Climbing Mount Sir Donald in Glacier National Park. Lachapelle says remeasuring its height is of particular interest. (Steven Song / Submitted)

Rewriting the topography of mountain tops

Most summits are labelled with the wrong height. One man is trying to fix that and needs help

Looking at the map, Mount Mackenzie is 2,461 metres high. But is it really? Is Mount Begbie truly 2,733 metres? Or even, Mount Revelstoke? Is the summit correctly labelled at 1,959 metres?

According to a professor at the University of Calgary, they probably aren’t.

“Most mountain heights are probably off by 10 to 20 metres,” says Gérard Lachapelle, from the department of geomatics engineering at the University of Calgary.

GNSS receiver taking measurements on the summit of Fortress Mountain in summer of 2019. (Submitted)

Lachapelle has measured 15 mountains so far and found that the labelled heights were all wrong, such as Cascade mountain in Banff National Park. It was labelled as 2,998 metres, but he measured it at 3,006 metres. And Ha Ling Peak, above Canmore was off by almost 70 metres.

According to an article written by Lachapelle there are many reasons for these discrepancies. Handheld global positioning systems (GPS) are limiting. Newer devices, known as global navigation satellite systems (GNNS), which Lachapelle is using, do not determine heights in respect to sea-level, but according to a mathematical model of the earth, namely an ellipsoid. The difference between the elipsoid and sea level can differ by tens of metres.

Lachapelle helped develop GPS technology that many of us use in the backcountry. In fact, he was involved in precision measuring and triangulation work in building the train tunnel through Rogers Pass in the 1980s. At almost 15 km long, the Mount Macdonald tunnel is considered the longest rail tunnel in North America.

The current heights on maps were found using a mix of surveying methods, such as angular measurements and aerial photography. Once Lachapelle remeasures the peak, he shares it with Natural Resources Canada so they can make the official changes. The technology that he uses is far more accurate and high-end for determining a high level of accuracy, even within millimetres.

The NW ridge of Sir Donald has sustained exposure. It’s the main climbing route. (Ben Nearingburg/Submitted)

The GNNS equipment is roughly 1 kg.

“So fairly light. But the higher one goes the more significant 1 kg becomes,” says Lachapelle with a laugh.

Using it is easy. According to Lachapelle, you take the equipment to the summit. Press a button and wait 15 minutes. Push the button again to turn it off and come back down. Lachapelle then looks at the data and calculates.

While Lachapelle is based in Calgary, he says he’s interested in determining the actual heights of mountains and prominent features everywhere, including in the Selkirks, Purcells and Monashees.

“There are plenty of mountains to chose.”

Of particular interest for Lachapelle in this area, would be the correct height of Mount Sir Donald at Rogers Pass. Officially it’s 3,284 metres.

“That mountain would be very much of interest.”

Lachapelle is looking for volunteers. Climbers and hikers that are willing to take his equipment up mountains, press a button and safely return. They just have to be willing to pick up the equipment in Calgary and return it as it’s property of the University of Calgary.

Lachapelle admits this project is just for fun. In many cases, it doesn’t matter if the heights of mountains are off by several metres. However, for some studious hikers and climbers it might.

Mount Amery in the Canadian Rockies is a near 11,000er. It’s official highest is 10,922 feet. But maybe it’s higher…(Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

There is a group of mountains in the Canadian Rockies called the 11,000ers. Officially there are 54 mountains that are each over 11,000 feet with the highest Mount Robson at 12,989 feet (3,959 m) and the lowest Recondite Peak at 11,010 feet (3,356 m). There is much debate in the climbing community, whether some peaks on the lower end of the list, such as Recondite are actually 11,000ers or if some other peaks that are not currently on the list should be.

“There is a zone of uncertainty,” says Lachapelle.

For example, Mount Murchison, which is listed just under the 11,000 mark, if correctly measured, could be on the sought after list. Some climbers that have ascended Murchison with cheaper/less reliable GPS devices have recorded the summit above the magic mark.

“This project is mostly of interest for climbers, for keeping accurate records,” says Lachapelle.

Lachapelle’s research can be found at http://kananaskistrails.com/

If you’re interested in using the GNNS equipment, you can send Lachapelle an email at lachapel@ucalgary.ca

*All heights mentioned in this article are from bivouac.com, a climbing/mapping website.


 

@pointypeak701
liam.harrap@revelstokereview.com

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GNSS receiver taking measurements on the summit of Fortress Mountain in summer of 2018. (Submitted)

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