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Everybody loves our 14,000-foot peaks

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

14ers – May 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Few things in this life give an overweight chain-smoker as much of a feeling of accomplishment as somehow scrambling to the summit of one of the 50-odd Fourteeners in Colorado. There you stand, light-headed and giddy, aching and exhausted, with a vast panorama beneath you — in fact, the whole world seems beneath you, and one seldom gets to feel so superior to other mortals.

If climbing a Fourteener feels that good for a non-physical lout like me, I can only imagine how great it must feel for folks who exercise compulsively and treat their bodies better. Little wonder that our peaks are so popular, and getting more popular by the minute.

So popular, in fact, that something of a Colorado industry has resulted from hypsometry. (Useful word hereabouts — Martha discovered it years ago, and our dictionary defines it as “The measurement of elevation relative to sea level.”)

In Buena Vista (the town motto is now “Home of the Fourteeners,” replacing the old “Smile High City” — a marketing ploy that reflects the growing interest in Fourteeners), Dick and Jan Scar have been selling outdoor gear and providing advice to climbers for the past quarter of a century. Occasionally they find time to do some climbing themselves.

“Traffic on the Fourteeners has really increased dramatically,” Dick told me late last year. “I can’t put my finger on it, but 20 years ago, most inquiries here were from Colorado people, and only in the summer. Now we deal with people from all over the world, and it’s a year-round thing.”

Interest in the Fourteeners isn’t confined to merely climbing them, although “that’s a major tourist draw any more. Climbing a Fourteener used to be a novelty, and now it’s more or less a mainstream tourist activity,” Scar said.

Tourists who arrived at their destinations used to get bumper stickers that said “Cave of the Winds” or “Wall Drug Store.”

Vacation status symbols have changed in a society that has grown more obsessed with physical challenges. Nowadays successful climbers — and status seekers who want to appear to be successful climbers — can indulge in some silent bragging by stocking up on Fourteener-related calendars, guidebooks, picture books, T-shirts, stickers, jacket patches, postcards …

“Our son designed a Collegiate Peaks T-Shirt,” Scar noted, “and printed up four dozen of them. We figured we could always use them for dishrags, but instead, we sold out.

“And a Texas guy,” Scar continued, “offered us some embroidered jacket patches, a different one for each Fourteener. I didn’t think we’d sell any, but I took a few anyway. They’re selling pretty well at $5 a pop.”

There’s a saying that if merchandise doesn’t move, “just paint it red and sell it in Nebraska.” It might be updated to “Just stick a mountain on it and sell it in Colorado”; Scar observed that “Just about anything related to a Fourteener seems to move.”

Scar understandably doesn’t ask for proof of accomplishment before selling a T-shirt or patch concerning any given Fourteener.

“This major interest in Fourteeners does seem to be new around here, but back East, where I grew up, we had a ‘4,000-foot Club’ for people who’d climbed all the peaks higher than that in the Appalachians. It was a pretty big deal there, and we’re getting the same thing now — just add 10,000 feet, and you’ve got a ‘14,000-foot club’.”

And in world-class mountaineering circles, “I suspect there’s an 8,000-meter club somewhere” for everybody who’s climbed peaks like Everest and Gosainthan that are over 26,247 feet.

THE SIZE OF THE GROWING Fourteener collateral industry is anybody’s guess, but the U.S. Forest Service has been gathering numbers for usage on the trails to the summits, and those numbers are getting bigger in a hurry.

The marmots at the summit of Mt. Massive, the second-highest peak in the Rockies at 14,421 feet, saw about five climbers on a typical summer day in 1977. Last year, the average was 31 climbers a day — a 520 percent increase — and that number is typical for all major peaks in the northern Sawatch Range.

We used to be told to “take only pictures and leave only footprints” when venturing outdoors. But when so many of us are leaving footprints, the results can be pretty hard on the mountains.

So many people used the North Mt. Elbert Trail (10,000 hikers in a four-month season) that deep gullies resulted. The Forest Service closed the trail in 1992, and began restoring it with compost [a full account is in “Rebuilding Mt. Elbert,” by Sharon C. Chickering, in the February, 1995, edition of Colorado Central].

