Thursday, August 16, 2018

Mountains in the mind

How high must a mountain be? You decide ...

This you might have missed. England recently acquired a new mountain after two amateur surveyors found that a hill is one metre taller than originally thought. So Miller Moss, an eminence in the Lake District, becomes the 446th official mountain in England and Wales after it proved to be 610.1 metres high, rather than 609 metres. The official UK threshold, by which mountains are sorted from mere hills, is 609.6 metres or 2,000 feet.

The survey team atop Miller Moss
(photo courtesy Graham Jackson via BBC)

The discovery was made by John Barnard and Graham Jackson, retired chemists, who have spent a decade checking the height of summits that are promisingly close to the mountain/hill borderline. Using a Leica GS15, a fancy GPS set, they occasionally demote mountains instead of promoting hills.

This was the depressing outcome when they checked out a brace of “Munros” – a list of Scottish peaks supposed to exceed 3,000 feet high. As a result, Scotland now only has 282 Munros, down from 284. In Wales, by contrast, they discovered that Glyder Fawr did top 1,000 metres after all, so that it now has to feature in the Welsh 1,000-metre challenge hill race.

Inevitably, Messrs Barnard and Jackson have invited comparison with The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Down a Mountain. In this 1995 film starring Hugh Grant, a Welsh village foils two visiting mapmakers, who want to demote the local mountain into a hill, by piling a mound of earth on its top.

Strange to say, something like that almost happened in Switzerland. At the start of the twentieth century, the Fletschhorn, a mountain in the Valais Alps, was shown on official maps with a height of 4,001 metres. Thus, Karl Blodig had to visit its summit in 1900 on his quest to climb all the sixty or so four-thousanders of the Alps.

Alas, when resurveyed later in the century, the Fletschhorn had subsided to only 3,993 metres. A melting ice-cap, erosion and more precise measuring methods were probably responsible. Mont Blanc has suffered similar indignities.

But the local community didn’t take the demotion of their local four-thousander lying down. In February 1988, the municipality of Saas Grund applied to the cantonal authorities to "restore the original height of the mountain” by piling up rocks on the summit in the manner of a drystone wall.

Close, but not the whole cigar: the Fletschhorn seen from the Lagginhorn north ridge
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)
An international controversy ensued – Wikipedia says that some opposed the plan on religious grounds – and in October 1990 the cantonal building authorities finally rejected the plan. More recently, the Fletschhorn has been further demoted – to just 3,985 metres.

Of course, the Fletschhorn’s status as an actual mountain has never been in doubt. SwissTopo, the country’s official cartographic agency, formally defines a mountain (“Berg”) as any eminence over 1,600 metres. Anything lower is a hill (“Hügel”). Place names, though, defy this convention: for example, Zurich’s Uetliberg, a wooded ridge on the edge of a city, never rises above 870 metres.

Zurich's Uetliberg: mountain or mere hill?
(Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)
Such is the difficulty of sorting mountains from hills that most countries don’t even bother. In America, for example, the US Board on Geographic Names once stipulated that the difference between hill and mountain was 1,000 feet of local relief, but this rule was dropped in the early 1970s.

These days, the US Geological Survey side-steps the whole question by identifying only “summits” in its database of natural features and their names. Similar hassles arise, it points out, if you try to differentiate “streams” from “rivers”, or “ponds” from “lakes”.

The point is that mountains are almost impossible to define by any objective criteria. The authors of an essay on geo-semantics tell it like it is:

“There is no human-independent true definition of mountain (or forest, river, city, etc). Consequently, the definitions will vary between places and cultures, and it is important to represent local definitions appropriately … As a result, the principal mountains of England, such as Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England at a relative height of 912 meters, would barely be hills in the Himalayas.”

This refreshingly subjective approach would have appealed to Fukada Kyuya (1903-1971). Famously, the Hyakumeizan author looked solely to his own taste in drawing up his one hundred mountains of Japan. An eminent mountain, he thought, should have character, history and an "extraordinary distinctiveness". And, ideally, it should be more than 1,500 metres high. But two of his selected summits come in well under that limit. A mountain’s stature, Fukada believed, was more important than its height.

The USGS gambit: specify "summits" to avoid defining "mountains"
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Japan’s official mapmakers also refuse to define mountains by their height. Indeed, they refuse to define them at all. In a Q&A on its website, the Geospatial Information Authority points out that “As every mountain is different, it’s impossible to specify that they must have an elevation of so many metres above ground level, or a slope angle of so many degrees.”

 So how do you tell where a mountain begins and ends? In replying to that question, the Geospatial Information Authority suggests, “If you need to know where a mountain begins, you should stand in front of it and judge for yourself whether or not it begins there.”

You know, that’s sound advice. And you don’t even need a Leica GS15 to apply it.

Monday, August 6, 2018

A stormy traverse of La Meije (3)

Concluded: Swiss guide Sam Brawand's account of an epic climb in the mid-1920s with alpinists Matsukata Saburō and Uramatsu Samitarō

What followed, I can hardly describe. As soon as I try to put it into words, it fades into a mere shadow of what we went through. It was as if all the mountain spirits of the Dauphiné and all the devils of hell fought a huge battle over La Meije that afternoon. For four hours, they shot yellow bolts around our heads, dozens of them.

