Colorado’s soaring 14,000-foot peaks are some of the biggest draws to both local and visiting hikers. During the summer season, thousands of people drive into the mountains to test their mettle against the steep slopes in the hope of being rewarded with inspiring vistas and a sense of accomplishment.
However, the fragile high alpine environment that draws in so many thrill-seekers also needs constant TLC from a small army of dedicated volunteers who aren’t just in it for the view.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving all 54 of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks through various volunteer, environmental and educational programs. The organization is currently recruiting volunteers for the upcoming summer season.
Peak Stewards Program
People participating in the Peak Stewards program act as ambassadors from the CFI and the U.S. Forest Service to the hikers out on the trail. Peak Stewards can be distinguished by their hats or badges, and make themselves available on the trail or near the trailhead to offer information on the terrain, the rules of the trail and area wildlife.
Many of the Peak Stewards are placed at the mountains that are closest to the Front Range and receive the highest amount of traffic such as Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, as well as Torreys Peak, Grays Peak and Mt. Bierstadt.
“Even if you’re an experienced hiker in the northwest or New England, (it’s a) very different ecosystem,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “The flowers here are so much more fragile.”
Athearn said that he has experienced this lack of knowledge firsthand. An experienced hiker, he grew up in the northwest and climbed all over the world, eventually coming out to Colorado about 18 years ago.
“It wasn’t until I took over the CFI job five years ago that I realized how much I didn’t know about the unique ecology of these plants and how close to the edge of survival they are just on a daily basis,” he said of the alpine tundra environment found on the top of Colorado’s highest peaks.
A small plant or flower at that high of an elevation might be up to 30 years old, and take anywhere from seven to 10 years to bloom and spread its seeds, he said. The simple act of picking a flower or even stepping on one off the trail could set that cycle back at least a decade.
“And since people don’t always go back and climb the same peak over and over again, they might not see how conditions have changed over time,” he said, “or how a handful of people going off route over time can create a huge erosion scar and start a lot of erosion and loss of plants and siltation of creeks and stuff like that.”
Providing a service
Anyone over the age of 18 is welcome to volunteer for the Peak Stewards program. Len Shipman, the statewide Peak Stewards program coordinator, has spent the past few years as a volunteer, and said it’s a great chance to be out and about on the peaks during the summer and doing something helpful at the same time.
“It’s wonderful work. I think all of us who do it just get a lot of enjoyment out of it,” he said. “It’s great exercise, you get to talk to people. It’s always beautiful scenic areas, too.”
Volunteers must go through training to participate in the program. Training includes learning about the various flora and fauna of the mountaintop, U.S. Forest Service visitor rules and regulations, “leave no trace” practices and hiker outreach. And starting this year, Shipman said, new volunteers will be paired with a mentor for their first time out in the field. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least four days over the summer.
At the end of the day, volunteers also will turn in a log of helpful data to the U.S. Forest Service, with information such as how many people were out climbing that day, how much use the trails are getting, how many cars were parked in the lot and what animals may have been spotted.
In addition to education outreach, CFI also works on trail maintenance and restoration.
“We’re trying to build out this network of fourteener trails that are sustainably designed, durably constructed, because most of the fourteener routes were never planned. They are a necessary part of protecting the fragile alpine tundra,” said Athearn. “We’re constantly maintaining those trails to keep them in the best (condition).”
Education leading to future preservation
Public education is an important part of CFI’s mission, Athearn said, because the more people know, the better they can protect the areas that they love to visit.
“There are very, very few people out there in the world who intentionally want to cause damage to any natural ecosystem, so oftentimes these behaviors come out of a lack of awareness,” he said.
Recently, the CFI has been using social media such as YouTube channels to connect with people online about hiking fourteeners. Athearn, his colleagues and the CFI volunteers all understand the importance of preserving the fourteeners not only for themselves, but for visitors and future generations as well.
“Most of the people are here because these mountains are really beautiful — they’re great approachable Everests,” Athearn said. “Most people in our society are never going to be able to climb an Everest or even a Denali, and these fourteeners are the opportunity for people to get in these really high places and see great vistas and have that sense of personal accomplishment of doing something that’s challenging and pushing their limits. But we do need to make sure that the area through which we go, these delicate alpine systems, are protected.”