THIS SITUATION — degradation from heavy use, even if each user treads lightly on the land — isn’t much different on many other Fourteeners.

In 1993, the American Mountain Foundation, in cooperation with groups ranging from the Forest Service to the Colorado Mountain Club, began a study of the effects of hiking and climbing on Colorado’s tallest peaks. The idea was to determine current problems, suggest ways to repair the trails, and propose future solutions like new “standard” routes and more education for climbers.

Late last year, the Foundation released draft reports, organized by mountain range. The pertinent ones for us are the Mosquito/Ten Mile, Sangre de Cristo, and Sawatch.

The Foundation isn’t trying to turn every Fourteener zone into a wilderness area where vehicles are banned. For instance, the Baldwin Gulch road climbs from Chalk Creek up to 13,700 feet, almost within spitting distance of the 14,269-foot summit of Mt. Antero. The Foundation recommended:

“Maintain the four-wheel-drive road. This could include measures to improve water bars, designate parking areas, and prevent slides on cut banks. Designating camping areas near the creek crossing could minimize impacts in the area as well.”

The Mosquito Range, between Fairplay and Leadville, boasts five Fourteeners — four of them on private land, thanks to 135 years of mineral claims, but access has remained open to the public. Roads lead above timberline near most of the summits.

Recommendations for the Lincoln-Cameron-Democrat group include a review of private property boundaries and access, a trail register and educational kiosk at Kite Lake, and a defined trail to the saddle. As it is, climbers spread out and damage a lot of vegetation.

The last Colorado Fourteeners to be climbed — at least the last to be climbed by people who kept records — were Crestone and Crestone Needle in the Sangres. Generally, they’re approached from Colony Creek on the Wet Mountain Valley side of the range.

The trail from South Colony Lakes is “steep and heavily eroded. Sections of the trail are eroded to approximately three feet deep and up to seven feet wide. Vegetation loss is occurring at high rates as a result of people gaining speed on descent and stepping off to the side of the trail to slow down… These actions have caused extensive damage to the side of the mountain with respect [to] vegetation and soil loss.”

Possible solutions include trail maintenance, obliteration of splinter trails, and posting information at the trailhead to educate hikers.

That’s a representative sample of what the American Mountain Foundation found when it looked at our Fourteeners and how they’re used. For more information, you can reach the Foundation at 1520 Alamo Ave., Colorado Springs CO 80907, 719-471-7136.

THERE’S ANOTHER APPROACH: The Fourteener Cleaners. Their basic theory, according to an anonymous fellow quoted in the Denver weekly Westword recently, is that people climb mountains only so they can brag that they’ve done it.

One means of bragging is the summit register, maintained by the Colorado Mountain Club. Generally it consists of a piece of paper and a pencil, stashed inside a tubular plastic canister.

Signing the register, the Cleaner said, is an “Ugly American conquest thing.” The only purpose of a register “is a club thing — so that someone can brag about how many Fourteeners they’ve bagged… This conquest thing gets people climbing for the wrong reasons.”

The right reasons, he said, involve “a more sublime alpine experience.”

To insure that people have the “proper” attitudes about altitudes, the Fourteener Cleaners have started swiping summit registers. In turn, the Colorado Mountain Club has offered a $500 reward, and argues that the registers help the Forest Service keep track of usage and might assist in searches for lost climbers.

Aside from indulging in the summit-register war, can you do anything personally? Well, the Forest Service hardly ever turns down volunteers, so you might check with the nearest district ranger to see if there are any programs this summer.

And in the following articles, Allen Best suggests one way to avoid abusing Fourteeners while still claiming some bragging rights, while Brenda Wiard of Salida, who climbed all Colorado Fourteeners in 1994, offer some observations and suggestions; she also reviews three popular guidebooks.

Ed Quillen climbed Mt. Elbert in 1979 and has managed a few Fourteeners since; the most memorable was Mt. Sherman, because a bear was waiting at the Fourmile Creek campsite above Fairplay when he and Martha returned.