Elevation Gain Route Dependence Message

Date: August 23, 2004
Author: Adam Helman

(climber) "I just climbed Sacajawea Peak by the most popular, standard route. Since it involved some 5,800 feet of total elevation gain, I am puzzled as to why Sacajawea is not on the 5,000+ foot list? Should I not get credit for my efforts in the corresponding FRL category?"4

(anonymous) "That's great, guy. While your Ice Lake route to Sacagawea does NOT qualify as 5,000 feet of TOTAL gain under the current rules, it DOES qualify as 5,000 feet of NET gain."

(chorus) "Bizarre! Absurd! And most strange state-of-affairs indeed. How can a climb qualify as over 5,000 feet of NET elevation gain, and yet not qualify as over 5,000 feet of TOTAL elevation gain? After all, total gain for a given route is AT LEAST equal to the net gain!!!"

(Adam) The above parody of a real dialogue is no joke, fellow highpointers. The current elevation gain rules -


are an attempt to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

Bob Bolton and I propose that we can and MUST do away with the concept of a single elevation gain value for a given mountain, based in turn on the current rule:

"The total gain for a climb is the minimum possible starting from any point accessible by a high-clearance, street-legal, four-wheel, two-wheel-drive motor vehicle."

Such a stilted, unsupportable (and unpopular) rule is the result of trying to straightjacket what is inherently a route-dependent entity, elevation gain, into a single value for all routes on a given mountain. I am surprised this rule has survived so long without being seriously contended.

Do note that the above rule is unpopular because nobody ever explicitly voted for it when, years ago, the current form of the elevation gain rules were put up for vote by us as a group. It was formed as a compromise between several competing alternative elevation gain definitions.

(climber) "Please explain how I can earn credit for 5,000 feet of NET gain, but not for 5,000 feet of TOTAL gain. I don't see how that's physically possible!"

(anonymous) "According to the current TOTAL elevation gain rules, which bases the gain on a mountain upon the highest accessible trailhead (and not your trailhead), you do not get 5,000+ feet of credit. Rather, you get just 4,800 feet of credit since THAT'S the gain on the Hurricane Creek route - a route which you did NOT take."

(chorus) "Most ludicrous indeed. We even dare day, STUPID!!!"

(Adam) The fact that the current total elevation gain rules results in a ridiculous state-of-affairs (credit for 5,000+ feet of net gain but not for 5,000+ feet of total gain) is a manifestation of the flawed nature of the current rules.

Let's quit the play acting and get down to business...

(Theoretical Example and Proposal)

If N well-documented routes exist on a mountain to its summit, why must it be that the route with the HIGHEST trailhead should be used as the one on which to base that mountain's elevation gain? In general one prefers to use the higher trailhead, everything else being the same - and so that route tends to be the more popular one.

However what if circumstances result in the highest trailhead being unpopular? The trailhead could be remote, far from services. The trail could have objective hazards for much of the climbing season, e.g. a high stream crossing at Thorp Creek along the Hurricane Ridge route to Sacajawea Peak.

There are locations where summarily declaring that the highest accessible trailhead be used as basis for a mountain's elevation gain results in the majority of climbers not receiving credit for their efforts on the 5,000+ foot FRL category.

In contrast, with the new elevation gain rules that Bob Bolton and I propose, anybody can get 5,000+ feet of credit for a climb, PROVIDED THEIR SPECIFIC ROUTE SUPPORTS THAT MUCH TOTAL GAIN.

Upon allowing the total gain on a mountain to be a route-dependent entity, we can immediately toss out this most arbitrary rule -

"The total gain for a climb is the minimum possible starting from any point accessible by a high-clearance, street-legal, four-wheel, two-wheel-drive motor vehicle."

In reference to calculating TOTAL elevation gain, one has the additional rule -

"All net elevation gain to the high point from the lowest point anywhere on the route may be included. In addition, extra elevation gain due to losses during the ascent may be included if the net drop is at least 80 feet."

I propose leaving this rule stand JUST FOR THE MOMENT, allowing us to focus on the main issue - allowing a route-dependent entity, total elevation gain, be a function of the route and not of the mountain alone.

(Real Examples)

Route-dependence suggests that state-highpointers who climb Mauna Kea from sea level get credit for that effort in their 5,000+ ft FRL value(s).

Route-dependence suggests several changes for Colorado county highpoints. If you climb Pikes Peak via the long Barr Trail, 5,000+ feet of gain is accorded. If you drive-up to the summit, your 5,000+ ft FRL value is NOT incremented.

