You’ve probably seen this photo, taken during last season on Mt. Everest. Following one of the deadliest seasons on the world’s tallest peak, many climbers were blaming the losses on the number of climbers trying to reach the summit. However, Everest is not the only mountain peak to see exploding popularity: Right here in our backyard, Colorado 14ers continue to see constant year-to-year growth between 5-10%. It’s leading many of us to ask, Are there too many people on Colorado’s 14ers? And if so, what is there to do about it?
Climbing 14ers Hasn’t Always Been Mainstream
Many newcomers to Colorado find out about the 14ers relatively quickly once moving here. I’d been living here for only about two months when friends invited me to climb Mt. Bierstadt. However climbing a 14er hasn’t always been a staple of Colorado society. In fact, in the age before the internet, getting climbing information and routes could be difficult. The breakthrough came in 1992, following the publication of “Colorado’s Fourteeners” by Gerry Roach. For the first time, all the routes, maps and pictures you need to climb the 14ers were available in a single book. This set off a climbing frenzy over the next decade, culminating in the launch of 14ers.com in the early 2000’s. With information about the 14ers easier to find than ever, more and more people began visiting the 14ers.
Climbers Increased 5.6% from 2017 to 2018
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative just released their 2018 estimates for 14ers use. While the data is collected directly from only 23 of the peaks, they are able to extrapolate for the others using 14ers.com user reports to create a fairly accurate estimate. This shows there were 353,000 Hiker-days on the 14ers, a 5.6% increase from the 334,000 in 2017, which itself was a 7.6% rise from 311,000 in 2016. If these trends continue, how much growth can the 14ers take?
What’s the Problem with Lots of Climbers?
Now you might be wondering, “What’s the problem?” Sure, we like solitude, but it’s not a necessity, and there are still many peaks where one can be alone. Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems that come with people., some worse than others. Here’s a list of just a few of the negatives.
- Heavy use leads most directly to trail erosion. This can make the route harder to hike and maintain, but also can washout hillsides, plants and rocks, altering drainage patterns.
- More people usually reduces water quality in the area. This is made worse in basins that concentrate human waste into a small stream, making it hazardous downstream.
- Wildlife disturbances causes far more harm than many think – a recent study showed dramatic Elk losses near Aspen largely due to hikers disturbing the mother elk.
- Logistics get more difficult all-together. We need more parking lots, trailhead bathrooms, search and rescue calls, and education programs to keep with demand. That costs $.
- Most of the newcomers to 14ers are hiking unprepared, increasing the risk of death to both themselves and SAR/law enforcement who must act when things go wrong.
The dilemma really isn’t about finding solitude – it’s about protecting the peaks whether we’re there or not.
The picture on the left is a great example of what happens when too many people hike a trail that isn’t being properly maintained. This was taken on the route up Fletcher Mountain, a popular Colorado 13er. During rainy or wet periods, the trail gets muddy, and people tend to walk next to it to stay dry, creating more trails overtime. If left un-checked, the erosion will continue to grow until much of the slope and its fragile alpine soil is gone for good.
Let’s dig into what they data says about specific peaks.
20% of the Routes See 55% of all Climbers
Are There Too Many People on Colorado’s 14ers? It depends on which 14er you’re talking about. The numbers provide more insight when viewed by Peak and by Range. Nine highly-trafficked routes represent the vast majority of climbs, most of which won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with the 14ers. The busiest nine routes include:
- Quandary Peak (35,000-40,000)
- Mt. Bierstadt (35,000-40,000)
- Grays & Torreys Peak (25,000-30,000)
- Mt. Elbert (20,000-25,000)
- Mt. Lincoln, Democrat & Bross (20,000-25,000)
- Longs Peak (15,000-20,000)
- Mt. Sherman (15,000-20,000)
- Pikes Peak (10,000-15,000)
- Mt. Evans (10,000-15,000)
An immediate takeaway: If your biggest concern is finding solitude, avoid these nine routes entirely. You won’t find it. However this also lets us focus our attention where it’s most necessary. The majority of 14ers see 7,000 or less ascents per year – a generally sustainable amount. The problem is these peaks, some of which look like small towns during the summer. Quandary Peak saw 914 hikers on a single day last July, making it four-times as populated as the nearby town of Alma. When mountain-tops are more populated than the nearby mountain-town, we have to ask ourselves, what’s happening?
