For thirty years I've enjoyed mountaineering all over North America. During those times, upon my return to Colorado, I've always felt that the Colorado Rocky Mountains are special. Few mountain ranges in the world have such a blend of easy access, superb terrain, good weather, and wilderness.
Several years ago my wife Lisa and I made a winter climb and ski descent of Tabeguache Peak. We parked at dawn in the heart of the Sawatch Mountains, clicked into our skis and climbed up Jennings Creek. As the sun rose, we passed through a grove of stately Bristlecone pines. A bald sky held the Methuselah's gnarled branches in a cold embrace. The trees spoke to me. They spoke of countless sunrises and sunsets, the cold light of the moon, and a certain order in the world. I pondered, and photographed, then continued up the peak. The trees dropped behind us, and for a few moments, during a break, I felt the presence of the Bristlecones below. At the summit, I could still hear the voice of those old trees. The world ordered itself, and an emotion of renewal swept through me like a mountain sunrise. All the way down the mountain, and for weeks after, I carried that feeling with me.
A friend once said to me, "if I had one wish -- once a week, for eternity, I would climb a mountain." The eternity part of that wish might be a dream, but in Colorado you could easily do a peak a week for a lifetime. The state has countless summits under 13,000 feet, at least 700 peaks between 13,000 and 14,000 feet, and more than 50 "fourteeners" at or over 14,000 feet.
In the past, bean counters have combined USGS criterion with that of the Colorado Mountain Club, for a total fifty-four "official" fourteeners. In reality, many other summits in Colorado top 14,000 feet. Nonetheless, the number 54 is a handy measure, and the popular goal of bagging all 54 an admirable endeavor.
Rather than listing the official fourteeners, or debating what makes a "peak," enhancing your enjoyment of our mountains was my goal in creating this book. To do so, rather than worry about the exact number of "fourteeners," I included the Colorado 14,000 foot summits that I and many others feel have the best climbing, skiing, and hiking. If in need of criterion I used aesthetics: if it looks and feels like a mountain -- it is. If you disagree with the inclusion of any peaks in this guide, simply tear out the offending pages. Your criterion are as good as mine. If your goal is a "grand slam" of the official 54, the list of peaks in appendix ??? has the official peaks marked, and the best routes for a grand slam are marked with a ??? icon in the table of contents.
So, if definitions are vague, why a guidebook for only fourteeners? Rocky Mountain peaks around 14,000 feet in height stand out from other Colorado peaks. They have the greatest vertical drops, summits that leap to the sky, and an imposing majesty that pleases your eye and lifts your spirit. Often, these are the mountains with the most enjoyable hikes, ski descents, and climbs. For skiers and snow climbers, routes on the fourteeners are the longest, and the extra altitude makes the snow last into late spring or summer. For all these reasons, these peaks are heavily used, with attendant trail erosion, crowding, and impact on wildlife. While I feel we have the right to climb our peaks as we please, another purpose of this book is to spread such use, thus reducing wear on the crowded routes -- hopefully to tolerable levels.
Another issue related to the Colorado peaks, with their abundant roads, is the definition of a "climb." In some circles, a peak climb is said to be 3,000 vertical feet or more. But many people who use that standard have a pesky habit of counting climbs of peaks they traverse to from other peaks. A related issue is mechanized access. How far can you drive up a peak and still say you climbed it? Where does a person in a wheel chair need to start from on the Mount Evans or Pikes Peak roads, and claim that they climbed their peak? Standards make sports fun. Mountain climbing, however, is a sport of freedom. As such, we should take a broad definition of "climb." The only rule I'd put into print is that a climber must ascend with their own muscle power -- whatever their choice in vertical feet. Your powered approach to a peak, by car, snowmobile or other, should be your choice (within the law), based on your physical ability, time constraints -- and your own feeling of what a "climb" really is. Even that standard has it's permutations. After all, Himalayan climbers use human powered freight hauling (porters), and most of their approach is done in an airliner. Perhaps another good criterion is challenge -- perhaps fun -- perhaps both!
While summer hikes and climbs on the fourteeners have been a Colorado tradition dating back before the settlers, the popularity of ski mountaineering on these peaks is on the upswing. People think skiing and they think winter. But winter on the fourteeners is severe, and winter ascents and ski descents are recommended only for a hearty few. Fortunately, the Colorado Rockies have a spring and summer snow season of about 16 weeks, between March and July. During this time, ski mountaineers and snow climbers have a spectacular playground that can rival the European Alps, without the problems of glacier travel -- and without crowds. Beautiful weather, and compacted snow that's terrific for climbing or skiing, are the norms in this spring season. On top of that, avalanche danger is easy to predict and avoid.
When have you skied a peak? Again, you should base this on your personal goals, but you can apply a minimum standard. For bragging rights, a good rule is that you've skied a Colorado fourteener when you ski the longest vertical drop available on snow. Indeed, several of the longest, most continuous "classic" fourteener ski descents start near, but not exactly on the summit. For example, most people who ski North Maroon Peak start with a short downclimb, and you have to rappel into the Dogleg Couloir on Mount Sneffels. Fortunately for those who like to claim ski descents (myself included) you can ski the majority of fourteeners from the exact summit, while you can ski the few exceptions from a summit ridge or rockpile within 100 feet of the summit. Can you take your skis off and still claim a ski descent? In Europe people often downclimb or rappel sections of routes they claim as ski descents. During his remarkable ski descent of the east face of Pyramid Peak, Chris Landry had to rappel a short section. The conventional wisdom, which I agree with, is that his was the first ski of Pyramid Peak. I made rigorous efforts at "complete" ski descents when I skied every fourteener. But I say to those who come after: If you ski something more than a patch of snow, you have "skied the peak." After all, you should pursue goals that are fun and exciting -- rather than bow to arbitrary dictums.
John Muir said "go to the mountains and get their good tidings." Indeed, for most people enjoyment -- even spiritual succor -- is the point of mountaineering. Simply put, mountains make us feel better. On the Colorado fourteeners, convenient access combined with routes for all abilities bring Muir's good tidings within reach. I hope you enjoy these peaks often, and bring the good news back every time you do -- and that this book helps you along the way.