Last week William & Mary News published a story about a second campaign to officially name a peak in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado Mount William & Mary. The mountain in question is a subordinate peak on Mount Elbert, the highest summit in the Rockies, that tops out at an elevation of 14,440’ (4,401 m) above mean sea level. The Geology Department regularly visits central Colorado as part of our Regional Field Geology course, and with William & Mary students I’ve been privileged to summit both Mount Elbert and the proposed Mount William & Mary on multiple occasions. Mount Elbert is a gentle giant that rises above the upper Arkansas River valley, the scenery is delightful, and there is much geology to see on Elbert’s rocky ramparts.
Rocky Mountain high in Colorado, William & Mary geologists at Mount Elbert. Top: Chris Koteas, Twohy Murray, Brian Hasty, and Chris Coppinger (from left to right) huddled up on the summit in 2002. Lower Left: Brendan Murphy, a shoeless Trevor Buckley, Drew Laskowski and Autumn Millslagle (from left to right) on the summit in 2008. Lower Right: Ali Snell and Beth DeGiorgis descending a snowfield near the summit. (CMB photos).
Taylor Reveley, William & Mary’s president, sent a missive to W&M alums residing in Colorado seeking their support in the effort to name Mount William & Mary. The premise being 1) a presumed connection between William & Mary and the Colorado Rockies, forged primarily by the Louisiana Purchase which was ginned up by W&M alums, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe back in 1803; 2) other universities have their monikers on Colorado peaks, so why shouldn’t William & Mary join that club?; and 3) faculty in the Kinesiology department have, at times, conducted high-altitude physiological research on the mountain.
Over the past week a number of geology alums have contacted me, asking about my views on a possible Mount William & Mary (a mountain that some of us have climbed together during Geology field courses). Here it goes!
I do not support this effort: the campaign to name a Colorado peak Mount William & Mary is misguided folly.
My reasons are as follows:
Shaded relief map of the Sawatch Range, Collegiate Peaks area, and the upper Arkansas River valley, central Colorado.
The Hegemony of Geographic Naming
Geographic features often acquire their given names by curious means, but the history of exploration into a region is typically important in the naming process. Like it or not, being there first counts.
Mt. Elbert is named for Samuel Elbert, a Colorado territorial governor appointed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1873. To the south of Mt. Elbert lies the Collegiate Peaks whose naming stems from an 1869 field expedition led by Harvard Geology Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney. His expedition included four young Harvard lads and support staff, their purpose was to explore central Colorado and along the way measure the altitude of the higher peaks. During that trip, the party named two high peaks for Harvard and Yale (Whitney’s alma mater). Over the ensuing decades other peaks in the area were named for prominent, albeit distant, universities (Columbia, Princeton, and Oxford).
In the late 19th century William & Mary was in a bad way. The Civil War had devastated the College; it was bankrupt both literally and intellectually. William & Mary sent no scientific parties west to the Rockies during that era of exploration and, therefore, played no role in the naming of the western landscape. It wasn’t until a century later (the 1970s) that Geology Professor Jerre Johnson first led W&M students on field forays to the American West; by that time the glory days of place naming were long past. However, the value of those field courses continues, and in the modern era William & Mary geologists are conducting research from the deserts of California to the high peaks in the Colorado Rockies.
As an academic institution William & Mary has a venerable history. But let’s be honest, our connections to the American West, were until the late 20th century, pretty much non-existent. To claim otherwise stretches credibility.
Coloradans Don’t Care for Carpetbaggers
Colorado claims more than 50 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in the elevation. They are known as “fourteeners.” Their names range from descriptive (Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak, Mount Massive) to those honoring prominent 19th century figures (Mt. Lincoln, Kit Carson Peak) as well as native chiefs (Mt. Shavano, Mt. Antero).
Interestingly, there is a long history of attempts to rename Colorado’s prominent “fourteeners.” For instance, Mount Massive, which stands southwest of Leadville, has endured multiple attempts to change its name: in 1901 there was an effort to rename it Mount McKinley (McKinley’s name adorns a famous mountain in Alaska), and in 1965 another effort sought to rename the peak Mount Churchill (in honor of Winston Churchill). These efforts were not successful, in part, due to local sentiment.
