Peakbagging’s not for everyone, but to summit’s a big deal
There’s no good reason to climb a mountain, but there’s no good reason not to, either.
Once you let go of the need to have a reason for everything, trudging to the top of a tall peak seems like a good idea. If you’re going to walk all day, why not be rewarded with an amazing view?
That is, more or less, the reason I started. Mallory could offer no better reason in the early 1920s when he was reportedly asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. His three-word reply may have been sarcasm, or a serious answer, or he may never have said it at all; rumors began circulating years after Mallory’s death — on Everest, naturally— that the quote was concocted by an overzealous newspaper reporter.
But it hardly matters. Someone said it, and the quote has become legend for legions of trekkers willing to sacrifice their comfort and safety just to see “what’s up there.”
I did not begin life as one of those people, but I became one. My obsession began in the spring of 1987, when my seasonal job as a lift operator at Powderhorn Ski Resort ended. I was in denial about this grim situation, as were some of my friends. With so much snow still up there, how could the ski season be over?
We decided it wasn’t. My ski buddy, Dan Dennison, had an idea. He had been to the top of quite a few of the tallest peaks in the state — Fourteeners, he called them — and he suggested we go climb one and ski off the top.
I had never heard of such a thing, there was no good reason to do it, and in fact it sounded risky and dangerous. I couldn’t wait.
On Memorial Day weekend in ’87, we drove to American Basin outside Lake City. We strapped our skis to our backpacks, stuffed our boots inside, and used our poles for support on the long march to the top of Handies Peak.
After several hours of tough trudging, I had climbed my first Fourteener. That was the side effect of my efforts and not the goal. But while I stood on the 14,048-foot summit of Handies, gawking in amazement at the world of mountains below me, I realized I was now an altitude addict.
I’m a Colorado native who never left. I’ve been surrounded by mountains all my life and until that moment, I had never given them much serious thought. Standing on the very top of one completely changed the way I looked at the peaks. I wanted to see more.
Dan told me there were many more peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado, and he intended to climb every one. He had climbed several, but had a long way to go before he had climbed all 54.
I thought he needed company along the way, and for the rest of that summer and the next, we spent every weekend we could bushwhacking through willows, up alpine trails and onto talus slopes and rocky ledges too high for the trees to grow.
After hearing of our adventures, other friends started joining us. My buddy on the lift crew at Powderhorn, Jeff Cook, climbed El Diente Peak with us and was an instant addict.
Some friends of mine from high school, Larry Tate and Jim Farmer, joined us on several climbs that year and concluded that they also wanted to bag all the Fourteeners.
A few years later, my colleague and erstwhile hiking buddy, Chris Tomlinson, jumped in on our forays to the Elk Range Fourteeners. His first climbs were on some of the most rugged and rotten rock in the state. We had all become hopeless addicts.
Within the first three years of my new obsession, I’d climbed more than half the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. If my similarly hooked friends weren’t available to join me,
I’d charge off into the hills for a solo trip. I’d never been so devoted to a goal, and I was devouring the peaks like popcorn.
I became aware that some self-appointed nature “purists” decided people like me and my friends were climbing for all the wrong reasons and used the term “peakbagger” to describe us.
It was a derisive term applied to people who, in their quest to climb all the peaks on an arbitrary list, were missing the whole point of being in the mountains.
These people could not be more wrong. I’ve come to think of the term “peakbagger” as a badge of honor. If I hadn’t set out all those years ago to climb every Fourteener in Colorado, I never would have ever gotten near most of them, and I never would have known of the world above timberline.
I found these places deep in the wilderness only because they were hiding the high peaks I was after. Seeing thousands of square miles of unspoiled alpine wilderness, home to bears and bighorns, was a wonderful bonus, and something I hadn’t expected. It could never have happened by accident.
Along the way, life intervened and knocked me off the quick pace I’d set earlier.
The Fourteeners I hadn’t climbed got farther and farther from home, and the trips had to be planned around vacations and long weekends. It took me nearly two decades to finish the second half of my list.
That turned out to be OK, because as long as there were blank spots in my log book, I had a reason to keep going back into the wilderness. The blanks became fewer in number and before long, I was down to one empty spot on my list — Culebra Peak.
Culebra isn’t daunting, it just happens to be privately owned. After years of fretting about how I’d get permission to climb it, I decided to quit fretting.
Inspired by Sentinel writer Dave Buchanan’s recent article about a father and daughter who had climbed all the Fourteeners together, I decided it was time to reach my 22-year-old goal.
I called the ranch owners, made the reservations and hauled the Sentinel’s chief photographer with me, the aforementioned Mr. Tomlinson. He and I have worn our boots down together for 20 years and he wanted to be there when I scratched that last peak off the list.
On that sunny, cool, breezy morning at the end of August, we made it. I was so excited to be that close, I was practically jogging on jagged rock for the last few hundred feet.
And just like that, it was over. Countless hours of driving and setting up camps, thousands of dollars and many hundreds of miles of tough hiking had culminated in this moment on a narrow crest of bare rock.
I was relieved, but I also felt a wistful twinge. I’d reached the goal I’d been working on exactly half my life. Friends have asked me, now what?
Good question. Like any good peakbagger, I already know the answer — it’s time to start all over again.
WHAT IS A FOURTEENER?
Quite simply, a Fourteener is a mountain that rises to at least 14,000 feet above sea level.
Some guide books and Web sites count Challenger Peak, a subpeak of Kit Carson Peak, among the official Fourteeners, adding a 55th peak to the list. This is a matter of debate, as Challenger does not meet the Colorado Mountain Club’s criteria for being considered a peak separate from Kit Carson. The rule for separate peaks is that the two summits have at least a 300-foot drop at the saddle and be a mile apart. Challenger and Kit Carson’s summits are only 400 yards apart.
The author, who has climbed Challenger, does not believe it would be fair to retroactively add a peak to the list years after the pioneers of the sport passed away, making it technically difficult for them to climb any more mountains.
As of November 2008, 1,281 people claimed to have reached the summit of all 54 Colorado Fourteeners, according to Chris Case, editor of the Colorado Mountain Club’s Trail & Timberline magazine. About 20 to 25 more people each year tell the CMC they’ve climbed their final Fourteener, Case said.