Stewards of high peaks eye projects on Capitol
A statewide organization known – and sometimes vilified – for its trail work on Colorado’s 54 peaks topping 14,000 feet will undertake its first project in the Aspen area this summer.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative will rehabilitate two trail sections that have become braided and eroded in the approach to Capitol Peak, according to Bruce Morrow, education and outreach manager for CFI.
The project is being hailed as vital help by the cash-strapped U.S. Forest Service, which is teaming with CFI on the project.
But it is being watched with a wary eye by some mountaineers. Some in the climbing community contend CFI goes overboard with unnecessary construction.
“I’m going to be in an uproar if they start tearing up the Elk Mountains like they have the other peaks,” said Tony Angelis, a mountaineer from Glenwood Springs.
While the debate over CFI’s work has raged in other parts of Colorado, this is the first time the organization has tackled a project in the six “14ers” of the Aspen Ranger District.
The public is invited to a meeting Wednesday, March 13, at 7 p.m. in the Pitkin County Library to get a first-hand look at the proposed work.
Wear and tear on peaks
CFI was created in 1994 out of concern over environmental degradation to Colorado’s highest peaks. The explosion in popularity of “bagging peaks” since the mid-1980s has caused wear and tear on trails on many of the mountains.
Mountain clubs and outdoor companies joined forces to form a nonprofit dedicated to repairing that damage or preventing more from happening.
Morrow said that all CFI projects are coordinated with the local Forest Service ranger districts. Federal officials approve the plans and help oversee their execution.
The group doesn’t follow a cookie-cutter approach. Instead the work is tailored to each specific mountain.
He suggested that CFI got a bum rap for the stone cairns it erected on Mount Harvard to mark the trail. Rocks were piled up to six feet high so they would be visible through snowfields when hiking started in the spring.
It was vital to mark the route at that time of year because vegetation is at its most fragile, Morrow said. Hikers were losing the trail and stepping on the vegetation before the project.
But the monolithic cairns weren’t popular with many summer hikers. Seven or eight cairns were knocked down by vandals. They were rebuilt slightly shorter last summer.
Morrow said hikers who saw the cairns beside an obvious trail in summers didn’t understand the need for them in springtime.
For the work on Capitol, no massive cairns will be erected, said Morrow. One of the projects requires work on a steep section of trail between Capitol Lake and the saddle between Capitol and Daily peaks. The trail is badly eroded and needs water bars, he said.
Another section of trail in that vicinity is braided from hikers selecting different routes through a steep gully. CFI will designate one route, improve it and close the others.
Dan Matthews, wilderness manager for the Aspen and Sopris Ranger districts of the Forest Service, said the work will occur at about the 12,000-foot level.
No work will be performed on the talus slopes leading to the summit of Capitol, regarded as one of the toughest 14er routes in the state.
“We’re not trying to make these hikes any easier,” said Matthews. “That’s a point we want to stress with the public.
“They’re in wilderness. Part of the reason wilderness was created was to create personal challenge.”
Those words are music to the ears of mountaineer Angelis. He said the philosophy of Forest Service officials in the Aspen district is reassuring. Nevertheless, he plans to keep an eye on CFI’s work and protest, if necessary.
“My heart is in the Elk Range,” said Angelis, who estimated he has made 150 ascents of peaks in the Elk Range, including 16 ascents of Capitol.
Angelis said he has been “sickened” by some of CFI’s work he has witnessed in the Sawatch Range, across Independence Pass from Aspen.
On La Plata Peak, for example, stairs were created almost to the summit. And the monolithic cairns weren’t limited to Harvard, Angelis complained.
“It takes away the challenge of the peaks,” he said. “It’s also a visual thing.”
Many dedicated hikers and mountaineers enjoy the challenge of route finding. They don’t want to merely “connect the cairns,” said Angelis.
Mountain users have a wilderness ethic that keeps them on the trail where it is discernible through sensitive vegetation, he said. Cairns are unnecessary, and often unwelcome, in rocky terrain. There, they just become a visual blight.
Angelis said he understands the need for work on eroded trail sections. He is familiar with the trail sections targeted on Capitol and acknowledged the work could be beneficial if handled carefully.
But he fears that CFI’s alleged tradition of creating “highways to the summit” could be copied on Elk Range peaks.
“I’m kind of at war with these guys,” Angelis admitted.
Learn from the past
CFI is sensitive to the criticism.
“We’re not interested in making climbing the peaks either easier or safer,” insisted Morrow.
Environmental sensitivity is the group’s concern, he stressed. Sometimes value judgments must be made, and people who want the best experience for humans don’t like to see steps most beneficial to nature.
CFI has openings on its Project Oversight Teams. Morrow invited Roaring Fork Valley residents with knowledge of the high peaks and, preferably, experience with trail restoration to contact him to serve on that committee.
Morrow can be reached at 303-278-7525, extension 115.
CFI is also enlisting volunteers to help on the projects. Some work will be undertaken in late July; some in early August.
CFI also has projects scheduled this summer on Mount Bierstadt, Quandary Peak and possibly on Mount Sneffels.
Aspen wilderness manager Matthews is confident CFI’s work on Capitol will be sensitive to locals’ concerns. He is well aware of criticism about too much work on the peaks.
“That may have been true with some of their earlier work,” he said. But Matthews believes that has been corrected.
Angelis plans to hang out at the Capitol Peak work site in late July and early August to make sure.
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