In 1998, William & Mary Kinesiology professor Ken Kambis filed a petition with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to register Mount Elbert’s unnamed south peak as Mount William & Mary. The Colorado Mountain Club vigorously opposed Kambis’ petition, and ultimately the U.S. Board of Geographic Names turned down the request.
Colorado’s glorious mountains draw people to the state from all over (during the summer months, Texas license plates commonly outnumber Colorado license plates in many mountain towns). Understandably, Coloradans are leery of outsiders renaming their mountains. The effort to name this South Elbert is already being lampooned by some and will no doubt draw the ire of many Coloradans.
In years to come, on W&M geology field trips to Colorado, I’d hate to be branded “a carpetbagger from back East, whose school put their name on Mount Elbert’s south peak”.
This naming effort seems a curious case of misplaced academic hubris, it does not fit the William & Mary ethos.
William & Mary Deserves Better than a Subpeak
The latest petition to the Board of Geographic Names seeks to name a 14,141’ (4,308 m) high point, on the southeastern flank of Mount Elbert, as Mount William & Mary. On the U.S. Geological Survey topographic map of the area there is no name for this geographic feature; the Colorado Mountain Club, most mountaineering publications, and many locals call it “South Elbert.” Although the peak exceeds 14,000 feet in elevation, it’s not recognized as a “fourteener” because the elevation drop between this high point and the main peak (Mount Elbert) is less than the requisite 300 feet (91 m) to be considered a separate peak.
Topographic map of Mount Elbert, Colorado (from the National Elevation Database).
There is an established, and somewhat arcane, vernacular related to the significance of mountain peaks. Two parameters include: topographic isolation and topographic prominence. Topographic isolation is simply the great circle distance between the peak and the nearest point of equal elevation. Mount Elbert is the highest summit in the Rockies and it’s topographic isolation is a whopping ~670 miles (~1,080 km) that’s the distance to the slightly taller Mount Whitney (named for the aforementioned Josiah Dwight Whitney) in California. Topographic prominence is the vertical distance between the high point and the lowest contour that encircles it and no higher summit. Mount Elbert’s prominence is just over 9,000 feet (2,770 m). The topographic isolation of the South Elbert high point (the proposed Mount William & Mary) is a paltry mile (1.6 km) and its topographic prominence is a modest 234’ (71 m). By way of comparison, the 5,729 foot (1,740 m) tall Mount Rogers (Virginia’s highest mountain named for William & Mary educated William Bartram Rogers) has a topographic isolation of 40 miles (~65 km) and a prominence of 2,500 feet (~760 m).
Illustration of topographic isolation and topographic prominence for Mount Elbert and South Elbert.
The above is perhaps a long-winded statement. Its intent is to demonstrate that the presumptive Mount William & Mary is a just subpeak. While the south peak on Mount Elbert is a lovely piece of Rocky Mountain real estate, it is not a distinctive or significant highpoint in its own right.
Why would a presumably erudite and respected institution like William & Mary want its name associated with a minor topographic prominence?
A peak of prominence? View to the south of the proposed Mount William & Mary from the upper reaches of the taller Mount Elbert. (CMB photo)
No doubt some will take my comments as those of a wayward curmudgeon without an ounce of Tribe Pride. I’m a 1989 graduate of the College and proud of William & Mary–suit me up in the Griffin costume and I’ll lead a cheer.
At William & Mary I learned the value of both critical thinking and careful research. In this case I don’t see much of either, there aren’t many legitimate reasons for William & Mary to attach its name to a minor Rocky Mountain summit. Surely, Coloradans will be laughing about William & Mary’s folly, especially if the College successfully gets its name affixed to a summit that’s not even the highest point on the mountain.
To learn more about the history of place naming in the United States read: Names on the Land by George R. Stewart (1967)
For an excellent book on Colorado mountains read: A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners by Walter R. Borneman and Lyndon J. Lampert (1978)