Going to the Mountains is Going Home

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

It used to be that those who climbed Colorado fourteeners were often described as a “cult” of crazies whose sole satisfaction was removing themselves from the everyday grind. It used to be a true mountaineering feat to climb all 54 ranked summits of Colorado, each one entitling bragging rights to its conqueror. It used to be that climbers respected the mountains—mountains that engender freedom and solitude. Climbers followed the words of Edward Abbey and John Muir that so fluidly describe nature and mountains as a necessity.

The influx of tourists from across the country has changed all that. Now, instead of a haphazard guidebook of optional trails up these peaks that leave the challenge of completion up to serious climbers, websites like Denver’s 5280 magazine depict step-by-step details of drive-up approaches, easy routes, trail conditions and even cell phone reception. The idea of solitude is shattered, and “leave-no-trace” has become a joke as alpine environments get clogged with garbage cast off by ill-equipped and under-prepared day hikers.

Mary Cronin, the first woman to summit all 54 peaks in 1934, would have a few unkind things to say about the condition of Colorado’s peaks these days; she would be shocked at the overuse and neglect of Colorado’s fourteeners, effects which are long lasting and very expensive to fix. The Colorado Fourteener Initiative (CFI) has released a peak condition report card detailing the condition and cost of repair:

The Report Card and Cost to Fix Peak Trails. (Credit: Colorado Fourteeners Initiative)

If your kids came home with grades similar to those earned by these peaks, you would be angry, right? Well these mountains are where your kids and many of their kids will grow up, so you should be angry about this too. Fifteen out of 54 ranked (58 unranked) peaks have been graded at D or F with 10 of those costing over $1 million to restore to ideal conditions. The high use, front-range peaks such as Mt. Bierstadt, Mt. Evans and Mt. Elbert are in terrible shape and of utmost concern to the CFI. These are bad, but quite a few peaks such as Mt. Lindsey (Sangre de Cristo), Mt. Shavano (Sahwatch) and La Plata Peak (Elk) are also a concern. Oblivious people leave garbage, dog feces, and campfire rings in sensitive alpine environments that take decades to repair themselves.

It is understandable that hikers want to get out and enjoy what Colorado has to offer; however it is appalling that many of the people who claim to be environmentally conscious disrespect and desecrate the same environment they claim to care about. It’s like buying a Prius to lower emissions when the lithium-ion battery that runs it contains environmentally hazardous heavy metals and gets powered by coal and gas. Hypocritical much?

Instead of climbing a fourteener in solitude, modern mountaineers are forced to climb more distant and isolated peaks in hopes of achieving their peace. I would love to climb Elbert or Sherman with people who don’t leave a cardboard summit sign and water bottle on the top, or who feel it is necessary to call someone or take selfies when they should be soaking in the view and reflecting on the accomplishment of topping the peak.

Trash from Mt. Sherman. (Credit: 14ers.com)

Part of the blame goes to websites that detail these peaks and make them available to everyone. These websites not only compromise the mountains due to overuse, but they also compromise all climbers’ safety by directing inexperienced individuals to climb where, and when, they shouldn’t. For instance, I was on my way back down after summiting Mt. Antero last season and two climbers on the way up at 12:45 p.m. asked me for extra water, and if I thought those dark clouds would hold long enough for them to summit. Really, people? If you’re trying to summit at almost 1 p.m. with clouds rolling in, you would be better off buying a book on how to become a better lightning rod. Inexperience not only endangers the newer climbers, but also the experienced ones who have to rescue them when things go wrong.  

Another part of the fault lies on our state for not proactively taking control of the situation soon enough: Colorado’s outdoor industry was recognized officially only recently. The establishment of the Office of Outdoor Recreation (OREC) in 2015 was a great step forward, albeit a late one. The final blame shifts to those tourists, climbers and hikers of our many peaks who choose to ignore the policies, signs, and reclamation efforts currently ongoing all over the Rockies. For example, in 2012 Mt. Bross was closed because the landowners could not be reached to provide permission, but people ignored this and trespassed on private land anyway.

On 14ers.com, many posts indicate that people don’t care that they are trespassing; they will summit anyway, or they claim it’s “their mountain,” or they will detour around trails to summit. There are two major problems with this thinking: first, mining claims count as private property, so climbing without permission is illegal because mining areas frequently have unstable ground, shafts or tunnels that, though unseen, may collapse if walked upon. Do landowners have to sit on their land with guns to deter full-grown adults from ignoring clearly-marked signs? Second, off-trail hiking erodes fragile alpine ecosystems that can’t recover without human intervention. Where did this horrible treatment of our land and the disrespect for the people who care for it come from? Continued abuse will bring peaks such as Mt. Sherman and Mt. Bross to a full closure to everyone. How many peak closures will it take for people to open their eyes to this problem?

A rare hybrid white and blue columbine in the Rockies on a hidden trail. (Credit: Matthew Griffith)

Those who claim the mountains belong to them, all the while leaving trash and destruction behind them, are ignoring the hallowed ideals of John Muir and other naturalists; they should learn to treat the mountains with the reverence that climbers do. True mountaineers should be people who are communal, who take initiative and who teach others how to take care of our sanctuary. All of these things represent reverence for our earth, satisfaction for our hearts and fuel for our souls. Our mountains cannot be abused and then left behind for the few people who truly love climbing to try to reassemble the ruins into some distorted image of how they used to be.

Sources

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative: http://www.14ers.org/peaks/mosquito-range/mount-bross/

http://www.14ers.org/wp-content/uploads/SustainableTrails-14er-Report-Card-Final-6.9.2015_Page_1.jpg

Outdoor industry Association: https://outdoorindustry.org/press-release/colorado-outdoor-recreation-industry-office-launches-state-and-industry-wide-advisory-group/

 

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A fourth-generation Boulder native, Matt Griffith enjoys numerous outdoor activities all over the state. He is a Professional Communication and Sustainability double major at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and spent six years in the Navy. He loves to travel, mountaineer, ski and craft wooden furniture.

 

Photo By: Matthew Griffith