Marhofn 133.07 - May 2005

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Introducing Ultras

Jonathan de Ferranti

'Nowadays we are all very sophisticated. No more mountain mysteries remain. Oh for the days of 1893, when SMC members were investigating a vague tradition of an unclimbed mountain chain above Dundonnell.'

So wrote Tom Weir in his chapter on An Teallach for Richard Gilbert's compilation 'The Big Walks'. Two years earlier, Hugh Munro had listed nearly 300 Scottish mountains with elevation over 3000 feet. Some authorities had previously believed there were no more than forty. An Teallach would have been one of many all-but-unknown mountains revealed. Of course, for those who prefer to stay within Great Britain, Tom Weir was right. But the excitement experienced by SMC members in 1893 is still available to the adventurous. Even within Europe there are some fine but relatively unknown and unexplored summits.

Like the Marilyns, the Ultra Prominences project is a continuation of Munro's research. Had he had the means at the time, it is likely that Munro would have listed by relative as well as absolute elevation. Some researchers like to list only summits above arbitrary elevations, but, like the Marilyns, we at the Ultras project list by relative height alone. It is relative height that makes a mountain. If no higher summit can be reached without descending at least 1500 metres or more, we list. The provision of near-worldwide public-domain digital elevation data with a spacing of three arc seconds has helped us, but due to imprecise relief data, we cannot say for certain how many Ultras there are. Our latest estimate is 1535 worldwide. All are listed except a few in the North American Arctic. For the lists and maps, see www.peaklist.org/ultras.html. For some parts of the world, including most of the USA and much of Europe, lists extending to lower reascent values can be found.

Not all the world's best-known summits are listed. The Matterhorn is not an Ultra because there is insufficient drop along the connecting ridge to Monte Rosa. Never mind. That is where everyone else goes. If you go and explore some of the 50 other Alpine summits listed you will definitely not need to queue to ascend. Or go further; there are almost certainly virgins out there. Why not go, find and explore them.

Mary Cox, Francis and Alan Dawson on Cotopaxi

Mary Cox, Francis (Ecuadorian guide) and Alan Dawson on the summit of South American Ultra 30, Cotopaxi (5896m/2410m)

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