‘Colorado’s Highest’ captures state history through exploring 14er peak names
Climbing 14ers is a big part of Colorado culture. Summitting one is a right of passage for many residents and visitors, and author Jeri Norgren hopes to deepen hikers’ connection with these mountains by sharing their rich history.
In “Colorado’s Highest: The History of Naming the 14,000-Foot Peaks,” Norgren’s research and writing is presented alongside work from renowned Colorado creatives: photographer John Fielder and painter Bob Wogrin’s images help illustrate all 58 peaks’ past.
Norgren and Fielder will discuss their book in a webinar hosted by the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2. During the free event, Norgren will share stories from some of the first climbers on these peaks, and Fielder will discuss his work as well as Wogrin’s and sketches made for the Hayden Survey, which explored the Rocky Mountains as well as what would later become Yellowstone National Park in the late 19th century.
While first-time author and fifth-generation Coloradan Norgren conducted her research over a period of four years — she scoured the National Archives in Denver, the United States Geological Survey Library in Lakewood, the American Alpine Club library in Golden, and the western history section of the Denver Public Library in downtown Denver — creating the actual book itself operated on quite a quick timeline.
Norgren had written quite a few of the histories and was working with an academic book publisher. She didn’t envision it becoming an illustrated coffee table book at first, but the most she worked with the potential publisher, she realized she wanted to go a different direction. So, early this year, she emailed Fielder. She knew he had experience publishing books of his own photography, and he offered her some suggestions.
“And then he started thinking about it, and then he got ahold of me a few days later and said, how about…” Norgren trailed off, saying that it was his idea to publish the histories as a coffee table book with art. “He has done so much for the mountains of Colorado, not only with the environment, conservationists with his photographs and everything. If anybody was to be a part of it, I want him to be a part of it.”
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Fielder used his experience to set deadlines for Norgren, the editor, the proofreader, the designer and the printer. For 10 straight weeks, Norgren was handing off copy, which made her a busy bee as she quarantined in the early pandemic days.
“This was my baby, and it was so important to me. I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing for it to get done. It actually was kind of a benefit because I had no distractions,” she said. “I have this project. I don’t have any time to think about what’s going on.”
There are about 70,000 words in the final edition of “Colorado’s Highest.”
Meanwhile, Fielder searched through the archive from his 40-year photography career. The author of the wildly popular “Colorado: 1870-2000” book, which has been continuously in print since its publication 20 years ago, has visited almost every alpine lake in Colorado. Surely, Norgren said, he would have photos of most, if not all, the 14ers.
It took him two weeks to sift through 20,000 transparencies from his old large-format film camera. Many of the photos have never before been published. He was able to find about 60% of the 14ers, and reached out to his old friend from the 1980s, Bob Wogrin.
Now living with his daughter in Lakewood, the 93-year-old oil painter has work displaying in private homes and public institutions across the state and country. Wogrin was also able to share some black-and-white sketches as well, bringing the total art count to 56 out of 58 peaks. The final two images came from John Kedrowski, Vail native and author of “Sleeping on the Summits, Colorado Fourteener High Bivys.”
Putting the whole book took three months. Fielder hopes it will maintain the same longevity as some of his other books because of the inherent connection to Colorado culture.
“It’s the fastest book I’ve ever put together in my life. I’ve done 50 books, and I think it’s going to be one of the three or four best books I’ve ever done,” Fielder said. “No other state has 58 14ers.”
This book is coming out as state conversations converge around potentially renaming some of those peaks. Many state landmarks are named for individuals with less-than-stellar pasts: the Gore Range’s namesake, Lord St. George Gore, claimed that he killed more than 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 elk and deer and 100 bears for sport, leaving the carcasses to rot where they lie. Other peaks, including the tallest 14er, Mt. Evans, are under scrutiny because Governor John Evans resigned after military massacred almost 200 Arapahoe and Cheyenne Native Americans in 1864.
Norgren and Fielder use their awareness of both past and present conversations to advocate that it’s important to find a balance between preserving Colorado history while respecting the personal legacies and multi-generational hurts memorialized in some of these names.
“Jeri [Norgren] and I are both people who believe in non-discrimination,” Fielder said. “I’m definitely sympathetic to the renaming of places, even though I respect history. History is something we learn from, and if you erase it, then you don’t learn from your mistakes. On the other hand, you know, there are people that feel abused because of inappropriate things that happened in in the past, and that we today are not acknowledging.”
“When you read the history from the names of the peaks, it’s like looking at Colorado’s history from a whole different perspective. The names that they gave reflected the country and the state’s political leanings at the time. So, you can kind of tell what was going on in the state’s history through the names that they put on the mountain,” Norgren said, adding that there’s a lot of nuance when it comes to the history. “It depends on the situation.”
“If they’re going to change the name of Mount Evans, I would like to see it go back to Mt. Rosalie, because that was the original name for 35 years,” she said. She hopes that history will influence renaming.
Aside from the larger societal conversation around the history discussed in “Colorado’s Highest,” the most rewarding part of the process for both Fielder and Norgren was holding the final copy in their hands.
“It’s really gratifying to know that I helped contribute a piece of history of Colorado that had really never been documented,” Norgren said.
“I have three kids and four grandkids, and for me, the first tactile handling of a book is like the birth of a child. There’s so much effort put into it, creative and otherwise. It’s a very personal thing,” Fielder said. “This one even more special because it wasn’t just my work, it was the work of many other people who I knew would have joy in seeing their work published.”
He paid homage to Wogrin, who hasn’t seen publicity for his work since the ‘80s — “this book has absolutely made his day” — and to Norgren, whose years of research are finally collected in a finished product — “this will be one of the milestones in her life.”
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