The relationship between valley morphology and ash-cloud surge development for 12 pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) at Soufrière Hills Volcano (SHV), Montserrat is investigated. Channel slope, sinuosity and cross-sectional area were measured from high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) using geographical information system (GIS) software; and were compared to geometric parameters of the deposits. The data illustrate three surge-generation regimes: a proximal area of rapid expansion; a medial deflation zone; and a steadier distal surge ‘fringe'. The extent to which these regimes develop varies with flow volume. For larger flows, within the proximal and medial regimes, a strong inverse correlation exists between surge detachment and valley cross-sectional area. Surge detachment is also correlated with observed and modelled flow velocities. Areas of topography-induced increases in velocity are interpreted to result in more pervasive fragmentation and fluidization, and thus enhanced surge generation. Distally, surge deposits appear as fringes with decaying extents, indicative of more passive expansion and decreasing velocity. The results indicate that surge mobility and detachment are a complex product of flow mass flux and topography, and that future efforts to model dense–dilute coupled flows will need to account for and integrate several mechanisms acting on different parts of the flow.