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As hikers flock to Colorado 14ers, trail-building crews work to rescue the alpine tundra

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s Executive Director Lloyd Athearn hikes towards a trail project near the summit of Mount Elbert. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has worked on 35 of the state’s 58 mountains higher than 14,000 feet, fixing ‘social trails’ created by climbers taking the most direct route to the summit

MOUNT ELBERT – Lloyd Athearn pauses during an uphill climb to grab a tiny scrap of litter left on the trail by a careless hiker. It’s the easiest bit of trail maintenance the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative will accomplish on this misty August morning as the fog rises out of the forest and hovers on the ridges of the state’s tallest mountain.

The rest of the work involves moving 500-pound rocks, felling trees, stripping bark and digging dirt to improve the trail to the top of 14,439-foot Mount Elbert, outside of Leadville. The crew, using only a chainsaw and hand tools, cuts timber to create steps and plants boulders on the trail’s edge to keep hikers’ feet on the worn path and not trampling through fragile alpine forest.

These buried stumps and large rocks, called “gargoyles,” are supposed to steer hikers on the correct path. Steps, including what the crew calls a “Lincoln ladder,” because it looks like an old-school kids’ set of Lincoln Logs notched into a staircase, aim to keep the steepest sections of trail from turning into muddy bogs when rain and melting snow flows down the mountain.

The work is seemingly endless, and needed as much as ever as the number of people attempting to summit a Colorado peak above 14,000 has mushroomed in recent years. About 25,000 people climbed Mount Elbert last year, when the coronavirus pandemic pushed parks and hiking trails to their limits. The most popular 14er in the state was Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge, which attracted more than 49,100 pairs of feet.

Newly reconstructed trails leading to the summit of Mount Elbert on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, near Leadville, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative – with a $1.5 million budget pieced together from individual donations, grants and government funding – can’t work on all 58 of the state’s 14,000-plus peaks (53 or 54 if you’re a purist regarding the official designation requirement) at once. This summer, the nonprofit hired 21 seasonal workers who are stationed at Mount Elbert, Mount Wilson near Telluride, one of five peaks near Lake City, or Grays and Torreys, twin peaks not far off Interstate 70 near Silver Plume.

The initiative was founded in 1994, when the U.S. Forest Service noticed more and more hikers were attempting to ascend Colorado’s tallest mountains. Back then, just two of Colorado’s 14ers had planned routes – Barr Trail on Pikes Peak and the Keyhole route on Longs Peak.

“Everything else was just climbers going as directly as possible, usually, ‘How do I get from trailhead to summit as quickly as possible before the thunderstorms get me?’” said Athearn, who became executive director of the Fourteeners Initiative in 2009.

The “social trails” created by thousands of hikers picking out their direct ascents are steep and quickly eroded as runoff rushed down the pathways, and in some spots, look like a braid of weaving trails instead of one clear path. The hardy plants of the alpine – cushion plants and alpine forget-me-nots – are crushed and die after just five to 10 footsteps.

Tackling 50- or 100-foot sections at a time, the Fourteeners Initiative is building trails in priority order. Since 1994, the group has worked on 39 routes on 35 peaks.

The initiative in recent years also has upped its game regarding data collection, now tracking the number of hikers on peaks with tree-mounted and rock-camouflaged thermal counters that detect the heat from bodies passing by. It also developed a grading system to prioritize which mountains most need trailwork. The initiative boasts that Quandary, despite being trampled by 49,100 hikers last year, moved from a C+ to an A-, thanks to the crews’ efforts. The Fourteeners Initiative identified $24 million in need in its first report card, released in 2015.

The tangible data also helps the initiative get money from wealthy private donors, folks who are flush with cash and also happen to love mountain-climbing.

“Climbers are pretty goal-driven people,” said Athearn, whose job is mostly about raising money. “If you want to climb 53 to 58 14,000-foot mountains, you have to have a certain drive and persistence, which tends to align well with people in their careers who might have a certain drive and persistence. You’ve got incredibly successful people who love these mountains. If I can figure out a way to engage them, we can get people to give us a lot of money.”

