As Summit County’s Quandary becomes most hiked 14er, stewardship nonprofit hopes education trumps damage
BRECKENRIDGE — When putting in perspective just how popular Quandary Peak has become for summer and fall hikers, Lloyd F. Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, recalled a comment on the 14ers.com online community.
“Seemingly regardless of what the question is, Quandary always seems to be the answer,” Athearn said the comment read.
For novice hikers looking to summit their first 14er, Quandary’s 14,265 summit is an ideal place to start. A paved road takes you to the parking lot and trailhead. The 3,339 elevation gain in just under 3.4 miles makes for a relatively quick and moderate climb. And you can have beers and burgers in the mountain vacation town of Breckenridge minutes after you return to your parked car.
With all of these variables, the Fourteeners Initiative recently announced Quandary Peak is now the most-hiked 14er in the state, which boasts 54 14,000-foot mountains. With an observed count of an estimated 38,259 hiker days between May 28 and Oct. 7, 2018, Quandary eclipsed the 14,060-foot Mount Bierstadt on the Front Range in Clear Creek County. It’s the first time Quandary has ranked No. 1 in the Fourteener Initiative’s five years of tracking use on Colorado’s highest peaks.
Athearn said the data on Quandary was gathered by the initiative’s two Quandary trail counters: one on the standard East Slopes route and a second on the less-climbed West Ridge. As for Bierstadt, which had been the most-climbed peak in all prior years, the estimated 36,800 hikers on that mountain was derived from the U.S. Forest Service’s counter combined with Fourteener Initiative data. And in terms of the busiest single days on the mountains: July 20, 2018, on Bierstadt saw 1,023 hikers while July 14, 2018, saw 945 people on Quandary.
In total, Athearn said, 353,000 hiker days are estimated across Colorado 14ers.
The average annual growth rate on Quandary, Athearn said, was 35% from 2015 to 2018. Athearn said the challenge the initiative and its partners are tasked with on Quandary right now is to use the introductory mountain as an ideal peak at which to teach backcountry and leave no trace principles. If novice hikers don’t learn and practice those behavioral lessons early, it could severely impact the sensitive high-Alpine terrain of Quandary and other 14ers and neighboring peaks.
“Numbers in and of themselves aren’t necessarily a good thing or bad thing,” Athearn said. “We can certainly find good attributes. In a society that is more screen obsessed — more unhealthy, obese people — hearing almost 40,000 climbed Quandary is probably a good thing. And they are certainly coming in contact with public lands, which is a positive. The negative side is we’re potentially cramming people on that mountain. There’s a whole bunch of people at the trailhead, and people have to be respectful.”
With the new data crowning Quandary as the state’s most popular 14er, Athearn sees upcoming years on the peak as case studies that will crystallize just how the spike in hikers is helping and hurting the mountain.
The good news for Quandary hikers is that the Fourteener Initiative and its partners recently completed a multiyear trail improvement project. By the end of it, Quandary’s trail effectively became an easy-to-follow stairway to heaven, an A- on the nonprofit’s Fourteeners Report Card after it previously rated the trail’s condition as a C+ a few years back.
Despite the improved trail, Athearn said stakeholders and volunteers are still seeing some problematic behavior that damages the sensitive terrain. Namely, human and domestic animal waste near tree line and stomped-out shortcuts — or “trail braids” — circumnavigating portions of the official Quandary trail. That said, in Athearn’s mind, it certainly could be worse.
“I was incredibly impressed with the trail and how little trail braiding was occurring,” Athearn said about a trip up the mountain in August 2018. “In general, I was pretty excited with what I saw, how little impact there was on the physical resource. The tundra was well protected and most people were staying on trail.”
Then, on a return trip to Quandary this past September, there were more worrisome signs.
“We saw a spot lower down in the trees where we were seeing people cutting through between some trees to prevent doing one switchback,” he said. “And this is causing impact. We have to come up with a way to more effectively block off people doing this shortcut. But it’s an ongoing process.”
Athearn describes popular 14ers like Quandary as well as Grays and Torreys peaks — both on the border of Summit County at the Continental Divide — as “approachable Everests.” He understands how for many people, summiting 14ers might be among the coolest things they ever accomplish.
With that in mind, the Fourteeners Initiative is embracing the challenge of improving the trail up Grays and Torreys much like they did with Quandary. With the Grays and Torreys trail rated as an F before the nonprofit and its partners began its improvement work this summer, it’ll take years to improve the trail.
At an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 hiker days each on Grays and Torreys from May to October 2018, the twin peaks effectively rank as the third most popular 14ers in the state.
Data isn’t in for summer 2019, when the hiking window for 14ers like Quandary was much shorter compared with 2018. Whether that was good or bad for the mountains themselves, time will tell. It is still unknown whether the lingering snow crammed hikers into select days this summer and fall and what that meant for the sensitive terrain.
“We’ll have to see,” Athearn said.
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