at sea-level, or as Roach says “ 1,553,164.13 times the wavelength of the red cadmium line in air under 760 millimeters of pressure at 15 degrees Centigrade.” What!?!?!

The measurement of feet, on the other hand, has been used by almost every culture at some time. First came the ‘natural foot’ which was about the size of an average person's foot. This was changed by the Romans and the Greeks, who slightly changed the unit to fit other standard units of measure; 1 foot = 3 hands = 12 inches (thumb widths) = 16 digits (finger widths). The modern foot didn’t come to be until after the Norman conquest in 1066 and is now officially defined as 1200/3937 METERS (arrgghhh!!).

However, I like using feet because I HAVE ONE (or two as the case may be)!!! When someone says that something is a foot long I know what they are talking about and, even if I don’t, I have a crude measuring device attached to my body. Most of all though, this is how I grew up. I know how fast I run a mile (5,280 feet), I know how hard it is to jump and grab something 10 feet high (the height of a basketball hoop), and when I hike I know a good workout is climbing 6,000+ vertical feet. In addition, when you’re dealing with ballpark numbers, feet give a more accurate impression of how high a mountain is. If you take away feet, it looses some of that meaning. I hate hearing Colorado’s Fourteeners referred to as mid-level 4000 meter peaks; it just doesn’t sound right!

Meters are easy to multiply and divide because everyone is used to the base 10 system. We have ten fingers and ten toes; so it makes sense, but it’s your parents fault that you think 111 is one hundred and eleven, or 101 is one hundred and one. They could just as easily be seven or five in binary or two hundred seventy-three and two hundred fifty-seven in hex. My point is, it is a matter of perspective concerning what is easy and what is not. To me understanding a foot is a heck of a lot easier than understanding a meter, something for which I have no frame of reference. I’m a little over 6 feet tall, not a little over 1.829 meters; that makes no sense (besides feet make me feel taller).

Now,they are starting to make some quadrangle maps in meters! I don’t care if we use meters AND feet, but please don’t replace my feet, it’s what I (and most Americans) know. I use meters all the time as an engineering student (taught by a Ukrainian professor), but I still lack an understanding of just how fast 50m/s is. Why can’t we just use both types of measurement? If I were to travel to some places in Europe I wouldn’t try and drive on the right side of the road, because I know it’s their custom to drive on the left. Just as it’s my custom to speak English, drink Starbucks, and compute my distances in FEET!!!

I hope that feet don’t become ‘obsolete’ as Roach thinks they probably will. Feet are a great tangible measurement that you (no mater who you
Alpine Reflection
are) always take with you. They are no extra weight and the measurement is easy to estimate. Meters just don’t make as much sense!!!

No matter what happens though, mountains are mountains and how far and how high I go won’t change…only the ways they’re measured. I would like to say thanks to SummitPost for listing mountain elevations in both feet and meters, it kind of helps me visualize what the difference is between 6000m and 6500m, even though it still doesn’t seem like 1,640.42 feet. I don’t want to sound like a stuck-up American and I don’t have a problem with meters, I just understand feet better!


Wow…I went to bed last night with an article and two votes. I woke up this morning with a SP controversy!!!
Please don’t misunderstand; I DON’T want to get rid of meters and I understand that we all like and comprehend best the units we grew up with. If that’s the way you feel (regardless of whether you like meters or feet), then you agree with this article. If you like meters, by all means use them. If you like feet, then use those. But please don’t try and replace one with the other.
This is my opinion and I appreciate other people’s opinions as well.

External Links

For information on the history of feet: www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/dictF.html#foot

For information on the history of meters: http://www.sizes.com/units/meter.htm


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 79

desainme - Nov 19, 2006 2:51 am - Voted 10/10

The new edition

of the Roaches' book will likely be High Colorado High Four Thousanders.


swm88er - Nov 19, 2006 3:02 am - Hasn't voted

Re: The new edition

I hope not!!! I would have a hard time buying it!:)


swm88er - Nov 19, 2006 3:40 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Please,

Haha...I'll try not to!!! What we like is what we are used to, I guess. Thanks for stopping by!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Nov 19, 2006 8:02 am - Hasn't voted

Somewhat funny, but...

It's a little one-sided, though I prefer feet myself, but much of the rest of the world does it another way, and their way does make much more sense.

But that's not why I voted 5/10. The reason is the numerous spelling and grammatical errors; they make the page hard to read for someone who knows the "rules" and spellings. Spell Check, while not infallible, would have caught most of your errors. Did you run it?

