How Cold Is It At the Top of a Mountain?

20 March 2015, 16:18

If you’re going to climb a mountain, even a fairly small one by comparison to the major ones in the UK and abroad, you’d better be prepared. Part of this preparation concerns understanding the way the temperature can and will change as you ascend the mountain.

There is no simple way to calculate what the temperature change will be when you are standing at the bottom of the mountain ready to climb it. The weather will have an effect for starters – clearly things will be very different in the winter when it is snowing to how they will be in the summer in the hottest weather.

However, the temperature will drop by a specific amount for every 1,000 feet you go up. Let’s assume for a moment the weather is good – it’s a cloud-free day and you have no rain or snow to worry about. In this situation you can prepare for a drop of 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit over every 1,000 feet you climb the mountain. This means if the mountain is, say, 3,000 feet in height, the temperature at the top will be just over 16 degrees Fahrenheit lower at the top. This equates to 8.7 degrees Celsius. It may not sound like much but think how exposed you’ll be at the top. This is the basic answer – it doesn’t take into account things like wind chill and other similar factors.

Now you might reasonably assume the temperature would experience an even greater drop if it happened to be snowing on the day you climbed that 3,000 feet summit. Actually though you’d be wrong. In reality the decrease in temperature with every 1,000 feet you climb would be 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit as opposed to the 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit decrease experienced on a sunny day. This has to do with atmospheric pressure. There is less of it as you climb that mountain, which is why the temperature will be different in the absence of any cloud and rain or snow that happens to be coming down.

Fascinating, isn’t it? So while you will undoubtedly enjoy a much better view on a clear and sunny day, don’t be fooled into thinking it won’t be as cold when you reach the summit. Pack warm clothes, gloves and a hat accordingly so you’re prepared. This is where many people go wrong, although experienced walkers, climbers and hikers will be ready – even if they don’t realise the difference in temperature and how (and why) it occurs.

It makes sense to want to climb a mountain on a good day, but it makes sense to be prepared for the change in temperature too. Whether you measure in Fahrenheit or Celsius, it could be a lot bigger than you think.