Colorado’s big peaks are getting hammered, but a 14er nonprofit is here to help
Group schedules numerous projects this year after reducing workload last summer during pandemic
The Aspen Times
ASPEN — Colorado’s tallest peaks got hammered even more than usual by hikers and climbers last summer due to the rush to get outdoors during the pandemic.
A Golden-based nonprofit dedicated to the welfare of the big peaks is gearing up to provide some timely trail maintenance this summer. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative scaled back from big group projects last year to adhere to distancing requirements. But hikers didn’t take a break.
The group’s preliminary data indicates there was an average increase of 20% in hiking use last summer on the 54 peaks higher than 14,000 feet, said Brian Sargeant, Fourteeners Initiative development and communications manager. Hiker days soared as much as 70% on some of the more popular and accessible peaks, he said.
Anyway you slice it, it was a record year for hikers on the high peaks.
“Lots of people means more work for us,” Sargeant said.
The group puts it own crews in the field on particularly tough projects, and it enlists volunteers and civic groups such as Colorado Youth Corps on other jobs. Last year, it put only its own small-sized crews in the field due to the pandemic. This year, it is offering volunteer opportunities again with COVID-19 protocols and advice from health experts.
The nonprofit has about 15 projects on the books, often with partners. Projects range from a single-day effort on Summit County’s Quandary Peak, one of most highly visited in the state, to multiday undertakings in the more isolated San Juan Mountains.
The Quandary workday in mid-July will focus on maintaining sections of the trail at and below treeline, including installing wooden structures to prevent erosion, creating trail delineations and doing rock work, according to the volunteer listing. According to Fourteeners Initiative, the trail sees as many as 40,000 hikers each year.
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 Breckenridge minutes after you return to your parked car.
All of these variables led to Quandary Peak being named the most-hiked 14er in the state beginning in 2018. With 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 was the first time Quandary ranked No. 1 in the Fourteener Initiative’s five years of tracking use on Colorado’s highest peaks — but it wasn’t the last.
The 14ers are feeling the effects of the increased use, especially at higher elevations. That’s where the least amount of work has occurred on trails. Since its founding in 1994, the nonprofit has undertaken scores of projects on lower- and middle-elevation slopes.
“All of the low-lying fruit has been picked,” Sargeant said. “A lot of work we need to get done is at 13,500 and 14,000 feet.”
That means longer hikes to work sites, less time for actual work and a need for super-fit workers capable of strenuous labor at high elevations where the air is thinner.
While the Fourteeners Initiative is enlisting volunteers again, it won’t gear up in 2021 to pre-pandemic levels.
“We were maxed out at 2,000 volunteer days each year pre-pandemic,” Sargeant said. “This year, we’re expecting 1,200 volunteer days.”
This story is from AspenTimes.com. Summit Daily News contributed to this report.
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