When is a Mountain a Hill?

I suppose that what I see out my office window are technically Alps, but I can’t get used to calling them “mountains”. In Mussoorie, we lived at 7000 feet (2133 meters) and called that a “hillside.” Here in Lecco I live at 400 meters, and it’s supposed to be a mountain. The Alp on whose slopes we live, il Resegone, reaches a mere 1874 meters (6148 feet).

In reality, this nomenclature problem originates with the British, who founded Mussoorie and other towns in India and called them “hill stations.”

“To use the word ‘hill’ to refer to stations balanced precariously on the edges of ridges some six to eight thousand feet in elevation seems, on the face of it, a rather odd choice of terminology. It has been argued that the Himalayan stations seemed as though they were situated on little more than hills because they were set against the backdrop of the high country. But the universal adoption of the term ‘hill station’… also suggests an etymological effort to minimize the disturbing implications of the sublime… To speak of hill stations rather than mountain stations rhetorically scaled back the overwhelming force of the landscape.”
Dane Kennedy, The Magic Mountains

I also have trouble adjusting to the Alps visually. They’re much steeper than the Himalayas I grew up on, so they look (to me) taller and further away than they actually are. From my window (and in the photo above) I see the Medale, a sheer-sided mass of rock, and, to my Himalaya-formed perceptual habits, it should be very big and very far away. But it’s not far at all – Rossella’s school is practically at its foot, and from where I’m sitting I can see the windows of the houses on its lower slopes.


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