Keeping up with fourteeners |

Keeping up with fourteeners

eagle county correspondent

Fourteen has become the trendiest number in Colorado when it comes to mountaineering. Colorado is home to at least 54 peaks measuring 14,000 feet or higher, and each year, more people are compelled to climb them.

Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service estimate that more than 300,000 people visited at least one of the 14ers last year, and it shows.

“It’s been being done for a lot of years,” said Loretta McEllhiney, peak manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Leadville. “I started really looking at the peaks in 1990 or 91. I started seeing some damage to areas from a lot of trampling in the tundra. Now we see huge erosion follies – whole webs of trails up the mountain sides. We did a statewide inventory between 1993 and 95 – that’s when started we started to see significant damage.”

Only about half of Colorado’s 14ers have a sustainable trail going up them. The others have what are referred to as “social trails,” formed by foot traffic impact. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), which monitors the 54 peaks that are official 14ers, is responsible for installing 16 of the existing sustainable trails. The organization, formed in 1994 to protect and preserve the natural integrity of Colorado’s 14ers, conducts mitigation and restoration projects on various peaks every summer. This summer is no exception. About 60 CFI staff members and volunteers began work on Mount Evans (14,264) this weekend.

“There’s restoration and rerouting that needs to be done on all the peaks,” said Del Rae Heiser, office and volunteer manager for CFI, which is based in Golden. “Every year, we chose the highest priorities and work on them. Our window is June through September We’re getting a late start this year due to the snow.”

Representatives of CFI have noticed the increase in popularity of 14ers expeditions. One of the organization’s objectives is to provide a quality recreation experience for people visiting the peaks.

“Most of the peaks in Colorado have not had a trail built to the top at all,” Heiser said. “Nowadays, they’re more easily accessible than they were 20 years ago. And, (because of) changing equipment, it doesn’t take someone with specialized skills for the ones that are not technical. Anyone in decent shape can do it.”

Anyone climbing a 14er this June, especially from a north-facing route, should be prepared to cross snow fields. While walking on the snow itself is not damaging, walking on wet tundra around the snow fields is one of the primary causes of erosion to trails in the spring and early summer. And Forest Service officials say hikers should expect to encounter some amount of snow on top of the peaks for the duration of the summer.

“Those super saturated snow fields are easy to impact, and around the edges,” McEllhiney said. “There are surfaces more durable than tundra to walk on. If there’s an impacted area around a snow field, stay on that. Try not to step off the trail. That’s what widens them out. There are some peaks – like Quandary (outside of Breckenridge) – where there’s a 20-, 25-foot wide trail in places.”

With the heavy flow of traffic on 14ers over the last few years, some people have also been careless about feeding wildlife. Animals living above timberline include moose, elk, mule deer, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

Feeding these animals is not doing them any favors, as it teaches them to rely on people rather than forage for their own food, and it also puts people in danger. The Forest Service receives calls from individuals every summer reporting incidents involving aggressive animals on top of the peaks.

“They become humanized when people feed them,” McEllhiney said. “Those goats have some pretty sharp horns. They get aggressive. If they head-butt somebody, that person will get impaled. I had one up on Quandary where, I sat down to eat my lunch and I packed up and moved away. He followed me. It’s terrible to feed the wildlife.”

Anyone attempting to climb a 14er this summer should be cognizant of rapidly changing weather. Representatives from the Forest Service and from Summit County Search and Rescue recommend hikers get a very early start and make sure they are on their way down by noon at the latest.

“Another big thing is to have an accurate map of the area,” said Summit County Search and Rescue public information officer Mike Schmitt. “There’s usually one main trail, but – everyone does this – there are many other trails on the 14ers to take you to the other sides of the cliffs. There’s been that situation in the last few weeks where we’ve had people who would be better off with a map or a compass.”

Schmitt said Search and Rescue, while not having to perform any full-fledged rescues off a 14er yet this season, has had several calls from people who are lost or missing a member of their party on Quandary.

“Sticking together is important,” he said. “I know a lot of people have trouble making it up 14ers because they’re not acclimated (to the altitude). But, the second you sit down and start waiting for other people to go up and come down, your body starts cooling off. Then, you’re freezing. So, naturally, you get up and start hiking and you wind up getting lost.”

Anyone tackling a 14er should bring plenty of food and water as well as multiple layers of clothing and durable footwear.

“There will definitely be snow up there most of the summer, depending on your aspect,” Schmitt said. “Even when the heat’s been going, if you’re coming up the north side, it’s still going to be wet and muddy. People don’t take into account their footwear. They wear trail running shoes, and by 11 a.m., when they’re coming back down, there’s water running around them and they get blisters.”

Gators are recommended as well as mountain axes for individuals who plan on crossing snowfields on top of the peaks.

“The mountain axe, an ice-climbing or mountaineering tool, is the only way to self-arrest,” McEllhiney said. “There will be some larger snow fields lasting for a while, and there’s still avalanche danger out there. The weather is also blowing in early. Right now, we’re getting blown off the peaks by 11 a.m.”

Above timberline, there is virtually no place to seek shelter in a thunderstorm. Stacked clouds are an indication of thunderheads, and if hikers see the sky looking ominous, they should turn around immediately.

If caught on a peak while there’s lightning, search and rescue officials advise hikers to find the lowest area in which to crouch down with only the balls of their feet touching the ground.

CFI is seeking volunteers to work as peak stewards four days during the season advising hikers of Leave No Trace policies, alpine ecology and backcountry safety. Two training sessions will take place this summer – the first is July 13-14 on Mount Massive and the second is Aug. 2-3 on Mount Sneffels. For more information, call (303) 278-7525, ext. 117, or visit

Shauna Farnell can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236, or at

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