Overuse is reaching new heights in Colorado

Article by Brenda Wiard

14ers – May 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

We all love our mountains and therein lies a problem: they are becoming over-used, especially the popular fourteeners.

Like most folks, you probably wonder how badly over-used the fourteeners really are. Here is a bit of what we found last year when we climbed every fourteener in the state.

The peaks were indeed well-populated, especially on weekends. Happily, the trashing and trampling were less than we expected after reading news reports. The summits proper were very clean, with the only trash of note consisting of a half-full bottle of champagne atop San Luis Peak. Since this may have been an offering to the mountain gods or a gift to the next hikers to reach the summit, it almost doesn’t count.

The trails and trail-heads did not fare so well as the summits. Meager bits of accidental trash and pseudo-biodegradable lunch parts (especially orange peels) could be found along the trails and at favorite lunch and camping spots. Malicious and purposeful littering just wasn’t evident, with one notable exception.

The camping areas accessible via a four-wheel drive road were much more trashed than similar sites on a hiking trail. Four-wheel drivers claim innocence, but the evidence we saw in abundance speaks for itself.

The South Colony Lakes below the Crestones in the Sangre de Cristo range are a sad example. Plastic garbage bags flapping from the krummholtz, toilet paper behind each rock, and multiple fire rings and a carpet of broken glass in each campsite. Backpackers and hikers generally do not carry glass. Drivers, however, aren’t bothered by weight or (apparently) conscience.

TRAMPLING IS ANOTHER MATTER. If a wilderness experience is what you seek, do not look for it along a popular route on a fourteener. The trails were not usually eroded, but they did show the passage of many feet. On most peaks, the upper trails were informal climber’s trails which means they were steep, direct, and often loose such as on upper Mount Princeton.

The more traveled the peak, the wider the trail and the more formal the trail-head. Gone are the days when getting to the mountain and finding a reasonable route were the biggest obstacles. Easier access unfortunately also means more people attempt the climb.

In some ways, higher traffic makes for a more enjoyable experience. Easily visible trails have replaced the vague and difficult-to-follow routes of yesteryear. Local climbing clubs and the U.S. Forest Service also have improved heavily used trails, as they did for local La Plata Peak last summer, adding switchbacks, bridges and signs. This means the mountaineer spends more effort in climbing than in finding the climb.

With the crowd comes a contagious compulsion: signing the summit register. This is usually a roll of paper enclosed in a foot-long section of PVC, which is capped on both ends and anchored via a cable leash to the mountain top. The Colorado Mountain Club maintains the registers, asking only that climbers bring down and mail back the register when all the pages are full. Some days later, a club member will carry up a blank register.

Along the lines of trash removal, some misguided people who call themselves “summit cleaners” remove summit registers: paper, tube, cable and anchor. Some feel that people should climb the mountain for the experience, not just to sign the register. Others think that fewer people would make the climb without being able to prove success via a signature. Still others view the register as litter.

WHILE I MIGHT AGREE with those sentiments, it is simple to see flaws in the reasoning. Climbers have no way to know if the register is in place until they reach the summit. Therefore, climber traffic is not likely to be affected by “summit cleaning.” Secondly, removing the entire register, leash and all, creates a pair of scars on the summit: one marking the location of the old register and one where the new register is placed. Is not defacing the summit just as objectionable as “littering” it?

When you think about it, signing carries little significance. The Colorado Mountain Club doesn’t publish or keep track of the names. Even the most careful signer is bound to miss a few registers, especially in winter when they are often hidden in the snow. Signing seems like a simple pleasure that hurts no one.

Did we sign? Just once, on the final peak. We did, however, read the summit registers for the humorous or witless comments penciled in by hypoxic climbers. How many were missing? Three entire registers were missing and probably half a dozen more did not have paper in them. Many, however, were missing writing utensils — a less objectionable way to “clean the summit”?

Mountaineers who want to visit summits without adding to the overuse have several potential choices. Some climbers think it is better if everyone follows the same route to minimize impact elsewhere. Others think it is better to choose alternative routes where trampling is not a problem, crowding non-existent, and the experience more pristine. Each argument is valid: you decide.

BETTER SOLUTIONS DO EXIST, although they are not for everyone. Think about climbing “no-name” peaks or choosing a destination other than the main summit. Our best mountain experiences have come on relatively unknown peaks of little significance. Finding such a peak becomes a greater challenge as the peak-baggers stretch goals to include the highest 100 peaks or even all of the 13,000-foot peaks in Colorado.

Another excellent way both to minimize impact and maximize your wilderness experience is to climb in the winter. I can guarantee you will have no problem with crowds! The hazards are greater, but so are the rewards.

On all climbs and hikes, try to avoid muddy days when your impact will be large. Pack out your trash and be altruistic enough to pick up any you see. Cook on a stove, not over a fire. Bury waste well away from water and burn or pack out toilet paper.

Most of all, think: am I doing something that would interfere with the next climber’s encounter with the mountain?

A BIASED LIST OF NOTABLE PEAKS:

The locals: (Sawatch, Mosquito and Sangre de Cristo ranges)

Best mountain experience: Lindsey, Huron, Culebra.

Least pristine: Crestone base, Antero, Little Bear base.

The others: (Front, Ten-mile, Elk and San Juan ranges)

Best mountain experience: El Diente, North Maroon, San Luis, Handies.

Least pristine: Evans, Longs, Pikes, Sunshine/Red Cloud.

Brenda and Mark Wiard and their dog, Skunk, spent a goodly chunk of 1994 climbing Colorado’s fourteeners. Please don’t tell; their friends thought they were working!