Is Mount Everest the tallest mountain on Earth? It would certainly seem to qualify. Chinese geographers tell us that it measures 29,017 feet, while Nepali geographers make it a skosh short of 29,029 feet. The National Geographic Society adds another six feet to the count, a figure the Encyclopaedia Britannica endorses, following measurements taken by an American expedition twenty years ago.
However you measure Everest, it’s a mountain, indisputably. So is Mauna Kea, which climbs 13,796 feet above sea level—a piddling number by Everestian standards, until you figure that it rises directly from the floor of the Pacific Ocean far below the surfer-friendly waves of Hawaii. Using the standard of tallness instead of height, Mauna Kea dwarfs Everest at 33,500 feet.
The state where I live, Arizona, is a rival of Afghanistan in rumpled topography. My home state of Virginia has plenty of mountains, half as high as Arizona’s but still plenty steep and tall relative to the neighboring Piedmont Plateau. Oklahoma, popularly conceived to be pancake-flat, hosts an impressively rugged arm of the Ozarks, and if the highest spot in Delaware is only 447-odd feet high, its erstwhile mother country of Britain, the writer Robert Macfarlane tells us in his book The Wild Places, has more than five hundred mountains—at least if you throw Ireland into the mix.
Are there truly five hundred mountains in the British Isles? Perhaps not, since by one convention that British geographers use, a rise must be over two thousand feet in altitude in order to qualify as a mountain. That very fine distinction was the subject of a charming film made before Hugh Grant became Hugh Grant, a small and gentle number called The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, but in that instance the threshold for mountain status was one thousand feet. We apparently have higher standards now, but the distinction is fuzzy: Last year a Welsh mountain in the Brecon Beacons Range was downgraded to a hill, not because it lacked the necessary height, but because the drop from summit to col—the high and low points—must exceed 98.4 feet, and the poor thing could muster only 93.5.
Virginia has Mole Hill, coming in at 1,893 feet—not quite a mountain by British standards. Despite its name, Virginians would say it was a mountain. So, surely, would any British geographer trying to scramble up its steep sides. Yet a hill it is. On distinguishing mountains from hills, the US Geological Survey blandly and elusively holds that “broad agreement on such questions is essentially impossible, which is why there are no official feature classification standards.” Like pornography, one supposes, it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Meanwhile, there’s Mount Thor, on Baffin Island. Though it’s only 5,495 feet tall, the west face of Thor drops 4,101 feet straight down, which lends credence to Canada’s claim that it is the steepest and tallest cliff in the world. Now that’s a mountain—no quibbling about it.