Are there any specifics about how to differentiate a Pass and a Col in terms of mountaineering?

For non-mountaineering and non-geographical interests it's all the same.

  • 17
    I can't say for English mountaineering, but in Switzerland there is a pretty easy distinction: A col is a saddle point in the francophone region, a Pass is a saddle point in the German speaking region :P
    – imsodin
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 13:43

5 Answers 5


Both words refer to the same topography, which is a saddle point. The land goes up in two opposite directions, and down in the two other opposite directions.

To me at least, a col is just this basic topography. However, a pass implies the saddle point is a reasonable travel connection between the two downhill directions. Since the two uphill directions of the saddle point form a ridge, a pass is a point that allows reasonable passage over that ridge.

So a pass is a col, but not all cols are passes.

  • 4
    I agree, it is in the name: pass-age. An additional element are regional customs. Where I live there are tons of names for a pass: Joch, Sattel, Tor, Egg, Scharte, ... There is some points to distinguish them, but often such explanations fall short and the only reason is: Because it was always named that way.
    – imsodin
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 13:51
  • Where you have both terms used in one place, "pass" is likely to refer to the area around the path/road, while finding the extent of the col would probably need a contour map.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:56
  • 2
    I think while this answer is probably etymologically sound, the two words are actually used rather interchangeably today. Thus the actual reasons why some saddle point is called Col and another Pass might just be based in who named them and where they came from.
    – fgysin
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:11

Pass and col are synonymous. Col is French whereas the word pass has entered the Germanic languages (German word is Pass). The word col entered English usage because of anglophone mountaineers in the French Alps.

  • 5
    Like Rappel and Abseil
    – user2766
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 15:16
  • @DavidRicherby the current word in French for a mountain pass is "passe" (fem.) (and col is "col" (masc.))
    – njzk2
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 18:18

I personally think of it this way: Passes are less steeper, and are something which are/were used by people commuting for any reason for that matter. Whereas Cols are something which are comparatively steeper and there may or may not be an established walk-able path/trail through it.

Consequently, a Pass can definitely be approached from both the sides. Thats not always true/applicable to a Col.

  • Do you have any sources for this distinction, or is it just your personal preference? Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 15:29
  • Its just my personal observation. I may be wrong globally, but this makes sense to the place where I live.
    – WedaPashi
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:36

A pass is a natural way or low point which facilitate moving across a mountain without clumbing its full height whereas a col is the lowest point of a mountain ridge between two peaks.


From my perspective a col is a dependent gap or linked space that divide the apex of a a hill while pass is a stretch of lowland dividing two independent or isolated hill. Its very possible for each of this two hill to have a col space dividing their apex!

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