Reaching the summit

Cooneys successfully scale all of Colorado's
hard-ranked Thirteeners

Carrie Cooney and Fred Askins pack out of Rustlers Gulch during a recent trip in which those two and Tim Cooney summited eight, 13,000-foot peaks in the Elk Mountains in nine days. The state’s Thirteeners and Fourteeners combine to total 637 peaks. It took the Cooneys 36 years to bag all of the peaks.

Tim and Carrie Cooney atop a 13,000-foot peak known only as UN 13,060 in the south Elk Mountains. The UN stands for unnamed, and the 13,060 is the official height of the peak.

Tim Cooney on Precarious Peak, showing one of the reasons the peak is called precarious: the field of jagged rocks that climbers must climb and descend.

Tim and Carrie Cooney stop for a photo while descending UN 13,060 in the Elk Mountains.

Purple Fringe flowers overlooking Rustler Gulch in the Elk Mountains. The Cooneys often see wildflowers on their treks up Colorado’s Thirteeners.

Lizard Head Peak, as seen from near Lizard Head Pass, was the most technical climb of a 13,000-foot peak done by Tim and Carrie Cooney on their way to summiting every Thirteener in Colorado.


Higher-ground Highlights

Tim and Carrie Cooney joined an exclusive club Saturday when they reached the summit of Boreas Mountain. They now have summited every peak in Colorado with a hard ranking of 13,000 feet or higher.

The following are a few notes of interest from their 36 years of bagging 637 peaks.

No time like the first time

Tim and Carrie climbed a Fourteener together for the first time in 1977. It was Mount Massive by Leadville.

They were dating at the time. They got engaged later that year and were married in 1978.

Tim had already done 12 Fourteeners before climbing Mount Massive with Carrie.

Fun with friends

One of the reasons the Cooneys kept bagging peaks after they conquered the state’s Fourteeners is a friend from Tim’s seminary days, Bob Alden, got into climbing as part of a lifestyle change Alden made after having quintuple bypass heart surgery.

Alden wanted to climb Colorado’s 100 highest peaks, then the state’s 200 highest, and the Cooneys joined him for many of his climbs.

After Alden passed away, another friend, Fred Askins of Commerce City, became the Cooneys’ main climbing comrade.

A trusty friend, the ice axe

“We always climb with our ice axes, which gets us some strange looks,” Tim said. “We use them as canes. They’re much sturdier than hiking poles. We consider them our best friends.”

Most fun peak

For Carrie, it’s “a lot of peaks in the Weminuche (Wilderness) Area,” she said, referring to the state’s largest wilderness area, located in southwest Colorado.

“My favorite peak,” Tim said, “is Jagged Mountain in that area (Weminuche).

“That was a beautiful peak and a beautiful camp spot,” Carrie added.

Most difficult peak

It depends on what you mean by difficult, Tim said.

For technical difficulty, it’s Lizard Head.

“Of all of the Fourteeners and Thirteeners, it is the most technically difficult by its easiest route,” Tim said.

The most difficult from an access standpoint was UN 13,060 in the south Elk Mountains, which the Cooneys climbed in July. It was the longest climb time-wise in their 36 years of bagging peaks: 15 hours. They started at 6:30 a.m. and finished at 9:30 p.m.

The UN stands for unnamed, but the Cooneys gave UN 13,060 a name after they were done.

“You don’t want to print it,” Tim said.

Lack of a trail was the primary problem with access, to which Carrie said, “We were bushwhacking through dense forest.” They also had to scramble up steep rubble.

Then there’s weather, a wildcard that could potentially make an easy climb difficult and dangerous.

“We’ve been caught in snowstorms, hailstorms, but lightning is the worst,” Tim said.

Would they do it again?

“Yes,” Carrie said. “We’ve seen some incredible country and fantastic vistas from on top of the peaks. It’s pretty exhilarating to get up there and look around. You have a 360 (-degree) view.

“It’s almost kind of like the John Denver song, ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ ”

There’s also the satisfaction of knowing you’re physically and mentally capable of doing it, she said.

While showing a reporter about 300 photos from their July trip to the Elk Mountains, during which the Cooneys bagged eight of the final nine peaks, a series of photos of wildflowers led Tim to say, “Stuff like this is why we keep going back.”

What is a hard Rank?

According to legendary mountain climber Gerry Roach on the website, a summit has a hard rank when it has at least 300 feet of prominence.

Prominence, he says, is the summit’s “rise above the highest saddle connecting the summit to higher ground.”

The hard-ranked summits in Colorado number 53 Fourteeners and 584 Thirteeners (13,000 to 13,999 feet).

Some people claim there are 57 Fourteeners and more than 800 peaks higher than 13,000 feet in Colorado.