With every flash of lightning, we felt as if somebody had put a giant match to our hair. I don’t mind saying that I ducked my head as deep and quickly into my collar as I could when the sulphurous blasts flashed by. You may object that, every time, I would have been too late to duck, but you try offering your head to lightning strikes for four hours and see if you don’t bat an eyelid. Well, we did flinch, and right often too. And how it thundered! Not pleasantly as on an evening in the Ochsental Hut, where the rolling and rumbling and reverberations go on for ever. Up here, it thundered without echo or reverberation, vicious, shrill, vindictive almost as the devil. It was as if the spirit of the Meije wanted to drive us off the ridge with a giant whip. And the storm howled on, and the snow lashed our faces. Where on this Gallic field would the wild hunt end?

There’s no way off the ridge on La Meije. To the south, the cliffs fall plumb-sheer, and it doesn’t look much better to the north. So all we could do was pull ourselves together and climb. We dealt with tower after tower. Now we’d got this mountain between our teeth, we were determined to hold on. I’ve seen some weather in the mountains since that day, but never again have I met with such a hellish storm, thank God. But even this one came to an end.

The lightning was now less frequent, and the last flash struck down just as Emil and Mr Uramatsu reached the summit of the Pic Central. The air smelt sulphurous. But how was it with our two friends? A moment ago, they’d just been standing there! I was speechless with worry. Anyway, shouting wouldn’t have been much use in that storm. We pressed on. And there they were, safe and sound. Emil was standing on the nearest rock ledge down from the summit. For Mr Uramatsu, the outcome was less comfortable. He’d rescued himself with a well-judged leap into the somewhat less steep north face, where he sat on a stone with his head down, like a goalkeeper waiting for the next shot. But this did not come.

Afternoon clouds from La Meije
We hurried down the last unpleasantly snowed-up rocks to a chimney, which we thought would lead to the way off the ridge towards the glacier. Once again, we fed the reserve rope into a sling and we swung over the bergschrund to the Glacier de Tabuchet, where we were finally sheltered from the cruel wind.

Our watches showed six minutes past four. Fog sat heavily on the glacier, so that we couldn’t see two meters ahead of us. It snowed and snowed. We’d left the Grand Pic on dry rock; now there were 20 centimetres of fresh snow on the glacier. Quickly, I scanned my mental map of the ground. On the right must be an icefall, and not far left of this was the hut, on the Rocher de l' Aigle.

We roped up quickly, leaving our reserve rope in place for the two Austrians. Where could they be? Now we trudged downhill into the thick of the fog. I kept right, intending to go left as soon as any sign of the icefall appeared and look for the hut. Then, lo and behold, the wind blew the fog aside for a moment and we could see, just 50 meters and slightly to our left, the outlines of some crags and a hut.

A warm feeling that we were home and dry suffused us. A few more steps and we would be able to shut the hut’s door on the cold and snow outside. Already I could hear the crackling of the fire, see the steaming teapots and feel the soft flannel of my dry shirt. And my pipe – I could sense it there in my pocket. Everything would be splendid, and surely we’d deserved it.

We stamped the snow off our boots and opened the hut door. And there, if you’ll pardon the expression, we saw our come-uppance. Not a strand of straw was left on the sleeping platform; all of it had obviously gone the way of all mortal things via the stove. There was no wood, and not a single blanket could be found.

So should we stay here? No, never! As we were already soaked to the skin, it wasn’t a difficult decision. We’d held out this far, and things couldn’t get any worse. So out we went again into the fog and snow. Down to La Grave, our final destination! But where to find the way? We went quickly down over the glacier and thought we could see an old track here and there. But then the glacier broke up with crevasses, while the fog lowered and the wet snow kept falling. We didn’t want to get lost on this unknown glacier and chose instead to continue our descent via a rock ridge on its right bank. So we worked our way downwards, lower and lower, over loose rock, ledges and gullies. At last, the fog lifted or rather we came out below it. To our great relief, we could now see the end of the glacier right below us. As quickly as we could, we trundled down the slope and could finally put the wet rope into a rucksack. Then we rushed down into the valley over snowed-up grass and screes. Snow had fallen until well below the level of the glacier tongue.

La Meije from the north
At half past eight, we arrived in La Grave. At the hotel we got rid of our dripping wet clothes and wrapped ourselves in blankets, tying them together with our braces like a monk’s cowl, and enjoyed a delicious victory feast in our clients’ room.

In the morning, La Meije shone white in the sunshine.


Translated from the original German text of Samuel Brawand (1898-2001), alpine guide of Grindelwald, Switzerland. As a guide, Brawand is best known for his first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi Ridge in September 1921 together with Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune as his client. Originally entitled Stürmische Fahrt Zur Meije; the memoir was collected in the anthology Schweizer Bergführer erzählen (Stories from Swiss mountain guides), Orell Füssli, Zurich, 1950. Appropriately, the translator happened across this book at the remote SAC Grialetsch Hut during the annual geezers’ ski-tour.