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Are Better Trails the Answer for Colorado's Fourteeners?

People from around the world are climbing Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks in record numbers. Is improving the climbers' trails the right thing to do? The following opinion was printed in the Aspen Times in 1998. It is reprinted here by permission of the author.

By Hal Clifford

Map of Colorado

Craig Wilson straightened up from trying to fit one large rock snugly between to other on the side of Mount Huron. "You can do just so much with your checkbook, you can do so much writing to your Congressman, and you can do so much by coming out here and working on the trail," said Wilson, a volunteer with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

Founded in 1996, CFI addresses a problem that a few years ago would never have been imagined: the trampling of Colorado's highest mountains. On 14,005-foot Mount Huron, the existing trail to the summit is fast becoming a steep, loose gully. A dozen volunteers worked much of August and September to build a new switchbacking trail that will shed water without eroding, after which they closed the old trail.

Aspen-area climbers have already encountered CFI's work on La Plata Peak, where an engineered trail leads up toward the summit. With an annual budget of $150,000, CFI is slowly working its way through Colorado's 54 Fourteeners, building better trails. The project seems logical, yet accommodating more human use on the high peaks may not be the right thing to do.

"They're just making it more like a Stairmaster ascent to the peaks," says Snowmass Village resident John Wilkinson, vice-chairman of the Colorado State Trails Committee, which awarded $1.3 million to groups working on trails, including CFI. "By gentrifying the approaches to these mountains, yes, you're saving approaches, but I think you're taking away the experience of summiting a Fourteener. It becomes, how fast, how quick. What is the aesthetic there? It comes back to why we're climbing the mountain. I don't know we're doing the mountain any favors by improving access to them."

Thirty-eight of Colorado's Fourteeners lie within federal wilderness areas where mountaineers question trail building. Wilderness, by definition, supposed to look wild, and a carefully constructed trail doesn't meet that standard. "People don't need trails; the mountains do," insists Keith Desrosiers, executive director of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. "The way things are going now, the impacts would reach a level that would eventually cause the U.S. Forest Service to take some sort of action to reduce the number of people hiking the Fourteeners."

Demand has been skyrocketing: this summer an estimated 200,000 people attempted at least one Fourteener, a 300 percent increase since 1987. Most of these people would appreciate a nice, clearly marked trail up and down. But trails can be insidious. A trail implies that the route is relatively safe; it has the effect of luring people into places they may find themselves over their heads.

Two summers ago, local rescuers helped a fisherman who had decided, while casting for trout in Crater Lake, that he wanted to climb North Maroon Peak. He spent two lonely days on top with a bagel and a bottle of water. Far more such people than most of us imagine go wandering through the high country on a regular basis. In all likelihood, plenty more will head for the highest point if there's a nice, graded trail leading them like the Yellow Brick Road. It is their right, but must we lay temptation at their feet? Trails give a false sense of security, for no trail mitigates the likelihood of a rockfall or bad weather or nightfall.

Climbing the Fourteeners requires more than a few hours of time and stamina; it takes judgment and, sometimes, quite a measure of skill. On peaks like Pyramid and the Bells, no practical way exists to build a trail. Yet CFI may choose to build trails on the approaches, which could have the same effect of drawing people in over their heads. As recently as 25 years ago, a climber could spend all summer on these peaks and see only a handful of other people. Now, 40 people will climb 3,500 feet to summit a "walk-up" like Mount Huron alone on a single day. Will encouraging still more improve the wilderness experience?

Hal Clifford tries to follow the road less traveled. His column appears on Tuesdays in the Aspen Times.

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