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Fixing the fourteeners

James Ashby and Asa Thomas-Train use a non-mechanized tram to hoist boulders for trail work on Mount Massive last summer. That type of tram will be rigged up on Pyramid Peak near Aspen for trail work this year. (Courtesy Colorado Fourteeners Initiative)
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As temperatures rise and the remaining snowpack melts from high peaks, thousands of hikers will renew their quest to “bag” some of Colorado’s fourteeners – the 54 peaks over 14,000 feet.

Some of the state’s more popular peaks in the Front Range, within easy striking distance of Denver, see up to 400 hikers cramming the trails each weekend. Use of some of the more accessible and less technical peaks is expected to jump by as much as 10 percent per year, according to Sarah Gorecki, assistant director of the Colorado Fourteen Initiative, or CFI. The nonprofit organization educates people on environmentally friendly use of the peaks, and it repairs trail erosion and other damage caused by users.

CFI’s website said 500,000 hikers and climbers attempt to ascend a fourteener each year.

“As recreational use of these areas increases, so too does the cumulative impact of such use,” the website said. “Polluted waters, displaced wildlife, eroded soils, braided trails, and trampled vegetation are threatening the mountains we cherish. Colorado’s Fourteeners are being loved to death.”

While the number of hikers is climbing, the trail maintenance budget of the U.S. Forest Service is plummeting.

The Aspen-Sopris District, for example, has one permanent seasonal worker returning for trail maintenance this summer. He will get help from another seasonal worker and occasional help from a regular staffer, according to Martha Moran, recreation manager for the district. At best, those workers will maintain maybe 80 of the 607 miles of trails in the district, Moran said.

As funds are diverted from the Forest Service to fight the war in Iraq, and funding within the agency is steered toward firefighting and fire prevention, the prospects for trail maintenance aren’t great. The agency is banking on help from volunteers.

The Colorado Fourteener Initiative is delivering in a big way. The organization compiled a list of 35 vital trail-maintenance projects on Colorado’s tallest peaks when it was founded in 1994. It’s worked through half that list over the last 12 years.

The Aspen area has received a fair share of attention. One project has been completed on Capitol Peak, the 14,130-foot tall mountain near Mount Sopris. For the last two years, Pyramid Peak near the Maroon Bells has received special attention. A CFI crew, complemented by volunteers, is rerouting nearly one mile of trail that climbs from 10,200 feet on the mountainside to an amphitheater at 11,300 feet.

No designated trail existed on Pyramid, so various “social trails” triggered severe erosion. CFI will complete the designated route this year and restore damaged areas.

It isn’t easy work. Four members of the CFI crew are hiking by 5 or 6 a.m. each day to get to the site, put in several hours of work, then return to safety as conditions require.

“They have to get off the mountain before the afternoon thunderstorms roll in,” Gorecki said.

A non-motorized, high-line tram that uses a tension steel cable will be rigged up to haul boulders from a talus slope to the work site.

Despite the grueling work, volunteers jump at the opportunity to help. CFI recruits weekend volunteers throughout July and August. The Pyramid Peak details filled up first among CFI’s four projects this summer.

Four trail-construction experts from the group’s pool of workers, who revolve to allow for days off, will be bolstered by six volunteers on the work weekends. Group sizes are limited to 10 in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Volunteers are still needed on this summer’s other three projects: Mt. Evans, Mount Massive and Wetterhorn Peak.

Gorecki said CFI’s prioritizes summer projects based on the damage that the peaks are sustaining. Just about every project involves establishing one sustainable trail where braided paths have been created.

The priority list sometimes changes based on the preferences of the U.S. Forest Service. Most of Colorado’s fourteeners are located in national forest.

It usually takes about four years of planning for CFI to start a project. There is often a briefing to answer questions from local hikers and environmentalists. In the case of Pyramid Peak, CFI stresses that work will stop at an amphitheater roughly 2,700 feet below the summit. Hikers will still be able to pick and choose their way up from there, where risk of environmental damage is low, Gorecki said.

Moran said the trail erosion would continue on Capitol Peak and Pyramid without CFI’s help.

“It’s impressive what they’re doing,” she said. “They really know their rock work.”

Another CFI program guarantees the work won’t be for naught, Moran said. It helps the Forest Service organize an “Adopt a Peak” program where rangers and volunteers will monitor trail conditions and establish workdays to reinstall water bars or undertake other projects.

The Aspen-Sopris District contains six fourteeners. In addition to Pyramid and Capitol, there are Maroon Peak and North Maroon, Snowmass Mountain and Castle Peak.

To lean more about the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, go online at http://www.fourteeners.org.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


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