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Two privately owned Colorado 14ers are open to hikers. Will it last?

Increasing traffic is stressing a tenuous deal with landowners concerned about liability
Colorado Mountain Club conservation coordinator Kendall Chastain, left, and Jedd McClure install a “No Trespassing” sign along the Decalibron Loop trail on July 12, near Alma. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

MOSQUITO RANGE – Colorado Fourteeners Initiative trail builder Sarah Barringer looked up from her trail work on the switchback heading to the ridge below Mount Bross. A man was taking a shortcut, causing the kind of erosion that she was repairing.

“Please stay on the trail,” Barringer said.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” the man answered. “It’s a free mountain.”

Actually, it’s not. The top of the 14,178-foot Mount Bross is owned by several people who are worried about liability and do not want hikers on the summit. Owners of the summits and trails leading to next-door 14ers Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln share the same concerns, worried they could be sued if a hiker is injured in one of the many mine shafts and dilapidated mining structures on the mountains.

“I’ve had enough damage to the doors we try to keep secure on the mines. I’ve had gates cut. I don’t know if I’ve ever been up there without seeing people standing on top of Bross, walking right by the sign that says ‘Private property. No trespassing,’” said landowner John Reiber, whose father began assembling mining claims on the peaks in the Alma Mining District in the 1950s. “I definitely have concerns over the willingness of people to not follow the rules. I think from a safety standpoint, I’m not sure there is any way to really make folks stay on the trail. But we’re trying.”

Reiber in April 2021 closed the summits of Lincoln and Democrat to hikers. But a unique partnership uniting trail advocacy groups, the town of Alma, the Forest Service and Reiber’s ownership group has forged a tenuous plan that allowed hikers to return to the peaks late last summer. With regular surveys, education campaigns and a bunch of signs warning hikers to stay on the trail and not enter dangerous structures, the effort has helped assuage owner concerns.

But the agreement is temporary and Reiber is not convinced it’s working. That’s why the rude hiker was so troubling.

“It’s the kind of behavior that can shut down these mountains,” said Kendall Chastain with the Colorado Mountain Club.

Hikers and crew members from both Colorado Mountain Club and the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative cross paths on the Decalibron Loop trail accessed from Kite Lake Trailhead on July 12, near Alma. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
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The partnership of trail advocates, municipal leaders, federal land managers and private landowners who own the Decalibron peaks could set a path for the many other locations around Colorado.

“There are a handful of these areas where you have private lands that play out with major recreation destinations,” said Lloyd Athearn, the head of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. He’s working with the owner of Mount Lindsey – a 14er in the San Luis Valley – who closed access to the peak last year over safety and liability issues.

For decades, private landowners in Colorado have been protected from lawsuits if they allow recreational access for no charge. That Colorado Recreational Use Statute was shaken in 2019, when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held the U.S. Air Force Academy liable for injuries suffered by a cyclist who crashed on a washed out section of paved trail on the campus in Colorado Springs. State law gives landowners immunity “unless they act willfully in failing to guard or warn of known dangerous conditions that are likely to cause harm.”

That decision prodded Reiber to close Lincoln and Democrat. The owner of Trinchera Blanca Ranch in the San Luis Valley – billionaire conservationist Louis Bacon – closed trails leading to Mount Lindsey on his property “as a result of the ruling ... which limited the scope of the Colorado recreational use statute and increased landowner exposure,” a ranch spokesman told The Sun last year.

More than 30,000 hikers scramble up the Decalibron Loop every summer and visitation is growing for the easily accessible hike that traverses four 14ers. The impact of those crowds is growing.

The Decalibron Loop trail includes access to four mountains over 14,000 feet: Mount Democrat, Cameron Peak, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross. The trail traverses Bross but the summit of the mountain is closed to the public. All the peaks can be accessed from Kite Lake Trailhead near Alma. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Mountain Club, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the Mosquito Range Heritage Initiative and the Town of Alma have joined the Forest Service to not just repair damage and erect signs, but educate and enlist visitors in helping protect not just access but the fragile alpine ecosystem that defines the Mosquito Range.

The Pike National Forest’s South Park Ranger District last December began collecting public input on possible improvements to the area. The Kite Lake Improvement Plan calls for “adjustments based on changing use and needs.”

