Peak Baggers are loving Colorado’s most famous peaks to death, but the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is on a quest to save them—one clod of alpine tundra at a time. 

Serial peak baggers can’t resist mountain ranges. Their most renowned target lists include the Seven Summits, New England’s numerous Four Thousand Footer Clubs, and Colorado’s 53 Fourteeneers. But that’s just the beginning. In the U.S. alone there are now 72 major peak climbing clubs—excluding, say, New Jersey’s 52, 1,000-foot Humble Hills or Ohio’s 17 Fire Lookouts.

Traditional adventurers contend that peak bagging reduces the experience of an ascent to an obsessive sport rather than a spiritual pilgrimage. But one thing is certain: Peak bagging motivates a growing number of climbers to keep grasping for new high points. Whether they are simply collecting these peaks so that they can tick them off on a list, or whether they are seeking aesthetic enlightenment—or both—the increased traffic impacts everyone’s wilderness experience or chance for solitude, and, worse, causes trail erosion and creates a myriad of new user paths that damage fragile, above-treeline ecosystems. Is there no way to mitigate the onslaught?

Solitude Lost

The ritualistic climbing of multiple peaks is not a modern phenomenon. More than 4,000 years ago, the Chinese ruler Shun began hoofing it up four, 4-6000-foot peaks surrounding his kingdom every five years. On the summits, he made sacrifices to heaven and earth, initiating an ongoing peak-climbing pilgrimage (later adding a fifth sacred summit) for tens of thousands of Chinese and Taoist devotees.

A couple of millenia later, in 219 B.C. to be precise, the consecrated stone steps up 5,069-foot Tai Shan were thronged with retinues trailing the latest Emperor for six miles. Likewise, today, if you are hiking up Colorado’s highest peak, 14,439-foot Mt. Elbert, (unless you’re collecting the fourteeneers in winter, at midnight, or by bushwhacking their backsides), you won’t be alone.

Modern peak bagging got reinvigorated in 1923 by Carl Blaurock and Bill Ervin, who first climbed all of the fourteeners. (Two years later, famed conservationists Bob and George Marshall followed the trend by climbing all 46 4,000ers in the Adirondacks.) Blaurock, an adroit technical climber and charter member of the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) popularized fourteener bagging through the century-old, highly socialized hiking institution.

By 1978, the new traffic justified the publication of a Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners. It’s authors, Lyndon Lampert and Walt Borneman, instructed readers as to where they could find the trailheads and gave general information about summit route-finding, imploring readers to “respect the mountains and walk in harmony with the land” two decades before Leave No Trace gained traction. Shortly before publishing their book, Borneman and his partners saw no other climbers on 19 of the most popular fourteeners.

The solitude, of course, didn’t last. “I don’t think anyone could’ve foreseen this huge explosion of climbers as the fourteeners became a rite of passage,” Borneman says about the two decades following his the publication of his guidebook. Colorado grew by 1.5 million people. Scores of fourteener books would be published (Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners eventually sold more than 90,000 copies).

Just as increasing pilgrimages before the time of Christ wore trenches up the sacred peaks in China, the postmodern fourteeners began to show wear and tear. In particular the last 2,500 feet below the summits are comprised of fragile plants and mats of delicate tundra. Some of these plants can’t be found anywhere else in the world, and evolved over the eons to preserve moisture in the parched, windswept world above treeline. This flora—including alpine blue grass, moss campion and cushion plants—can take years to sprout a blossom or stalk. Meanwhile, summit-focused peak baggers oblivious to the Lilliputian universe of botany below their waffle soles unknowingly dispatch whole colonies with each staggering step up toward ticking off another peak. Even worse, the lack of defined routes up the tundra has invited climbers to wander indiscriminately, causing spiderwebbed and rutted trails, in turn deepened and further eroded by snowmelt and rainfall channeling water down these unnatural routes. Washed off sediment then smothers adjacent plants. The fourteeners are being loved to death.

Digging In

By the mid 1990s other users and conservation groups—including the CMC, the American Mountain Foundation (renamed Rocky Mountain Field Institute, now restoring trails on the Sangre De Christo fourteeners), the Colorado Outward Bound School and Leave No Trace—formed a coalition intent on stopping the damage. Known as the Colorado Fourteener Initiative (CFI), it elected Borneman as chair in 1996. The groups  also began plotting with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which manages the land surrounding 48 of the 53 peaks.

Before the CFI starts its conservation work, the USFS sends out scientists to study rare plants, cultural artifacts, wildlife zones, and sections of trail above treeline that need rebuilding. Up to five years later they complete an environmental assessment, including foot by foot trail construction notes.

CFI estimates that up to a half a million people hit the fourteeners each year. Of the more determined baggers tackling all 53 fourteeners, as of October 2015, CMC lists an extremely conservative 1,684 completions since 1923. Flying under the radar however, Walt Borneman represents those fourteener purists who deliberately never add their names to the CMC list. “It breaks my heart,” he says, “that there are so many people, despite educational efforts, who don’t care about this resource.”

Along with protecting and restoring these peaks, CFI also focuses on education. Since a small number of climbers shortcutting or damaging plants can have a greater impact than the majority of climbers practicing low impact techniques, CFI has implemented public lectures, built trailhead kiosks, and created a YouTube educational channel. Since 2002, their CFI “Peak Stewards” have volunteered more than 1,200 days educating fourteener hikers.

“CFI is all about volunteering,” says its director, Lloyd Athearn, an avid mountaineer. “In last summer’s four-month season, we had 1,550 volunteer days.” In his upper floor office in Golden, with a commanding view of Outlook Mountain, Athearn works with three full-time staff. For summer 2016, along with an expected army of volunteers, they’ve hired 23 more trail workers. To date, CFI has completed 30 trail restorations on the various peaks.

The Job Ahead

There is still a lot of work to do. CFI’s  2016 missions are the over-loved Mt. Columbia (14,078 feet), Mt. Eolous (14,085 feet) and Quandary Peak (14,265 feet). On Columbia, CFI will spend the next five summers rebuilding a stone stepped mile of trail up a more sustainable route off the tundra. If it’s anything like the work CFI completed on neighboring Mt. Yale, they will move more than 15,000 vegetation plugs (carefully plucked off the new trail) and transplant these fragile plants (that anchor the soil and allow new colonization by other alpine plants) onto the closed restoration zones of the old eroded trails. “We won’t ever work our way out of a job,” says Athearn, alluding to other more difficult fourteeners that need work. The number of peak baggers is ever increasing.

By 2021, the summit flank of Columbia will more closely resemble China’s sacred Tai Shan, long ago protected with over 7,200 judiciously placed stone steps. Even on a crowded day, no pilgrim would dispute that the view is sublime from either summit.

In Colorado, if CFI has its way, every fourteener bagger on a pilgrimage will learn the reverence of the ancient Han Dynasty Emperors from four millennia past. After all, the legendary Shun, Chief of the Four Sacred Peaks before he ascended to the throne, held close to his soul the literal meaning of the Chinese phrase for pilgrimage—ch’ ao-shan chin-hsiang— “paying one’s respect to a mountain.” Until then, CFI crews will keep building the steps.

Jonathan Waterman is the author of 12 books, including The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict and Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River.