Mountain Prominence

2013-07-14 19:02:02.000 – Tom Padham,  Summit Intern

Mt. Washington Casting its Shadow to the SW

Ever heard someone say a mountain is very ‘prominent’, but not know exactly what that means? That has certainly been the case for myself in the past, but after the topic came up this morning I decided to finally look it up. Mountain prominence, or topographic prominence, is a somewhat confusing topic but I’ll do my best to explain it here.

Prominence is defined as the lowest point encircling a mountain peak before rising to a higher peak than the original. In the case of Mount Washington the summit is the highest point in the Northeast, and therefore in order to find the closet higher peak you would have to travel to almost 820 miles to Celo Knob (6327 ft) in North Carolina. The lowest point in a line between these two peaks is then subtracted from Mount Washington’s elevation to give you the mountain’s prominence. In this case the lowest point is along the Champlain Canal in New York, at only about 140 feet above sea level (sea level is not considered the lowest point unless the mountain is the highest on the entire continent or an island). So Mount Washington’s prominence is 6288ft á¿œ 140ft = 6148ft. The summit is the most prominent peak in the Eastern United States, even though there are slightly higher peaks in Black Mountains of NC and the Great Smoky Mountains on the TN/NC border.

So why is prominence of a mountain important? Mountaineers often care about prominence because it shows how significant the mountain is in relation to the surrounding landscape. For example Mount Massive in Colorado (14,428 ft) is a very large mountain (appropriately named), and the second highest in the state. The prominence of the mountain is only 1941ft in the valley below however, since only 5 miles away is Mount Elbert, the state’s highest point. Another important part of very prominent mountains is that they have excellent views of the surrounding terrain. Since Mount Washington is very prominent above the surrounding terrain and considered an ultra-prominent peak (over 4900 ft), our maximum visibility from the summit is an incredible 134 miles! So the next time you hear someone talk about a mountain being ‘prominent’ hopefully you’ll understand this somewhat confusing term, and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit the summit of Mount Washington you can even brag about making it to the top of the most prominent peak in the East!

 

Tom Padham,  Summit Intern

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