14,000-Foot Peaks Draw Crowds - and Bootprints

Climbers clog Colorado's mountains, putting a strain on the environment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ask normally reticent mountain man John Nale about the crowds of folks in the Colorado high country these days - and stand back.

It's not that he's unwilling to share the trail with all the newcomers who feed on a steady diet of Outside Magazine and extreme-sports advertisements. But according to locals like Mr. Nale, the onslaught is literally changing the face of mountain climbing in Colorado.

"It's not the wilderness experience it used to be," Nale observes from his restaurant office at The Evergreen Cafe in Buena Vista, a town bordered by the Collegiate range of 14,000-foot peaks.

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Bagging "fourteeners," as the peaks are called, is becoming as common a sport as fly fishing in a state where the population has expanded dramatically over the past decade.

But as more would-be mountaineers head for the hills, all those tenderfeet in hard-heeled hiking boots are having an adverse effect on the natural beauty that tempts people to climb in the first place.

A 300 percent increase in hikers attempting Colorado's 54 fourteeners has been recorded in the past five years, according to a statewide coalition of mountain climbing clubs. That adds up to well over 200,000 hikers annually.

"We had some kids go up [the 14,096-foot Mt.] Yale the other day, and there were 22 people up top. They were all making noise, not too friendly," says Nale, who sees a fading of respect among hikers.

"Most people 10 years ago were out there to experience nature and the mountain," says Keith Desrosiers, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

"It's just a different mentality these days," says Nale, a chiseled-featured man who runs in 100-mile mountain races. "It's all about, 'Let's run up there and check another one off.' "

To make things worse, Nale and his wife found their backpacks had been stolen last weekend after they stashed them under bushes during a short hike.

Along with the bad manners comes concern over the environmental impact hundreds of thousands of hiking boots are having on delicate alpine ecosystems.

Eroding peaks

Alpine flora, crushed by a single step, can take as long as a century to grow back. On some mountains, the resulting erosion occurs not just on the single, designated trail, but in dozens of paths created by people trekking off-track.

"By and large, the impacts are outstripping the attempts to minimize the effect of usage," says environmentalist and outfitter Dick Scar of The Trailhead, an outdoor shop just up the street from the Evergreen Cafe.

"There is a lack of knowledge of how to hike on a trail," Mr. Scar says from behind the counter where he sells everything from expedition-weight long johns to freeze-dried camping food.

Hiker volume is heaviest on Front-Range peaks, those closest to Denver, where weekend mornings bring a string of brightly clad hikers moving in the single-file conformity of a department store escalator.

And it's not just the land that's impacted. On Grays and Torreys, two Front-Range peaks that get an estimated 20,000 hikers a year, family pets along for the hike can be seen harassing native mountain goats.

On Mt. Evans, where cars can drive most of the way to the top, people can be seen attempting to feed bighorn sheep.

Don't feed the marmots

And on Mt. Harvard high above Buena Vista, marmots, sleek beaver-like critters, have become as brazen as Central Park panhandlers.

"I am astounded to see people feeding them," Scar says.

"Problem is, they get accustomed to getting a Baby Ruth, and they may not find enough of those [candy bars] to get fat enough for the winter," he explains.

The widening popularity and commercialization of altitude hiking are creating concern that environmental problems will get worse before the lessons of conservation sink in.

Just over the continental divide from Buena Vista, in the resort town of Crested Butte, Brad Sorock of The Troutfitter guided fishing expeditions is expanding his operation to include high-altitude hikes.

"When someone comes into my store, we judge what kind of shape they are in," Mr. Sorock says. "If it's a marathon runner from Texas, we can take him up and do some serious bushwhacking."

Despite the increased numbers, some old-timers who still remember the solitude of climbing all day without seeing another soul don't necessarily begrudge the new wave of climbers.

"We have seen the mountain biking craze, the kayaking craze, and now the craze of the fourteeners," observes Walt Borneman, co-author of "A Climbing Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners."

"I think it's pretty neat people are taking their families up, doing this sort of thing. But education is key," he says from his home in Evergreen.

In response to intensifying commercial and private pressures, the Colorado Fourteener Initiative has been expanding its education and mitigation efforts, which first started in 1994.

This year the group, a coalition of five mountain-climbing clubs, will log more than 1,500 volunteer days on peak preservation alone. The goal is to create a single, sustainable trail on the most-stressed mountains.

Most recently, volunteers focused on Mt. Humboldt, which developed an erosion gully four feet deep in one spot, 10 feet wide in others.

It took more than 400 tons of stone to build check dams, or restraining structures. A sustainable trail was then established.

"People don't need trails, mountains do," explains Mr. Desrosiers.

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