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A mountain by any other name would soar as high

Article by Ed Quillen

Geography – May 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE SAWATCH RANGE AND Lake County could be getting another 14er — Mt. William and Mary. It’s a 14,134-foot summit about a mile south of the 14,433-foot apex of Mt. Elbert, highest point in Colorado and indeed, in all 3,000 miles of Rocky Mountains.

This knob on the Elbert massif sometimes appears in climbing guidebooks as “South Elbert,” but U.S. Geological Survey maps display no official name. Thus the proposal from Dr. Kenneth Kambis, a professor of kinesiology who climbed it last summer, to give the peak a formal name.

As you may have guessed, Kambis teaches at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Chartered in 1693, it is the second-oldest college in the United States (only Harvard precedes it), and its graduates include three presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Tyler.

In his application to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, Kambis said that a Mt. William and Mary would extend the tradition of academic titles for peaks in the Sawatch Range.

This trend began in 1869 when Harvard geology professor Josiah Whitney (a Yale graduate) led a surveying expedition into Colorado to investigate rumors of soaring 17,000-foot peaks deep in the Rockies.

After crossing Trout Creek Pass, they named the highest summit in sight for the expedition’s sponsor — 14,431-foot Mt. Harvard. A handsome nearby peak was named for Whitney’s alma mater — 14,196-foot Mt. Yale.

Those Ivy League names inspired Roger Toll in 1916. An ardent climber who went on to a distinguished career with the National Park Service, Toll discovered that a 14,073-foot summit about a mile southeast of Harvard had no name. He provided one: Columbia, for his alma mater.

Another Collegiate in the Sawatch Range is 14,153-foot Mt. Oxford. It was christened in 1931 by John L. Jerome Hart, a Denver lawyer and climber — and a Rhodes scholar who had spent a year at Oxford.

The naming of the southernmost Collegiate Peak, 14,197-foot Mt. Princeton, is not documented. The Wheeler Survey of 1873 called it Chalk Mountain from the Chalk Cliffs at its base (which aren’t chalk, despite appearances, but that’s another story). However, other early maps show it as Mt. Princeton, and the name most likely came from Whitney’s 1869 expedition.

If Whitney’s name sounds familiar to mountain buffs, it should. He left his name on the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada, also the highest in the lower 48 states — 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney in California.

The highest points in many other Western states are also named for surveyors. Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest at 13,161 feet, is for Capt. George Montague Wheeler, in charge of the U.S. Army’s surveys of the West in 1872-79. In Utah, 13,528-foot King’s Peak got its name from Clarence King, who spent most of a decade mapping the West along the 40th parallel before serving as the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879.

Wyoming’s tallest, 13,804-foot Gannett Peak, honors Henry Gannett, a member of the 1873 Hayden Survey of Colorado — when he climbed and aptly named Mt. Massive — and later head of the U.S. Board of Geographic Place Names. (In 1980, I visited Lander, Wyoming, and a local at a diner bragged on how his county had the highest peak in the state. After pressing him for details, I responded, “Hell, we’ve got mountains taller than that, that don’t even have names.”)

Indeed, the highest mountain in the world, 29,028-foot Mt. Everest, is named for a surveyor — Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India 1830-43.

While surveyors seem like rather prosaic types to have their names attached to major landmarks, we must keep in mind that we’d have no way of knowing which mountains were highest if it weren’t for surveyors. And those pioneer surveyors put in plenty of hard work — climbing, packing and unpacking mules, dodging grizzly bears and lightning bolts — when they mapped these territories. I’m certainly willing to indulge them a few place names.

I have heard some modern objections to these names, in that the Nuche were here first. But Ute place names tended to be descriptions (“Blue-Green Place” for Saguache, “Stinking Water” for Pagosa), rather than proper names. We do, however, have some grand peaks with Ute names — Ouray, Shavano, Tabeguache, Chipeta, Antero, Uncompahgre.

So should there be a Mt. William and Mary? There is a connection to surveyors. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most distinguished alumnus, was a fair surveyor in his day, and George Washington, who could also set corners and run boundaries, received his Virginia surveying license from the College of William and Mary.