Things Are Okay Today, But What About Tomorrow?
Are There Too Many People on Colorado’s 14ers? We can’t be sure, however the correlation between heavy use and damage is pretty clear. The CFI’s 14er Report Card identifies trail sustainability and ecological damage issues peak-by-peak across the state. None of the peaks on the top nine busiest routes receive an A rating, and only one (Mt. Evans) get’s a B, likely thanks to its road-access. The rest of the peaks range from getting a C, to an F.
The fact that CFI has this data, and has announced plans to do more than $20 million worth of trail improvements is a good sign for the future of the mountains. Especially given the cuts our public land managers are facing, the work done by this and other nonprofits makes a huge difference to keep the peaks clean and accessible. However, while CFI is doing great work to keep collecting data and updating trails, we have to start asking how long that can last? If the 5.6% trend continues, we’ll have to deal with the impact of more than 700,000 hikers by 2034, and over 1,000,000 by 2040. If the trend picks up, it’ll happen much sooner. While it’s good to be asking if there are too many people on Colorado’s 14ers, it might be better to ask “When will there be too many people on Colorado’s 14ers?
What to Do? Learn from other Crowded U.S. Peaks
The Colorado 14ers are not the first mountains to face this problem. Right here in the United States we have numerous examples of how others have dealt with the issue of overcrowding.
Mt. Whitney Created a Lottery & Permit System
Mt. Whitney, the tallest summit in the lower 48, has required a permit to climb for more than two decades. Unlike Colorado’s 14ers, Whitney’s trail and route have been firmly established and common knowledge since the mid 20th century. Between that and its prominent place as the tallest peak in the lower 48 led to overcrowding long before it was seen anywhere else. In the early 1980’s, a lottery permit was instituted to allow only 160 hikers access to the summit each day. Considering that Quandary Peak sees five to six times that many climbers daily, you can see why we’re asking this question. The lottery allows nearly 25,000 to climb during the snow-free season: Certainly a large number, but much less than the 38,000 who climbed Quandary and Bierstadt this season. Have we reached the point where we need to consider some kind of lottery on the busiest 14ers?
Mt. Shasta Instituted a Summit Fee & Pass
Mt. Shasta, another California 14ers, has a much different story. Unlike Whitney, deep in the Sierra Nevada, Mt. Shasta is a volcanic peak in the Northern part of the state, visible for miles in every direction, with a climbing route only half as long as Mt. Whitney (11 miles vs 22 miles). The peaks’ only saving grace is the long-lasting snow and ice on most of its routes, forcing climbers to use an ice axe and crampons to ascend. These technical requirements do seem to keep the mountain less busy than Whitney, however it is by no means empty. The website warns against visiting during weekends in summer, the busiest period, to avoid crowds. While Shasta does not require a lottery permit, they do require you to buy a $25 summit pass before you climb. This is an intermediate action that raises the price of climbing (albeit slightly). The income helps maintain the route and logistics, while adding slightly to the cost for anyone on the fence about visiting. If there are too many people on Colorado’s 14ers, a fee could help slightly reduce numbers, and provide resources to fix damage.
We Have Options for Solving the Problem
These examples show that we have options. There is not single solution for our problems. The Colorado 14ers pose a unique challenge unlike other popular peaks, in that there are more than fifty of them. If we raise fees or institute a permit for one or two busy peaks, we can’t be sure what will happen. Will people just climb that one peak less? Or will they switch to climb other, more difficult peaks, increasing the risk to the community? These are the kinds of questions we have to consider before we take any action -all policies have unintended consequences that should be thought out before acting.
What do you think: Are There Too Many People on Colorado’s 14ers?
At the end of the day, any decision to act will come from our public land managers, and that means public opinion matters, a lot. So what do you think? Are There Too Many People on Colorado’s 14ers? Or is it not a problem yet to worry about? Share your thoughts with the community and comment below!
About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.