Heli Skiing Terrain: The Language of the Mountains

While you might not know (and probably don’t actually need to know) the difference between a fold mountain and a fault-block mountain, there are some specific terms, and mountain terminology you’ll hear used on heliskiing tours.

Some are well known, while others are specific to life in the mountains. In this way, they are equally useful for people who enjoy their trekking and mountaineering when between heliskiing trips.

Starting at the top, the summit is the highest point of a mountain. In theory, all mountains should have just the one summit, but mountaineers often use the word to describe other high points of elevation on the same mountain, such as Everest’s South Summit, which would otherwise be known as a peak.

Heli Skiing Setting
Heliboarding At Last Frontier Heliskiing, Photo by: Dave Silver

A peak, therefore, can be described a being the highest point in the local vicinity, in such that you have to descend from it before reaching another, higher point of elevation. Also it is commonly seen as being pointy in shape, so as not to be mistaken with other such formations, such as knobs, crags or plateaus.

A range (eg Skeena Mountain Range) is simply a group of mountains, although defining where one range finishes and another begins is not always clear. Ranges can vary in size and shape, from the longest, the Andes in South America, to the aptly named Knuckles Mountain Range in Sri Lanka – which predictably resembles the knuckles of a closed fist.

Arête – this is a narrow (often sharp in appearance) ridge of rock, formed by glacial erosion, or an outward facing corner on a rock face.  The term ridge is also commonly used, as is spine (which is the French translation from arête).

The aspect of a slope is the direction in which it faces, i.e. the north face, southwest face etc.

The col is the low point on a saddle-shaped ridge, where if one were to stand on it, two opposite directions would always go down, and the directions between would always go up. The saddle is the name given to a formation resembling the saddle of a horse, high and wide at each end, and narrower and lower in the middle.

Cornice – derived from the word ‘horn, this is a built-up overhang of snow and ice, formed by wind on a ridge.  Sometimes also known as a wind lip.

A couloir, gorge or gully is a passage, or corridor, between visible rocks, down the side of a mountain, primarily caused through erosion by water. More often than not it will contain snow or ice. It is the size of the couloir that distinguishes it from a canyon, or even a valley.

The shoulder is typically the flat section of a ridge, directly below a peak or summit, when viewed from afar.  Along with the terms above, this is very helpful in describing a distinct area of a mountain to another person, when being viewed from a distance.

Other terms that haven’t been covered here, that you may like to research, include gendarme, knoll, plateau and spur, as well as many more not mentioned. It is also worth noting that many local variants exist, and different places and people have their own terminology for describing their home mountains. Part of the fun is comparing and contrasting these, and building a better knowledge of the mountains in which you have so much fun heli skiing.

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