What’s Up on the Mountaintops: The 14ers
When it comes to hiking in Colorado, it’s all about “bagging a 14er.” It’s what mountaineers refer to as successfully summiting one of the state’s 58 peaks which claim over 14,000 feet in elevation. Last July 2019 the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) estimated 353,000 people hiked a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado in 2018 during the primary hiking season. So it’s time to check in with CFI with some news from the mountaintops: The 14ers. How has COVID-19 impacted the non-profit’s efforts and how are things looking like across Colorado’s big peaks?
“Despite the difficulties of planning and managing our busy field season during a global pandemic, we were incredibly fortunate to have received approval from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and several counties to move forward with our work this summer,” stated Brian Sargeant, CFI Development and Communications Manager. “Advance funding of projects and a Payroll Protection Program loan allowed us to keep all our core staff on board this spring and bring on, in late May, a full complement of 23 seasonal crew members who will work through the end of September.”
In fact, in Leadville’s backyard, Colorado’s highest peak just got some attention earlier this month. In June, CFI’s four-person crew on Mount Elbert picked up where they left off in 2019 with plans to restore the “Cat’s Claw,” – a large, steep section of alpine tundra scarred with side-by-side trail braids causing severe erosion. Additional work in 2020 includes building new switchbacks and retaining walls and constructing rock staircases through the steep talus field near the summit. With help from a Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crew, CFI will also work on a short trail reroute on Elbert’s North ridge route.
Summer 2020 and COVID-19 Impact
Unfortunately, CFI regrettably decided to cancel most of their volunteer trail projects this season.
“We assembled a committee of three physicians (one a former Colorado State Epidemiologist/Health Officer) and an ICU nurse to help sort through options,” explained Sargeant. “ In the end, the potential risks of bringing in this many volunteers and combining them with a young seasonal staff – who are likely to not feel symptoms or show signs of infection if sick – outweighed the rewards of additional productivity on projects.”
Instead CFI plans to make the most of their limited field season, working exclusively with paid professional trail crews in remote locations. Every summer, CFI engages roughly 500 Adopt-a-Peak volunteers who work an average of two days. While the hope is that program returns for the 2021 season, for this year CFI is asking folks to consider becoming a Volunteer Peak Steward.
Through CFI’s Peak Stewards program, volunteers play a vital role in educating Fourteener hikers about Leave No Trace practices designed to minimize on-the-ground resource impacts. Peak Stewards serve as ambassadors in the field, contacting hikers while climbing Fourteeners to reinforce responsible recreation practices, as well as monitoring visitor actions for the Forest Service.
CFI will, however, be fielding volunteer Peak Stewards this summer to help educate 14er hikers about Leave No Trace practices – from an appropriate social distance. With people cooped up for much of the spring and being urged to stay more than six feet away from others, there has been tremendous concern about people going off-trail and trampling the sensitive alpine zones.
CFI needs your help now more than ever before. Observations from trails along the Front Range have shown that hikers are causing severe trail braiding and trampling vegetation in an attempt to physically distance themselves from other hikers. Stepping or walking off-trail in the alpine ecosystems will cause significant damage to native flora. They are looking for folks to help them build a better-educated community of hikers this summer by becoming a Peak Steward! And some of that includes trails in Leadville’s backyard, so if you’re interested you can start by watching the virtual training videos on YouTube and then contact Hannah Clark at email@example.com.
Last summer, CFI released a seven-part mountain safety video series. The videos, filmed with help from local search and rescue groups, mountain guides, and athletes, cover topics such as the dangers of climbing in the Elk Mountains, shortcuts on the 14ers, whether to hire a professional guide and more. This summer, CFI plans to expand on the series with additional videos including the “Intro to 3rd Class” series, when to call in for a rescue, and the dangers of the Challenger/Kit Carson area that has seen a spike in fatalities over recent seasons. Keep an eye out for new content later this summer. Head over to CFI’s YouTube channel to catch up on our educational videos!
The 2020 field season is well underway with many of CFI’s fixed-site crews having already completed their first hitch in the backcountry. This summer, CFI will have staff living and working on trail reconstruction projects on Mount Columbia, Mount Elbert, Grays and Torreys Peaks, and the Lake City 14ers.
