Mountain pass

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A mountain pass as it appears on a contour map: Bwlch Maesgwm in Snowdonia, north Wales, United Kingdom.[1]

A mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world's mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history. At lower elevations it may be called a hill pass. A mountain pass may be formed between two volcanic peaks, or created by erosion from water or wind.


Idealised mountain pass represented as the green line; the saddle point is in red.

Mountain passes make use of a gap, saddle, col or notch. A topographic saddle is analogous to the mathematical concept of a saddle surface, with a saddle point marking the highest point between two valleys and the lowest point along a ridge.[2][3] On a topographic map, passes are characterized by contour lines with an hourglass shape, which indicates a low spot between two higher points.[4] In the high mountains, a difference of 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) between the summit and the mountain is defined as a mountain pass.[5]

Passes are often found just above the source of a river, constituting a drainage divide. A pass may be very short, consisting of steep slopes to the top of the pass, or a valley many kilometers long, whose highest point might only be identifiable by surveying.

Roads have long been built through passes, as well as railways more recently. Some high and rugged passes may have tunnels bored underneath a nearby mountainside (like the Eisenhower Tunnel bypassing Loveland Pass in the Rockies) to allow faster traffic flow throughout the year.

The top of a pass is frequently the only flat ground in the area, and is a high vantage point. In some cases this makes it a preferred site for buildings. If a national border follows a mountain range, a pass over the mountains is typically on the border, and there may be a border control or customs station, and possibly a military post as well. For instance Argentina and Chile share the world's third-longest international border, 5,300 kilometres (3,300 mi) long. The border runs north–south along the Andes mountains, with a total of 42 mountain passes.[6][7] On a road over a pass, it is customary to have a small roadside sign giving the name of the pass and its elevation above mean sea level.

Apart from offering relatively easy travel between valleys, passes also provide a route between two mountain tops with a minimum of descent. As a result, it is common for tracks to meet at a pass; this often makes them convenient routes even when travelling between a summit and the valley floor. Passes traditionally were places for trade routes, communications, cultural exchange, military expeditions etc. A typical example is the Brenner pass in the Alps.

Some mountain passes above the tree line have problems with snow drift in the winter. This might be alleviated by building the road a few meters above the ground, which will make snow blow off the road.


Col between Kensgriff and Yarlsidine in the Howgill Fells, England

There are many words for pass in the English-speaking world. In the United States, pass is very common in the West, the word gap is common in the southern Appalachians, notch in parts of New England, and saddle in northern Idaho.[8] The term col, derived from Old French, is also used, particularly in Europe.

Scotland has the Gaelic term bealach (anglicised "balloch"), while Wales has the similar bwlch (both being insular Celtic languages).[9][10] In the Lake District of north-west England, the term hause is often used, although the term pass is also common—one distinction is that a pass can refer to a route, as well as the highest part thereof, while a hause is simply that highest part, often flattened somewhat into a high-level plateau.

In Japan they are known as tōge, which means "pass" in Japanese. The word can also refer to narrow, winding roads that can be found in and around mountains and geographically similar areas.

Around the world[edit]

There are thousands of named passes around the world, some of which are well-known, such as the Great St. Bernard Pass at 2,473 metres (8,114 ft) in the Alps, the Chang La at 5,360 metres (17,590 ft), and the Khardung La at 5,359 metres (17,582 ft) in Jammu and Kashmir, India. The roads at Mana Pass at 5,610 metres (18,410 ft) and Marsimik La at 5,582 metres (18,314 ft), on and near the China–India border respectively, appear to be world's two highest motorable passes. Khunjerab Pass between Pakistan and China at 4,693 metres (15,397 ft) is also a high-altitude motorable mountain pass. One of the famous but non-motorable mountain passes is Thorong La at 5,416 metres (17,769 ft) in Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal.


See also[edit]



  1. ^ 53°4′52.8″N 4°7′57″W / 53.081333°N 4.13250°W / 53.081333; -4.13250, height contours from SRTM data.
  2. ^ Eberhart 2004, p. 232.
  3. ^ Bishop & Shroder 2004, pp. 86–87.
  4. ^ Harvey & Simer 1999, p. 185.
  5. ^ Bishop & Shroder 2004, p. 103.
  6. ^ "Principales Pasos Nacionales e Internacionales – Estado de los Pasos Fronterizos" (in Spanish). Gendarmería Nacional Argentina. Archived from the original on 28 March 2010. Retrieved 4 March 2010.
  7. ^ "Pasos – Chile" (in Spanish). Gendarmería Nacional Argentina. Archived from the original on 2007-07-18. Retrieved 4 March 2010.
  8. ^ Map showing "saddle" names in Idaho
  9. ^ Nicolson, A. (1945). Modern Gaelic: A Basic Grammar. A. Maclaren. p. 28. Retrieved 18 January 2021. Bealach (mountain-pass)
  10. ^ The Geology of Snowdonia – A Collection of Historical Articles on the Physical Features of the Peaks of Snowdonia. City: Read Books Limited. 2013. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-4733-9043-0. Retrieved 18 January 2021. The word Bwlch is used in Welsh not only to signify a pass or easy route over a ridge, usually a depression between higher ground on either side, but also ...


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