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Look beyond hypsometry when you look for peaks to bag

Article by Allen Best

Mountains – May 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

My quarrel with peak-bagging, particularly of the 14er variety, is that it is so undiscriminating, and at this point, so clichéd. I don’t like sounding haughty about this, but the fact remains that Mt. Princeton is much easier than Ice Mountain, yet Princeton gets assaulted daily and Ice doesn’t, just because Princeton is over 14,000 feet.

If the goal is to see the Colorado mountains, and bag some peaks while you’re at it, I suggest different criteria than mere elevation.

For example, I climbed a Sheep Mountain in Middle Park one afternoon. Then I found another Sheep Mountain. And another. So far, I’ve managed five Sheep; none offers much in the way of a woolly adventure, but I’ve found a dozen more on topo maps, and they beckon now.

If you’re one of those people who gets headaches at 13,000 feet, why not bag some Sheep? You could travel to all corners of the Rockies, you’d occasionally get above timberline, and generally you would get some exercise. And once you had surmounted all the Sheep, you could call Charlie Meyers at The Denver Post, who likes to do a climbing story about twice a year, and get a big write-up.

You might even write a book and recoup the travel costs. I’m sure the IRS has audited far more bizarre business ventures.

Some other suggestions:

Heavenly Delights: Start at the top, 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross, and work your way down the uplifting experience of Christian endeavor.

There may not appear to be many heavenly peaks, but consider this: The summit register at Hope Mountain indicated that it is regarded as a religious site by some pilgrims from Texas. All it takes is some imagination, I guess.

There’s more Hope in the San Juans (though I haven’t found Faith or Charity anywhere in the mountains), Oh-be-Joyful Basin near Crested Butte, and even a Christ Peak. There are a few Cross Creeks, as well as a Cross Mountain.

You’ll also find a Cathedral Peak at 13,943 feet near Aspen, although all available reports condemn the pews for their lack of comfort. The mountain itself, word has it, delivers a stern sermon.

Protestants might want to visit Methodist Mountain, just south of Salida, which ironically starts a range named by Roman Catholic priests, the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ).

Dedicated Catholics might want to tackle the San Juans and the San Miguels in their entirety, in honor of Saint John and Saint Michael. Other biblical names in the Rockies include Nebo, Pisgah, Goliath, Zion, and Trinity.

Amid the high peaks of the Sawatch are the Three Apostles. No fire and brimstone there, although one of them is Ice Mountain. Take your rope, and practice your prayers.

DEPENDING ON YOUR VIEW of original sin, you could also claim Adam and Eve mountains south of Eagle, or you might put them into the next category.

Hell on High: Since infernal names are easier to find than supernal names, pioneer cartographers and settlers apparently took a rather dim view of the mountains.

We have all manner of hell holes, as well as a Leviathan. The highest is Devil’s Thumb, a pole of a rock above a pass of the same name. Near Saguache there’s a Devil’s Knob, and in the Front Range west of Monument, a Devil’s Head.

Journalists: They may belong in the preceding category, but professional pride compels me to single them out. You won’t find Pulitzer or Hearst in Colorado, but there’s a Mount Nast, named for Thomas Nast, the 19th-century cartoonist who created the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. He was also an investor in the Colorado Midland Railroad, which put his name on a siding and a nearby mountain.

Byers Peak in Middle Park is named for the founder of the Rocky Mountain News. Mt. Meeker, next to Long’s Peak, honors Nathan Meeker — agricultural editor of the New York Tribune before he headed west to found the city of Greeley and then, to lose his life after riling the Utes at the White River Reservation.

OTTO MEARS, founder of at least five Colorado newspapers, gave his name to a summit or two. Various Colorado capitalists like David Moffat and Horace Tabor also owned newspapers, and their names also went on mountains.

I haven’t found any Gazette or Tribune peaks, no News nor Post, no Times nor Herald. The Crestone Eagle can point with pride to maps, though, as can the Park County Republican, and the Saguache Crescent (10,255-foot Crescent Peak in Routt County). With some work, even this publication could qualify: Central Mountain in Gunnison County, combined with Colorado Mountain in Gilpin County, and down the river, Magazine Mountain, at 2,753 feet the highest point in Arkansas.

Colorful Colorado: Colorado’s fourth-highest mountain has a colorful name, or more precisely, one that denotes a lack of color: Blanca Peak. (The reference book Mountain Names observes that variations of “White Peak” supply the most common mountain names in the world. The indigenous name for almost any prominent mountain translates to “That high white thing over there.”)

