A couple of years ago my husband and I took a 20th Anniversary trip. The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone have always been on our our bucket list so we decided to go to out west.
I remember reading about the Tetons and the elevation of Grand Teton …. an elevation of 13,776 feet. Almost 2 miles. What makes the Tetons particularly awe-inspiring is the landscape next to it. They are at at the edge of a flat valley which allows for the stunning views. You can step back and appreciate them in full. And there is no gentle slope up or foothills – it’s a fault-block mountain so – BAM there they are! Imagine how you drew a mountain as a kid – those triangles popping up out of the grass. That’s what the Grand Tetons looked like. It is truly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and I’m a bit obsessed now.
We’ve camped in West Virginia where we climbed Spruce Knob, which is (for this area) a healthy 4,863 feet. We’ve been to the Smoky Mountains several times and hiked to the top Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet – tallest peak of the Smokies. I could not wait to see what 13,776 looked like!
But when we got there, I was surprised. Please don’t take this for disappointment – but 13,776 didn’t look nearly as “tall” as I had imagined. And that’s when it struck me – I hadn’t considered the prominence of a mountain.
Elevation is an absolute number based on sea level. Prominence is relative – how much taller is a peak than its surrounding landscape. Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains has a prominence of 4,505 ft. Grand Teton peak is 6,524 ft. I had forgotten that Jackson Hole area has elevations at 6,500 feet and above. That means to my eyes, Grand Teton was only about 2,000 feet higher than Clingman’s Dome. Taller, but certainly not the twice as tall as I was expecting!
This concept of elevation vs. prominence really struck me in many ways. It made me ask a lot of questions to myself, and honestly, I’m not sure of all the answers. Some of my thoughts encouraged me. 13,775 ft is not that daunting when you look around and realize that you’re already 1/2 way there and didn’t know it! I didn’t think there was any way we could hike to the top, so I wasn’t upset that the trails would be closed. Had I thought about prominence I might have been more mindful of opportunities to hike the mountain. I was so focused on the top, that I didn’t consider where I was relative to it. I wasn’t in that bad of a position to reach the top. Certainly more doable than I had originally thought. What an great mindset message for my students. Yes it’s tall on paper … but look where we are already!
But it also made me really think hard about privilege. Economic, social, racial, academic…. – it is much easier to climb to those heights when you start at 7,000 feet. What if you’re not at that elevation already? What would Grand Teton look like if it was placed right next to Clingman’s Dome – reaching skyward at more than twice the height.
It’s easy to talk about every child reaching the same elevation -and it all sounds very equal and fair. But we can’t forget that for each and every child, the prominence of that peak is unique.