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Hills, Mountains, Peaks, Fells and Summits – The Difference

Paul, What is the difference between a hill and a mountain? A question that I am so often asked when on social media or out walking with friends or groups. It is a burning question that is so prevalent that I took a deep look into, and want to put my own answers here. Of course, what about all the other names for them? Especially here in the UK, we have mountains, fells, peaks, hills, tors and so much more. Plus there is the difference between summits and peaks to think of.

I set out in my last article of this ilk, The difference between lakes, meres and tarns etc, to keep it as short and simple as I could so it makes more sense without getting too technical. Many terms are affected by all manner of things like etymology, geology and of past generations trying to define. I shall try to do the same here with all my own interpretations for you.

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When Does A Hill Become A Mountain?

The most common question. Always gets asked too when I guide people on the Yorkshire 3 Peaks. Are we climbing mountains or hills here? I will talk about ‘peaks’ later. See, complicated.

Try to be subjective yourself. I know most people would say, mountains are steeper, higher, rockier maybe and most likely part of ranges. Then hills are grassier, lower lying, less steep, most likely more free standing.

Geographers of old tried to define it. They set the bar at 1,000 feet (304.8 meters). That is very low. You remember the film ‘The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain’ starring Hugh Grant? The old story was created because of this arbitrary height being made. The villagers who thought they lived by a mountain suddenly lived by a hill and put more rocks on top to make it a mountain. This defined height was largely abandoned at least by the 1970s.

If you want to look at it technically the current written down definitions are (in the UK):

  • By geologists and Oxford English Dictionary – A mountain is at least 2,000 feet (or 610 metres) above sea level.
  • By the UK Government (just to be awkward or more likely metric) – A mountain is above 600 metres (1,969 ft). They have to define a height to be able to create rules for freedom of access.

So YES! With the smallest of the Yorkshire 3 Peaks being Pen-Y-Ghent at 694 metres. The Yorkshire 3 peaks are all mountains. Plus many of the Pennine Hills are in fact mountains, technically.

So – Yes a great cause for confusion is there are many mountains are called hills. For example in the Highlands of Scotland you have the Torridon Hills, with height ranges of 700 to 902m. Definitely mountains 🙂

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The Difference Between A Peak And A Summit

The words peak and summit have become intertwined over the years, so much so that either gets used a lot these days as the top of a mountain or hill. To drill down to what may or should be used, let’s go first to etymology and the dictionary.

Summit – Comes from the latin ‘summus’ meaning ‘highest’. And the dictionary says summit means the highest point of something, especially the top of a mountain.

Peak – The dictionary will say, the pointed top of a mountain; a mountain with a pointed top.

A lot of people do look at it as the summit being the highest point on a mountain that has a few high distinctive points. With a peak being a standalone summit. OR a lot also look at a mountain that has a few peaks but only one summit (being the highest point.

Quirks and confusions:

Look at Everest, the highest mountain in the world. It has the well known ‘main’ summit of 8,848 m (29,029 ft). It also has what is known as the South Summit at 8,749 metres (28,704 ft) and is separated by a col (The South Col) from it’s large neighbour. The South Summit is higher than K2, 8,611 metres (28,251 ft) yet K2 is still known as the second highest mountain in the world. Using terms then the South summit should be a peak?

If so then why in England we look at Scafell Pike at 978 metres (3,209 ft) being the highest mountain. Then we look at its neighbour Scafell at 964 metres (3,162 ft) being the second highest. It is only separated by a a col again, Mickledore Col. Why not move straight onto Helvellyn (a standalone peak or mountain of peaks) as they did in the Himalayas, or vice versa. See, subjective.

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Fells, Tors and Bens

Time to delve into some etymology. The British Isles have had, over the last few thousand years at least, a whole plethora of people coming and making their mark, especially in language. Anglo Saxons, Celts, Romans and Vikings to name just a few.

Fell – The word Fell is used especially in the Lake District and comes from Old Norse. In the Old Nordic language a fell/fjall meaning mountain. In Sweden today for instance, a fjäll is a mountain that goes above the line of Alpine trees. In England it was passed to mean common ground above the tree line. Over time many mountains and hills of Cumbria and the Dales too became known as fells.

Tor – Think South West England and Dartmoor or Bodmin Moor. The elevated peaks and summits here are called Tors. This all comes from old Celtic language word for hill. In Old Cornish it is Tor and Old Welsh, twrr. Today it is defined and passed down as a standout rocky outcrop on a summit or peak. There are other well known examples of Tors, think Mam Tor (Mother Hill) in the Peak District. Or Glastonbury Tor.

Ben – The highest mountain in Britain is Ben Nevis. But of course Scotland is full of Bens. For example Ben Lomond, Ben Macdui and Ben Lawers. Ben is basically an anglicised version of Scottish Gaelic, Beinn, meaning mountain.

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Others To Name Just A Few

There are so many quirks for names of hills and mountain tops in Britain. The list could go on and on but here are a couple.

Pen – Comes from Old Cumbric and actually in Welsh today. Means ‘top’ or ‘head’ as in Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire Dales.

Crag – In the north of England and Scotland a rocky cliff on a mountain is called a Crag. Old celtic comes back into play here. Welsh word craig, meaning rock.

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Summary

See, so subjective and in the grand scheme of things the most important factor is getting out into the great outdoors. Hill, mountain, tor or valley walk. Height and name is irrelevant as long as you are creating memories and getting views you will never forget.

Written by Paul Steele

Founder of BaldHiker.com and avid hiker, climber and trekker. Never liking to sit still and always seeking new adventures around the world. Sharing personal views here and tweeting live via @paul_steele

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