What a Mountain is.


“I am in love with Montana. For other States I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it” — excerpt from Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I took my friend Lawrence to the top of Trapper peak a couple weeks ago before he had to return to England. It had been a while since I had done any real hiking and I was eager to show off something England does not have.

Like many peaks in western Montana there is a road most of the way up it with a short but steep trail to the top. It is not technical, nor difficult, but something about it makes for one of the more majestic mountains I have had the pleasure of hiking.

On the way up I thought about what makes a mountain a mountain. It is hard to even describe one, yet it is something that everyone knows, even if they may argue the definition.

Google Definition: Mountain – A large natural elevation of the earth’s surface rising abruptly from the surrounding level; a large steep hill.

Hill – A naturally raised area of land, not as high or craggy as a mountain.

Dictionary.com: Mountain – A landmass that projects conspicuously above its surroundings and is higher than a hill.

Hill – a natural elevation of the earth’s surface, smaller than a mountain

Merriam-Webster’s: Mountain – A landmass higher than a hill.

Hill – A usually rounded elevation of land.

In July 2001, nine expeditioners went to North Peary Land, Greenland. The team was there on a return journey to determine the northernmost mountain on earth. Oddly enough they found these definitions to be rather useless is actually determining mountains from hills and decided to contact Nation Geographic Society, Colorado Mountain Club, American Alpine Club, and other professionals to settle it.

“Although some groups have stats such as the Colorado Mountain Club requires that a peak have at least 300 feet elevation change from the neighboring peak to be qualified as a separate peak, numbers on 14ers in Colorado do not have the same meaning on small, coastal peaks in northern Greenland.  None of the organizations we contacted has a definition for a mountain so in the end, we surveyed over a dozen peaks along the Arctic coastline and by mutual agreement selected the one that seemed to be a standalone mountain rather than a foothill of some other peak.  In the end, local consensus seems to be the rule on determining a mountain.” said Steve Gardiner, author of Under The Midnight Sun in an email.

Today, Most geologists classify a mountain as a landform that rises at least 1,000 feet (300 meters) or more above its surrounding area. – National Geographic Society

Still pretty loose, but defined non-the-less.

Trapper is the tallest peak at 3096m in a range known as the Bitterroot Mountains located south of Missoula, Montana. The peaks and valleys are a beautiful labyrinth of granite slabs layered like toppled dominoes trying to stand back up.

To me, it is a mountain. Not because of its height, or because of its surroundings, but rather because of the feeling it gives when you stand on top of it. Euphoric. As though time stopped and I could just stay up there forever and watch the ever changing views.

There are many places I do not consider to be mountains, because I can not find that feeling, however, to others it may be every bit as powerful. I maintain that mountains, like the impossible, can only be defined by the individual.

“It seems to me that Montana is a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda.” — excerpt from Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

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