It's said that 14,000-foot mountains are Colorado's heritage. In the United States, 75 percent of the landscape that rises 10,000 feet above sea level is here. That includes 54 pinnacles above 14,000 feet.
"We are the nation's high country," says T.J. Rapoport of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit coalition working for what can seem a contradicting mission: access to and protection of the mountains.
Summiting, or "bagging," 14,000-foot peaks is like collecting baseball cards: Once you've attained one, you want to gain the whole set.
And peakbagging has gone trendy. About half a million people climbed a 14,000-foot mountain in the Centennial State in 2005. During the summers, some hikers travel around the state, like Deadheads on Red Bull, stalking the highest summits. But this mob is overwhelming high-altitude environments, even as it clamors for steady access to them.
On a weekend in late July, it's common to see dozens of hikers making their way up a "walk-up," a peak that requires neither technical expertise nor ropes.
Few walk-up fourteeners are more popular than the cluster of Mounts Democrat, Lincoln and Bross, in the Mosquito Range near the tiny town of Alma, a two-hour drive from Colorado Springs. (A fourth 14,000-foot point, Mount Cameron, isn't officially a separate mountain because it doesn't have a distinct saddle from Lincoln, but climbers summit the point anyway.)
The ease of both the ascent from the trailhead and the traverse between these mountains offers hikers the chance to bag four fourteeners in one day and in short time. And anyone can take the challenge as long as they don't mind breaking the law.
The standard route, starting up Mount Democrat, crosses several private mining claims with a handful of hazards, like open shafts and tailings piles. When claim-owners realized they could be sued if a mischievous or clumsy hiker took a spill on their property, they banned access to Democrat, Lincoln and Bross.
And that might not be a bad thing. While private mines and chichi backcountry cabins are threats to the wide-open high country, many fourteeners are suffering a less-considered ecological demise from a million footsteps.
"If we're not yet at the point where some of the peaks are being visited more than they can handle, it's coming soon," says Rapoport. "And [land managers] don't know what to do about it."
Keeping a peakbagger down
"Back in the 1950s, there were a few climbers" to Democrat, Lincoln and Bross, says Maury Reiber, "but it really seems like [in] the last few years, it's become a real issue."
The issue for Reiber isn't that he has to jockey for elbow room on his hikes. About 50 years ago, the native Coloradan bought the Present Help silver mine, which extends to the peak of 14,286-foot Mount Lincoln, the eighth-highest peak in the state and the tallest of the Mosquito Range group.
Reiber and his brother used to mine Present Help with a rock drill and an air compressor in the '50s, but the claim really hasn't been active since silver was de-monetized in the 1890s, when miners lived year-round in the Mosquito Range peaks. Today, the 75-year-old Reiber checks silver prices three or four times daily, anticipating the time when he can reopen Present Help.
Meanwhile, he is trying to protect his investment. For a long time, people climbing the fourteeners didn't interfere with that.
But Reiber noticed more and more people pounding the dirt up Democrat, Lincoln and Bross starting in the 1980s. With the increasing number of climbers came some who stole or vandalized "just about anything that's not nailed down," he says.
Finally, last summer, after an attorney told him that the route through his mine holdings was a lawsuit waiting to happen, Reiber closed the main trail to the three peaks, among the most frequented in all Colorado. Hiking enthusiasts, many who had no idea that some of this land was privately owned, did not take the news well.
"There was a lot of anger last summer," says Sara Mayben, the South Park district ranger for the Pike National Forest, which comprises the surrounding public lands.
But private "inholdings," as they're called, are peppered throughout the otherwise public domain. The peaks of four Colorado fourteeners Lincoln, Mount Sherman, Mount Lindsey and Culebra Peak are privately owned, and so are the trails of several others, including Democrat, Bross and Wilson Peak, outside Telluride.
"If you look at the map [of the Pike National Forest's South Park District], you'd be amazed at how much of it is privately owned, patented mining claims," says Doug Robotham, Colorado state director for the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that conserves land for low-impact public use.
Few owners tolerate trespassing hikers, as Maury Reiber did for so long. Many of them, says Robotham, are interested in building backcountry cabins that can destroy the natural and historical values of the surrounding public domain.
The most sinister owners try to extort land-management agencies for land swaps or sales, by threatening to bulldoze new roads or develop log mansions unless the government pays them an exorbitant markup of the property's market value.
This is the case with 14,017-foot Wilson Peak, where Texas developer Rusty Nichols has locked up his 300 acres of inholdings and denied access to the mountain. Nichols is demanding the Forest Service swap him more than 20,000 acres, worth tens of millions more than his land, or he'll start mining for gold and demolish the area.
"This same kind of loss of access happens on a smaller scale all the time," says Mayben, the Forest Service ranger.
In the past, the government has caved to developers' conditions in the name of protecting national parks and wilderness areas. Talks with Nichols have stalled, leaving Wilson Peak off-limits.
But all landowners, along with the Forest Service, are learning it's hard to keep a peakbagger down.