The name comes from English monarchs: William III and Mary II, Dutch royalty from the House of Orange who had been invited by Parliament to rule in 1689 after James II was deposed. The co-regents granted the royal charter to the school in the colony of Virginia, and thus the name.

By most accounts, and by the standards of their day, William and Mary were decent rulers, although I’m sure the politically correct crowd could find major modern character flaws — they tolerated sexism and slavery, after all. As for their namesake college, well, I’d be pleased if it produced another Thomas Jefferson, but even one such graduate is better than the production from any other American institution.

Perhaps that’s why the Lake County Board of Commissioners, when informed of the William and Mary proposal, had no objection and indeed wrote a letter of support, as did the district ranger.

But state Rep. Carl Miller, a Leadville Democrat, and state Sen. Ken Chlouber, a Leadville Republican, did have objections. They wrote to the Board of Geographic Names: “… given the fact that the peak is located in Lake County we firmly believe it should be named in honor of our community’s rich and glorious history … we truly believe your office should solicit and consider local and regional public opinion before you make a decision on a name.”

Determining place names is a full-time job for Roger Payne, executive secretary of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in Reston, Virginia. “We set the names that are used by federal agencies,” he explained, “such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service. We have no authority to tell state and local governments what names to use.”

Local customs and authority, Payne said, are the major factors. “Usually it’s the county commissioners or their equivalent, although sometimes state legislatures or boards get involved. We ask the affected county’s government about each proposal, and generally we go along with what they tell us.”

COLORADO DOES HAVE a state board of geographic names, although discovering it took a while. I called the governor’s office, which sent me to the Department of Natural Resources, which sent me to the Colorado Geologic Survey, where nobody knew anything about affixing names.

Eventually I learned that the board falls under the state archivist, where returning telephone calls is not a high priority. So much for the responsiveness of state government as compared to the evil federal government, where Payne returned my call within minutes.

There are policies for place names, Payne said. A person must be dead for at least five years for that name to be considered. Two offensive terms, “Nigger” and “Jap,” are forbidden for new names, although historic names with those terms remain in place. New names inside wilderness areas are seldom welcomed, unless necessary for public safety. And with rare exceptions (“Martha’s Vineyard” the most prominent), the board removes apostrophes and special characters to produce Browns Canyon from Brown’s CaƱon.

Any citizen has the right to go to the board and request that a geographic feature be named or renamed, and this happens about 400 times a year, Payne said. The board has a small staff and budget; it does not go out into the hinterlands and conduct investigations and hearings.

Instead, it writes letters, as it did to the Lake County Commissioners earlier this year.

Jim Morrison, a Lake County Commissioner, had no problem with a Mt. William and Mary. “To be honest, that’s the least of my concerns here. We’ve got a land swap involving Ski Cooper, those proposals for development around Turquoise Lake, a lot of demands for county services and a small tax base and a high mill levy — and you can’t even see that summit from Leadville. If somebody wants to call it William and Mary, that’s fine by me and the rest of the board. I don’t know why Ken [Chlouber] and Carl [Miller] got so upset about it.”

Chlouber and Miller’s letter expressed astonishment that the peak in question wasn’t already named. That may be because it has never attained separate summit status.

Colorado abounds in mountain massifs that have several high points. Elbert boasts a 14,433-foot main peak, a saddle that dips to 13,910 feet, then a subsidiary 14,143-foot summit a mile away and without an official name.

Dominating the Salida skyline is 14,229-foot Shavano; less than a mile away, above a 435-foot drop, is 14,135-foot Tabeguache. Until 1931, Tabeguache was not considered a separate peak.

Both the Colorado Mountain Club and the U.S. Geological Survey issue lists of 14ers, but the criteria are not consistent. The “rule of thumb” is a horizontal separation of at least half a mile, with a vertical distance of at least 300 feet between the bottom of the saddle and the top of the shorter peak.

BY THOSE CRITERIA, East and West Maroon peaks near Aspen are not distinct, even though they appear separately on all known 14er lists. And if the Maroons qualify, so do Elbert and South Elbert.

Part of this inconsistency may result from climbing challenge. East and West Maroon require quite demanding routes along exposed ridges, and are made of rotten rock which offers bad footing and a constant patter of falling stones. Elbert and South Elbert, by contrast, are basically steep walks on fairly solid granite — much easier outings.