And that’s key, since the Forest Service funding for the initiative has shrunk. The government agency was kicking in about $200,000 per year when Athearn started at the initiative, and now that’s down to about $85,000. It’s not much considering that some of the trail projects cost more than $1 million per mountain.

Before the report card detailing specific sections of trail on various mountains, Athearn felt he was asking donors to support “random acts of stewardship.” Now he can tell them exactly how they can help and, thanks to his hidden thermal counters, how many people are climbing their favorite peaks.

A hiker passes through during the trail construction near the summit of Mount Elbert on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, outside Leadville, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

On Mount Elbert, Athearn took off his pack to climb a lodgepole pine beside the trail, then downloaded data from a tiny camera hidden in the branches. The cameras might pick up a mountain goat, deer or even a marmot now and then, but it’s not significant to the count. Athearn jokes that cameras show all of the wildlife is on the same schedule as humans – gobs of them pushing up the trail early on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The system is far ahead of his old one: sitting in the bushes with a hand-held click counter, ticking off hikers and trying to extrapolate a day’s worth of numbers into a year’s worth of data.

14er popularity jumped in 2020

About 415,000 hikers climbed Colorado’s 14ers in 2020. It was a 44% increase from the year before, when avalanches and late snowpack shortened the season and the Fourteeners Initiative counted 288,000 hikers – and 18% higher than 2018, when there were 353,000 hikers.

The most popular peaks are the 11 closest to Denver, accounting for half of all hiker days, according to the initiative’s data. Mount Bierstadt was a distant second to Quandary Peak, with 38,204 hiker days. From June 20 to Sept. 7 last summer, Quandary had only five days when fewer than 200 people climbed the mountain.

The exploding popularity of 14ers comes with Colorado’s population boom. The state is consistently among the top five fastest-growing in the country, and the largest demographic of newcomers are mid-20-somethings to mid-30-somethings.

“They want to ski. They want to hike. They want to climb. They want to mountain bike. They want to raft rivers,” Athearn said. “And then you add on, we are the destination people go in summer to get away from heat and humidity and go out and do this.”

Oh, and there’s the Instagram phenomenon, compelling a cluster of inexperienced hikers looking for that perfect photo to post online. “People are like, ‘Here I am on the Knife Edge of Capitol Peak!’” Athearn said. “This is incredibly dangerous but people are like, ‘That’s cool. Let me go there.’ Even if they might not really know what they are doing.”

Colorado Fourteeners Initiatives Executive Director Lloyd Athearn hikes through a trail project near the summit of Mount Elbert. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
“Are you guys putting in an escalator?”

At around 11,500 feet, the Mount Elbert Fourteeners Initiative crew is on their knees scooping dirt and burying logs to make steps on a steep section of trail.

Jenny Green, who works in the special education department at a Salida school the rest of the year, is in a hard hat, with dirt all over her pants. It’s the final day of an eight-day hitch, which means Green is about to get six days off to spend with her shepherd, Lucy, back in Salida. For eight days, she’s been sleeping at the paid crew’s base camp, around 10,500 feet, and building trail each day from dawn until early afternoon.

A solar-powered electric fence surrounding the wall tent keeps bears, marmots and other critters out of their kitchen while the crew is up the mountain. They get their water from Box Creek, flowing next to camp. A mule train packs up supplies at the start of the season, but this summer’s four-person Mount Elbert crew hauls up its own chicken, fish and fresh vegetables each week and has a reputation for its community cooking. Enchiladas. Sushi. Curry. Their kitchen has multiple French presses for predawn coffee.

Jenny Green, a seasonal worker with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, shifts a stepping log during the trail construction leading to the summit of Mount Elbert. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

They eat dinner around 5:30 p.m., climb into their individual tents around 7 p.m., and rise at 3 a.m. to climb to even thinner air. They work half the week around 11,500 feet and the other half on a steep section of eroding trail above 13,000 feet.

“I love being outside,” said Green, 28. “Working in the alpine is super unique and this is really the only way that I can work at the alpine.”

Most hikers thank the crew as they pass, and many ask if the workers were helicoptered up or if they had to hike. The most popular joke of all: “Are you guys putting in an escalator?” The crew can hardly feign laughter over that one anymore.

