Talk about natural defenses.Mother Nature has done a decent job of protecting the tallest mountains surrounding Aspen from getting trampled by “peak baggers,” according to an assessment by researchers presented Friday to the U.S. Forest Service.The rugged, craggy terrain in the Elk Mountains around Aspen is less susceptible to environmental damage than the tundra above treeline on many other fourteeners, the study said. The technical climbs in the Elk Mountains also attract fewer people, and those who do climb there are experienced, with higher backcountry ethics.Researchers Beth Grady and Andrew Larson reached their conclusions after spending the last two summers climbing 21 of the fourteeners in the Elk Mountains around Aspen, the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado and in the Sawatch Range, which stretches from west of Leadville to west of Buena Vista. Their study is part of a Peak Rangers program, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, that the U.S. Forest Service co-founded.Larson said the difference in the types of visitors to the Sawatch Range and the Elk Mountains was one of the most obvious results of the study.”Most visitors to the Sawatch Range are in their beginning stages and want to ‘bag’ as many as possible in the quickest amount of time possible,” the study said. “Many choose to sign the registers and continue onto the next [peak] without taking the time to enjoy the magnificent views and feeling the sense of accomplishment. These mountains are close to the Front Range and are considerably easy hikes.”The Elk Mountains, on the other hand, present some of the most technical climbs of the fourteeners, even though they neighbor the Sawatch Range.”Summit numbers [on the Elk Mountains] are significantly lower, and most fourteener climbers are more experienced and are finishing their final rounds,” the study said. “Because of more exposure and experience in the backcountry, people have received a higher education in Leave No Trace ethics. Their practices develop into deep respect and appreciation of wilderness.”Larson said hikers in the Elks stick to the route and don’t cut trail switchbacks, and they won’t hike in rain, when the trail is muddy and most susceptible to erosion. Hikers in the Sawatch Range are more determined to “bag” the summit.”The Elks are doing really well, resourcewise, compared to the Sawatch,” he said.Unfortunately, the peaks that are easy to climb are also the ones most susceptible to resource damage, said Larson. At Mount Massive, they found that people who want to get away from the hordes wander off the established trail and create their own routes, referred to as “social trails.” Six or seven routes now exist up Massive, scarring the fragile tundra above treeline. Vegetation is trampled and the soil erodes, Larson said.In the Elk Mountains rock fields dominate the terrain above treeline on Pyramid Peak, Castle Peak, Capitol Peak and Snowmass Peak. “Routes climb almost lifeless talus slopes to solid ridgeline bedrock,” the report noted. Larson said he and Grady did record some environmental damage where the trail ventures into tundra on the steep slopes between treeline and about 13,000 feet on North Maroon Peak and Maroon Peak. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and the Forest Service are planning a trail rehabilitation project on those peaks (see related story).The degree of remoteness also played a part in environmental degradation on the big peaks, the study found. When a mountain can be climbed on a day-trip from Denver, like many in the Sawatch Range, it faces a lot more pressure. People seeking wilderness solitude create trails to the summit from every angle.The San Juans represent the other extreme. Many require a backpack trip to access them. The Elks provide a mix. Trailheads for climbs up Snowmass and Capitol are remote and often require an overnight. Pyramid and the Bells are accessible from a short hike via Maroon Lake, and hikers can drive close to the base of Castle.The Forest Service and Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to repairing environmental damage on the big peaks and educating hikers on responsible use, will use the report to prioritize trail projects on the fourteeners over the next several years, according to Martha Moran of the Aspen Sopris Ranger District. CFI undertakes three trail projects on a fourteener per summer.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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