Vail Passes: Easy access to fourteeners
Vail, CO Colorado
GUANELLA PASS – Accessed via the Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway, 11,669-foot Guanella Pass skirts the Mount Evans Wilderness and provides panoramic views highlighted by 14,060-foot Mount Bierstadt. The jagged Sawtooth ridge, which connects Mount Bierstadt to fellow fourteener Mount Evans, is also visible from the pass. The pass divides the Clear Creek Canyon drainage on the north and the South Platte drainage on the south.
Hikes leading to both Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans begin at the large parking lot atop Guanella Pass. Mount Bierstadt, the 38th highest peak in Colorado, offers one of the easier climbs of a Colorado fourteener. The elevation gain for the hike is 2,796 feet, and it is only 7.1 miles round-trip. The entire hike is above treeline.
The Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway, a 22-mile dirt roadway, provides access to four-wheel drive roads, biking, hiking, climbing, camping, and many other recreational activities. It branches off I-70 in Georgetown and heads south, reaching Guanella Pass at 11 miles, then continues on to the mining town of Grant. Like many mountain pass roads, this one started out as a wagon road. It connected the gold and silver mining towns of Georgetown and Grant. These towns are within the mineral belt that ran from near the town of Ward to the area around the town of Creede, passing through Georgetown and Leadville on the way.
Colorado has the highest concentration of high peaks of any state in the U.S. Views across the Rockies make one understand the local saying that “if you smashed Colorado out flat it would be bigger than the state of Texas!” The state has over 1,000 summits higher than 10,000 feet, 750 of which are over 13,000 feet, and 54 of which are higher than 14,000 feet. Climbers call this last group the fourteeners. Mt. Elbert, at 14,440 feet, is the highest and Sunshine Peak, at 14,001feet, is the lowest.
Thousands of people a year bag, or summit, a fourteener. Some of these people refer to themselves as “peak baggers.” Two thirds of Colorado’s fourteeners do not actually require technical climbing, and are more like long, steep hikes. Though these hikes may not require any technical knowledge, they are still dangerous, and proper planning and preparation is a prerequisite for any fourteener attempt.
One “rule” that most peak baggers recognize is that a peak must be at least 300 feet above the saddle that connects it to the nearest peak in order for it to be considered a separate mountain. The number of fourteeners in Colorado is 52 to 59 depending on who makes the list and what “rules” they apply. Most resources place the number at 54, but older copies of the Official Map to Colorado only listed 53. A query of The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) lists only 48 Colorado peaks as being over 14,000 feet.
An additional rule that some baggers recognize is that you must climb 3,000 vertical feet to reach the summit or the ascent does not count. This rule exists because some peaks, such as Mount Evans and Pikes Peak, have roads to their summits. Additionally, traversing up and down ridges to gain a total of 3,000 vertical feet does not count. Based on this rule, climbing Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt from Guanella Pass would not count, since the elevation gain would only be 2,595 feet and 2,391 feet, respectively!
Many people have climbed all of Colorado’s fourteeners – some have climbed them all multiple times. In 2001, Ted Keizer climbed 55 fourteeners in 10 days, 20 hours, and 26 minutes. For the runners, there is a marathon race up Pikes Peak every year. Some have bagged all the peaks in the winter months. In 1991, Louis Dawson became the first person to ski down all of Colorado’s fourteeners.
Climbing is a dangerous activity. Conditions vary dramatically according to time of year and even by time of day. Weather can change dramatically and become life threatening in a short period of time. Anyone who attempts the fourteeners should be in good physical condition, have some level of experience, and be properly equipped.
Study up before starting your adventure, and be prepared for changing weather. Always let someone who’s not climbing with you know what route you’re taking and when you expect to return. Every year there are hundreds of search and rescue efforts for people who attempted a fourteener and got lost, injured because they were not in good physical condition, or were unprepared. Keep in mind that some fourteeners are on private land and permission must be obtained to climb them.
It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 500,000 attempts to climb a fourteener each year. While climbing Grays Peak a few years ago, I passed 25 people headed down who already made the summit, then I ate lunch with 75 on the summit, and passed another 175 people still ascending the peak on my way back down. This was not a guess – I counted them! It is difficult to think about solitude when experiencing crowds like this. Fortunately, these massive peaks provide many routes for the climber seeking one less traveled. Many of the peaks remain pristine, but the impact of all these climbers has environmentalists very concerned. Numerous organizations now work to preserve the fourteeners and provide ample opportunities for volunteers to contribute to the effort.
Some call the 30-minute drive near Buena Vista, on one section of US 24, “The Highway of the Fourteeners.” From the highway the traveler can see a total of ten 14,000-foot peaks, a truly unique view. There are a lot of mountains in Colorado and not all of them require the effort of a fourteener. Standing on any peak with the world below creates a memorable and satisfying experience.
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.