To that, Tim Cooney says, “Anything in doubt we climbed it, just in case anyone wants to come back later and say, ‘Well, you didn’t climb this.’ ”

As Colorado’s 13,000-foot peaks go, Boreas Mountain rates a prolonged yawn. It’s a hike more than a climb, nothing technical to worry about, and the elevation gain is a mere 1,500 to 1,600 feet over the course of a couple of miles.

But when Grand Junction’s Tim and Carrie Cooney reached the summit of this Thirteener situated between Breckenridge and Fairplay shortly before noon Saturday, it marked the end of a long road and an achievement 36 years in the making.

Boreas Mountain may be boring to the serious peak-bagger, but it was the only remaining hard-ranked peak 13,000 feet or higher that the Cooneys needed to summit to join a small group of people in rare Colorado air. They believe they now are the 26th and 27th persons to summit every hard-ranked Colorado Thirteener, 584 of them in all, along with the state’s 53 hard-ranked Fourteeners.

It is an accomplishment that happened more by accident than design, they said. It certainly never crossed their minds in 1977 when they climbed their first Fourteener together. Tim already had made it his mission to do every Colorado Fourteener, but he didn’t have plans beyond that.

Once they conquered all of the 14,000-foot peaks, though, they turned to the state’s top 100 peaks. Then they decided the top 200 were worth conquering, a task they completed in 1995. At that point, they thought perhaps half of the Thirteeners were a reasonable goal, so they set out to get the top 319 peaks.

They completed the top 300 in 2002 and finally decided doing all of the Thirteeners was a realistic goal, one they could achieve in about 10 years. It ended up being 11 years, to which Tim said, “We actually did pretty good. We were only one year off.”

It helped that they got smarter as they went along. They’d find areas where several peaks were near each other, allowing them to check off some that were much lower on the elevation list, and sometimes they did more than one in a day.

The approach was similar to the one they took two weeks ago in the southern Elk Mountains, where they bagged eight summits in nine days, including three in one day. And that left them with one to go: Boreas.

They decided some time ago Boreas would be their final Thirteener because it would be a good location for other family members in the Denver area to meet them and easy enough for everyone to climb, even Carrie’s 78-year-old dad, Herb Sanford. Also joining them Saturday were: their son, Shaun, and his wife, Lyndsi, and their 16-month-old son, Kaeden; their daughter, Sharon, and her husband, Ken Smith ,and their 5-year-old daughter, Rhema.

In addition, the Cooneys sent out an invitation on a climbing website for others to join them if they cared to, and five people whom Tim Cooney considers to be Colorado peak-bagging legends took up the offer: Ken Nolan; Jean Aschenbrenner; Teresa Gergen; Kirk Mallory; and Jack Dais.

“We feel really honored that these other people joined us,” Tim said.

It also was a nice reunion for Tim and Carrie with their children, who had joined them on quite a few peaks as they were growing up, and that allowed Tim to have a little fun with the family name.

“You ever hear of the Flying Wallendas?” Tim asked, referring to the high-wire, daredevil-stunt-performing family. “We’re the Climbing Cooneys.”

The Cooneys also are something else: regular people who have done an extraordinary thing.

Tim, 61, does bookkeeping, credit management and Web-page design for Palisade Greenhouse, while Carrie, 56, is an enrollment clerk for Rocky Mountain Health Plans.

“We’re obviously not Olympic-caliber athletes,” Tim said, although their favorite way to recreate keeps them in shape. “We consider ourselves to be average people ... Neither of us ever were rock jocks.”

To that, Carrie added, “It’s more mental than physical.”

“Anyone can do it,” Tim said. “It doesn’t require great technical expertise (on most peaks). Mostly you need to know how to read a map and choose a route.”

Their advice to anyone considering taking up peak bagging is to “forget the Fourteeners. There’s so much more to see on these obscure Thirteeners.

“If you want solitude, avoid the Fourteeners.”

Carrie added, “There’s more challenge,” with the Thirteeners. And Tim followed with, “And more wildlife.”

And while the Fourteeners are nothing to sneeze at, they’ve become familiar. Colorado even promotes them.

Tim and Carrie said they once bagged a Thirteener where they were the only ones on the peak at that time, and from it they could see a Fourteener in the distance and numerous people on that peak.

“There’s a saying we’ve been putting in the summit registers for years: Beaten paths are for beaten men,” Tim said.

He smiled, and Carrie chimed in with, “The trail less traveled, we’ve definitely done that.”

Although the latest achievement might seem like a perfect time to say, “Enough,” that’s not what the Cooneys are thinking.
“We’re not going to quit now,” Carrie said, mentioning there are some “soft-rank peaks” that could be 13,000 feet if they were officially measured. Then, there are some of the higher 12,000-footers, such as Mount Sopris, which they surprisingly have not climbed.

“We have no agenda, of course,” Carrie said. “But that’s what we said at the beginning.”

Fittingly, Tim said Saturday afternoon, he and Carrie would find a place to park their truck and sleep that night, then go climb another peak today.


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