Anyway, I'd be happy to upgrade my vote if the errors, the majority and the most glaring of them, anyway (like "since" and "looses"), get fixed.

And really, what is the point of the Gerry Roach book photo? I have the book, too, and it's great, but it really doesn't add to this article except to show a picture of a book you mention, unless you intend it as a free advertisement for Roach. When I saw it pop up on the New Images page, I thought it might serve as part of a link for a mountain page.

And the lake photos? Am I missing something? How do they complement the text? They just seem placed there for no other reason than to put them there.

I'm trying to be fair but honest in these comments, and I hope you can take them constructively. I voted favorably on your relevant images. And as I said, there is some humorous quality to the article. But this is now a featured article, and it's a little sloppy.


swm88er - Nov 19, 2006 7:31 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Somewhat funny, but...

Thanks for letting me know why you voted how you did!!! I understand.
To be honest I don’t know how it happened, but I copied and pasted the unedited version of the article instead of the edited version!!! Opps…sorry!! I think I fixed most of the problems now.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Nov 19, 2006 8:49 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Somewhat funny, but...

I'm glad you've made those changes, and I've changed my vote. As Tim Sharp said, don't let all of this discourage you from other contributions. I got myself into a smaller, less bitter controversy recently over a trip report about the Bitterroots, but things turned out well, and Tim gets a lot of the credit for that.

And I think one of your lake photos is very nice, but I just don't see how it's related to your article. If it's there for a good reason, please add that to the caption. Again, I'll happily change my vote, which wasn't about the quality of the photo at all.



swm88er - Nov 19, 2006 9:03 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Somewhat funny, but...

I deleted the picture of the lake since it had no purpose in the article. I left the other picture because I thought it was a nice picture to end the article.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Nov 19, 2006 9:09 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Somewhat funny, but...

I changed my votes.

Marcus Hofmann

Marcus Hofmann - Nov 19, 2006 10:59 am - Voted 6/10

I tend to disagree

Your only valid point is that you are used to and have a feeling for feet, miles and the like, which you don't have for meters. Well, get a feeling for it then. We had to deal with the same problem in Europe five years ago when a new currency, the Euro, was introduced. I tried to get used to it as fast as possible, and it really only took a couple of weeks. I've also spent quite some time in the US, and it never took me longer than a few days to get used to the miles, feet, gallons, farenheit, pounds, ounces and so on. It really only is a matter of how open-minded (or not) and willing to get on with it you are.

You raise the point that it is a matter of perspective what's easy and what's not, and you bring up the binary and hex systems in favour of your reasoning. But this can be turned against you easily, because you - and especially you as an engineering student - have a perfect feeling for the decimal system, so you should actually like the idea of being given a distance measurement system that you can comfortably deal with in decimal.

But the real reason why I voted 1/10 is that your article does in no way elaborate on the advantages (or maybe disadvantages, if any?) of metric length measurement when relating to other entities - especially concerning mountaineering, which is what a Summit Post article should be about. I'll explain what I mean: A meter is ten decimeters, one hundered centimeters and one thousend millimeters. That's great in itself, but one liter of water? Hey, that's one cubic decimeter. And how heavy is that? Hey, one kilogram! That's cool - and easy.

But it goes on, especially when it comes to mountaineering: Water freezes at zero Centigrade, so below zero means It'll be snowing; above zero means I'll get wet. If I descend one hundred meters, temperature will rise by approximately half a degree. So if I'm going to climb 2000 meters, it'll be ten degrees colder up there, and I know if I need to pack my duvet jacket or not, if it will be wet or icy. If windspeed is 50 kilometers per hour at zero Centigrade, the windchill will take the temperature down by approx. 10 degrees Centigrade, half that at half the windspeed. Those values change by a factor of 1.5 for 5 degrees Centigrade temperature difference. One ropelength is 50 meters. My rope is ten millimeters thick, so I'll want ten centimeters sticking out the end of my knot to make it safe, and so on. It makes for easy calculations, and the units interoperate nicely (even if sometimes only approximated because of not perfectly linear temperature gradients).

I value your opinion. If someone asked me, I'd want my German Marks back, too. But one cannot logically argue against the interconnecting metric units for length, speed, weight, volume and, to some extent, temperature. The system as a whole is superior, and an isolated view on length measurement units does not do the aspects that are involved justice.

Sebastian Hamm

Sebastian Hamm - Nov 19, 2006 12:53 pm - Voted 7/10

Re: I tend to disagree

100% !!! Marcus for President !!!

