November 4, 2008
Colorado’s mountain country is dominated literally and increasingly figuratively by all those lofty summits above 14,000 feet in elevation. The process of standing atop the Fourteeners has evolved in recent years to both a craze and a bonafide tangible outdoor-recreation industry.According to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a Golden-based group formed in 1994 to protect and preserve the natural integrity of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks through active stewardship and public education, more than 500,000 people a year attempt to climb the state’s Fourteeners every year. Even though the sourcing for that number remains conspicuously vague, there is no doubt that, on summer weekends, literally hundreds of people can be found making their way toward the summits of each of the state’s loftiest peaks.It is even to the point that many mountain towns conveniently located near Fourteener trailheads have come to increasingly economically rely upon the dollars people bring with them in their quest to bag the state’s highest mountains. When the summits of mounts Lincoln, Democrat, Bross and Cameron were closed to summiteers a few years back because of mining-claim-based private-property-rights issues, the Town of Alma, through which most people seeking to add those mountains to their Fourteener lists pass, reared up and tried to broker some sort of accommodation acceptable to those mining-claim owners that would still allow legions of peak-baggers to ascend what had become a constant summertime source of income to the town’s business community.An entire industry of Fourteener-based merchandise has sprung up. There are water bottles adorned with Fourteener profiles. There is a series of collectible lapel pins bearing the visages of all the Fourteeners that people ostensibly purchase and display upon their packs after having successfully ascended the corresponding Fourteeners.There are T-shirts dedicated to individual Fourteeners, as well as T-shirts bearing check-off lists, upon which people can show via their attire which of the mountains they have climbed. There are T-shirts that utilize the ski-run difficulty rating system by listing Fourteeners as either green, blue, black or double-black.There are posters, solid-bronze summit markers, Fourteener-specific journals and passport books, at least four different guidebooks, coffee-table books, several varieties of Don’t trust anyone under 14,000 feet pins, videos, DVDs, a Fourteener-inspired New Age music CD (a real toe-tapper, I can assure you), a National Basketball Association Development League Team based in Broomfield called the Colorado 14ers and even a brand of vodka named Colorado 14, which sports on the bottle’s front a profile of 14,246-foot Mt. Wilson.With all the attention Colorado’s Fourteeners have garnered in the past decade, one would think that almost every bit of Fourteener-based information would be cataloged, codified and writ in stone long ago. But, truth be told, even in these Fourteener-dense times, there is still no consensus regarding the most fundamental Fourteener question: Just how many Fourteeners are there?Most sources contend there are 54 Fourteeners in Colorado. This is the number the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative uses. It’s also the number used most frequently in the various Fourteener guidebooks.But that number derives to a large extent from purely subjective sentiments expressed in Trail & Timberline, the official magazine of the Colorado Mountain Club. In 1968, William Graves wrote that, in order for a peak to be considered an official, distinct Fourteener, it should be separated by a neighboring Fourteener by a saddle that is at least 300 feet lower than the summit of the lower peak. This observation has morphed from one man’s opinion albeit a rational one, at least superficially to a veritable rule.Thing is, at the time Graves posited this rule, modern topographic surveys had yet to be completed. When the surveys were finished in the 1970s, it was discovered that North Maroon Peak and El Diente, both of which had long been considered legitimate Fourteeners, failed to meet Graves’ 300-foot criterion. That aside, out of respect for tradition, those two peaks continued to be listed among the elite, bringing the number of Fourteeners in Colorado to 54. (Some people granted El Diente what amounts to a style-points exemption to Graves’ 300-foot edict by invoking what amounts to the scary traverse rule, wherein some slack was cut because, in order to get from the summit of nearby Wilson Peak to the summit of El Diente, one needs to traverse one of the scariest ridges in all of Colorado. Those style points are at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that one does not need to traverse that ridge in order to summit El Diente.However, in the 10th Edition of the Guide to the Colorado Mountains, published by the Colorado Mountain Club, El Diente and North Maroon were left off the Fourteener list, while another mountain, 14,081-foot Challenger Point, located on the northwest shoulder of another Fourteener, 14,165-foot Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range, was added. Thing is, Challenger Point, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, did not even receive its current name until 1987. (It was, of course, named in memory of the seven astronauts who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986. Thus, the current Fourteener list espoused by the Colorado Mountain Club stands at 53 peaks.It is obvious that the true number of Fourteeners will always be in the eye of the list-maker. And confusion will likely always reign supreme. Wikipedia, for instance, lists 53 Fourteeners in its Fourteener entry. But, it also lists Longs Peak as one of 58 Fourteeners in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Wikipedia lists 14,165-foot Kit Carson Peak as one of Colorado’s 51 Fourteeners.Peakbagger.com goes with 53 Fourteeners, including Challenger Point but, once again, eliminating both El Diente and North Maroon.Gerry Roach, author of Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, covers his bases by including El Diente and North Maroon, as well as Challenger Point, making his list 55 peaks long.Fourteenerworld.com lists 59 Fourteeners, including five named but unranked peaks (Conundrum Peak, North Maroon, Mount Cameron, El Diente and North Eolus) and one soft peak (North Massive).Listsofjohn.com lists 67 Fourteeners – the increasingly common 53 list (the traditional 54 list, minus El Diente and North Maroon, plus Challenger Point) – plus 14 additional peaks (North Maroon, El Diente, Mount Cameron, North Massive, Massive Green, Northeast Crestone, West Evans, South Elbert, South Massive, South Wilson, West Wilson, Conundrum Peak, Southeast Longs and North Eolus) that are based upon a 100-foot-drop criterion, rather than Graves traditional 300-foot criteria.Extra Fourteeners tidbits: Mount Massive, at 14,421, the state’s second-highest peak, has more area above 14,000 than any other mountain in the Lower 48, edging out Washington State’s Mount Rainer. Mt. Massive boasts a total of five peaks above 14,000 feet along its three-mile-long summit ridge. 14,259-foot Longs Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park, is the only one of Colorado’s Fourteeners located north of Interstate 70. California has 12 Fourteeners and Washington State has two, although Liberty Cap, a subsidiary summit of Mt. Rainier, at 14,112, is not often listed as a separate Fourteener, even though it boasts 492 feet of prominence. Alaska is home to the country’s 15-highest peaks. Twelve of those peaks are higher than 15,000 feet. Since all things are biggest in the Last Frontier, Alaska uses a 500-foot rule to define separate peaks. M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, A Colorado Mountain Companion, will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at email@example.com.
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