Add in names like Gray’s (named for a botanist, but gray is gray) and Emerald, as well as the multitude of reds, blacks, and even vermilions, and you’ve got years of peak-bagging.

Cities and states: Missouri, at 14,067 feet, holds the distinction of being Colorado’s highest mountain named after a state, although California isn’t far behind at 13,849 in the Blanca Peak area. As it does with water, California hogs mountains, with several more scattered around the state.

THERE IS AN Oklahoma and an Arkansas, an Iowa and a Tennessee, a Virginia and an Ohio, and a couple of New Yorks. With two New Yorks in Colorado, and all those Californias, who needs to go to either coast?

(Along a related line, when I’m asked about my educational credentials, I can say in full truth that “I have been to Harvard, and I went as high as I could go there.”)

You could extend this to cities. Most notable is Dallas, a challenging pile of rocks at 13,809 feet near Ouray and Telluride. There’s also a Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Boston, San Antonio, London, Geneva, and Chicago.

Political Figures: We can start with the big kahuna, Elbert, named for a territorial governor. We can move on to Lincoln near Fairplay, 14,286 feet. You could pretend that Mt. Wilson, 14,246, was named for Woodrow, but in fact the name came from A.D. Wilson, a surveyor.

(Colorado is exceptional in the West in that its highest peak is not named for a surveyor. Whitney in California, Wheeler in New Mexico, King in Utah, Gannett in Wyoming: all surveyors.)

On down the political list are a U.S. Grant peak, a couple of Brosses (lieutenant governor of Illinois long ago), and a Belford, named for James Belford, the first congressman from Colorado and known in Washington as “the red-haired rooster of the Rockies.”

Nor can you ignore Democrat and Republican mountains; the two-party system must be entrenched, for there are no Libertarian, Socialist, or Populist peaks, although one of the Green Mountains might count these days, and there is a Radical Hill in Summit County.

Feminist Heights: Maybe our forbears were unabashed male chauvinists when they attached names to the landscape, but there are female exceptions like Rosalie, Martha Washington, Schoolmarm, Emma Burr, Edith, Ethel, Eva, Ida, Marcellina, Alice, Lulu, and Dolly Varden.

Further research would doubtless reveal more, and I suspect there would be a profitable guidebook in this.

For more proof of pioneer chauvinism, note that they did observe anatomical resemblances. The Crestone group was once known as “Les Troix Tetons,” the Spanish Peaks were known as “the Breasts of the Earth” to both local Indians and the invading Spaniards, and until the Geological Survey purified the map, there was Granny’s Nipple near Kremmling.

And why are there so many Twin Sisters, but no Twin Brothers?

Tonsorial: For reasons that would be apparent if there were a photo of me with this, I started trying to count all the Bald Mountains in Colorado. After a score or so, I gave up. Some counties have three or four.

No Mt. Hairy or Hirsute Peak, no Samson or Bearded Peak, but there’s a Curley Mountain near Cañon City, a Ragged Mountain in the Gunnison Country, and a Long Scraggly Peak southwest of Denver.

Razor Creek Dome certainly belongs here, along with various Flat Tops.

CRITTERS: High on the list of Colorado mountains is 14,047-foot Culebra, which means snake in Spanish. Close behind is Little Bear at 14,037.

Far more difficult than either is Lizard Head, 13,133 feet and a highly technical climb. Perhaps it was hatched from Dragon’s Egg Rock near Long’s Peak.

We also boast Gray Wolf, Bear’s Ears, Rabbit Ears, Porcupine, Badger, Grizzly, Marmot, Lone Eagle, Burro, Quail, Horsefly, Sleepy Cat, Pigeon, Parrot, Otter, Swan, Whale, Woodchuck, and a host of Ptarmigans — almost as numerous as the Sheep that got me started (although I probably should have begun with Lamb, 12,400 in Park County).

So if you’re trying to avoid crowds, mount a Sheep, bag a Ptarmigan, or trim a Baldy. Scale a reptile, honor a saint, or surmount the devil.

Make up your own categories. Government: White House, Treasury, Crown, Court House. Minerals: Galena, Granite, Rhyolite, Porphyry. Plants: Raspberry, Potato, Banana, Lime. Tools: Anvil, Needle, Sawtooth, Telescope. Weather: Cyclone, Cumulus, Storm, Thunder. Mythology: Boreas, Thorodin, Jupiter, Gemini. Occupations: Warrior, Engineer, Missionary, Pilot. Anatomy: Finger, Nose, Heart…

But stay off those 14ers.

Allen Best is managing editor of the Vail Valley Times and will, under duress of beer, confess to the number of 14ers he’s bagged.