It's time for a subjective quiz. Which of the following three lists of peaks in the western 48 contiguous states contains the "best picks" according to overall notoriety, stature, and climb-worthiness? In other words, if you were allowed to climb only 10 peaks in your entire life, which of these lists would you rather complete? Think hard now.
|List #1||List #2||List #3|
|Gannett Peak||Mount Massive||Mount Shasta|
|Kings Peak||Mount Harvard||Mount Baker|
|Wheeler Peak NM||Mount Williamson||San Jacinto Peak|
|Boundary Peak||Blanca Peak||San Gorgonio|
|Granite Peak||La Plata Peak||Charleston Peak|
|Borah Peak||Uncompahgre Peak||Mount Adams|
|Humphreys Peak||Crestone Peak||Mount Olympus|
|Mount Hood||Mount Lincoln||Mount Hood|
|Guadelupe Peak||Grays Peak||Wheeler Peak NV|
|Harney Peak||Mount Antero||Glacier Peak|
Because Mount Whitney, Mount Rainier, and Mount Elbert actually belong to all three lists, they contribute nothing to the comparison and were therefore omitted.
If you picked List #3, keep reading. Here's how the lists were generated:
List #1: The highest 10 state high points.
List #2: The highest 10 peaks by elevation.
List #3: The 10 peaks with the greatest prominence.
If you're a climber, you might think of prominence this way. If you're standing on the summit of Peak X, and you wish to climb a higher peak, the prominence of Peak X is how far you must descend before doing so, no matter the higher peak or route chosen.
Although prominence has been used inadvertently for many years for some purposes, it was used only to support some other concept and not as a primary concept in its own right, and it did not even have a name for most of that time. In more recent times, however, prominence has been found to be an interesting and useful concept in its own right.
One supreme advantage of a prominence-based list is that it is completely objective. In contrast, lists based on subjective considerations of "technical difficulty" necessarily will be different for every person. Unanimous agreement to a list ranking peaks by technical difficulty is impossible.
Comparing altitude above sea level is often like comparing apples and oranges. How can you compare a Colorado 14,000' list with a Washington 14,000' "list"? How can you compare a 6000' southern Appalachian sentinel with a 6000' Rocky Mountain foothill? You can't. But you can still compare prominences across these areas. Prominence comparison is always meaningful, even when altitudes are disparate and altitude comparison is meaningless. A 2000' prominence list for the Appalachians, Rockies, or Cascades would all lead the hiker and climber to the most interesting and climb-worthy peaks in each of these areas. Prominence is much better than elevation above sea level as a means of generating lists. We will see in the next section that prominence, unlike elevation, is capable of being the sole criterion for generating a list.
Prominence is a necessary criterion for deciding when to include a peak on an altitude-based list. For the Colorado 14,000' list, a peak must have at least 500' prominence. (Six others are also included because of their historical importance.) Some lists also have a horizontal separation requirement, but a list whose pruning criteria are based strictly on distance and not on prominence would have several undesireable characteristics. We see, then, that even if prominence is not the primary criterion for a list, it is unavoidable as a secondary criterion.
Prominence presents a fresh alternative to these problems. Because prominence recognizes stature, the most prominent peak in a geographic area will necessarily be a mountain or hilltop. If the highest point and most prominent point are not the same, the latter will almost certainly be of greater interest to a hiker or climber.
In many cases the highest point and most prominent are the same. Exceptions are most likely when the highest point is near a border, and rising terrain continues beyond. When that happens, the way is cleared for a more prominent point elsewhere. The following table shows the number of highest-point most-prominent-point differences for various sets of areas for which both are known.
|Area Set||# of areas||# of areas in which |
the most prominent point
differs from the highest point
|The fifty states||50||24|
In cases where prominence was computed for the purpose of determining whether a given peak should be considered a separate peak for inclusion on an altitude-based list, the peak was usually close to a higher peak, and the area that had to be searched was limited. These cases are not very difficult. However, it has been nigh impossible to date to compile a complete list of all peaks in a large area above a certain prominence. Unless the prominence cutoff is very high, there is usually no way to be sure one has considered all possible candidate peaks above that prominence. Similar difficulties sometimes arise in trying to determine the most prominent point in a certain area. In states which are flat or finely convoluted, for example, it is very time-consuming to determine the prominence of perhaps many hundreds or even thousands of hilltops and verify that the search has included the most prominent point.
Another type of difficult and tedious case in prominence computation is that of peaks which are the highest for many miles around. Consider Mount Whitney, whose "prominence island" goes down to 4420' above sea level and has a very complex shape spannning well over 1000 miles from Canada to its saddle in New Mexico and includes all of the Rocky Mountains. To find such a monstrous bounding contour and verify the point of connectivity to a higher area is a monumental effort.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of several individuals in the last few years, better prominence information is becoming available. The prominence of nearly all major peaks in the United States has been determined. The greatest prominence in most states has also been found with certainty orto a high degree of confidence. The most prominent peak in every county in Arizona and Nevada, California, and Utah has been determined.
Because of a state-of-the art computer algorithm recently developed and implemented, it is now possible to perform a comprehensive prominence analysis of large areas of the United states using digital elevation datafrom the USGS. Because the data available have some inaccuracies, it is necessary to verify the results by hand on a topographic map before placing confidence in them. Nevertheless, this is a useful tool for ensuring that all peaks in a given area have been accounted for. A manual analysis is likely to miss a few. The computer analysis has been used to prepare "50 finest" lists, which are simply the 50 peaks with the greatest prominence, for a few states. Similar lists are pending for more states and the contiguous United States.