Green is back for a second season and before that built trails in Iceland using lava rocks. Field projects manager Miriam Venman-Clay, based in Twin Lakes, has also made a career out of building trail. She started 17 years ago and has moved up the ranks at the initiative to manager. Now Venman-Clay visits the job sites about once every eight-day hitch. She filled her backpack with donuts for the crew last week. And if she doesn’t like how a log or rock is placed, Venman-Clay will order it removed – no matter if it took three hours of work to put it there.

But long careers of building trail aren’t the norm – many workers last for a season or two and move on, finding less-grueling jobs that don’t involve frigid temperatures in July, sideways hail or spending more than an hour removing a stump with an ax and a shovel.

Besides staff, the Mount Elbert crew includes workers from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. And the Fourteener Initiative runs a volunteer program, allowing individuals or groups to hike up and help for a day. The “adopt crew” program is more about education and stewardship rather than making major trail progress, since between the hiking up and the hiking down, there is time for little more than learning what it takes to build trail.

A group of high schoolers from across the country slowly made their way up Mount Elbert last week, with the task of planting a few gargoyles beside the trail before heading down that afternoon. For some, it was their first time in Colorado, and the elevation was a butt-kicker that resulted in frequent water breaks.

Their goal was three gargoyles.

Outdoors Act brings 14er funding

Besides building trail, a key part of the Fourteeners Initiative’s work is educating the public. The organization has made more than 75 YouTube videos that they hope people, especially those from out-of-state, will run across when they’re Googling how to climb a 14,000-foot mountain.

A couple decades ago, hikers had to buy a guidebook and research their route. Now, anyone with a smartphone can download a hiking app – AllTrails or 14ers.com among them – and get a map to the trailhead, plus detailed descriptions of the route and potential hazards along the way.

A trail leading to the summit of Mount Elbert seen on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, near Leadville, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The initiative’s videos focus on ecology, sustainability and why hikers should stay on the trail. And they educate people on the importance of sturdy footwear, appropriate clothing and water supply. The group upped its game in 2017, after five people died in various incidents on Capitol Peak, a craggy, treacherous climb outside of Aspen.

After years of producing the videos, Athearn shakes his head at some of the hiking gear witnessed on a Monday in August. One man was shirtless in 50 degrees. A young woman wore shorts and tennis shoes.

“The average person hiking a 14er today is far less experienced than people years ago,” Athearn said. “It used to be that these were sort of mountain climbs and you would have climber-mountaineer people. Now you see a lot of folks, despite all sorts of education efforts, with not a lot of extra gear, wearing light shoes.”

The initiative will get an extra boost of funding over the next four years from the Great American Outdoors Act, passed last year by Congress and signed by former President Trump. The Colorado group will receive about $1 million in total, going toward its Mount Elbert project, a fourth season of work on Grays and Torreys, and four years of funding to kick off a major project on Mount Shavano, near Salida.

Shavano, long considered one of the worst 14er routes – pretty much straight up and the cause of massive erosion – for years has been off limits because of old mining claims. About 95% of the route is on Forest Service land, but near the summit, where the new trail needed to go, there were three private owners with decades-old mining claims.

The Fourteeners Initiative raised the funds to track down the owners and buy out the claims for about $50,000. The project will begin next year, and is expected to take six years and cost about $1.5 million, exceeding the $1 million and five years spent building one of the most elaborate alpine trails in the country on Mount Columbia, near Buena Vista.

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps member Alida Angafor hauls the dirt during trail construction leading to summit of Mount Elbert. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The best trails are the kind where people can walk and talk, not an uphill “huff fest,” Athearn said. But the point of the Fourteeners Initiative isn’t to make the hiking easier, it’s to create trails that let water run off the sides, not straight downhill in a gush, and that keep people from destroying the alpine ecosystem.

On Mount Elbert, the crew built a new section of trail last season, replacing a steep uphill climb with a set of switchbacks. They tossed downed trees and duff on the old trail to deter hikers from using it.

As Venman-Clay hiked up near the section last week, she spotted tiny green leaves sprouting from ground where the old trail once was. “It’s such a satisfying part of the job,” she said, “to see areas you’ve restored come back to life.”

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.