Short History of Orometrical Prominence

In 1930 Günter Oskar Dyhrenfurth began compiling seven-thousander peak lists after climbing Jongsang Peak. Back then he already differentiated between independent mountains, major peaks and minor peaks according to their notch depths. In the same year, John Rooke Corbett started a similar list of mountains in Scotland. Where Hugh Munro had already established a list of Scottish three-thousanders (in ft), Corbett created one including all Scottish mountains between 2500 and 3000 ft altitude that also had a "drop on all sides" of at least 500 ft. He also climbed every mountain on his own list. At this time the idea took shape that peaks should be classified by other criteria than just the absolute altitude.

In 1938 Kenneth Mason published his "Karakoram Nomenclature", a compilation of mountains and peaks which was doubtless excellent back then. But beyond several errors its major deficiency was the almost complete lack of distinction between major and minor peaks resulting from the neglect of notch depth as a criterion. Until the 1960s Günter Oskar Dyhrenfurth was the only one to mention and apply this criterion to high mountain regions. In cooperation with Anders Bolinder, who would later become his co-worker, he published in the volumes "Berge der Welt" (“Mountain World” published by the "Swiss Foundation of Alpine Research"), decidedly the best lists of seven-thousanders at that time. Anders Bolinder kept at the method after Dyhrenfurth had passed away. Jerzy Wala, a Polish geographer, also compiled 7000er lists of the Karakoram and 6000er lists of the Hindukush with some distinction between Main- and subsidiary peaks in addition to his detailed orographical sketch maps. In contrast, H. Adams Carter's "Classification of the Himalayas" (1985, AAJ Vol. 27/Issue 59, pages 109-141) did not distinguish between mountains and ridge points.

In fact, the only ones who advanced the idea of using notch depths as a criterion were the "peakbaggers" in England, Scotland and Wales. Alan Dawson compiled the most acknowledged lists of serial ascents in Great Britain, including all mountains with a drop of 150 m and more ("Marilyns") and also all peaks with more than 610 m (2000 ft) altitude with a drop of 30 m and more in England and Wales ("Hewitts"). Later even every peak with more than 610 m altitude in England and Wales with a notch depth above 15 m was listed ("Nuttalls").

It was not until spring 2000 that the author heard about the developments on this subject that had taken place in the US. Back in the 1960s the “Colorado Fourteener Completers” had already calculated what they called “saddle drops” and had also compiled corresponding ascent lists. In 1981 Steve Fry used the term “prominence” for this criterion. This term was first published in the 1987 Jan/Feb issue of “Summit”, in which prominence cuts for “super mountains” and “ultra mountains” were also suggested. Today the term “prominence” is well established among interested circles. First it was named “Topographic Prominence”, but this term is used for several other subjects, so it would be better to name it “Orometrical Prominence”, because it is used for orometrical subjects only. Although some other suggestions (e.g. “height difference“, “re-height“, “re-ascent“, “vertical rise“, “primary factor”) have been made, the Latin word for “to protrude” is probably the most fitting.

For several years now prominence lists have been created in the US. Quite a number of mountaineers are now more interested in climbing the most prominent mountains of a certain area and working these lists than in simply climbing every point above a certain “magical” decimal based altitude. Apart from Steve Fry, the persons who pioneered in finding prominences in the US were Steve Gruhn, Jeff Howbert, Aaron Maizlish, Andy Martin, David Metzler, Carl Mills, David Olson, John Roper, Roy Schweiker, Greg Slayden, and Ron Tagliapietra. An outstanding contribution has been made by Edward Earl who was the first who developed a computer program to calculate the prominences from digital data. In addition he created one of the first websites about prominence and in August 2000 he founded an E-group which discusses the subject “prominence” seriously and extensively. The members also share newly identified prominences and discuss other possible criteria, such as steepness and impressiveness. These criteria can also be calculated and evaluated. Also an important pioneer in the prominence history is Adam Helman, who wrote the first book about prominence in the US.

In 2001 the author contacted John Biggar (SCO), who has identified the prominences of many South American mountains. His mountain lists are shown at !

Some years ago Jonathan de Ferranti (SCO) developed a program which is able to calculate automatically the prominence of a mountain within an accuracy of a few metres by using Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) data and topographic maps.

His website offers provisional and map-checked prominence lists for mountains, DEM data sets and digital mountain panoramas from all over the world.

Aaron Maizlish's website attempts to file every mountain in the world with a prominence greater than 1500 m.  The Canadian website is also concerned with the prominence of mountains. Also Petter Bjørstad of Norway shows many prominence lists on his site, especially for Skandinavia.

Other prominence finders in Europe include Mark Trengove, Parys Lisiecki, Vasja Kavčič, Piotr Mielus and the oldest "prominencian" Edwin Darnley "Clem" Clements (85).

By now a considerable number of web sites have taken notice of this criterion and it has become quite common.