Exactly what is a 14er, anyway?

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

14ers – May 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

What’s a Fourteener? In Colorado parlance, it’s a summit more than 14,000 feet above sea level. That sounds straightforward, but it’s a little more complicated.

What about two peaks, both above 14,000 feet, separated by a saddle — say, Shavano and Tabeguache, or Blanca and Ellingwood?

Then it’s a matter of judgment. Some argue for a separation of at least half a mile, and a dip of at least 500 feet, for them to qualify as separate peaks. Others do with less, and the lists aren’t consistent.

For instance, North and South Maroon peaks (a/k/a the Maroon Bells, 14,014 and 14,156), are generally listed as separate peaks. They’re about 0.4 mile apart, and the lower peak rises 234 feet from the saddle.

That’s less than the gap between Massive (14,421) and North Massive (14,320) — 0.7 mile apart, with North Massive rising 260 feet from the saddle — and yet the Massives are never listed as separate peaks.

One explanation: The Maroon Bells are near Aspen while the Massives rise by Leadville, and Aspen has enough clout to make full mountains out of subsidiary peaks, while Leadville doesn’t.

For a full discussion of what might make a Fourteener, look at Gerry Roach’s book Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs.

Another complication in defining Fourteeners is that official elevations change as surveyors refine their techniques: Massive, not Elbert, was Colorado’s highest peak a century ago.

Grizzly Peak in Chaffee County was once a Fourteener at an even 14,000 feet, but in 1965 it dropped to 13,988. Holy Cross started at 13,996 and later grew to 14,005.

These complications may end. Elevations are officially set by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the 104th Congress is talking about abolishing that agency.

At the moment, Colorado boasts at least 50 peaks above 14,000 feet, more than any other state (Washington has Ranier, California has half a dozen, and Alaska 18). Raise the standard to 14,440, though, and Colorado wouldn’t score at all.

Big peaks seldom rise by themselves (Pike’s is an exception); they come in bunches and are grouped in “ranges.”

Range boundaries are rather arbitrary. Hereabouts, the Mosquito Range runs from the Continental Divide at Frémont Pass south to Trout Creek Pass. Although the geological formation extends farther in both directions, north of the Divide it’s called the Ten Mile Range, and south of Trout Creek Pass, the Arkansas Hills.

The Sangre de Cristo Range starts at Methodist Mountain south of Salida, and extends south to Glorieta Pass east of Santa Fé. Some Colorado writers take the Sangres only to La Veta Pass, and start a Culebra Range from there to the New Mexico line, where presumably the Sangres resume, since that’s what the range is called in New Mexico. Silly. Make it Sangres all the way.

The Sawatch Range starts southeast of Eagle — New York Mountain is a good marker — and extends south to Marshall Pass; the last big Sawatch peak is Mt. Ouray, 13,971. The high rolling country to the south along the Divide is the Cochetopa Hills, and formal mountains resume at San Luis Peak and the start of the San Juan Range.

The Sawatch Range (sometimes called the Main Range on old maps) and the town and county of Saguache are pronounced the same, and come from the same Ute word, which means something like “blue water.” That might also be the root of the name of the Wasatch Range in Utah.

Often you will see references to the “Collegiate Range” near Buena Vista. There isn’t any such range. There are some Collegiate Peaks — named originally for the Ivy League alma maters of the early surveyors — but they’re in the Sawatch Range. Be warned that the linguistic authorities at Colorado Central will deem you an ignoramus if you mention any “Collegiate Range.” Refer instead to the “Collegiate Peaks” or the “Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range,” and we’ll be happy.

— Ed Quillen