Also, Aspen boasts a certain cachet and influence that Leadville doesn’t. While this is a blessing in that one is generally safe from Hollywood bodyguards and migrant Eurotrash in the Cloud City, it also means that if Aspen wants an extra 14er, it gets one, objective criteria be damned.

Craig Schreiber, owner and operator of Sawatch Guides in Leadville, has been up Elbert — and what he thought was South Elbert — at least a dozen times.

“I’m not fond of some guy from Virginia deciding on a name for a local mountain,” he said, “and I’d rather see some local name if they have to give it any name.”

Dick Scar, owner of the Trailhead outdoor shop in Buena Vista, said “I don’t care what they call it, as long as they keep people off it. The 14ers are getting really trashed and cut up from all the climbing traffic, and we should be worried about protecting them, rather than what we call them.”

Scar noted that “all the other Collegiate Peaks are considerably south of this one, so I don’t know that an academic name would fit in that well.”

He has a point, although there is an academic connection for the northernmost 14er in the Sawatch Range, 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross. Its name comes from the cruciform snow pattern on its east wall, but in 1966, Holy Cross College of Worcester, Massachusetts, offered a $1,966 reward to the first people to reach the summit in the winter — a prize claimed on that New Year’s Day by four of its students.

For that matter, many local summits — Missouri, Arkansas, Hope — can be tied to a college or university somewhere.

But let us return to William and Mary, and Professor Kenneth Kambis. His pleasant Southern accent reflects his birth in nearby Richmond 51 years ago. He teaches kinesiology — essentially, the study of humans in motion — and specializes in the aging.

One part of his research, he explained, is the effect of altitude on older people as they exercise: How long does it take to adapt to a higher altitude? Do people breathe more deeply, and if so, how does that increased exertion affect their stamina and general health?

Since Colorado is the highest state, and Kambis likes to camp and roam outdoors, it’s a natural site for his field research. “We have altitude chambers at the college, of course,” he said, “but there are so many things you can learn out in the field that you can’t learn inside a laboratory.”

Leadville, the highest city in the United States, “is a good place for our research — it’s probably the only place at 10,000 feet where you have motels, restaurants, good communications, and a hospital. And it’s beautiful there.”

Plus there’s Mt. Elbert, which rises less than a dozen miles from Harrison Avenue. Kambis has climbed it four times in recent years as he conducts his research.

Last summer, Kambis and his assistant, Kim Whitley, came to Colorado with 85-year-old Jack Borgenicht.

Borgenicht is the oldest person ever to climb 14,411-foot Mt. Ranier in Washington, and plans on visiting Africa this summer for a try at its highest peak, 19,340-foot Mt. Kilamanjaro in Tanzania.

Last summer’s expedition started at sea level, then to mile-high Denver, where they spent 24 hours and measured how well Borgenicht adjusted to the higher altitude. The next 24 hours were in Vail, then 24 hours in Leadville, then a climb to a rocky and tilting campsite at 13,500 feet on Elbert’s flank for another 24 hours.

“To measure adaptation to altitude,” Kambis said, “we use a portable spirometer, which measures the volume of air inhaled and exhaled. We also check blood pressure and pulse.”

On August 21, 1997, Kambis, Whitley, and Borgenicht climbed Mt. Elbert, partly in the interest of science, much like the early survey parties.

WHILE BORGENICHT rested near the highest point in Colorado, Kambis ambled over to the nearby peak without an official name, planted a green-and-gold flag, and christened it “William and Mary.”

With the college’s support, Kambis proposes an endowment to pay for cleaning and maintenance on the Black Cloud Trail that climbs from Lake Creek to reach Elbert from the south, as well as organized maintenance visits from William and Mary students, faculty, and alumni.

In other words, the mountain would have people dedicated to tending its trail and summit, and in this era of reduced Forest Service budgets, that’s no small benefit. Perhaps Chaffee County could suggest renaming Harvard and Yale unless those wealthy institutions provide similar endowments. For that matter, one of our cash-strapped mountain counties might conduct a survey of unnamed peaks, streams, and gulches, then sell the “naming rights” to billionaires desiring geographic immortality.

When I started looking into this, I was prepared to write a ringing denunciation of carpetbagger elitists who want to rename our mountains.