Resource damage in the Buckskin Gulch corridor leading to Kite Lake “is getting to the point of unacceptable,” said Alix Jensen, a natural resource specialist with the forest.

The trail groups are working with The Conservation Fund to possibly develop a funding system that could acquire old mining claims in the Alma Mining District that could then be added to the Pike National Forest.

All summer, the group’s volunteers are in mountain ranges across the state, rebuilding trails hammered in a century ago by miners’ mules. Earlier this summer, crews with the Colorado Fourteener Initiative used a helicopter to drop 62 300-pound timbers at 13,000 feet on the twin Grays and Torreys 14ers to support an eroding trail.

Sydney Schaus, a trail crew member from the Colorado Fourteener Initiative, works to repair erosion damage on the Decalibron Loop on July 12, near Alma. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Mountain Club is surveying hikers again at Kite Lake this summer. Last year the group surveyed 727 visitors and found 86% knew the summit of Bross was closed. The previous summer only 66% of hikers surveyed were aware the summit was privately owned and not open to the public.

Last summer 71% of hikers at the trailhead were unaware that the summits of Lincoln and Democrat were privately owned.

The club’s surveyors also asked where hikers researched the 14er routes and most said 14ers.com and AllTrails.com. So trail advocates work closely with those websites to make sure there is up-to-date information.

The club also built the Recreation Impact Monitoring System, an app that gives hikers the ability to report issues on trails and at campsites. The data is shared with land managers who can identify trouble areas and deploy crews.

“We need people to do more than just no harm,” said Chastain, who counted 73 cars lining the road to the Kite Lake Trailhead on a recent Tuesday morning. “We need people to do good and actively participate in the protection of these places.”

‘A legislative fix’

Hail about the size of peas, but getting bigger, started to fall as Chastain and her colleague Jedd McClure reached the social trail leading to the summit of Mount Bross. Although Colorado Mountain Club and the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative have spread the word far and wide to not climb Bross, many hikers do anyway.

Hikers descend the Decalibron Loop trail on Mount Bross on July 12 outside Alma. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

That’s not surprising. It’s frustrating for peak-bagging hikers to stop and turn around 100-meters below the summit of Bross. Reiber said Bross was heavily mined decades ago and there are all kinds of mine shafts that could collapse on the peak’s highest points.

“Sooner or later things tend to cave in and no one can predict exactly when that’s going to happen,” Reiber said. “The expansive amount of mining on Bross makes a lot more exposure for the owners.”

Chastain pulled a “No Trespassing” sign from her pack. There’s a stub of a post at the intersection of a faint, illegal trail and the Decalibron Loop trail, which winds about 8 miles across the summits of Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln as well as 14er Cameron Peak, which is managed by the Forest Service. A previous sign was gone. So was the post that held it.

“This is just a Band-Aid solution to let people keep hiking these peaks while we work out a long-term solution for future generations,” Chastain said as McClure pulled a drill out of his pack to mount the new

Colorado Mountain Club conservation coordinator Kendall Chastain packs her bag after installing a “No Trespassing” sign along the Decalibron Loop trail on July 12, near Alma. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Athearn, whose team has walked every trail on every 14er in Colorado, creating a daunting to-do list of repairs and rebuilds, is working not just with landowners but lawmakers, hoping to get support for adjustments to the Colorado recreational use statute. An attempt in 2019, which cut the exemption for landowners who demonstrated “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition,” did not gain any traction.

“We need modifications that will bring us back to the place where the law truly protects well-intentioned landowners,” Athearn said.

Reiber is hopeful the new signs are working but he’s not optimistic. He wonders if the signs and Band-Aid fixes are potentially slowing legislative action.

“That thought has crossed my mind over and over and over again. If I truly advocate for legislative change why am I allowing this to happen?” he said. “If I just leave it closed, is there a better chance legislators will produce a bill? Look, we want to reduce or eliminate our liability and still allow people to enjoy these 14ers. After this year we will find out how everything has worked. I’m not really positive the signs are going to get the results we want. I think it will require a legislative fix.”

Reiber said he’s planning a trip to the peaks soon.

“If I see significant abuse when I go up there I might just stop this midstream and shut it all down,” he said. “We can’t keep assuming the liability risk for other people’s bad behavior.”

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