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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rocky Mountain High

Air Date: Week of

Carol Kauder of Colorado Public Radio reports on the popular ourdoor trend of "peak bagging" or hiking up Colorado's many fourteen-thousand foot mountainsides to tell it on t-shirts. Some people worry that the new crowds are harming the delicate alpine environment and are developing ways to help reduce erosion.


NUNLEY: In Colorado, climbers looking for that ultimate Rocky Mountain high go for what's called the 14-ers. Some 54 peaks reaching about 14,000 feet, more than in any of the other lower 48 states. Conquering these towering heights, known as "Peak Bagging," is luring as many enthusiastic and sometimes ill-prepared amateurs as experienced mountaineers. What's more, the massive 14-ers themselves may be suffering from their sudden popularity. Carol Kauder of Colorado Public Radio reports.

KAUDER: When Mark Borneman started climbing 14-ers in the late 1960s there were no guidebooks, so he wrote one. Now every outdoor store in the state stocks his book and 2 others to supply the demand of mountaineering hordes. Borneman still remembers when it was rare to meet another hiker, like in the summer of 1972 when he and a friend climbed 20 14-ers.

BORNEMAN: The only people that we met the entire summer turned out to be when we climbed on Labor Day. We climbed Mt. Elbert, and we met Tim Duffy, who's still our good climbing buddy, and met him on top of Mt. Elbert. But he's the only soul we saw in an entire summer of climbing.

KAUDER: Twenty-three years later, the scene on Mt. Elbert near Leadville is a little different.

(Ambient conversation)

KAUDER: At any given time on this recent afternoon late in the climbing season, as many as 30 hikers sprawl on rocks at the highest point in Colorado: 14,433 feet above sea level.

WOMAN: It's spectacular. A lot of work, though.

MAN: It's fantastic. It was worth the hike.

WOMAN: The view from here is absolutely incredible. It makes me want to hike a lot more of these mountains.

MAN 1: Sopers daily capital. Snowmass.

MAN 2: Sopers is the one out there on its own?

MAN 1: The farthest edge, right where the range starts.

KAUDER: This kind of enthusiasm has led thousands of people to the current craze of climbing all the 14-ers in Colorado, or "Peak Bagging."


KAUDER: Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is the most popular 14-er in the state, and for many it is their introduction to mountaineering. Until 127 years ago, this mountain was considered unclimbable. Now 10,000 people reach the summit each year, many of them ill-prepared for the hike. Long's Peak rangers Jim Detterline and Dan Ostrowski headed up the trail recently for a commemorative climb on the anniversary of the first recorded ascent.

RANGER: How far are you folks going today?

WOMAN: Chasm Lake.

RANGER: Chasm Lake. Okay, you have your raincoats with you, I hope.

WOMAN: Oh yeah.

RANGER: Great.

RANGER: Our big concern is a lot of people consider the 14s just to be walk-up hikes. Many people don't respect the mountains properly. They're not ready for a hail storm in the afternoon. They're not ready for lightning. They're not ready for a little ice on the route.

KAUDER: In an effort to head off hiking disasters, rangers have posted a large sign at the trail head instructing people what to bring up the mountain. Like a flashlight and extra water. And what to do if a storm moves in. Another piece of advice posted at the trail head is: be willing to turn back in the face of inclement weather. For some reason, people don't. Dederline says they are drawn up the mountain by what mountaineers call summit fever.

DETTERLINE: You get on a big mountain like Long's Peak and you get very goal-oriented. Some people in the morning, when they come into the parking lot, you can tell that even no matter how bad the weather it is, they still even head up, and they kind of look like they're on a mission from God, so to speak. They're going to climb Long's Peak regardless if they're alive when they reach the summit or not.

KAUDER: Dederline has plenty of stories of people who died, or had to be rescued, on Long's Peak. The absurdity of the 14-er craze hit Ostrowski a few years ago climbing Grizzly Peak. He realized he was the only one there just because the summit is 12 feet short of the 14,000 foot mark.

OSTROWSKI: And 10 miles away on Mt. Elbert there are probably 300 people. And then I started to see T-shirts with a list of all the 14-ers and little check marks. And I realized maybe we're -- we're doing these things for the wrong reason. The reason we should be up here is the experience, the natural beauty of the place, and because you stopped a quarter mile short, it should not lessen your sense of fulfillment, the beauty of the day.

KAUDER: Ostrowski and others are concerned that the crowds flocking to the 14-ers are starting to undermine the wilderness experience. But some hikers, like Jeff Yaegan and Ken Benson, don't really seem to mind all the people.

YAEGAN: You don't climb a 14-er in Colorado and expect to be out in the middle of nowhere with nobody unless it's the middle of the winter. And that would be pretty cool. But.

BENSON: If you really want to get away, I mean, there's a lot of other places to go.

KAUDER: But the crowds are damaging the pristine environment. In their haste to make it to the summit the quickest way possible, many climbers trample the delicate alpine vegetation. That sets the stage for serious erosion and scarring gullies. In response to these problems, environmental groups banded together to form the Colorado 14-er Initiative to work with the Forest Service building new trails and restoring tundra. In 1993, Forest Service planner Mary Beth Hennessey and a group of volunteers began work on LaPlata Peak, a popular 14-er outside Leadville. Here at the beginning of the LaPlata Trail, she points out where hikers have scrambled straight up the slope, leaving a heavily eroded swath. Last year, Hennessey and the group spent all summer creating a trail that zigzags up the slope, a method which reduces erosion. The damaged trail will take years to return to normal, and that's only if hikers stay off it. Hennessey thinks they will stick to the new trail.

HENNESSEY: Most people do stay on a trail when there is a trail, and that's sort of the bottom line with a lot of the work we're doing on the 14-ers. There hasn't been a trail, people haven't known where to go, so they go every which way. We believe and we have this assumption that once we place one route that's very clear up to the summits, people will follow that.

KAUDER: There's talk but no specific proposals for a permit system to limit the number of visitors. Hennessey is convinced it doesn't have to come to that.

HENNESSEY: I don't think there's anything wrong with having thousands of people climb 14-ers as long as we make that activity sustainable and allow, as long as those people that are climbing it are aware of what their impacts are.

KAUDER: Hennessey and others working to preserve the wild character of the 14-ers have their work cut out for them. Half the money will have to be raised from private foundations. And their plans to lay out 125 miles of trail above tree line will take at least 10 years to complete. For Living on Earth, I'm Carol Kauder reporting.

WOMAN 1: I'm so impressed Susanne made it.

WOMAN 2: She still looks pretty beat. (Laughter) Delirious. (Laughter)

MAN: We actually have another person in our party who couldn't make it. She has an irrational fear of heights, so she's down about 1,500 feet below us.



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