But many of the familiar names we use now resulted from the same sort of people and processes — the Whitney party that christened Harvard and Yale in 1869 wasn’t all that different from the Borgenicht party of 1997. William and Mary is an honorable institution. Besides, I’m getting older and live at a high altitude (by world standards, anyway, if not Leadville standards) — the more they learn about how we respire at elevations, the better.

Like the Lake County Commissioners, I can’t think of a good reason not to name it William and Mary, and if somebody wants to go through the work of so naming it, then fine by me.

Assigning a new name, one without much local connection, to an unnamed peak in this region has happened within recent memory, with no controversy that I can recall.

In 1987, a 14,081-foot subsidiary summit on the west ridge of 14,165-foot Kit Carson Mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Range was christened Challenger Point, in honor of the crew of the space shuttle that exploded in 1985. It doesn’t meet the criteria for a separate peak, but it is on the map to honor people whom America wishes to commemorate.

But I don’t think Carl and Ken were wrong to want an unnamed peak to reflect the local heritage if it gets a name. So here’s a suggestion.

MT. MASSIVE, quite visible from Leadville, boasts several summits that rise above 14,000 feet. Only the highest is formally named, as best as I can tell. The second-highest, “North Massive,” rises to 14,340 feet. If it stood alone, it would be the fifth-highest mountain in the state. Like Challenger Point, though, it doesn’t qualify for separate status. But it could be Something Point or the like.

I propose Molly Brown Shoulder, as in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Thanks to Hollywood, the Titanic is much in the public eye these days, and Margaret Tobin Brown was one of the few heroines in that disaster.

She’s about as Leadville as a person can get. She was born in 1867 in Hannibal, Missouri. She was shanty Irish, a despised ethnic group of the day. She made her way west in 1884, married mine operator James J. Brown in 1886, and they struck it rich with his interest in the Little Jonny Mine, part of the Ibex group.

They remained married, but parted company — Jim Brown liked a simple life, while Mollie was a social climber in Denver (where her House of Lions remains), Europe, and Newport, Rhode Island.

But her concerns were not limited to the high society she so desperately tried to join. In 1914, she raced home from Europe to bring food and clothing to the widows and orphans of the striking coal miners killed in the Ludlow Massacre. Just before her death in 1932, as the Great Depression put miners out of work and winter loomed for their destitute families, she sent hundreds of mufflers, mittens, and boots to be strung on an enormous Christmas tree erected in Leadville.

In short, the local heritage, just about any way you want to look at it, would be honored with Molly Brown Shoulder.

It would also put a woman’s name on a 14er. Mt. Evans, 14,264 feet west of Denver, was originally christened Mt. Rosalie by the famous landscape painter Alfred Bierstadt, who loved that area and his wife, Rosalie. In 1895, the legislature changed the name, and since then, not one of our 14ers has borne a female name.

That’s shameful in the second state which granted women the right to vote, and a moment’s thought will produce many other reasons. And we don’t even have to get into the Teton jokes.

Further, the Leadville Chamber of Commerce advises me that it gets many visitors who want to see something connected to Molly Brown, and the old Little Jonny Mine, source of her fortune, is nearly inaccessible in the winter. With a Molly Brown Shoulder in place on the skyline — a landmark that she doubtless saw nearly every day of her years in Leadville — the visitors could be satisfied with a mere sweep of the arm.

So, go ahead with William and Mary. Professor Kambis of William and Mary played by the rules, and there’s nothing wrong with the name, despite its lack of local connection.

And if somebody wants to get moving on Molly Brown Shoulder, for the subsidiary peak formerly known informally as North Massive, I stand willing to write a letter of support. It will take a lot of work, since Massive is inside a wilderness area, and the federal Board of Geographic Names is not fond of changing names inside dedicated wilderness.

I’d start this myself, except I don’t live in Lake County and I am sensitive to “carpetbagger” allegations, since I make them all the time myself.

Ed Quillen climbed Mt. Elbert in 1979 with Rex Ewing and Allen Best, who kept telling him there was a great Mexican cantina on the top with steaming chili verde and Negra Modelo at $1 a pitcher. Thus they dragged him into brief service as the highest person in Colorado.