There is no shortage of work this summer with two multi-year trail construction projects drawing to a close, plans to release new mountain safety videos and some new reports based on data collected over five years of monitoring hiking use on the 14ers.
But there’s little doubt that the CFI team continues to face new obstacles head-on as they continue preservation work and hiker education on the trails that bring tens of thousands to the mountaintop. If you’d like to become involved or donate financially to their efforts, please visit the CFI website or contact Colorado Fourteeners Initiative 1600 Jackson Street, Suite 205 Golden, Colorado 80401.
Search and Rescue Has a Busy Month
Despite the fact that nearby trails got a late start to the season due to quarantine restrictions in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-10, Lake County Search and Rescue has already had a pretty busy month. Here are some of the details from their June dispatches
- On June 28th at 1845 LCSAR was paged out for two missing hikers in the area of Echo Canyon and Casco Peak. The missing parties, a mother and son, had intended to climb Casco Peak that morning and hadn’t returned to their camp in Echo Canyon. Twelve members responded to search the Echo Canyon drainage and the South Halfmoon Creek drainage by foot and air. Both parties were located near their camp at approximately 2100. One of the party had fallen some distance down a talus field below the peak and sustained injuries, which slowed their progress back to camp. After a full medical evaluation, both parties were assisted back to the trailhead. All members were out of the field by 2330. LCSAR sends its thanks to REACH Air Medical Services for aerial search support, and to Classic Air Medical for additional aerial search and for inserting members into the field! Unlike the well-traveled 14ers, Casco Peak and other lower mountains in Lake County rarely have reliable trails, and even non-technical mountains such as Casco can be treacherous due to unstable talus and scree and difficult route finding without trails. LCSAR recommends researching these peaks to become familiar with terrain and potential climber’s routes that exist before attempting them.
- On June 27th at 2200 LCSAR was paged out for an exhausted hiker on Mount Elbert. The subject had left the trail and hiked down a steep, treed hillside to reach a creek when they had run out of water. Eight LCSAR members deployed into the field at reached the subject at approximately 2330. After an evaluation, some water, and a hot meal, the subject was able to reascend the hillside back to the trail and hike out of the field. All members were out of the field by 0300. Though the mileage of the Mount Elbert trails is not long, the elevation gain and alpine nature of the hike can sap regularly strong hikers. Though the subject overexerted themselves, they had supplies with them that certainly improved their situation, namely a sleeping bag and water filtration. When entering the backcountry it’s prudent to pack and plan for a long day, even if you don’t intend to have one.
- On June 11th, at 1514 LCSAR was paged out for a hiker in distress at approximately 13,900ft on Mount Elbert’s Northeast Ridge route. One team was inserted near the summit of Mount Elbert by Flight For Life Colorado and a second team began moving toward the patient from the trailhead. The air-inserted team provided a medical assessment and care in the field to stabilize the patient for evacuation. Both teams rendezvoused in the field at approximately 1840 and continued the evacuation. All subjects and members were out of the field by 2000. Thank you to Flight For Life Colorado Lifeguard2 for your assistance! Mount Elbert, even as one of the easier 14ers, is a very difficult hike. The average hiker on the Northeast Ridge route will spend between 4-8 hours above 13,000ft in an exposed alpine environment. When hiking this route, please be prepared with the 10 essentials and an awareness of symptoms of high altitude illnesses.
- May 30 At 0900 LCSAR was paged out for an injured hiker below Mount Sherman’s West Slopes route. The subject had fallen a considerable distance down a steep snowfield and sustained serious injuries during the fall. Seven members deployed into the field, stabilized the patient, and transported the patient off the steep snowfield and across unsupportive snow and rough terrain to REACH Air Medical Services. All members were out of the field by 1400. We wish the patient a speedy recovery! LCSAR would like to thank Reach Air Medical for their support during this complex mission. We also extend our thanks to the several bystanders who helped us pack down a trail through the snowy sections along the evacuation route. Finally, hikers please note that the West Slopes route on Mount Sherman is still mostly snow-covered and traverses across steep and icy slopes. If hiking this route, be prepared with traction and an ice axe, and know how to use both.