Mountains 101: A Review

I just finished Week Four’s lesson for Mountains 101. It’s a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from the University of Alberta’s Mountain Studies program, aimed at a general audience, including adult learners. The course is largely the brainchild of professors David Hik and Zac Robinson, who do most of the video presentations. It’s a great introduction to the growing young field of mountain studies by one of the best academic programs.

True to its promise as an introductory and interdisciplinary course, the class builds slowly from a basic foundation and draws from many different disciplines. The course begins by defining mountains in geological and topographical terms, while always keeping their signicance to human cultures in the mix. One possible definition of “mountain” is premised on locals calling the high point near them a “mountain,” whatever its measured height might be. Lesson 2 discusses physical origins and historical theories of mountain building. Next comes climate, especially mountains’ effects on atmospheric pressure, weather patterns, and tree lines. Lesson 4 describes physiological effects of high altitudes and the varied ways that humans have adapted to alpine environments, both long and short term. In the weeks to come we’ll tackle the water cycle, glaciers, mountains in the human imagination, natural hazards, biodiversity, preservation/conservation, and the uncertain future that mountains face.

The lessons are visually gorgeous, with dozens of photographs and video of mountainous places, especially the instructors’ home Canadian Rockies. The pace and tone are about right, with clear, straightforward explanations of topics. One of my few complaints about the course is that photos, often projected in the background behind the presenter, are not identified. Captions might be distracting, but I constantly find myself wondering just what and where are these enticing places we’re looking at. Expert guests sometimes make appearances; for example, Martin Price, who directs the Centre for Mountain Studies at the University of Highlands and Islands in Scotland. Each lesson includes a “tech tip,” in which two experienced guides give practical advice on planning and preparing mountain trips, as well as an interactive map that highlights mountains featured in that lesson. The course is part of’s offerings; so far it’s been technically flawless.

Mountains 101 is well worth the time of anyone who lives, works, or plays in and around mountains. Some of it may seem basic to specialists, but it’s meant to be an introduction. I’m learning (and re-learning) a lot, despite my slipshod study habits (I keep finding myself up against the Sunday deadline for each chapter). While always mountain-centric, the course also functions as a remedial lesson in a variety of topics (e.g., geology, meterology, the respiratory system).

I will pretend that I have passed each of the lesson-ending quizzes on the first try.

Check it out at: