As hikers flock to Colorado 14ers, trail-building crews work to rescue the alpine tundra |

As hikers flock to Colorado 14ers, trail-building crews work to rescue the alpine tundra

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has worked on 35 of the state’s 58 mountains higher than 14,000 feet, fixing “social trails” created by climbers taking the most direct route to the summit.

Jennifer Brown
The Colorado Sun

MOUNT ELBERT — Lloyd Athearn pauses during an uphill climb to grab a tiny scrap of litter left on the trail by a careless hiker. It’s the easiest bit of trail maintenance the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative will accomplish on this misty August morning as the fog rises out of the forest and hovers on the ridges of the state’s tallest mountain.

The rest of the work involves moving 500-pound rocks, felling trees, stripping bark and digging dirt to improve the trail to the top of 14,439-foot Mount Elbert, outside of Leadville. The crew, using only a chainsaw and hand tools, cuts timber to create steps and plants boulders on the trail’s edge to keep hikers’ feet on the worn path and not trampling through fragile alpine forest.

These buried stumps and large rocks, called “gargoyles,” are supposed to steer hikers on the correct path. Steps, including what the crew calls a “Lincoln ladder,” because it looks like an old-school kids’ set of Lincoln Logs notched into a staircase, aim to keep the steepest sections of trail from turning into muddy bogs when rain and melting snow flows down the mountain.

The work is seemingly endless, and needed as much as ever as the number of people attempting to summit a Colorado peak above 14,000 has mushroomed in recent years. About 25,000 people climbed Mount Elbert last year, when the coronavirus pandemic pushed parks and hiking trails to their limits. The most popular 14er in the state was Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge, which attracted more than 49,100 pairs of feet.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative — with a $1.5 million budget pieced together from individual donations, grants and government funding — can’t work on all 58 of the state’s 14,000-plus peaks (53 or 54 if you’re a purist regarding the official designation requirement) at once. This summer, the nonprofit hired 21 seasonal workers who are stationed at Mount Elbert, Mount Wilson near Telluride, one of five peaks near Lake City, or Grays and Torreys, twin peaks not far off Interstate 70 near Silver Plume.

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