Bagging by numbers
When Aron Ralston survived the loss of his right forearm to an 800-pound boulder in a Utah canyon in April 2003, he remained fixated on finishing his quest to be the first person to climb every Colorado fourteener in the winter, solo. Ralston credits his desire to complete the mission with his quick recovery. He ascended his final fourteener in March 2005, using a prosthetic ax in place of his arm.
Unlike Ralston, most peakbaggers choose to tackle the mountains in summer and travel in packs.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative reports that about 60,000 hikers scaled a fourteener during the summer of 1984. By 1994, that number had risen to 200,000 climbers.
In 2004, the mass had grown astronomically, to half a million. Trends predict that number will double by 2011.
The pioneering peakbaggers were a pair of Denver businessmen, who first ascended Colorado's summits (then believed to number just 46) in 1923. The Colorado Mountain Club, a nonprofit organizer of and information clearinghouse for mountain enthusiasts, estimates that about 1,200 people have repeated the feat since then.
"Most, if not all, of the damage that has happened on the fourteeners happened in the last 20 years," says Rapoport of the Fourteeners Initiative. Compare that to "these landscapes [that] have taken millions of years to form and these species [that] are miracles of evolution."
Rapoport considers the peaks a "high-altitude version of the Galapagos," home to a unique community of plants and animals adapted to the blistering sun, the thin air, and the harsh snowstorms that break otherwise dry conditions. But an annual load of a half-million mountain climbers is a severe menace to the fragile, alpine environment.
Just outside the little town of San Luis, near the New Mexico border, hikers pay $100 each to summit the privately owned Culebra Peak fourteener. The landowner caps the number of climbers at 250 each season. He instructs them to fan out on their way to the top, so as not to beat down a single trail. The scheme and the cost might sound elitist, but access to public fourteeners might be administered through a permit or lottery system someday.
No one's publicly talking about general limits or premium charges for peakbaggers, but climbers and managers both recognize something will have to be done if the numbers follow the trends.
Forest Service ranger Sara Mayben says the sport of peakbagging is spilling over to the 13,000-foot mountains, noting that guidebooks now focus on this next tier of peaks.
Mayben continues to work with the claim-holders in the South Park district. She also has the backing of a new law to address denial of access.
In March, Gov. Bill Owens signed a bill that protects claim-holders from liability lawsuits and establishes conditions for the Forest Service to identify and maintain routes through the private sections.
Politicians celebrated the anticipated reopening of Mounts Democrat, Lincoln and Bross by yukking it up. Owens boasted that Mount Lincoln, named after Honest Abe, the first Republican president, "towers over Mount Democrat."
But after the partisan slapstick subsided, the Forest Service announced that the trail to the Mosquito Range fourteeners will remain closed for the coming summer.
"I think people assumed that because the public statute passed, the problem is solved," says Mayben.
That's not the case.
Besides the main route up the Mosquito Range mountains, Mayben says there are at least eight other ascents along the flanks. All cross private property.
The Forest Service and the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative are working to figure out exactly where the routes go, whose land they cross, and where the hazards are in relation. Until those questions are answered, the claim-holders refuse to grant access.
"The bill is for people on the trail," says Reiber. "But what happens when they go off the trail? That's our concern."
Sorting and consolidating paths to the fourteener pinnacles are important first steps in allaying fears of private landowners and in protecting and rehabilitating beaten slopes and summits. The grand issues of access and conservation need to be considered together, by both hikers and land managers, according to some advocates.
"Some careful planning in the Mosquito Range would make a great deal of sense," says Robotham of Trust for Public Land.
The Trust teamed up with the nonprofit Alma Foundation, Park County and numerous other partners three years ago to form the Mosquito Range Heritage Initiative. The collaboration is targeting public access, like the fourteener trails, as part of a larger effort to preserve and recognize the natural and historical resources of the landscape.
"The fourteeners are resources that are particularly iconic," says Robotham. "They're a part of our cultural identity as a state." But, he adds, the Heritage Initiative focuses on a 120-square-mile area, not just the four points above 14,000 feet.
The mission is tapping into the goodwill of local claim-holders like Maury Reiber.
"The landowners that we've been dealing with really do want public access," says Mayben. "They're not trying to coerce, like what's been happening on other peaks."
Still, the initiative is a challenge to the people who are trampling all over Colorado's heritage. In the pursuit to climb the most, the highest, the fastest, the coldest and the loneliest, peakbaggers must figure out how to preserve, instead of exploit, the Colorado high country.
So far, the climber's desire for access has raised awareness of issues, including the management of private inholdings. But peakbaggers will have to make their own concessions, or the ascents and the summits they're chasing might soon be worth less hype, or lots more money.
"I've never really considered [charging hikers for access], quite frankly," says Reiber, "nor would I stand there in a toll booth."
Even as Reiber remains steadfast that his family will mine silver from Mount Lincoln's summit one day, the idea of taxing climbers for the vista seems distasteful.
"It's one of the most awe-inspiring views in the state."
The author has climbed Capitol Peak (14,130 feet) and Wilson Peak, before it was closed.