Law keeps fourteeners open to hikers
DENVER ” Lawsuits and liability weren’t much on Jim Gehres’ mind 40 years ago when he finished climbing all 54 of Colorado’s highest mountains the first time around.
After Gov. Bill Owens signed a bill Wednesday to keep the big peaks accessible and free of legal hassles, the 73-year-old Gehres won’t have to worry if he goes climbing again ” and he said he might.
The new law will allow owners to permit people to cross their land and mining claims without being sued for any accidents that might occur. Trails on a half-dozen of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks cross private or leased land, presenting an obstacle for peak-baggers ” climbers who set out to reach the top of all the “fourteeners.”
“This is kind of an elevation celebration,” Owens said as he signed the legislation on the highest outdoor balcony of the State Capitol. The balcony, which is closed to the public, has markers pointing to some of the state’s famous fourteeners, though light snow obscured the view of the nearby Rockies.
The bill requires the U.S. Forest Service and climbing groups to put up signs warning of dangerous abandoned mines, mark the trails and educate the public about private property rights.
Access became an issue when some owners posted “no trespassing” signs for fear of being sued if a hiker fell into an old mine shaft or was injured some other way. Although hikers could ignore the signs with little fear of prosecution, they were breaking the law to reach the summit.
“It looked like a year or two ago when this first popped up that this was going to be a deterrent,” said Bill Markley of Lakewood, the Colorado Mountain Club’s safety and leadership chairman. “Now it’s cleared away again.”
Maury Reiber, whose land controls access to 14,286-foot Mount Lincoln, welcomed the law as “definitely a step in the right direction.”
“Our primary concern was liability,” he said. He planned to meet with Forest Service officials today to work out the details of access to the state’s eighth-highest mountain.
Gehres, who said he’s climbed each fourteener at least a dozen times, said he never considered suing a landowner if he got hurt while climbing.
“I’ve always felt I was undertaking the risk,” he said.
Drawn by the scenery and cool air, he got in the habit of hiking the summits every weekend in the summer and had reached the top of each fourteener at least once by 1966. He hasn’t done it much since breaking his hip in a 2004 fall ” on an icy sidewalk, not a peak ” but hopes to return to a few of the easier fourteeners soon.
“I do hope that this summer I can get on top of some,” he said.
Ben Wright, who owns property on 14,148-foot Mount Democrat, said he is concerned the new law does not require people to buy insurance before climbing, but if climbers don’t ask for permission, he won’t stop them.
“I’ve never seen anyone who would stay on a trail all the way. Nature calls,” Wright said.
“If I give them permission to climb, I’m responsible. But if they don’t ask, I won’t tell. I’m not going to chase them off,” he said.
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