Colorado’s big peaks are getting hammered; CFI is here to help
Nonprofit schedules numerous projects this year after reducing workload during pandemic summer
Colorado’s tallest peaks got hammered even more than usual by hikers and climbers last summer due to the rush to get outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Golden, Colorado-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the welfare of the big peaks is gearing up to provide some timely trail maintenance this summer. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative scaled back from big group projects last year to adhere to distancing requirements.
But hikers didn’t take a break.
CFI’s preliminary data indicate there was an average increase of 20 percent in hiking use on the 54 peaks higher than 14,000 feet in elevation last summer, said Brian Sargeant, CFI’s development and communications manager. Hiker days soared as much as 70 percent on some of the more popular and accessible peaks, he said.
Anyway you slice it, it was a record year for hikers on the high peaks.
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“Lots of people means more work for us,” Sargeant said.
CFI puts it own crews in the field on particularly tough projects and it enlists volunteers and civic groups such as Colorado Youth Corps on other jobs. CFI only put its own small-sized crews in the field last year due to the pandemic. This year, it is offering volunteer opportunities again with COVID-19 protocols and advice from health experts.
It has about 15 projects on the books, often with partners. They range from a single-day effort on Quandary Peak, one of most highly visited in the state, to multi-day undertakings in the more isolated San Juan Mountains.
CFI will also team with Basalt-based Roaring Fork Volunteers on a four-day project on North Maroon Peak Aug. 26-29. The crews will work on extending rock stairs on a steep pitch where the trail was eroding and braiding. The rock for the stairs has to be located at and hauled from 100 yards or more on either side of the trail, Sargeant said. The CFI crew will do the preparations before eight volunteers enlisted by Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers hike in for a few days of work. In addition, rock piles called pinners or gargoyles will be used to fortify the steps on the downslope side and rock walls will be erected on the upslope side, according to Sargeant. That requires more rock hauling. The work site is about one-half mile from Minnehaha Creek.
The surge in fourteener visits last year is expected to continue this year, with Colorado’s increase in population, the growing popularity of outdoor recreation and lingering limits on typical activities because of the pandemic.
The fourteeners are feeling the effects of the increased use at higher elevations. That’s where the least amount of work has occurred on trails. Since its founding in 1994, CFI has undertaken scores of projects on lower- and middle-elevation slopes.
“All of the low-lying fruit has been picked,” Sargeant said. “A lot of work we need to get done is at 13,500 and 14,000 feet.”
That means longer hikes to work sites, shorter time for actual work and a need for super-fit workers capable of strenuous labor at high elevations where the air is thinner.
CFI has two other projects on tap this summer in the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen. Staff members will replace a counter on the lower slopes of Castle Peak, southwest of Ashcroft. In addition, fieldwork will be undertaken to plan for future trail construction on Castle Peak and Snowmass Mountain.
Sargeant said the fourteeners in the Elk Mountain range are generally in good shape. They receive less foot traffic than many fourteeners elsewhere in the state. The difficulty of some of the fourteeners in the Elks, such as North Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak and Capitol Peak, reduces traffic. In addition, the trails and related infrastructure are in good shape in the mountain range.
“We’ve been able to keep up with things well in those mountains,” Sargeant said.
CFI has received regular grants from the Aspen Skiing Co. Employee Environmental Foundation, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County. Those grants are used for work on the peaks near Aspen.
While CFI is enlisting volunteers again, it won’t gear up in 2021 to pre-pandemic levels.
“We were maxed out at 2,000 volunteer days each year pre-pandemic,” Sargeant said. “This year we’re expecting 1,200 volunteer days.”