It’s the Fourth of July today. Thousands and thousands of star-spangled Coloradans, natives and transplants alike, are taking to the trail to celebrate their independence from taxation without representation and sub-alpine air pressure. As these hordes run rampant over fourteeners, thirteeners and other areas that go above treeline, I can’t help but find myself cringing in fear and anger at the thought of all the damage that is likely being done.
At the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, I’m something of a rarity in that I enjoy “peak bagging” in my spare time. We all work on fourteeners, but few of CFI’s seasonal employees choose to summit them unless they are doing so for work. I have thus far summitted 29 of the state’s fourteeners and, like many people exhausted with crowds, I’m more interested in thirteeners these days. I plan on finishing them at some point. Being someone who both maintains and hikes these heavily used trails, I feel I have something of a unique perspective on fourteener hiking.
For those of us who maintain trails, it is difficult to not feel at odds with the general hiker population. Indeed, this job fosters a contempt for humanity that can be overwhelming at times. If there’s not a day where I don’t look to my coworkers and mutter, “I hate people,” or something to that effect, something is probably wrong. This past week I found myself on a tour of some of the most overrun peaks in the state: Quandary, Grays and Torreys, and Bierstadt. On Quandary we had to stop one of our own volunteers from chucking a banana peel into the woods. On Grays and Torreys we witnessed an unleashed dog chase down and kill a pika, and viewed from afar a pair camping way above treeline directly on incredibly fragile alpine tundra. On Bierstadt we watched helplessly as a hiker trampled some alpine grasses that we had just spent several hours transplanting onto a trail braid. These are just the highlights. The amount of damage we see done a daily basis in the alpine is unbelievable.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s mission, first and foremost, is to protect the resource. To protect the mountains. In doing this, we generally find ourselves making improvements to the trail that also benefit hikers. We want the trail to be as appealing as possible to people in order to keep people on the trail. For some reason people just don’t like stairs, though. So even when we build lovely staircases with step-heights that are quite reasonable, people go around them and kill fragile alpine vegetation and widen the trail.
That outlines the majority of my vitriol toward hikers. As I said, I myself am a hiker and I have to remember that at times when the animosity is particularly strong. I hike these trails all the time. I impact the mountain with every step I take, even staying on trail. I am at times part of the horde. Everyone out there is trying to enjoy the scenery, the wonderful air and the challenge of summiting, just like me.
I just want everyone to be educated hikers. Educated about the environment they are enjoying, how delicate it is, and about their impact upon it. My experiences as both a hiker of fourteeners and as someone who works to maintain them have shown me that it is possible to enjoy the alpine responsibly. I encourage anyone who spends time above treeline to do some research and act accordingly in order to preserve the mountains.
Stay on the trail. Even when you don’t feel like ascending or descending stairs. Even when opposing hiker traffic means you have to stand and wait for a moment. If you absolutely must go off trail, step on rocks and not vegetation. Keep your dogs leashed at all times in the alpine. There are plenty of other hikes to take dogs on in this state where they are perfectly fine being off-leash. With the state of pika and ptarmigan populations, the alpine is just not an acceptable place for dogs to be off-leash. Even though your dog would never chase wildlife. Leash them anyway. Do not camp above tree line, both to protect the environment and yourself. Do not poop above treeline unless you’re packing it out, just like your dog’s poop. Just be respectful. To yourself, to your fellow hikers, to the flora and fauna, to the mountains themselves.