@swm88er: The book "The 29000er of the world" would be very thin.
8000er sounds better. I understand your feelings about the differences but I can´t see there any problems.

Write an article "How I stop worrying and love the metric system"


surgent - Nov 20, 2006 4:35 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: I tend to disagree

The metric system fails in one HUGE regard: our propensity to subdivide in halves, fourths, eighths, etc., or into units that are easily divisible by integers, into integers (hence the 12 inches). In the metric system, you end up with decimal results regardless, and while conversion is easy (just move the decimal point), the results are awkward.

The mile can be divided into 32nds before encountering a decimal-foot (1/32 mile = 165 feet). Land in the United States was divided up into sections of square miles (townships) over a period of years in the 19th century. These sections were subdivided further into halves and so forth. It is largely for this reason that the US sticks with miles and feet. Most major US cities are laid out in mile grids. Even farmlands are laid out in mile (section) grids.

I highly recommend a book called Measuring America by Arlo Linklater. It goes into much depth about the history of measurement, the development of the metric system, and how (ironically) it almost became adopted by the US in the 1790s, before the great lands surveys took place in the 1800s.

I lived in Australia and while they use metric, and while I got used to it in about 2 weeks, they still clung to old British/SI measures such as stone, etc. Ultimately, most cultures adopt the metric, and mix it in with their own familiar measuring devices.


Cissa - Jul 31, 2013 10:19 pm - Hasn't voted

Another vote for Marcus

And nothing else needs to be said.


Klenke - Aug 5, 2013 11:51 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I tend to disagree

I have also read (actually not quite finished) Linklater's book. It is definitely a good history lesson. And your points about dividing the English System (U.S. System) are spot on. Anyone who has ever done construction knows the power of dividing the base 12 into halves, fourths, eighths, sixteenths, etc. I've tried doing some small-scale construction projects in the metric system and it is definitely exasperating, or simply more work.


whatdoIknow - Sep 7, 2013 9:15 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I tend to disagree

I respectfully disagree with several of your points. Many, many countries adopted the metric system without clinging to any of the previous measurements. Second, I seriously doubt that there is something innate about liking halves, etc. It may appear innate to you, but only because you grew up with it. My 6 years old daughter who is growing up with the imperial measurements certainly has no particular propensity to halves and so on.
I can see that for pre-easy-to-use measuring devices having a string and marking half of it was the way to go, but there is no way that it is easier to move between inches, feet, yards, miles, nautical miles, cubic feet, cubic miles, etc than mm, cm, meter, km and the 3D versions of those. Neither is it easier to add up either on paper or on a calculator 3 1/16+5 7/8+10 1/2 than 3.1+5.9+10.5
I can see that for mountaineers its nicer to say that they climbed an X thousand feet mountain than a Y hundred m tall one, though.
What I like about this topic is that it is a fun one for big climbs when you may be spending significant time in tents with people from different cultures. Since there is probably no real answer, only opinions and feelings on the topics, one could blow several days being snowed in discussing it :)


surgent - Sep 9, 2013 2:57 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: I tend to disagree

For physical things such as a distance to be marked off (e.g. a property boundary) or a pile to divided, dividing in halves is easier than 5ths or 10ths, barring the availability of a measuring device. For example, the mile is an outgrowth of the surveying "chain", which was usually used to halve/double a given distance. In this manner, distances were in creased or decreased by powers of 2. In the old days, very few people had rulers or scales, and certainly there was no consistency from one area to another.

It's interesting to note that the metric system has not encroached in other areas of measure, such as time (base 12 and 60) or angular divisions. Dividing time into 60ths allows for even divisions by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, for example.

My opinion is that the metric system is nice in that it is consistent and unifies many realms of measurement, but its main failure is that is uses base-10 rather than a "highly divisible" base such as 12 or 60, or some power of 2. Rather than introduce new numeral symbols for larger bases, base-8 would have been a nice middle ground. To me, the metric system is efficient, but not terribly elegant.

Metric system is "better" for paper calculations as you infer, since it's just a mater of stacking the decimal point. But adding powers of 2 isn't that hard (get a common base) and in the field without a sheet of paper, I daresay you'll be more apt to halve or quarter things rather than fifth or tenth things.

The book "Measuring America" that I reference above is very well written and goes into much more depth on this topic, with a lot of historical context. It sounds like a dry subject, but the author does a superb job and makes it very interesting.