(Peak List Extension)

Bob Bolton and I are composing the (short) list of mountains that are to be added to the (existing) 5,000+ foot gain list, in light of the fact that they each support at least one "sane" route with 5,000+ feet of elevation gain.

Bob suggests that mountains can get added to the list when people climb via a "new" route with 5,000+ feet of elevation gain. We can certainly entertain that concept.

(Additional Comments)

This concept is NOT akin to grade inflation. It is simply rewarding people for efforts that they have already done - while avoiding penalizing them by not "getting credit" on a mountain because they did more elevation gain than is currently listed, for that mountain, based on that most interesting "highest trailhead accessible by high-clearance 2WD vehicle" rule.

(Additional Peaks)

The following peaks, arranged by state, should be added to the existing list of peaks with 5,000+ feet of elevation gain -


Comments are from Bob Bolton (WA, OR, CO) or Adam.


Skamania: Mount Adams liner


Deschutes/Lane: South Sister gets very close using the Green Lakes route.
Can't prove it though.

Wallowa: Sacajawea

Union: The route we used, W. Fork Wallowa River to Frazier Lake,
then up to Glacier Lake, climbing the peak from the east,
is surely > 5K total gain.


The peaks below would qualify based on Roach's guidebook routes
(these aren't already on the list). It therefore doesn't include any
sub-14er cohps.
I don't have a book of those, so someone else may want to jump in.
(I still think the list doesn't HAVE to be developed ahead of time!).

Mount Elbert
Mount Massive
La Plata Peak (Roach claims 5000 feet even - would have to be proven)
Crestone Peak
Castle Peak
Pikes Peak
Wilson Peak (?)

(Bob) One question that comes up. Can one count both Saguache and Custer
counties with one climb of Crestone Peak and its east summit? :-)
I doubt anyone would climb the east summit from a 5K-eligible TH just
for the stat.

(Adam) Cannot reasonably count TWO 5K+ gains on the SAME hike when the
hike is 5K feet gain for the entire effort.
Edward agrees - just talked to him.


San Gorgonio (San Bernardino County) by the Vivian Creek Trail (5,400 feet of gain)
- other popular trailheads also have 5,000+ feet of total gain

San Jacinto (Riverside County) by the Lykken Trail. Edward and I once climbed that way.


Ruby Dome (Elko County) by starting at the locked gate (5,400 feet of gain)
rather than 500 feet higher by having acquired the key.


Kings Peak (Duchesne County). Edward Earl informs me that he once climbed Kings
with over 5,000 feet of gain using a "standard" route.

Mount Nebo (Utah County) via the southern approach - 5,400 feet of gain.


Haleakala - Red Hill (Maui County) IF somebody were to walk the road
from a sufficiently low starting point. Thus far I have not heard
of anybody doing this, however.

Mauna Kea (Hawaii County). Edward Earl and I barely miss getting 5,000+ foot status
since we began our climb from the 9,000 foot level on the approach road.


The route, and not the mountain, has a one-to-one mapping with an elevation gain value. We should take advantage of this fact - one which, if followed to its logical conclusion, solves the question of whether the climber in the parody receives credit for his effort.

Our proposal eliminates arbitrary rules and, as such, should be quite wholesome and satisfying to all highpointers.

See if you do not agree with Bob Bolton and myself.

Edward Earl will also be a key player in the ensuing discussion thread since is the current arbiter of the elevation gain rules.

I am going to southwest Colorado and Utah starting Saturday the 28th, returning in roughly two weeks. Perhaps a concensus on this question can be reached by Friday.

In order to keep this note shorter than otherwise, I have intentionally not described issues that eventually will be addressed, i.e. colors on the elevation gain map; the future inability to determine a climber's 5,000+ foot FRL value based solely on his completion map - a point raised by Edward.

        Sincerely, Adam Helman

4The climber of the parody is myself. Indeed, the elevation gain discussion was initiated by the lack of credit accorded to me upon climbing Sacajawea Peak, the Wallowa County, Oregon highpoint, in the 5,000+ foot elevation gain FRL category, simply because I chose a route different than the one with the least total elevation elevation gain accessible by a two-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.

I used the Wallowa Lakes trailhead. This entails more than 5,000 feet of both net and total elevation gain. This route is far-and-away the most popular means of climbing Sacajawea Peak.

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