Editor’s note: “Their Generation,” an ongoing series profiling longtime locals of the Roaring Fork Valley, runs every other week in The Aspen Times.
Before “bagging” fourteeners became the rage, there were the “Climbing Smiths,” an adventuresome family from Denver that hiked the big peaks for the thrill and to enjoy the great outdoors.
George Smith and his four boys accomplished some incredible feats. First, all of them had climbed all 54 of the big peaks in Colorado by 1968, before two of the boys reached their teens and the youngest of them was only 9. They made the decision to climb the peaks as a group two years earlier, even though some of them already had climbed most of the peaks at least once.
“We finished them all on my birthday with Snowmass Mountain. I was 15,” said Flint Smith, a resident of the Crystal Valley and an Aspen Mountain ski patrolman. He recalled that they ran into Aspen resident Jim Ward at the summit. He had guided some hikers to the top of the peak and took a picture of the Smiths that ran in The Aspen Times, among other publications.
The following year, they hiked the 14 other peaks in the mainland United States that exceeded 14,000 feet — 13 in California and Mount Rainier in Washington.
But that was nothing. The Climbing Smiths got the attention of mountaineers five years later, in 1974, when they decided to climb all the big peaks again — this time in one season. It was billed in advance as the 68 peaks in 68 days tour. They accomplished it in just 48 days.
Media coverage was fairly extensive. The Denver Post did a story on the adventure. There were a couple of feature stories on the Climbing Smiths in Empire magazine, distributed with the Denver Post. Sports Illustrated also featured the family in a write-up.
At the time of the feat, Flint was 22, Quade was 18, Cody was 17, and Tyle was 15.
Smith wonders if his family’s blitz inadvertently helped trigger the Fourteener craze. When they first hiked all 68 of the big peaks in 1968-69, there were only 15 people known to have accomplished it, and five of them were Smiths.
By 1974, peak-bagging was slightly more common. The Colorado record for hiking all 54 peaks was 54 days. The Smiths accomplished it in “31 or 32 days,” Smith said. Other climbers aimed to beat that pace.
“Unbeknownst to us, this is where we started ruining it,” Smith said.
Hiking in all conditions
Smith, now 61, climbed his first big peak, Mount Sherman, in 1961 when he was 9 years old. There weren’t established recreational trails on the peaks in those days.
“Some of them had old mining trails on them,” he said.
His dad taught him and his brothers to persevere through tough conditions. They often hiked in rain, snow and darkness. When conditions were too perilous to advance at night, they would huddle together and wait until sunrise.
Smith said he and his brothers were fearless on the slopes.
“Kids don’t have any fear,” he said. “We didn’t know any better. We’d just climb.”
The various vehicles they used over the years were no match for what mountaineers use today, according to Smith. They often had to hike longer to start the true ascent because their car couldn’t get them very close. In a sense, the big peaks were more remote back then, he said.
The Smiths seldom saw other hikers in the mid- and late-1960s.
“You might see somebody on the easy ones,” he said.
The seclusion created a sense of adventure and taught self-reliance.
“If you got into trouble, you got yourself out of trouble,” Smith said.
His family never suffered any severe injuries on climbs.
The use increased a bit between 1968 and 1974, but the Smiths still often had summits to themselves. There were more day hikers on the big peaks in Colorado, Smith said, but in the Sierra Nevada, they rarely encountered anyone but backpackers.
Fourteener-bagging takes off
Now it’s a different story. The number of hikers on the big peaks has soared exponentially since 1974. In Colorado, summits of the easiest fourteeners are typically packed with hikers, particularly on weekends. Mount Elbert, Mount Massive and Longs Peak look like they have lines of ants marching up and down them. Some of the more isolated peaks still provide seclusion late in the summer.
Despite rushing to complete the 68 big peaks in as few days as possible, Smith said they weren’t hiking just to notch an accomplishment. As Colorado city kids, they appreciated the environment.
“When we were doing it, the way we were brought up, it was almost religion,” Smith said. “Now it’s a numbers thing. I don’t think they appreciate what they’re doing.”
The fourteener craze probably would have struck even if the Climbing Smiths hadn’t covered 68 peaks in 48 days. There’s been an explosion in outdoor recreation of all types. Think of a way to enjoy the great outdoors, and chances are someone has thought of a way to attach some type of speed record or offbeat accomplishment to it.
Honored in mountaineering museum
The Smiths’ feat earned them an honored position in mountaineering lore. A display at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden features a large picture of the boys with their dad and an explanation of what they pulled off.
Flint Smith’s love of the mountains has molded his career choices. After graduating from Western State College in Gunnison in 1974, he gravitated to Aspen.
“I was the first person hired after the strike, in 1974,” Smith said.
He joined the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol and was active in Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Smith was injured in a skiing accident while on patrol in 1992. After recovering from a broken back, he studied to become a paramedic and worked in Grand County. He returned to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2000 and was hired to work on the Buttermilk ski patrol by Robin Perry, the same man who hired him at Aspen Mountain 26 years earlier. Smith transferred back to Aspen Mountain seven years ago.
Smith also works part time on the Aspen ambulance crew and as a flight medic for St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
He still climbs. The Smith boys try to get together for some type of outing each September. George can no longer hike with the boys he trained so well, but they keep him informed of their outings.
Flint will accompany his brother Cody to Russia in July to climb Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. The west summit of the mountain soars to 18,510 feet.
Cody is pursuing a climb of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent.
After all these years, they remain the “Climbing Smiths.”