Ejnar Fjerdingstad

Ejnar Fjerdingstad - Nov 19, 2006 11:09 am - Voted 1/10

I know what a meter is!

The feeling you have for feet is caused by your growing up with that unit. When I spent three years in the US I had a hard time getting used to feet, miles, degrees F, and gallons etc. (try converting miles per gallon to kilometers per liter - this was before pocket calculators). I would consider your instinctive knowledge of feet very imprecise. After all, the size of human foot varies considerably (have a look at your wife's or girlfriend's feet). The distance from the North Pole is pretty constant (even though the French didn't quite get it right with the limited instrumentation of that time). The wavelength of light is completely constant under the specified conditions, and this is why scientists always use the meter and other SI units, that are furthermore logically interconnected and easy to calculate with. So just get used to it, it is the future anyway. Feet will go the way of chemical photography.


Corax - Nov 19, 2006 11:51 am - Voted 4/10


I buy Marcus' reasoning to 100%. Good post.

I hope that feet don’t become ‘obsolete’ as Roach thinks they probably will.

I do hope it will and I'm pretty sure it'll happen.
I like simplicity and uniformness and on top of that; the metric system is very logical.
It would be great if we only had one system in this case. If someone "invents" a better system than the metric; fine, I would have no difficulties to use that system then.
Same with left hand/right hand side driving or language.
Ok, some says we should all drive on the left hand side tomorrow, I wouldn't protest against it; if it was the choice for the whole world.
No one would be more happy than me if there was a new order tomorrow; the whole world should speak and read English/Chinese/Esperanto/Language x. One language for the whole planet.

I have no attachments to anything strong enough to overide my wish for simplicity and uniformness.

That said; I'm totally against no choice on "lower levels". I want multi choice when going for a cup of coffe, buying outdoor gear etc. Without it we would have a very boring world.

Ejnar Fjerdingstad

Ejnar Fjerdingstad - Nov 19, 2006 1:06 pm - Voted 1/10

Re: Simplicity

Well, I think there is a great difference between learning a new language, which takes many years, and changing to a new system of measurement with a limited number of measuring units. Moreover, abandoning your native language also means abandoning much of your culture. It would probably be a good idea for the EU to have a common language for their union affairs instead of translating back and forth between 25 languages, but even that seems impossible to agree upon. Having the whole world speak the same language would probably require considerable use of force, I don't think many would want such a "new order" (or "Neuordnung"). If you want to see how attached people are to their languages, and climb some impressive mountains too, just go to the Dolomites.


Corax - Nov 19, 2006 3:49 pm - Voted 4/10

Re: Simplicity

Well, I think there is a great difference between learning a new language, which takes many years, and changing to a new system of measurement with a limited number of measuring units.

Yes, that's a huge difference. Not even comparable. I just wanted to explain how little I'm attached to any of those matters and describe to which extremes I would adapt to in order to make things easier for the most amount of people. Of course, speaking in a long term sense.

Moreover, abandoning your native language also means abandoning much of your culture.

I can't see how. The language is only the way we communicate, the culture wouldn't change as I see it.

It would probably be a good idea for the EU to have a common language for their union affairs instead of translating back and forth between 25 languages, but even that seems impossible to agree upon.

Agreeing twice. It would be great to have one language. So much simpler, but national prestige and pride is in the way and it'll never happen.
If the EU was to choose one language I would choose the one which is the easiest to learn, even if that would disqualify some of the most widely spoken ones. Another parameter would be the simplicity of the alphabets. Therefore Swedish would be out of question from square one. Å, ä and ö are nothing but hindrances. "We" should get rid of those letters, regardless of the EU question.

Having the whole world speak the same language would probably require considerable use of force, I don't think many would want such a "new order" (or "Neuordnung").

I'm in a tiny, tiny minority group about this and It'll probably never happen. The experiment with Esperanto failed badly for example.
I know I'm in the land of Utopia when advocating any of this, but It's always interesting to paint a dream scenario.


arturf - Nov 19, 2006 12:56 pm - Voted 10/10


Well, as we all understand, every person feels better, when he is in atmosphere, he is used to. It doesn't mean, that feet system is more understandable, then meter system (or opposite) - the culture, You have grown and lived in, that's the only thing, which matters. You feel better, when You talk about fourteeners, but I am well impressed by fourthousanders - does it change the objective heigth of the mountain? It doesn't matter, how we measure mountains, it matters, that thay ARE...

10 points for honesty and passion in sharing Your opinion!

Viewing: 1-20 of 79