Fixing the fourteeners
February 11, 2004
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. 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. Those peaks have become an attraction comparable in size to a three-day Montreal Expos homestand.
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 CFI 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, about the 80th climber to complete the Colorado fourteener list (there are more than 1,000 today).
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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, CFI is in “a partnership for preservation” with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the Colorado Mountain Club, Outward Bound West, Rocky Mountain Field Institute, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and Leave No Trace.
CFI’s mission is simple: “These mountains are wild, we don’t want to tame them,” said Executive Director T.J. Rapoport. “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.”
After its founding, CFI identified 37 fourteeners that “needed work,” Rapoport said, to reduce erosion and fortify trails for long-term sustainability.
This summer, CFI has crews on Mount Evans (Front Range), Mount Massive (Sawatch) and Mount Sneffels (San Juan). Next summer, it’s Pyramid Peak (Elk) and Wetterhorn Peak (San Juan), and Massive again. For 2005, Evans is due for work on “severely eroded portions,” along with Blanca Peak, Ellingwood Point and Little Bear Peak (Sangre de Cristo) and possibly Mount Shavano (Sawatch), Mount Eolus, Sunlight and Windom (San Juan) as well.
In the Elk Range near Aspen, Castle Peak, Snowmass Mountain and the Maroon Bells are scheduled for work in 2008. Projects are chosen years before implementation 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 slopes without taking the mountainside with it.
Other challenges include stabilizing steep, loose slopes below treeline. On La Plata Peak in the Sawatch Range near Twin Lakes, for instance, 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, “then 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 CFI.
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 don’ts 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, to name a few.
“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 thirteeners can offer more adventure. Gehres, who has also completed his “centennial list” of Colorado’s 100 tallest peaks, has spent a fair bit of time on thirteeners this summer.
“Kind of obsessive, huh?” he chuckled. “But it is a rewarding thing to do, and spending all my weekends doing it, I sure haven’t regretted it.”