What’s the Difference Between Elevation and Vertical, and Why Should You Care?Published on 02/09/2023 · 8 min readTwo stats get tossed around in the ski world: elevation and vertical. But which one matters more, and which do you need to know when planning your next ski trip?
Photo by Micahl Knotek
Maybe you’ve heard about some of Colorado’s famously high-altitude ski resorts, many of which boast elevations in the eight-, nine-, and ten-thousand-foot range.
Or maybe, you’ve spent some time around serious skiers who like to brag about how much “vert” they got that day (it seems to get bigger every time they tell the story, right?).
And maybe, just maybe, you’ve found yourself a bit confused trying to decipher which one means height, and how on earth are you going to know if the vert your buddy got is respectable or not?
Well, you’re in luck because you’re not alone.
Elevation and vertical (vert) are both useful stats and can indicate what to expect from your ski experience, and with a little understanding, you, too, will be able to seamlessly tell the difference.
We’ll start simple: how far above mean sea level any given point is is the elevation.
Elevation is a fairly basic measure for a ski resort or mountain. Take a resort like Breckenridge—its base elevation is about 9,600 feet, while the elevation at its highest point is just a hair under 13,000 feet.
What does that mean?
In simplest terms, if you could line measuring sticks up at the base and peak, perpendicular to sea level, then each of these sticks would be 9,600 feet and just under 13,000 feet long, respectively.
Elevation = height above sea level.
Vertical Drop (aka “Vert,” aka “Elevation Difference”)
Here’s where it might get confusing: vertical is actually just the difference, ideally, skiable difference, between the highest peak and base of a ski resort.
In the Breckenridge example, a base of 9,600 feet and a peak of just under 13,000 feet equates to a vertical drop of just under 3,400 feet.
Note: You may see vertical drop referred to as vertical, vert, or elevation difference. They all mean the same thing.
Basically, vertical is a more useful measure of how “tall” a ski resort is because, after all, it’s the amount of elevation change that you’ll be able to actually ski. In other words, a ski resort with an elevation of 10,000 feet but a vertical of 150 feet is going to be a lot less fun than a resort with an elevation of 2,000 feet and a vertical of 1,800 feet.
I’ve seen folks assume that Colorado resorts are all the “biggest in the country” because many of their elevations top out at 12,000-13,000 feet. Unfortunately, this isn’t the right way to interpret that since many of these “tall” resorts have verticals in the 2,000-foot range, while many of the biggest vertical drops can be found at plenty of non-Colorado resorts (Whistler Blackcomb, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, etc.). Many can have a lift-served vertical of 3,000-4,000+ feet.
Similarly, many people dismiss skiing in the Eastern United States because the mountains are "small," with most ski areas topping out at 4,000 ft elevation. Well, if we factor in vertical rather than just elevation, they compare well with many Western resorts, with 2,000 vertical feet being a good delineator between a medium and large mountain. Some resorts, like Whiteface in Lake Placid, NY, with a vertical drop of 3,430 feet, or Killington in Vermont, with 3,050 ft, exceed the vertical of many popular ski resorts across the United States.
Vertical Drop = Peak Elevation - Base Elevation.
Another question some folks ask, in particular after enabling an app like Ski Tracks on their phones, is, “what’s the difference between miles skied and vertical?”.
Miles skied is the actual distance you skied, while vertical feet are the sum of the verticals of all of the runs you skied.
Colloquially, “miles skied” is not a brag stat as much as vertical is. You can add up a lot of miles on long-winding groomers, but vertical, on the other hand, means you’re charging down and back up to get more runs in.
Side Note: “True” Mountain Vertical
Alright, so by now, we know the difference between elevation and vertical. And as skiers and riders, we know that nine times out of ten, more vertical is a good thing. So it seems to reason then that in order to have the best ski trip ever, you should go to the resorts with the biggest vertical descents.
For many reasons, seasoned skiers know that vertical is not the only measure on which to pick or judge resorts.
Snowfall, terrain, crowds, amenities, I could go on—there are about one million other factors that go into that decision, many of which you’ll appreciate the more you ski.
This leads me to one of my personal favorite mountain measures: true vertical or true-up vertical drop.
Stay with me for a minute because the “vertical” I mentioned in the section above isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
Nowadays, so many ski resorts engulf multiple peaks, with multiple base areas, and even some only-hike-to terrain like the famous Aspen Highlands in Aspen, Colorado. What this means is that the entire vertical of a resort may not truly be accessible, such as on one long run. Or, in other cases, it is, but it’s just via an extremely boring long traverse. Often, the back bowls of a resort (like in Vail or Winter Park) may require an additional lift to get to the top and back out again. So even though the highest peak is counted towards the ski area's vertical, you can ski from it all the way to the bottom.
I’ve seen and skied multiple resorts with hefty “verticals,” which are technically true because of the elevation difference between their highest peak in one area and the lowest base area in a completely different, inaccessible spot on the mountain, often including the beginner area. But when you ski these mountains, the most you’ll ever get in one run is significantly less.
Why Should You Care?
True mountain vertical should be one factor you consider when choosing a resort to shred, and in many cases, it doesn’t need to be a deal-breaker.
In fact, if you think about it, many of the chairlift infrastructures at today’s resorts end up creating zones where guests may only be lapping 1,000 feet of a resort’s 2,000+ foot vertical. So by no means should true vertical be a deal-breaker unless you’re someone who craves long, leg-burning, continuous fall-line runs that go on forever.
After all, what is the best ski area?
Simple. The one you’re skiing!
How to Research Yourself
If you’re interested in evaluating or confirming the true vertical of a particular mountain, there are a number of options out there.
True-up Mountain Vertical
A number of years ago, I found a website called verticalfeet.com, which has been an incredible resource for evaluating the resorts in North America beyond just what’s listed on the trail map. The ranking is ordered by vertical drop, but they state where that differs from the true-up vertical of a mountain and also include any vert that can be added via a quick hike. I’m not sure how updated it is, but it’s a good starting point if continuous vertical is what you’re after.
Just keep in mind that true vertical is just a reference point to consider, especially if you’re after other things like natural powder vs snowmaking, intermediate terrain or steeps, etc. Skiable acres is another stat that is thrown around a lot by marketing teams. It can certainly give you a sense of the size of a resort, and when combined with vertical and true-up vertical, it can give you a sense of how a resort would feel.
Many trail maps list the peak and base elevations of various points of interest in the resort. You can compare these to get an estimate of true vertical for a particular line, zone, or face of a resort.
Finally, if all else fails, you get an estimate of the true vertical of a particular location the manual way with Google Maps.
By enabling “Terrain” mode in the overlay section, you’re able to zoom in and see approximate elevation lines at different points. Useful if you pan around a resort on Maps and compare the tops and bottoms to get a good idea, especially since Maps nowadays shows the actual trails of resorts. And it's a lot more convenient than poring over topographic maps from either NGS or Canada with different vertical data.
Putting It All Together
When you dig into it, the difference between elevation and vertical is really quite simple. Both are important measures, but vertical does seem to be the more practical to use when evaluating ski resorts.
So, next time you hear someone bragging about how much vert they racked up that day, make sure you ask them, “Was that true vertical?”.
If you have any other questions about ski terminology or want to get geared up for your next trip to the slopes, be sure to reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated. Whether you're staying local next year, or aiming to enjoy the monster vert in British Columbia or lap the Lone Peak Tram at Big Sky Resort, we'd be happy to help!