Fixing the fourteeners
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a six-part series examining the future of recreation in the region.
When Denver’s Jim Gehres climbed all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in the 1960s, each trip was an adventure.
“You might say it was lonely,” said Gehres, 71, a retired IRS lawyer who completed his list of 54 fourteeners in 1966 (and again in “69).
“There would be days I’d go all day and not see anybody. There weren’t real guidebooks or marked trails, and it wasn’t uncommon to climb the wrong peak when I started,” he said. “Of course, it’s not like that anymore.”
Since the advent of “peak-bagging” in the mid-1980s and its explosion in the ’90s, up to 30,000 people now summit Front Range fourteeners like Grays Peak, Torreys Peak and Mount Bierstadt on summer weekends.
According to the Golden-based Colorado Fourteener Initiative, the fourteeners are now weathering about 340,000 ascents every summer, based on a sampling of peaks monitored by the organization’s volunteers with clickers and log books.
“The most obvious difference now is huge crowds, large numbers of cars parked at trailheads and then the resulting damage to the slopes,” said Gehres, who was about the 80th climber to complete the Colorado fourteener list. Today, there are more than 1,000 who have achieved the feat.
The sheer numbers of climbers on the peaks, particularly on “walk-up” routes, has caused braided networks of social trails and erosion scars on well-traveled mountainsides.
Founded in 1994 in response to the degradation, the Fourteener Initiative is in “a partnership for preservation” with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Colorado Mountain Club, Outward Bound West, Rocky Mountain Field Institute, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and Leave No Trace.
The mission of the Fourteener Initiative, also known as CFI, is simple, said Executive Director T.J. Rapoport.
“These mountains are wild, we don’t want to tame them,” Rapoport said. “CFI doesn’t go in to make trails easier or even safer – we go in to mitigate the damage caused by human recreation.
“We can build trails strong enough, we think, to handle the kind of use they’re getting, but only if most or all of the people stay on the trail,” Rapoport said.
After its founding, CFI identified 37 fourteeners that “needed work” to reduce erosion and fortify trails for long-term sustainability, Rapoport said.
This summer, CFI has crews on Mount Evans, near Idaho Springs; Mount Massive, near Leadville in the Sawatch Range; and Mount Sneffels, which is between Ouray and Telluride in San Juan Range.
Next summer, work will be done on Pyramid Peak, which is in the Elk Range near Aspen; and Wetterhorn Peak, east of Ouray; and Mount Massive.
In 2005, Mt. Evans is due for work on “severely eroded portions.” Crews will also work on Blanca Peak, Ellingwood Point and Little Bear Peak in Sangre de Cristo Range in southern Colorado.
In the Elk Range near Aspen, work is not scheduled until 2008 on Castle Peak, Snowmass Mountain and the Maroon Bells. Projects are chosen years before they start in order to explore the routes, obtain environmental approvals and design the trail work.
“The whole problem is water,” Rapoport said. “Before trails, it would disperse evenly, and we try to teach the trail how to shed water again so it stops eroding – basically just setting things back into balance.”
By placing water bars, check-dams, drain dips and willow wattles along a trail, water can drain off of slopes without taking the mountainside with it.
Other challenges include stabilizing steep, loose slopes below the treeline. On La Plata Peak, which is in the Sawatch Range near Twin Lakes, CFI constructed a series of steps in a steep gully in the late 1990s. The steps worked, but CFI has decided not to build steps elsewhere, moving toward less conspicuous methods.
“We wanted to stabilize steep sections with steps because they work and they’ll be there forever,” Rapoport said. “But were [steps] the minimum necessary to achieve stabilization? Maybe not.”
One currently preferred technique is “shark’s teeth.” By embedding rocks in steep and unstable slopes, with only small points protruding, “you’ve got footholds just like steps, but it looks like the rest of the mountain,” Rapoport said.
Pyramid Peak, the lower approach to which is scheduled for a CFI trail project next summer, is a prime example of degradation.
“It’s an erosion nightmare up there,” said Tim Lamb, forestry technician with the Aspen Ranger District.
This week, crews scouted the slope for a long-term “climber’s trail” to replace the network of braided paths that currently scar the slope.
Once solid trails are in place, however, the second part of long-term sustainability is getting climbers to stick to them.
“I’ve climbed a few of the peaks since the CFI work had been done and I’m very, very impressed,” said Gehres, one of the founding board members of the organization.
So how to climb fourteeners and be a good steward to the peaks as well?
“Our experience suggests that people who know about the issues, know about “leave no trace,’ hike and camp responsibly,” said Rapoport. “Our challenge is that hundreds of thousands of climbers don’t know just how fragile the fourteener ecosystem is.”
The list of do’s and dont’s mostly boils down to common sense: plan ahead, stick to durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, respect and avoid wildlife, and be considerate.
“But most people go wrong on the very first principle: plan and prepare,” said Rapoport. “They don’t know to go early and they’re running off the mountain as fast as they can, by the fastest route, to escape a storm.”
Similarly, a hiker without a map or compass is more likely to get lost and more likely to trample fragile tundra in the process of getting back on route. Since it takes only a few steps to kill tundra flora, hikers who take breaks or camp above timberline also contribute to the damage.
Dogs present a unique problem, Rapoport said, because hikers often take their dogs, off leash. The direct impact of dogs on tundra or off-trail is less than that of hiking boots, but there are dangers at every corner.
“We don’t try to tell dog owners what to do,” Rapoport said, “but we do urge them to consider that the fourteener environment isn’t suited for dogs and we ask them to be on a leash for their own good.”
Several dogs are lost each summer, Rapoport said. Last summer, at least two dogs died on fourteeners – a rottweiler suffered a heart attack and another dog was gored to death by a mountain goat.
While the fourteeners endure the bulk of peak-bagging traffic, Colorado’s 13,000-foot peaks – the less heralded “thirteeners” – can offer more adventure. Gehres, who has also completed his “centennial list” of Colorado’s 100 tallest peaks, said he has spent a fair bit of time on thirteeners this summer.
“Kind of obsessive, huh?” he said. “But it is a rewarding thing to do, and spending all my weekends doing it, I sure haven’t regretted it.”
Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com.